TERRY MCMAHON INTERVIEW
Terry McMahon caused something of a scene with his debut feature Charlie Casanova back in 2012, a micro budget indie about a loathsome man who has utter contempt for his friends, family, society and himself. The film was met with equal contempt by the critics and the punters didn’t bother showing up to see what all the fuss was about. Returning to filmmaking with his second film Patrick’s Day, the opinionated director talks to TFR Editor Jack O’Kennedy about politics, process and the importance of art with a message.
Patrick’s Day seems to be resonating deeply with audiences, are you happy with how it’s being received so far?
Yeah it’s one of those things, you know it’s not a movie for everyone. People are having a remarkable, visceral, collective response to it. At this stage we’ve literally received hundreds of letters and emails from people expressing the most incredibly private, personal emotion in a way that for them seems to be unprecedented. So there’s a power in there that’s something bigger than the movie which is very exciting.
You’ve written and directed both of your films so far. What’s your writing process like and in the aftermath of your first film, how did you get to Patrick’s Day ater Charlie Casanova?
You mean that film was such a miserable piece of shit how do you get anyone to fund a second movie?
I think it’s fair to say ...Charlie Casanova felt like you were quite angry about Irish society and this maybe is angry but perhaps in a different way?
Well they’re two profoundly different films and they require two profoundly different approaches. Charlie Casanova was designed as a fucking hand grenade and you threw it in and it was supposed to cause as much collateral damage as possible. It was an act of terrorism against the government. It was supposed to do all those things and if it hadn’t have done those things it would have been disappointing. For me it was important that you provoked in the most extreme way and if you’re listening to classical music all day and suddenly a punk rock song comes on it shatters your ears it shatters your system and that’s what that film had set out to do so…despite all the attacks and despite all the insanity and despite all the mayhem not only do I have no regrets but I stand by the film with pride and with real affection. Patricks’ Day on the other hand is a very different kind of film. Patrick’s Day is about a guy who is so overwhelmed with emotion he can barely contain it. They’re two completely different films aesthetically, content wise, character wise, all those…Interesting to me, people said I was an incompetent fucking moron when it came to writing Charlie Casanova and now they’re praising me for suddenly having learned how to write. What they don’t know is that both Patrick’s Day and Charlie Casanova were written at exactly the same time. You know it’s the approach, they’re two completely different films on every level and the next film will be a very different kind of film again and we’ll take a very different kind of approach.
You mentioned the term “hand grenade” in describing Charlie Casanova. It seems like with your films you’re setting out to achieve something. What would you say you set out to achieve with Patricks Day?
That simple notion that you don’t have to be alone and you don’t have to have someone tell you how to live your life. You don’t have to allow someone else to control your aspirations. Because we are becoming so increasingly oppressed within the regime that’s in place now we don’t know who the fuck we are anymore. And you don’t have to be that way and you don’t have to be alone in your fear.
Moe Dunford gives a pretty amazing performance as Patrick. How much of what we see onscreen is as written and how much did you and him kind of work on the character together. Was it a long process or is that Patrick as you conceived him.
Every single word was written, there’s not a half second improvised. But I think the difference is that I construct the narrative and I construct the dialogue and I construct the scenario but my job as a director is to empower everyone else on the set, to beyond what they thought they were capable of doing and that applies to the DOP, the sound recordist, the art director, everybody. But, particularly, more than anybody, the actors. You’ve got to try and find a way of taking someone to a place that they themselves didn’t think they were capable of going and when they make the discovery in real time and the camera happens to be recording it then we as an audience become empathically involved because there’s no lies, there’s no fallacy there’s no presentation, it’s happening in real time for us and Moe did that. Moe had the raw courage to go there and then he learned the craft as he went on and now I think he’s one of those actors that’s going to be catapulted into a remarkable realm.
You set your stock up from the beginning with the dictionary quote defining mental illness. Films depicting mental illness…this kind of film doesn’t scream commercial. How difficult was it to get it off the ground.
