Film-maker and guest contributor to Spooool Niall Sheerin launches our new “In Conversation” interview series with a discussion of the trials and tribulations of producing a short film in Ireland in 2012.
Niall has just finished the first round of shooting on his latest project, Tramp. You can view some of his previous work embedded at the bottom of this feature or at vimeo/niallsheerin.
So let’s start things off with a little bit of background on the short.
The name of the film is Tramp and it’s about a rapist. Simple as that!
It was made in Roscommon in my home town of Tulsk and it was a three-day shoot. Well, it was supposed to be three but looks like we’re going to have to reshoot some of day two unfortunately!
I wrote it in February of this year and the final draft was mid-March. The idea came about on a drunken night out with the lead actor Kevin Patrick Beirne. We were watching DVDs at four in the morning (as you do) and it just came from there. Did you know that extreme drunkenness triggers the right side of the brain!? No, neither did I!
The idea didn’t immediately take off but after a few days and discussions we started to get excited. I generally end up writing stories about loners (cause I am one) and this story fell into that bracket. So it worked as an idea and when I started to pitch the story to people and get it straight in my head, I could see there were parts that really worked as a story. There is no better feeling than telling the plot to someone and watching them react as you’d hoped they’d react!
Did you apply or receive funding and do you see any ways in which the whole process of acquiring funding could become easier?
This film was entirely self-financed. I’ve generally had to work outside funding schemes as I’m really just trying to learn how to tell a story for the time being.
It can be frustrating mulling over a script for a few weeks and then sending it off somewhere and not hearing anything back. It just feels pointless and you end up getting no feedback. Just the usual “the standard this year was very high but…”. I guess it would be nice to get feedback but, at the same time, they’re getting hundreds of applications every year so it’s difficult to do that.
Maybe a star rating for your script and a little commentary at the bottom…
2 stars – I liked it but there’s no way in hell they’ll fund this shite!
That’d be nice.
So having financed the film yourself, did you like the freedom it gave you or would you rather have had some support? Do you think in future you’ll continue to strive for self-funded projects?
I got loads of support with this project and it was my first time working with a producer, Colm Moylan, who is a cousin and good friend. He helped a lot with the script and other creative aspects. I think it’s good not to have interference with the project but at the same time you lose out on the experience and expertise of people from the Irish Film Board or whoever.
The more experience you surround yourself with, definitely the better the project becomes. And the experienced people will always drift towards financed projects because they have to feed their kids. So it’s not so much the financial support as the experience and talent you miss out on. Obviously, we wouldn’t say no to the money though!
What were the initial stumbling blocks you overcame in trying to put the project in motion?
I generally go in to a project with the attitude of “this will be made” so there were no real stumbling blocks getting it off the ground. After the script is written you start to come across challenges as I generally just write and then tailor the script to the budget when production starts. So there were a few scenes we had to compromise on.
Another point on this is that, as we stepped up on the production side, the crew requirements got bigger and we had difficulties finding people for the shoot days. There was no recession in Ireland when we were looking for crew!
The subject of a rapist is not the most light-hearted of films. What gripped you about the project?
I’m generally not drawn to light-hearted films. They don’t grab me on a deeper level. The punchier stuff like Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur always has more appeal to me. But the goal is always to make a film that you’d like to watch yourself and to make an audience feel how you feel when you’re moved (in whatever way) by a story or a character. That’s the dream and obviously you may never achieve that but it’s always the starting point. And our last film was a comedy so we wanted something really different.
We never really approached the story as that of a rapist. We thought of him as someone that’s mentally ill and a lot of things have happened in his life to make him this way. He is obviously a predator, but also a man who can’t deal with certain emotions and in order to get away from them he has to feel power. I immediately thought that it was a great dramatic need. There is real suspense attached to what he is looking for. His need is immediate and that obviously works well with a short story.
We wanted to shine a light on how ordinary these people can appear to the outside world. The notion of your private self and your public self interests me. How you can be one person in company and another person on your own. These were all things we could delve into with this story and this character. Which was great!
What was it like handling the actors? Are you a hands on director or did you allow them to do their own thing? Did anyone rebuke your pointers or notes?
I rehearsed a lot with Kevin, the lead actor who plays Raymond Featherstone. We discussed the character a lot and then we rehearsed for a week before the shoot. I suppose I was quite hands on but it’s important to get everything across in a clear way. And it’s to help the actor understand the character. Not on a conceptual level but to feel them deep inside themselves. That sounds corny but I think it’s critical to the process.
You merely penetrate the surface when you’re writing but then the actors come in and together you go deeper in to the character. It’s wonderful when that door begins to open, I find no greater pleasure than trying to unlock it. Anyone can get across objectives in a scene but the difficulty is in finding the character and it’s only when that begins to happen that you feel you’re making progress. We made a few notes here and there but you don’t want to overdo it. You need to retain a looseness and then tighten it on the day. Otherwise it can become stale by the time the big camera comes along. That’s my experience of it anyway!
