Make Like a Tree… – Interview with the star and director of Out Of Here

Posted February 27, 2014 in Film Features

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Totally Dublin met with Out of Here’s writer/director Donal Foreman, along with lead actor Fionn Walton, ahead of its sold-out screening at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival on Saturday 23 February. Meeting in Roasted Brown, the café in Film Base, was not advisable: familiar Irish film industry people proved a real distraction throughout the interview. But this sense of Dublin’s tiny scale is suitably enough one of the themes of Out of Here.

Tell me how Out of Here was funded? There’s quite a long list of financiers in the final credits.

Donal Foreman: The way we funded the production of the film was through a crowd-funding campaign through our own website, as well as accepting donations where you would receive a gift in return. We were also offering shares in the film. For €150 you basically become an investor, buying a share in any future box office profits that may arise.

We raised most of the money that way. That was really master-minded by my producer Emmet Fleming from Stalker Films. Emmet was great, it wouldn’t have happened without his involvement. I had met him when he was working at Venom Films and I pitched them the project. They passed, but after Emmet left Venom, I was still looking for a producer, and ended up being put in touch with him again through Terry McMahon, who directed Charlie Casanova. So it ended up working out in a roundabout way.

How long did it take to complete the film?

Donal: Overall it came together quite quickly. The editing was a little bit drawn out because I was in New York working. I like to have a few months break from it after production so you come to it fresh. If you give it a bit of time and approach it like found footage, you’re better prepared to just cut something if it’s not working. I also took a month’s break in the middle of the editing, after we’d done a few test screenings. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with a lot of the feedback. I needed a break to distance myself from that.

What exactly happened at the Galway Film Fleadh, before you won Second in Best Irish Feature?

Donal: It was coming up to the deadline, Emmet showed them a rough cut and they really enjoyed it. But we needed more money to do post-production; we were planning on submitting a rough cut to the Film Board and applying for a completion grant. We weren’t sure if we would have the film ready by the time Galway needed it. But they just really wanted the film and pushed for it. They were able to put in a good word with the Film Board and we got the money. At that stage it seemed like “Yeah, we’ve got to go for it.” And it was good to have a deadline. The editing was already on and off over six months in New York. The original cut was three hours! So we cut that by more than half.

On your website you’ve interviewed directors Abel Ferarra and Rick Alverson, who both work from very loose outline and short film treatments. Is this your preferred way of writing a film?

Donal: It’s how we worked on Out of Here. It developed naturally from my beginnings as a filmmaker, when I was a teenager. When we got more skilled we’d start outlining the scenes, but we’d never write down the dialogue. Part of it was just dealing with friends: they’re not the most professional people in the world. It’s a safer bet to let them say it in their own words than get them to learn lines.

When I went to film school I learned how to do it the “proper” way: everything in advance: story boards, detailed script. But I was fascinated by the variety of ways that filmmakers wrote that are not totally script-based: Terrence Malick to Mike Leigh to Cassavetes or Alverson, Ferrara…

Out of Here is probably most comparable to someone Mike Leigh, except in fast-forward. Where he has six months to work with the actors, and improvise scenes, we had two weeks for rehearsal right before the shoot. It was through that process that I expanded a 30 page treatment into a full script. We’d improvise scenes based on the premise of what the scene was in my treatment. Through that I would shape it and mould it…by the time we were shooting, things were pretty much scripted.

You use mostly diegetic music in Out of Here, where the music in the scene occurs naturally.

Donal: I guess it’s a general preference. I don’t like most scored music, it feels too directive and manipulative of the audience’s emotions. Not relying on that pushes you to think more about natural sounds and how you’re using them. You can use them to underscore the emotions or the atmosphere of a scene in a way that’s more subconscious or less overt. I did put a lot of thought into the layers of sound, giving a busier, lighter feel to certain scenes, and so I was able to focus more on that because we weren’t relying on the music.

But I still wanted music to be a part of it, just because it’s a part of the world of the film. So I had fun thinking of Irish bands to include. Patrick Kelleher and His Cold Dead Hands – I’ve really liked his stuff for a few years. I liked him just as a presence, and a kind of performer. I was interested in getting him to play a little part in it as well.

Donald Clarke called Out of Herespacey”, and that seems to be reflected in the woozy cinematography.

Donal: It was shot by Piers McGrail, who’s been the cinematographer on all my films since college. We were in the National Film School at IADT Film School together. He’s fairly in-tune with my sensibility. We didn’t have to talk a lot about what the effect would be, but I definitely wanted the visuals to in part reflect Ciaran’s experience of the city, and how that shifts throughout the film. Part of it is the feeling of estrangement that comes with returning to somewhere that’s very familiar to you. It’s your home, but because you’ve been away for a while you’ve got this fresh perspective on it.

