Three years ago I interviewed Tom Magill, now co-founder and artistic director of the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Tom grew up in Northern Ireland in the time of “the troubles.” His violent behavior as a young man put him in a British prison.
In prison Tom was assigned to deliver food trays to other prisoners’ cells. One cell housed an avowed enemy, a leading republican IRA member. As Tom steeled himself to enter the cell for the first time, he found himself ready to kill his enemy.
What he found inside that cell was a starving man in the middle of a self-imposed hunger strike. Tom came face to face with this man’s weakness and vulnerability.
In that cell his anger turned to compassion. “Meeting my enemy in prison changed my life.”
The starving man in the cell told Tom he was wasting his young life. That night Tom visited the prison library. He began reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad, the main character, an ex-prisoner himself.
The company Tom went on to set up now uses the power of storytelling in drama and film to heal the trauma so deeply rooted within criminal justice and mental health settings. ESC works to enable those mired in brutal circumstances to understand and transform their lives through the creative process. The plays of Shakespeare, most prominently Macbeth, feature strongly in this healing process.
“I was on my knees in every sense and I had some industry people telling me that I was biting off more than I could chew.” Filmmaker Maurice O’Carroll talks about bringing his first feature-length film, Dead Along the Way, to the film festival circuit. “The biggest challenge was to stand back up and make everyone believe we were going to make a good a film with the available resources at hand.”
From Shorts to Feature-Length
O’Carroll has years of experience making short films. Feature-length was a whole new experience for him. “Time and effort are the greatest differences. A feature film involves so much time and planning from script to completion to marketing and distribution. I always work hard but I’ve never worked harder in my life these past couple of years.”
O’Carroll’s biggest challenge? No budget.
“Everything is a challenge when you have no budget. And when I say no budget I mean no budget. After a run of horrible luck I was stone broke and principal photography was due to begin in five days. Locations were falling through, we lost a couple of actors last minute, my car died, I got hit with a severe bronchial infection.”
O’Carroll stood up to the challenge. “I’m too stubborn and obsessed with filmmaking to fail. Looking from ‘the outside in’ it was the worst possible time in my life to embark on a feature film. However, I knew that I simply had to make Dead Along The Way. And, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.”
Dead Along the Way – the Story
“In this Irish crime comedy, hapless wedding videographers Wacker and Tony find themselves unexpectedly dealing with a dead body, overly-enthusiastic Gardaí, fertility treatment, and a vengeful gangster… oh, and an imminent wedding.”
O’Carroll says, “Getting the film made and getting selected for Ireland’s most prestigious film festival, Galway Film Fleadh, has boosted my appetite and confidence to make another film… like now already!” The Galway festival features a packed program with more than 150 films, including 16 world premieres, from over 30 countries around the world.
O’Carroll’s first cinema experience was Star Wars. “I was five years of age and I suppose I’ve been chasing that experience ever since. However, filmmaking was always a world away from me, inaccessible, and I grew up as an aspiring writer until the digital age democratized cinema. As soon as I picked up my first camera – which was 12 years ago – I knew in an instant that I was finally at home.”
Visual storytelling defines O’Carroll’s heart. “Story holds a mirror up to humanity and it helps us explore our emotions, educates us, thrills us, and it sympathises with us. And, for me, story in film is often best when it is a heightened sense of reality that changes us in some small way through its message.”
“I built my own (film) collective,” says O’Carroll. “I used to live in an isolated part of Ireland and when I decided to go on this journey I was on my own. My wife Elaine – who probably has more credits on all my films than I do – promised to support me no matter what it took and I suppose that was the most important launch pad to begin with.
“I met Sinead O’Riordan (the film’s co-producer) and Tom Lawlor (a principal actor) when I was making my first short film and they became long-term collaborators. I stressed from the beginning that it was important to find great people, and I always try to foster a ‘film family’ atmosphere on and off set. Respect, teamwork, and good energy are paramount and a catalyst for good work.”
Film Gear Choices
O’Carroll’s budget limitations applied to the gear as well. “I went into this project with the philosophy: we film with what we’ve got. I own quite a bit of prosumer gear and I also have a Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K which we shot on. FilmEquipmentHire.com in Dublin showed faith in our project off the back of previous work. They were incredibly generous with a deal on Zeiss lenses and many other accessories. The owner, Colin Browne, was literally trying to fill my car with gear.
“Shooting on such a low budget meant that we ran into problems, of course. But I had an amazing crew, guys and girls that I have learned to trust over the years, and they always managed to find solutions.”
