By Michael Gray
Paddy Breathnach may be only 34 and Conor McPherson 26, but already they’ve made their mark in movies and theater. Film director Breathnach’s first feature, “Ailsa,” won him the Best New Director trophy at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1992, and his current work, “I Went Down,” did the same in ’97 (directors on their first or second film are eligible to compete, and Breathnach is the first director to win this category twice).
Playwright-turned-screenwriter McPherson’s drama “The Weir,” currently in London’s West End and Broadway bound next year, won him the prestigious Evening Standard Drama Award for Most Promising Playwright. And his play “St Nicholas” just ended a successful Off-Broadway run that had critics flipping through the thesaurus for new superlatives.
Despite the acclaim, the men remain unfazed by the fuss. When they arrived in New York last week to do press for “I Went Down,” which is directed by Breathnach and written by McPherson, they seemed more like two lads from Dublin over for the Fleadh than a writer-director team on the cutting edge of new Irish cinema.
Breathnach sees the film he made from McPherson’s script as a genuine team effort that was far from painless. The film itself traces the exploits of two small-time criminals, Git Hynes and Bunny Kelly, played, respectively, by Peter McDonald and Brendan Gleeson. The two are thrown together by a sinister gang leader, Tom French, played by Tony Doyle, who sends them off the Cork to fetch a business associate and retrieve some missing funds. What follows is as unpredictable as it is hilarious.
“It was a pain in the arse at first, and we were very conscious of the fact that there was friction there,” Breathnach said of the early days of the collaboration. “But we managed that, until we got to know each other, and reached a level where we really trusted each other.
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“The producer, Rob Walpole, and I would be very critical of the script without pointing out the good bits in it. Conor would have to swallow that, and he was very good about it. Once you get a script, the writer is usually out of the picture completely and doesn’t hear a word from us. But we wanted it to be our film, so we learned to get on and tried to put the film in the middle always so that it’s not solely a Paddy Breathnach film.”
McPherson agrees, and concedes that he had some adjustments to make in his writing methods, coming as he does from a theater background.
“It was always everybody’s film, really,” he said. “And in the same way that we worked together on the ideas in the script, I stayed involved as it moved into post-production. It was a big change from the theater, where you’ve a lot more autonomy. People in the theater are afraid of the playwright. It’s as if you’re touched by some terribly wise god or something. But there’s a kind of refreshing thing about being the screenwriter; you’re just doing it, it’s work, but it’s fun. The investment is not totally loaded on your shoulders and a lot of responsibility is removed from you. And that’s kind of liberating. You can have a lot of fun and you can suggest stupid things – just toss ideas out, and some of them stick.”
One of the key elements that Breathnach wanted for the film, and that McPherson came up with, was the idea that the jokes in the dialogue would take on a life of their own outside the film.
“We had this idea for the dialogue, that it would be great if we could get people going to the film, and then heading to the pub afterward quoting the dialogue,” Breathnach said. “That’s what I really wanted from this film. Maybe a practical joke that caught on in everyday use. So Conor was working on it for a while and he rang me up at the office and said, ‘Squeeze my thumb as hard as you can.’ ”
Writing for the screen
The collaboration between the two at the draft stage of the screenplay had the benefit for Breathnach that the bumps got ironed out earlier on than normal, a crucial time-saver for a tightly budgeted film.
“As director, you inherit the film at an earlier stage,” Breathnach said. “The tweaks are easier to do, you make the changes as the script is happening. They’re actually knitted in as you go along. You don’t have to go back and revise and set a whole lot of other things out of sequence. It worked very well, but it is something we had to work at. It doesn’t come naturally and and there was a lot of to and fro before we got the hang of it.”
One of the charms of McPherson’s dialogue is the manner in which his inarticulate characters trip themselves up verbally as they attempt their gangster rants, and he shows no signs of false modesty about the apparent ease with which he writes it.
“I would tend to have a flair for that,” McPherson said. “I find dialogue an easy thing. I usually have to write the dialogue only once – I can hear that the rhythm is right. A very important thing for me with Brendan Gleeson’s character, Bunny, is that he’s really inarticulate. He doesn’t really know what he’s saying, but he loves the sound of his own voice and that’s a really stupid position to be in: to want to be talking all the time, but to have no choice but to talk rubbish. And that was a lot of fun to write.”