Another thing is the performances are quite naturalistic, and I was going for something that really reflects how things are for young people in Dublin today. I also wanted a dreamy feel to parts of it. Some of the scenes feel a little like a waking dream. Scenes like with the street-corner troupe are a little hyper-real.

What drew you to Fionn as an actor?

Donal: It was very hard to cast the lead role. The other parts came together quite quickly but there were never many actors that I was thinking of. Then in the end, what I was looking for was someone who would have a very strong, compelling, charismatic presence: they do have to carry the film most of the time. But also someone who doesn’t feel too much like a typical bland leading man. I had seen Fionn in a play years before but then I presented one of my shorts at the Factory [a filmmaking collective on Barrow Street] to the actors’ studio group there; we ended up casting…like ten parts in the film from that group. That’s where I met Fionn. He just became the right fit for the character Ciaran. And it worked out well. I needed someone who’d be very comfortable with a more improvisational approach, and who could develop a rapport with the other actors in a meaningful way.

Fionn, what is your acting background?

Fionn: I was involved in Players for almost the entirety of my time in Trinity College. I didn’t do anything my last year because I had just done What Richard Did so from that I got an agent, and I was auditioning as a professional basically. I had one or two roles during the year but it was very difficult to do; obviously college suffered. But for the first five years – I was there for six years, in Trinity, somehow – I was heavily involved in Players. It gave me great experience, kind of like an apprenticeship I suppose.

You’ve appeared in a lot of theatre recently.

Fionn: I was in Desire Under the Elms, the Eugene O’Neil play, directed by Annie Ryan at the Corn Exchange at the Dublin Theatre Festival last October, which seemed to be well received. It was a wonderful opportunity, a great experience… I hadn’t acted for two months previous to that. Last July I did Disco Pigs with Pillowtalk Productions in Smock Alley. I played “Pig” and Gemma-Leah Devereux was “Runt”; Rosemary McKenna directed it. She’s up for an Irish Times Theatre Award as Best Director this year for Way to Heaven. Apart from that, it was my first time on the stage for a few years, since my Trinity days.

You filmed What Richard Did in 2011.

Fionn: Yeah, in the summer just before my final year, it overlapped with college actually. It worked out pretty perfectly though, because I was doing an Enda Walsh play called Bedbound at the New Theatre that we finished on September 8, a Saturday, and then What Richard Did started filming that Monday. I had this enormous beard I had to shave Saturday night. Very fresh-faced, obviously I’m meant to look younger.

My part was originally cast but the actor playing me dropped out. I’d just done a three-day workshop with Jack Reynor at the Factory. Maureen Hughes, a casting director who operates from the Factory, recommended me for the workshop. Then Jack recommended me for What Richard Did, so I owe him everything basically. I wouldn’t have gotten seen for the part, nobody knew about me, I had no agent. I met Jack in Mulligans for a pint there in October. He’d been in Hong Kong shooting Transformers 4. He’s doing amazingly.

Scenes like the one in Grogans pub feel very authentic. The actors can barely conceal their laughter.

Donal: The importance of the rehearsal process was to get everyone spending time with each other. Fionn knew Dan Bergin from college, who plays Ciaran’s best friend, Chris.

Fionn: Dan directed stuff and acted in Players. I know it’s only maybe two or three weeks for rehearsals but we did have a healthy amount of time to get into some sort of a relationship, and we did all get on very well so that obviously makes everything easier.

Donal: That scene is pretty carefully rehearsed and structured. For those group scenes, I tried to have as many tracks of sound that we were recording. So we would have two boom operators, two mikes and radio mikes on the end of the boom, so people would be free to interrupt each other. A lot of time, you can’t do that in a film, because the mike is just pointed at a person, so someone off-screen is saying something, it’s not going to be captured. So that way sometimes there’s this stiffness where “I’m going to speak, then you are going to speak.”

I think the film depicts male relationships very honestly, for example the homoeroticism in the very first scene.

Fionn: I don’t know how that managed to creep in. I think Dan was determined to talk about…I need to choose my words carefully…

Donal: One of my directions for every other take was “Less fisting.”

Fionn: We had points to hit in each scene, we did eventually get there. But that was the first take, maybe it was looser than the other ones, or fresher than the rest, which is why Donal chose it. With all the silliness between the two friends, it’s a somewhat serious moment, where Dan wants to express sincerely that he was happy I was home, but I don’t really allow him to do that. Guys find it a little more difficult to speak sincerely sometimes.

Is Ciaran’s reluctance to speak about his travels symptomatic of the Irish males’ difficulty communicating?

