Filmmaker Terry McMahon (Patrick’s Day, Charlie Casanova) joined Nick Clement for a chat about his career, the Irish film industry, and what inspires him as an artist. His most recent film, the romantic drama Patrick’s Day, is now available via ITunes here in the U.S., and will also be hitting various VOD platforms on March 17th. The DVD is available for pre-order at Amazon, with a street date of April 5th. The film is a tour de force for everyone involved, and is the very definition of masterful cinema. Seek it out. And we hope you enjoy the interview!
First of all, thanks so much for chatting, Terry. I know you’re a busy guy. Just to begin – how did you get your start in the film industry?
I never finished school or had any formal training in anything. I signed on welfare on my 18th birthday, secured a one room flat, and for too long led a life of insufferable loneliness. Having been homeless as a teenager I became kind of invisible and that fear of vanishing without a trace compels people to do insane things. Shyness, paranoia, and the aftermath of a mumbling stammer meant connecting with people was impossible. I worked at several menial jobs but that lack of education rendered standard jobs out of the question. In an attempt to connect on some level I figured I’d seen enough movies to maybe write one. That’s how naive I was. I figured if I couldn’t afford a pen and paper I could go to a bookie and steal their pencils and betting slips and write on those. That virgin screenplay was a hardcore prison drama about the illusions men conjure to convince themselves they are men. Called The Dancehall Bitch it took me years to write but I felt that if I could just complete the damn thing it might save my life. Somebody handed that script to somebody, and I ended up on a first class flight to Los Angeles to work with Daryl Hannah on another script she wanted to direct. There were several other commissions so I guess I was officially a writer. Parallel to that was a missus, kids, a home, and the onset of premature old age so you could say writing did kind of save my life. And some day I will make that damn Dancehall Bitch.
Ireland is rich in cinematic history. Did you have any idols or mentors within the Irish film community?
I remember sitting in the cinema watching Jim Sheridan’s In The Name Of The Father and feeling my heart rip through my chest. Sheridan is the talisman for an entire generation. The producer Rob Walpole (I Went Down, The Eclipse, Viva) was very kind to me in those first awkward years and I owe him a lot to this day. Ed Guiney (The Guard, Frank, Room) was very generous too. These guys were way above me on the mythical ladder yet they revealed themselves to be very decent people. Same goes for Conor Barry (Savage, You’re Ugly Too, Mammal). Then, at a festival, I raised a glass or twenty with Tim Palmer (Into The West, A Love Divided, Patrick’s Day) and he proved to be a profound part of making my sophomore film, as did Rachel Lysaght (The Pipe, Traders, One Million Dubliners). We plan to work together again. Then there’s David Collins (Eden, The Sea, Once) who I am working on a project with right now. He’s another remarkable producer doing great work. I’ve been lucky so far to work with some beautiful people.
How do you see the film business changing in Ireland?
More movies. More poverty.
How has digital filmmaking changed the Irish film industry? I’d think it’s been a huge benefit.
Without digital filmmaking there never would have been my first film Charlie Casanova – which some audiences might have preferred. We were given two digital cameras on loan for 11 days and that’s how that film got made. A first time writer-director, an unknown cast, an inexperienced crew all fueled by a blind belief in making something impossible. Without the digital facility to film, record sound, and edit picture, and without being able to burn DVD’s on a cheap home computer, we never would have been selected for competition at SXSW. Without digital, people with no money would not be making movies. And we can’t let that happen.
I’m curious to know what films have inspired you? Any particular filmmakers?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Scarecrow, The Fisher King, Raging Bull, Do The Right Thing, A Woman Under The Influence, Au Revoir Les Enfants, In The Name Of The Father, The Sweet Smell Of Success…. I could go on forever. Paul Thomas Anderson, Sidney Lumet, Jane Campion, John Huston, Spike Lee, Billy Wilder….same again, I could go on forever.
While you were growing up, how important were movies to your daily routine, and when did you first start to get truly serious about filmmaking and storytelling?