Feed Your Crew
“But everything worked out because Dead Along The Way had a simple but concrete cinematic language and we never wavered from it. We all knew and embraced our boundaries and we worked to the best of our creative abilities within those limitations. And we always had great, home-cooked food… that’s more important than any camera sensor.”
Feeling moved this morning, thanks to two inspiring Facebook posts. Both came from Irish artists.
One post spoke of a theatre experience moving the writer so deeply she found a way to leave her software engineering job and make a life for herself in the theatre. Sinead O’Riordan – interviewed here in 2014 – is now acting as well as producing both theatre and film. Says O’Riordan: “I needed to create and tell stories that affected people positively and endeavour to have people walk away from my work, feeling moved. I at least had to try.” What initially moved O’Riordan to make her move was seeing a 2002 production of Miss Saigon.
The second post, from Caroline Farrell – also interviewed here – featured a poem she wrote years ago on forgiveness. Farrell’s motivation: “Not many of us can walk through life without heartache, or the lingering weight of it, so, I’m putting ‘The Memory Wandering’ out there, as a gift to anyone, whom in any way, might find it helpful.” Farrell’s poem will be featured at the closing of the French premiere of her film In Ribbons at the 2015 Cannes Art Film Festival.
As we take our first creative steps in 2015, we can find inspiration in the lives of two creatives who take giant steps to move the world around them. They need to create and tell stories. So do we.
“There are so many ways of creating a story,” says actor and playwright Andrew Lynch, “and I don’t believe one way is better than another. I think it is important to know what works for you. For me, I love watching a film or piece of theatre that makes me think, ask questions and analyze characters long after I viewed it. In my opinion I believe that a strong underlying theme plays a big role in achieving that.”
Andrew Lynch co-wrote Death Row Cowboy with Mark McCabe and is coming off several runs acting in the lead role in the play in Dublin, Ireland. In the story, a young inmate, imprisoned for murder in Oklahoma, awaits his execution.
Lynch notes that he and Mark McCabe had worked together, as actors, on various projects on and off for about seven years. “In July of 2012,” he says, “we were working together on a project called ‘HomeFromHome,’ which was a series of short scenes in collaboration with The Abbey Theatre and The Sean O’Casey Theatre. We were involved in two of the ten scenes, so there was a lot of time to talk and catch up, and our conversations were dominated by our recent foray into writing. Mark had written and produced a short film and I had been writing and shooting scenes for show reel purposes.
“It was very clear that we shared the same principles and passions when it came to writing, and we were both open to the option of working on something in the future together.”
A Blank Page With Endless Possibilities
“Fast forward to January, 2013,” Lynch continues, “and Mark calls me to ask if I fancied meeting up to discuss the possibility of co-writing a play together. When we met, we both had an open mind and no agendas about where we were going or what we were going to write.
“It was exciting, as we basically had a blank page with endless possibilities. What we discussed at length were topics and themes that we found interesting. We started paying particular attention to the themes of loneliness, legacy and regrets.
“When we finally had our themes nailed down we said we would go away and come back a week later to talk about ideas for a show. We were amazed to discover when we met back up that on both our lists the top idea we had was Death Row and Prison, and the story just grew from there. It made the writing process a lot easier as we developed our characters and stories because we never digressed from our themes. But as for a writing style, what works for one person may not for another. It just so happens Mark and I share the same principles.”
A Brilliant Script Always Has Strong Characters
“As actors,” says Lynch, “I think it’s only natural that myself and Mark are fascinated by and take great pleasure in creating characters. A brilliant script always has strong characters. When James Gandolfini died it made me sad. I never met him or knew him but I felt connected to him because of The Sopranos. Tony Soprano was a result of great acting and writing. The writer creating a character with many layers and the actor giving an amazing performance and showing those layers.
“When we began writing we didn’t have any particular characters in mind, but because we knew our themes our characters came naturally. Our themes shaped our characters. They fit with our themes because that is the core of our story. Our themes are universal. We’d spend hours on each character, creating backstories and discussing personalities. We even created a backstory for our female lead’s dead husband (who the audience never even get to see).”
A Director’s Discretion
Leaving room in the script for the director’s discretion is important for Lynch. “If you have a script full of stage direction and cues,” he says, “well, the question has to be asked, are you looking for a director or an order taker. Collaboration is so important to our theatre company.