Despite the success of his first screenplay, and the prospect of loads of loot in cinema that just isn’t available in theater, McPherson has no intention of leaving the stage behind.
“I’m directing my first feature next year from my own script, based on a play I wrote called ‘This Lime Tree Bower,’ but I have no intention of stopping writing for the theater,” he said. “I’m never short of of ideas – the only thing is to find the time, and the headspace. I don’t see that there’s any conflict between the two. A lot of people in theater think that a grounding in the theater is good for starting in film, but I find that the two are completely different. You have to think differently; the mechanisms by which they happen are completely different.”
Removed from the constraints of the proscenium arch, McPherson doesn’t see the need to go over the top with dynamic camerawork or special effects when he directs for the screen.
“I’ll do it very simply – I don’t think I would have the confidence to go for that kind of flourish,” he said. “I also don’t think it’s necessary in a film that’s mostly about two guys talking in a chip shop. That’s my instinct now, but that may change when I actually come to do it. The films I would see as having a very nice touch about them would be “Big Night” and “Trees Lounge.” That’s the look I’d go for.”
Bright futures for film, industry
Breathnach and McPherson made “I Went Down” on a modest budget, and while the film is well crafted and doesn’t look cheap, the question arises as to how different the film might have been if they had had more money to play with. But both seem comfortable that they made the best possible film for the money available.
“If we had an extra million, I’d have got a better writer,” Breathnach quipped while McPherson broke up. “There’s a rush of blood to the head when you find more money is being invested, and it suddenly becomes a different film. We’d spend a little more on the soundtrack, and get some bigger songs in there. I would have loved to have had an extra week or two. And I might have sacked some people who weren’t working out.”
McPherson said felt that the modest budget was a blessing of sorts, since it meant there was little interference from investors.
“If, at the time, we had had an extra million, we wouldn’t have been allowed to make all the decisions,” he said. “The extra investment would have generated pressure to put a name actor in it.”
Breathnach wasn’t convinced.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said, “but once you’re at a certain level, a bit more money doesn’t make a huge difference. We never thought ‘If only we had a few extra quid’ during the making of the film. But I do think that now, occasionally. Money gives you certain freedoms, but the film we set out to make was the film we did make. And we made it for a million more than we expected to have. We were going to make it for _700,000, but it ended up costing _1.7 million.”
“I Went Down” was screened at Sundance this year, and the response was so positive that there was never a question as to whether it would get distribution here, it was only a matter of when. Breathnach is optimistic about the film’s chances of succeeding in the U.S. despite the odds against such a low-key film reaching a wide audience.
“The press is very good so far, and it’s a film that works completely on press reaction and word of mouth,” he said. “So it’s a question of how long it takes before the word of mouth kicks in. If it happens quickly, I think the film will do very well. There’s no guarantee that the film will succeed just because the press likes it. But anywhere we’ve shown it there’s been a very positive reaction. But good films often disappear for no reason. Or they can go the other way and do ‘The Full Monty’ on it. My gut feeling is that we have a very good shot at doing well.”
McPherson and Breathnach wear lightly the mantle of leaders of the next generation of Irish filmmakers. In a recent Echo interview, director Neil Jordan cited them as the ones to watch if he were watching his back, a comment that drew a response from McPherson that was both hilarious and unprintable. Both men are optimistic that the film industry in Ireland will continue to grow, citing in particular the work of such young directors as Kevin Liddy and Damian
O’Donnell and the prospects for them to make feature-length films For his part, Breathnach takes a pragmatic view of the future.
“Once you’ve reached a certain level where you have maybe 10 or 12 Irish directors making feature films – at the moment you only have five or six – suddenly there’s a whole range of other dynamics coming into play,” he said. “It means you can establish better deals with producers and distributors, based on the greater momentum and the critical mass. A small company like ours could be doing three films a year before long. But it’s still too soon to say where the Irish film industry is headed.”
“But it’s growing at a very rapid pace,” McPherson added emphatically.
One thing seems sure, for the next few years at least McPherson and Breathnach will be setting the standard by which all other young Irish filmmakers will be measured.