I remember my old man sitting me down as a young kid to watch a movie with him one Saturday afternoon. That wasn’t his style so I was already luxuriating in the new sense of warmth as the movie came on but when I balked at it being in black and white he almost threw me out of the room. I kept my mouth shut and silently read the title card: Twelve Angry Men. I immediately fell in love with the movie, but as it progressed, I began to conceive of Henry Fonda being a disciple of the Devil as part of Old Nick’s plan to get a guilty man off. Sidney Lumet’s movie is enduringly magnificent but that personal need to subvert the existing material was the beginning of wanting to make movies. I never would have articulated such an aspiration of course because nobody from our background was ever going to make movies. Later, when the need to write forced its way out and I began fantasizing about being the silent facilitator of film through words on page, I was still living in that one room apartment, but now I was watching five movies a night.
Five movies per night? That sounds great to me. How did this happen?
I had insomnia for a long time and the 24 hour video rental store had a cheap deal on their back catalogue if you returned them the next day, so I’d stay up all night and be emotionally seduced, sucked in, and spat back out by discoveries that I never would have seen had I gone to film school. During the day I’d go to cinemas. At that time there were no cineplexes and many of the smaller Dublin cinemas had deals for second-run movies. Sometimes those movies exacerbated the loneliness but they’d mostly soothe it. A pack of cigarettes – you could smoke in cinemas back then – cheap popcorn and a hankering to connect in a dark room made movies the closest thing to love I could find. Sometimes they still are.
With the recent Irish success stories of director Lenny Abrahamson and actress Saoirse Ronan, not to mention Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender, and many, many others, how excited are you to see artists from your country making it big in Hollywood?
I hate them, particularly that sickeningly talented Abrahamson and appallingly beautiful Ronan siren, and don’t even get me started on the Farrell Adonis. How the hell are the rest of us mere mortals supposed to get a piece of the pie with Gods and Goddesses like them around? Bastards.
How important is it for Irish talent to head over to Hollywood? Is there pressure to stay at home, or is it everyone’s main goal to make the jump?
Making movies is an addiction, so if you want the most expensive drugs with the best bang for your buck, then you go to the best drug den out there and dive into the orgy. That’s Hollywood and long may it make magic. If you want to get high by growing your own, slipping on the vinyl of Kind Of Blue and floating to a different kind of magic, then the homegrown might be better. But you’re likely sleeping alone tonight. Some nights I want the orgy. Some nights I want Miles Davis. But I want to make movies every night.
What was it like making your first film, Charlie Casanova, and can you discuss the response to receiving such a polarizing reaction from critics and audiences?
I wrote Charlie Casanova at the same time as Patrick’s Day. Fueled by anger at the controlling class elite that were destroying the country – and still are – combined with a fascination with the indoctrinated self-loathing of the working class, I knew the material would require something audacious from conception to execution. While writing it, I figured there were going to be detractors, but I also hoped there would be champions. I was wrong. This was the time of the Celtic Tiger with all its prosperity and capitalistic swagger, so the very idea of writing a piece on the cancerous undercurrent that kept all that feces afloat was doomed to failure before the first paragraph. But one benefit of having never been coached in the formalities of a conventional education is the dumb inability to be afraid of feeling like an ass. Failure to men like us wasn’t just an option, but rather, it was an inevitability, so why fear it? I typed into Facebook: “Intend making no budget feature Charlie Casanova, need cast, crew, equipment and a lot of balls.” Three weeks later, with me as director, we were on set, many of us meeting for the first time, and eleven days after that – because the loaned cameras had to be back by the 11th day – we finished shooting. We had meticulously stuck to the script and now it needed an editor. I was broke because, like many people in Ireland, I had suddenly lost my “job” as a soap script writer. And there was mouths to be fed and rent to paid. The finished film was selected for the Narrative Feature Competition at SXSW – the first Irish film ever selected and the first non-American film in six years – then it was picked up for distribution by Studio Canal. A fantasy was unfolding. But the stink of reality was about to hit the fan. The film was always intended to be provocative and abrasive but, despite some magnificent champions, many reviewers and audiences found the whole thing a repugnant affair and decided to personally attack the filmmaker as if I was Charlie Casanova. In the week leading up to the cinema release there was a bizarre public battle played out in the national media. I was depicted as a moron and a fraud and the film died before it took its first step. There were words between the behemoth that is The Irish Times and the fly on an elephant’s ass that was me. A two page evisceration of the film and the filmmaker being printed without any right of reply was a little hard to take but one of us had to lose and it wasn’t going to be The Irish Times. I lost everything and thought I’d never make another movie. I was wrong again.