“When we initially met with the director, Gary Duggan, we made it clear from the beginning that we were open to the possibility of change and that nothing was set in stone, once it’s for the greater good of the production. There needs to be room for the director to make choices and decisions to have their stamp on the project. That principle does not only apply with directors. With Mark and I being the writers as well as actors, we were conscious of making it ‘The Andrew & Mark Show.’ We genuinely want everyone to treat it like their own, with passion and enthusiasm. Not afraid to offer opinion whilst working freely using the talents which brought them onto the project in the first place.”
The Motherfucker With the Hat
In several months Andrew Lynch will perform in Stephen Adley Guirgis’s sex farce, The Motherfucker With the Hat, which premiered on Broadway in 2011. “I was in an acting class one night,” Lynch says, “and there was a table filled with theatre scripts and we were asked to go up and pick a script and work on a scene with someone else. I instantly saw the title The Motherfucker With the Hat and I grabbed it. As soon as I read the first page I was hooked. That night on the bus home I had it read nearly twice over.
“It’s one of those scripts that has a bit of everything in it, so many emotions, it’s fantastic. I worked on the opening scene for over eight weeks in class. The idea was that we work on it, then perform it in a showcase end of term. I worked on the opening scene.
“To my surprise I found that fellow actors in the class preferred to watch my scene rather than get up and act out their own. People never got bored of it and I never got bored performing it. Showcase came and afterwards I had everyone who attended coming over telling me they were blown away by it and asking me what play was it from. Interesting enough, I met [fellow actor] Sinead O’Riordan for the first time that day. She congratulated me and said ‘I have to work with you some day.’ Who would have thought that it would actually be The Motherfucker With the Hat when we’d first get to work together.
With Darkness Comes Humor
“The reason why the play appealed to me is because it’s real and I could relate to it. There might be a lot of laughs in the play, but sometimes with darkness comes humor, and that reminds me a lot of where I am from. Growing up in Darndale [near Dublin] I knew people like Jackie. His wanting to turn his life around, his battle with addiction and his turbulent relationship with Veronica. I don’t necessarily think it’s important for an audience member to relate to the characters they see on stage. In fact I think for most of the audience the writing will be about people they don’t know and a world they don’t necessarily live in. But what they will get is an understanding that this is coming from a very real place. That as funny and dark as it may be, it’s honest and thought provoking.
“The stories that interest me most always have strong central characters, showing the grey areas in both humans and society. I like to be asking questions and thinking. I don’t like work that is preachy, whether I agree with ‘the preach’ or not. Opinions should be offered but never forced. There are two sides to every argument and I want to hear both. All my favorite films/TV/books/theatre and songs tick these boxes.”
More to Come
Lynch plans to continue his playwriting. “I started writing to open doors for me as an actor because at this stage I don’t think they are going to be opened for me. What I didn’t anticipate was the love I would grow to have for writing. I especially couldn’t fathom the positive response that has come from the reviews for Death Row Cowboy. I am very humbled.
“Myself and Mark are currently developing a new play which is set on the ‘world’s deadliest mountain’ K2. One in every four people who have attempted the summit,” he notes, “have died trying, and this startling statistic got us thinking. What makes people want to climb such a dangerous mountain? Is it just about the adrenaline rush? Is it escapism? Are they trying to fill a void or replace something in their lives in order to make them feel worth or give them some sort of value? Or is it ego and competition that drives them?
“The point is, we discovered many reasons why someone would like to make such a dangerous climb. But behind those reasons are themes of ambition, contentment, drive and purpose. We wondered where our own creative drive and passion for what we do came from, why we chose to be actors and writers, and this helped us explore our themes.
“When we set up Three Peas Theatre Company our aim was to write and perform original, thematic, thought provoking, entertaining work that engages with a wide audience. Mark had co-founded a film production company with actor Eddie Jackson called Floor Unit Productions, and two months ago I was asked (along with fellow actor Shea Brennan) to become a member. I was extremely interested and I was keen to carry over the same ethos from Three Peas.
“Floor Unit had two previously produced short films, A House of Cards and Normal, and our first production as a group was a recently submitted proposal to RTE Storyland called Chief Usher. It’s a story about the consequences of a desolate man, Hubert Warner, who finds a gun. A man in his mid-fifties who has failed to take opportunities presented to him in his life and now has a jealousy toward ambitious, free living, and enthusiastic co-workers. Much like Death Row Cowboy, the main theme highlighted in this show is Loneliness.” Lynch comments that if all goes well and they are selected, IFTA winner Brendan Conroy will play the role of Hubert and it will be directed by Brendan’s son, Rúaidhrí Conroy.
If Lynch’s work to date is any indication, audiences for his next production will be saying: “as funny and dark as it may be, it’s honest and thought provoking.”