Fionn: It’s also a year of his life. Even if you’re on holidays, people go, “How was it?” and how do you summarise a year of your life? The onus is on you to justify the fact that you went and to compress all your experiences abroad. He just finds it difficult anyway to compress a year of his life into a few stories.

Donal: I know we talked to several friends who had travelled about their experience coming back. Something that came up was that everyone would ask “How was the trip?” but nobody really wanted to hear the full story. What they want is a sound bite. They don’t want to hear you for an hour go on about this amazing experience you had. When you do have an experience of such length that is meaningful to you, it’s very hard to actually communicate that honestly. The structure of the film as well builds up to the one scene where he does actually let loose about it.

My next question is about that moment when Ciaran finally sheds some light on his year spent travelling, only it’s to complete strangers.

Fionn: That was very clearly scripted, I’m not sure if I got all the lines in, but that scene was always there, from the beginning. It’s the one point that he’s actually really passionate and enlightened by his experience. You can only really do that once, can’t you? Everything does build to that. They’re not even people he knows, which is why it’s easier, probably.

Donal: Ciaran kind of touches on it, when he says in the scene when you’re travelling by yourself, you’re meeting new people so they have no preconceptions about you individually. They don’t have the baggage of knowing about your past and what you used to be like. It’s easier for him to tell part of it to strangers because he also doesn’t have to face the consequences of that, of how they might see him afterwards. Although in Dublin they probably will.

Donal, returning from New York, do you share some of Ciaran’s sentiments about the size of Dublin?

Donal: Personally, I enjoy coming back, that aspect of Dublin, the ease with which you run into people. And that’s something in the original script that was reflected a bit more, some of those chance encounters. Some of the gang in that street-corner troupe, I planted in other scenes throughout the film.

Sam Coll, who writes for Totally Dublin, is in Grogans as well as that scene.

Donal: That one happened by accident actually, Sam just showed up to the scene that night and was, ‘Is it ok if I’m in the back? Is that going to mess with continuity?’ Then I just started to intentionally put in the characters in other scenes. I kind of liked that you might notice it the second time. Also in the street-corner troupe scene Ciaran has a line talking about feeling a little oppressed by that, walking around and always knowing that there’s someone you know around the corner. For the state he’s in, that makes Dublin a bit claustrophobic and suffocating.

I want to talk about a seagull motif in Out of Here. The opening scene sees a friend of Ciaran perform this interpretive dance imitating a seagull.

Donal: I was aware of some kind of bird/seagull thing emerging, but was only half-conscious of it. Philip Kenny [the character Ronan] was just doing that because there were these geese in the background. He was responding to them in his moment of dance. Then Ciaran’s line about the seagulls (“I hate seagulls”) came out of the improvisation at rehearsal. When we did the sound design I was fairly conscious about putting bird sounds in certain scenes. I didn’t go into it thinking, “The birds represent escape, or freedom, or what not.” I think if you’re too conscious of that, it becomes heavy handed.

Fionn: I remember when Dean Kavanagh, an avant-garde filmmaker, auditioned, we did rehearsals and stuff. He started making seagull noises, and I just could not stop laughing. Then we used that in the actual film.

There are lots of scenes looking out to sea, and I thought the inference is that Ciaran is looking abroad, thinking about immigrating again.

Donal: For me, the sea is a big part of my sense of Dublin, of my experience of the city, and it was something I wanted to come back to. There’s just a great sense of openness. And that was one of the visual contrasts I had in mind earlier on, a mixture of a claustrophobic, oppressive sense of the city, and a much lighter, more open sense of it. Ciaran’s experience of Dublin throughout the film opens up a bit, and part of that is just having these wider landscapes.

What are your plans for Out of Here now?

Donal: Nothing definitive to report at this stage. I think it could really get a strong following in Ireland, especially from people in the age group of the characters. I feel there’re very few films that reflect that world in Ireland and the experience of people that age. Because it is a small film and it’s a bit weird, it’s viewed as a riskier commodity by distributors and producers. That was part of the challenge of getting it made in the first place: finding someone who would believe in it. We’re getting great support from Donald Clarke in The Irish Times, he’s written it up a number of times now. So that’s encouraging.

Fionn: Donal, Piers McGrail and Aoife Duffin are up for Cine Talent awards. There are 20 nominees across the films [in JDIFF]. It’s an online voting thing, so get your vote in.

Donal: I’m starting to write another feature, set in New York, about two Irish brothers. I’m also working in a documentary project about my father’s films, he was a political documentary film maker, and did a lot of films about the Irish Troubles.

Words: Eoin Tierney

Out of Here screens Saturday 23 February as part of the JDIFF, followed by Q&A session with director Donal Foreman. Votes for the Cine Talent Awards can be cast at the JDIFF link.


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