Was it your intention to aggressively provoke a response from the audience with Charlie Casanova?
Yes. Presuming people knew what I was doing, I channeled Johnny Lydon from The Sex Pistols, but they weren’t in on the joke, and they, perhaps understandably, wanted me shot.
What was the creative genesis of Patrick’s Day? What was your inspiration?
I worked in a psychiatric hospital as an orderly and got to see the almost invisible line separating human beauty and ugliness and how often that line can be crossed without malice or forethought when love is treated as a disease.
Was there one specific message you wanted the audience to pull from Patrick’s Day?
You are not alone.
How was Moe Dunford cast in the lead role?
There were a couple of named actors who wanted to play Patrick – one in particular – and Moe Dunford was an unknown entity so some of the financiers were understandably wondering why I’d cast an unknown over a name. But I felt there was something special in Moe, so we communicated privately, set up a call back, and he did a great job. Yet some of the financiers still weren’t convinced that he could be “soft” – whatever the hell that means – so I took him home, got him drunk, rubbed ham on the side of his face, let my beautiful dog lick his face as Moe recited lines from the script, filmed it on my phone, sent it to the financiers and they green lit him that night. He has since gone on to win multiple awards including the Shooting Star at The Berlin Film Festival and he won’t be an unknown entity for long.
How did you come to work with cinematographer Michael Lavelle on Patrick’s Day, and what were the discussions about the film’s aggressive visual style?
I met Michael Lavelle at a 10 day film development seminar both of us were on. I didn’t really know his work but really liked his nature over those 10 days. Technical capacity is obviously imperative but if we were going to pull Patrick’s Day off it would require an all-inclusive humanistic approach from conception to completion from everybody. A simple example would be that in contrast to standard set etiquette, I insisted the extras were treated as top billed actors and were fed at the same time and in the same way as everybody else. A year before we began shooting, Michael and I went to the library of the National Film School and spent the day searching out images that might reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters and we photographed those on a stills camera. Some shots were from movie books, some from art books and others from photography books. Based on the narrative we broke the movie into five psychological stages and allocated specific shots to each of those categories. Later our great producer Tim Palmer agreed to send us to a fancy-ass hotel for three days to draw up storyboards for the film. We just drank expensive wine for three days and came back with nothing more than a half-drawn frame that was quickly abandoned when Michael realized I wasn’t going to approach the film in that formalized way. What we did do was break the script down page-by-page and line-by-line to determine whose ever-shifting point of view we were looking at. One of the thematic questions of Patrick’s Day is the veracity of memory and we wanted a visual language to interrogate that for the viewer – whether consciously or unconsciously for them. The narrative rhythm of the script constantly presents memory as a set-up, a reversal, and a subversion, and we wanted to reflect that visually. So, once we clarified the set-up, we determined the shot and the lens that might most effectively communicate that triadic pattern, then ensured that we detailed the subsequent reversal and subversion within the same frame and lens in the hope that the viewer might have a subtle memory of having been there before. Sounds kind of wanky as I say it here but rather than some pseudo-intellectual conceit, the hope was that the cumulative impact would be visceral rather than intellectual. It also created in an incredibly expedient short-hand for Michael and I because once we established the first set-up we immediately knew the lens and the frame for the subsequent reversal and subversion regardless of whether we were shooting in sequence or not. This meant we were able to execute a hugely ambitious shoot in an absurdly limited 16 days. The same rhythmic principles were applied to the edit with the wonderful Emer Reynolds – a set-up that feels real, a reversal that shatters reality and a subversion that may be a new reality or the propagation of a darker fallacy. Both Michael Lavelle and Emer Reynolds intellectually understood that but, much more importantly in this context, they knew how to bring their own decency and humanity to every aspect of the process and both of them and Tim Palmer are a profound part of what Patrick’s Day became.
How has the success of Patrick’s Day in Ireland affected your career?