The quote at the start, its mental illness but that exact quote applies to love. Myself and Emer Reynolds, our wonderful editor, we were looking for something at the beginning and I thought okay, how do we set this up in such a way that we’re deconstructing the academic, reductionist notion of mental illness at the same time humanising a character who aspires to something as noble as love. We looked up mental illness and we couldn’t believe that the same description of mental illness could utterly be ascribed to love. Thematically I find that magnificently exciting. Some people see that opening and think that we’re being prescriptive when in fact it’s the opposite. In terms of getting the film made, what happened was Tim Palmers saw Charlie Casanova and people forget that the film had some real heavyweight champions. In Australia and other continents we had extraordinary reactions to that film, We won a lot of awards and they saw it for what it was. They didn’t have that personal refusal to look in the mirror. I think with something like Patrick’s Day the story, the narrative, the script, seem to be the thing that hooked people early on. And Tim Palmer he got the money together. I told him look, we’ve got six months, if it’s not ready to go in six months I’m shooting it on my fucking phone. That’s one of the benefits of having made something like Charlie Casanova, for less than 1000 euro. When you threaten somebody with something like that they think you’re fucking real, they believe you. It doesn’t matter whether its true or not they think “oh shit this prick is gonna make it on us”. So it becomes an easier dance. But Tim was brilliant, he was a stunning producer on every level and he made it happen in five months instead of six.
You put together Charlie Casanova on less than a shoestring, did you learn any lessons in the making of it that you brought to Patrick’s Day.
Charlie Casanova was made for less than a 1000 euro and it was picked up for distribution by Studio Canal and it was released in cinemas in UK and Ireland, that in itself is for me massively exciting because it shows that regardless of the content of the film and regardless of the critical reaction to the film it is setting a precedent and that precedent is “get up off your fucking arse and make a movie”, its possible and to me that was very exciting and on multiple levels it seemed to impact on other people. The other night I got a letter from someone who said that they made their first film because of it. In terms of a bigger budget the same fundamental principle applies. I was on Christopher Nolan’s set. Wally Pfister is his cinematographer. You’re watching Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister and it’s a 120 million dollar movie and all they give a fuck about is what’s happening in front of the the other end of the camera. In Patrick’s Day how do we capture that indefinable moment of discovery in front of the lens of a camera, protect it throughout the entire post production period and get it in front of an audience where at least one person in the room might respond in a real way. That principle doesn’t change regardless of budget.
I think the film is about a lot of different kinds of love. I thought it was interesting the way that the love of Patrick’s mother works and the way it ends up being quite a destructive force when she wields it, even if she is wielding it with the best of intentions. Do you think the film is about the different ways that people can use love for good and bad.
When people are shocked by Moes mother’s behaviour, I always question it going, this woman fundamentally believes that what she is doing is right, she fundamentally believes that everything she is doing is in protection of her child. We lie to our kids every fucking day. So I don’t understand firstly why she’s cast as a villain and secondly why people seem to be so shocked by her behaviour.
If you were to talk about your contemporaries….the filmmakers whose work is being seen by Irish audiences, do you think Irish filmmakers are doing enough to address those issues or do you think there’s a lack of addressing society from a film point of view by your contemporaries.
I think there are some fine filmmakers out there, I think Ivan Kavanagh is a world class filmmaker. He made a film called Tin Can Man for next to nothing and now he’s just finished The Canal. I think Lenny Abrahamson’s film Frank is utterly stunning. I didn’t really understand his last couple of movies but I was deeply moved by Frank. I think Mark O’Connor was very ballsy with his film Stalker. I think One Million Dubliners is a profoundly exciting document. I don’t think they are driven by a political need in the way I might be but that’s probably because maybe they have better things in their life but I feel so ashamed in my own cowardice that I need to reflect on some level, that cowardice in terms of doing nothing and trying to find a way of doing something via film.
Earlier on you mentioned that someone wrote to you about the Charlie Casanova and fact that it cost you less than a thousand quid and it got into cinemas, the idea is just go out there and make it. I assume that would be your advice to any aspiring filmmakers
Its even beyond the idea of go out there and make it, its, stop making imitative genre driven stuff, that you’re never going to be able to compete with anyway. Sit alone in your room, think of the darkest secret that you’re embarrassed by, then think of one worse and then write about that. Because not only are you not alone, but there’s a whole bunch of people out there with that same secret who might respond.
We’ve heard you chat about two upcoming projects, The Dancehall Bitch and Oliver Twisted, are those still in the offing for you or what do you think will be your next project?
Well there’s people who have told me that the Dancehall Bitch is literally the dumbest fucking choice I could possibly make for the third film.
Why is that do you think?
Because it’s a very dark prison drama about what men are prepared to do to convince themselves they’re men and what they’re prepared to do to women to convince themselves they’re men, so thematically and dramatically, people go oh for fucks sake would you not make a Disney movie?
And what can you tell us about Oliver Twisted
Oliver Twisted is a dark, romantic comedy believe it or not. The title Oliver Twisted and the tagline, more Dick than Dickens should tell you the tone.