“I love going into people’s lives and seeing how they live and work… I always think if my documentary is not talked about after it was on TV, in work, at home and in the pub, I didn’t make it properly.”
Observational documentary maker Gillian Marsh talks to us about telling real stories about real people, and the making of two extraordinary documentaries, The Funeral Director and Tomorrow is Saturday.
Firstly, how has 2020 been for you so far? What was in the pipeline, how has it been impacted and what have you been developing?
The lockdown has been very nice from a family point of view having all the children home. I was busy finishing the edit of The Funeral Director and Tomorrow is Saturday so the time flew. I was working with the best editor ever, with plenty of social distancing as she was in Dublin and I was in Mayo.
In June, we finished filming with Seán. I wanted to leave time between decluttering Seán’s house and the final scenes to see how Seán’s life may have changed and it surely did. It was hard to fit everything we wanted into the documentary as Seán is so eloquent. It was hard to let go of good scenes, we could have done a whole series on him.
Covid has certainly slowed things down. I am working on developing ideas, but I have nothing commissioned at the moment, so back to the drawing board for a while. I am developing some RTEjr ideas and some observational documentaries that I would like to get commissioned.
When did you first encounter Seán Hillen, a largely unsung national treasure and the subject matter of Tomorrow is Saturday? What drew you to his story?
I was given Seán’s name by a mutual friend Chris Doris who suggested that I go to meet Seán. The minute I went into his house and saw what a treasure trove it was, I knew Seán’s story would be a good one. I had seen Seán’s collages over the years and I had seen Paddy Cahill’s short film on Seán so I knew how talented he was. So, Eimear Healy and myself drove up from Mayo to see Seán for an hour but it ended up being five hours.
I loved Seán the minute I met him, every step we took I bumped into another box or I tripped over a broken statue, every box was a story in itself. Seán’s honesty drew me to his story. Everything he feels and expresses, we have all felt at some stage of our lives. We have all been overwhelmed, scared, elated, we have gone through all his feeling, so I felt Seán’s story would have something in it for everyone. This documentary could appeal to a general audience, not just art critics. It was a human story.
The documentary entwines an artist who has a relatively recently diagnosed Asperger syndrome, “a disorderly mind in some respects but hyper orderly in others.” What considerations did you make, if any, concerning how to address this in the documentary?
I was naïve at the beginning in relation to Asperger’s. In fact the working title was ‘The Art of Asperger’s’ as I thought there would be a clear narrative through the documentary in relation to Asperger’s. But early in the production someone said to me, “If you meet someone who is Autistic or has Asperger’s you have met ONE person with Asperger’s, no two will be alike,” so from there on I knew this documentary was about Seán Hillen alone, it was not a general documentary about Asperger’s. How one’s brain works is unique; it would not be fair to put across one single definition of Asperger’s, so our journey with Seán shows what it means to him.
We have the honour of knowing Seán for many years now and interviewing him as part of Totally Dublin Live last year. We truly believe he should be the recipient of an Aosdána grant given his sensational body of work and the tough financial circumstances in which he admittedly finds himself him. Do you think/hope Tomorrow is Saturday could help support this call?
I was astounded that Seán is not supported in some form or other by the arts. Numerous people we interviewed all believe Seán should be supported by Aosdána. Seán’s brilliance, from his inventions to his art are in a league of their own. It is a pity he doesn’t have free reign to work away on ideas and not spend the time keeping the sheriff from the door. If he had had a manager for the past 40 years that manager would probably be wealthy now. That would have been a wise investment.
I don’t know why Aosdána have not helped Seán and I hope when this documentary is aired (not only in Ireland but internationally) they will weigh in behind him. I hope someone in Aosdána will nominate him and others back him so that he can have the space to be creative.
When did you first consider making The Funeral Director? Is it an idea which was waiting for the right person in the form of undertaker David McGowan or did he spur the idea into existence?
I felt people needed to know more about death, how important it is to grieve, how the wake is the reason Irish people deal with death so well.
Around 2002, I met David and was fascinated about the whole process that surrounds death. I approached RTE but they had made some programme on death and felt they had done ‘death’ so to speak. I then approached Channel Four and they loved him but wanted a programme on embalming like The Autopsy, but that was not the type of programme I wanted to make.
I wanted to make a documentary that would map out what lay ahead of us all, not in a frightening way but in a warm informative way which I hope is what we did. I felt if people knew more about it they would not be so scared. David made a huge impact on me. He has a true vocation, the respect and gentleness that he shows everyone he embalms and buries is unique, he is a truly spiritual man and it was so reassuring to watch him work, as all the deceased are safe with him.
I was so lucky to have a wonderful editor Gretta Ohle. She told the story in the most beautiful, sensitive way and added so much in the sound design of the documentary.
What do you seek to tell through your documentaries? What is your process for deciding upon what to pursue?
I like telling real stories about real people, I love going into people’s lives and seeing how they live and work. I am so lucky to be allowed to do this sort of work and I have been able to document so many extraordinary lives.
The biggest decider for me is the personality, the warmth, the openness. Access is key. I need the person to be comfortable with me, being able to chat openly to me. If you don’t have that comfort, you don’t have access, you don’t have a story. I suppose most of the people I am drawn to like telling stories, they are storytellers themselves.
Having a visual story is key. If there are lots of places they can take us, people to meet, then you are sailing, but there is always a way. Seán’s story was based in his own house most of the time but his art and archive took us away into his mind, to the history of the troubles to college in London, so we got out of the little cluttered house. It was never claustrophobic.
I always think if my documentary is not talked about after it was on TV, in work, at home and in the pub, I didn’t make it properly.
The Funeral Director screens on Saturday September 26 at 4pm followed by virtual Q&A with Gillian Marsh and David McGowan.
Tomorrow is Saturday screens on Sunday September 27 at 3.50pm followed by a virtual Q&A with directors Gillian Marsh and Gretta Ohle, and Seán Hillen.