As writer and director of a film, the time investment bears no relation to the financial return, so in truth, I’m fighting to put food on the family table. But, beyond cash, the reaction has been the stuff of dreams. Patrick’s Day is not for everybody – some are indifferent to it – but we have received a huge amount of mail from people all over the world detailing the impact the film has had on them, and that is a temporary but powerful antidote to financial insecurity.
Was it hard marketing Patrick’s Day to Irish viewers or were they immediately receptive?
Because of corrupt governments and scumbag bankers, Ireland is going through Hell at the moment, so it’s tough to gauge what Joe Citizen will get off their couch to go to see in the cinema. Apparently the term they use in Hollywood is “concept rejection,” and that can be just as prevalent in someone’s Dublin sitting room as L.A.’s Chinese Mann Theatre. Once we got people in the door there were standing ovations and the word of mouth was beautiful but the tag of “mental illness” isn’t exactly sexy, so despite all the awards and the accolades it’s not going to take long for a superhero movie to kick an independent movie off the screen. I don’t have an agent or a manager or a lawyer or any of those apparently necessary-to-get-ahead allies, so I wasn’t across the business side of it perhaps the way I should have been. We did seven weeks, and apparently “for an Irish film” that’s top drawer, but it’s a little like winning the league in fourth division football; it feels good for the supporters and the players but the premiership division fans just read about it as a footnote at the bottom of the sports section.
What was the process of finding a U.S. distributor for Patrick’s Day on a DVD/VOD level? When does it get released here?
It’s interesting because we have won awards all over the world, garnered four and five star reviews across the board, and received multiple standing ovations yet there is difficulty making that translate to audiences who may be reticent about exploring mental health and the right to intimacy, so, despite all the accolades, it hasn’t been easy. But the good news is that Alchemy releases the film on VOD on March 17th, and BrinkVision puts out the DVD on April 5th. It’s also currently streaming on Itunes.
What films, if any, have centered on mental health and made an emotional impact on you? Did any films inspire, or partially inspire, Patrick’s Day?
One of the great payoffs of watching multiple movies every night for your formative years is you make discoveries that become deeply personal to you. I never read the back of the boxes until after I had watched film. I barely even looked at the cover, such was my childlike need to know nothing about what was about to unfold. There was a movie by a director I’d never heard of at the time called Jane Campion. The video cover had a gawky redhead staring out with piercing eyes and beyond that I had no idea what was in store. A few hours later I was sobbing like a child. The movie was An Angel at My Table and the redhead was Kerry Fox. Over 20 years later when we were prepping Patrick’s Day, the magnificent casting director Rebecca Roper asked who I wanted to cast as Patrick’s mother? I knew it would never happen and was almost embarrassed at the naivety of saying her name but I swallowed hard and whispered: “Kerry Fox?” A month later the redhead who blew my heart open 20 years earlier was doing it again except this time it was on my set. And separately, I picked three films for Michael Lavelle and I to watch together before we began shooting: The Graduate for structure and form and long dialogue takes, Punch Drunk Love for tone and awkward love, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for a visceral, almost clinical approach, and just because it’s one of the greatest damn movies ever made. The lovely slingshot is that later when Patrick’s Day screened at the Woodstock Film Festival, Michael Lavelle was also awarded the Haskell Wexler Cinematography Award and the great Wexler himself referenced Cuckoo’s Nest in his speech – which, of course, he was cinematographer on. It was a gorgeous moment, which would further be enhanced by, five minutes later, Emer Reynolds being awarded The Peter Lyons Editing Award. And then, five minutes later, Patrick’s Day picked up The Grand Jury Prize.
What advice would you have for up and coming filmmakers?
Think of something that embarrasses you and pick at it. Think of a secret you have that makes you feel alone and scratch at it. Somebody somewhere feels the same thing and they need to know they are not alone. Paper costs nothing and if you can’t even afford that then go to that bookies, steal that pencil, and write on the back of the betting slips. Then film it. On your phone if you have to. Steal a phone if you have to. There are no excuses any more. Write and film like your life depends on it and pretty soon it will.
Podcasting Them Softly thanks Terry for his time! Can’t wait to see your next film!