Is there a part of the process that you enjoyed the most and where do you feel most challenged?
I think directing may be the most rewarding aspect of the job, because up to that point the story has lived primarily in the producer and writer’s head. But then, through the process of directing, you begin to unravel this little world, piece-by-piece, and place it out on front of you with the help of all these really talented people and it can be magical at times. You feel blessed.
I also find working with actors a very fulfilling part of the process. And even now that editing has started I’m amazed at some of the choices the actors have made. In a great way. The truth is I wish I’d had the confidence and ability to become an actor. But I don’t. So that’s why I direct!
I feel most challenged in the edit. There’s always so much to choose from in the different takes (even when there feels like there’s none) and even though at the storyboard stage I have a clear tone in my head it always begins to morph in the edit. Initially this doesn’t seem like a good thing though.
To give you an example, yesterday I came away from the computer fuming and today I was positively gleaming. And yet it’s the same fucken story! So I don’t know! It’s only when the whole story begins to unfold or piece together that you feel satisfied. And I’m a long way from that on this one.
Tell us a wee bit about the gear you used for the shoot.
We shot the film on Red Mysterium-X, which is a new(ish) Red camera. We shot at 4.5k and at a ratio of 2.35:1. The rental ends up as quite an expensive package but our hope was always to get this project to festivals and up on the big screen. So we made a cost-benefit decision and hopefully it will work out. I guess the finance will always be a gamble so probably good to learn about it at this micro-budget stage, rather than the re-mortgaging yer house stage!
We shot right on to Red hard-drives (which you attach to the camera) and then we ingested the footage each shoot day or night using Red Cine-x, which is a free downloadable program. I then transferred the footage using Final Cut Pro. My mac is an old and slow machine so I’ve had to downres the footage in order to perform an offline edit. Then I’ll reconform the footage (to its native or higher quality) when I have picture lock on the film. So most of it can be performed in the comfort of my own bedroom. Which is kind of amazing!
So considering you’re working “outside the system” so to speak, how big do you think the role of the internet is in terms of crowd-sourcing your financing, getting crew/actors on board and potential for getting some on-demand streaming options?
That’s an interesting one because I think I was a bit of an internet snob to begin with. There is just no comparison between the two viewing experiences. But, having said that, the internet can open a lot of doors and get you an audience that you wouldn’t ordinarily have. As I said above, Tramp was shot with a cinema projector and screen in mind. But our last film was shot more for online consumption. So I guess it really depends on the project.
The internet is fantastic for finding crew and actors. If you see someone’s work that impresses you – then you can immediately find their contact number and details or, at the very least, their agent. We found a Polish actor named Jacek Dusznik on a casting website and we just looked at his face and thought we couldn’t have painted him better! He was perfect for the role. He turned out to be an incredible actor. I could even go to youtube and watch one of his short films and see his potential. Again, from the comfort of your own room. You’ll get that I like my own room! But, the point being that the internet speeds things up and gives you a safety net in that you can screen the talent while wasting very little time or money.
Will we be seeing the short on vimeo or youtube soon?
I’d be reluctant to put the film on youtube or vimeo until it has gone to festivals. A lot of festivals don’t accept your film if it’s already online and I’ve been burned before with this. Twice! So I’ve learned my lesson. But then I’m thinking comedy for the next film so that might just suit the internet better. Horses for courses, I guess!
Do you feel it’s an interesting time for Irish short films or has the field become stagnant and clichéd?
I can’t really say exactly because I haven’t seen a lot of Irish shorts recently! I do have a problem with the whole twist epidemic in short film writing though. It all becomes a little “M. Night Shyamalan”, and I understand that short form doesn’t give much space for character development but, at the same time, there’s not much point in watching a film and just waiting for the twist. The twist is no longer hidden in shorts because it has almost become part of the form.
A short film like Rebecca Daly’s Joyriders (watch it here), which is all about atmosphere and a little less about plot, is more the exception than the rule. The twist should be secondary to character and atmosphere, but I think a lot of Irish short filmmakers (me included) are almost conditioned into forgetting this.
So do you think shorts are a medium in themselves, akin to a printed short story, or are they merely a stepping stone toward producing features?
They’re an important tool to learn how to tell a good story but, to my knowledge, there really is no money to be made from shorts. Therefore, they have to be a stepping stone. A filmmaker like Simon Ellis, who is an incredibly talented and respected British short filmmaker, will always have to move on to feature films. It would not be sustainable otherwise. And also, judging by his first feature, Dogging, A Love Story, it can be difficult to adapt to the long form if you’ve stayed at the short form too long.
It’s all about engaging emotionally with the characters and it’s hard to have that same relationship with a character over a short period of time. So they’re a stepping stone (for me) but I understand that they also have to be respected as a form unto themselves.
And finally have you a timeline in mind for Tramp’s appearances at festivals or screenings?
Good man, thanks!