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Brendan Gleeson and family team up for a short film about a psychic with terrible sons

Plus: We talk to short filmmakers Yasmine Akram and Sorcha Bacon to find out more about the medium.
Feb 18th 2019, 8:01 PM 24,759 14

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT the short film. Like a short story, it has to pack an entire world into a small period of time. It’s the perfect way to get started in the industry, but it brings with it considerable challenges.

How do you tell a story that leaves the audience wanting more, but not feeling short-changed? How do you set a scene when you’ve to do it in seconds? How do you balance exposition with moving the plot forward? It’s a real test of skills, but the pay-off can be amazing.

At this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival (DIFF), which kicks off this Wednesday and runs until 3 March, there’s plenty of space dedicated to the short film. It’s an important thing for filmmakers – and all those involved in the film – because it might be their first stab at making something cinematic.

Here, we take a look at three of the short films featured in the DIFF line-up – from one starring a Hollywood actor to one examining women and beauty, to one exploring masculinity and same-sex marriage. 

Psychic

Psychic2

The short Psychic is a family affair crammed with familiar faces. Brendan Gleeson (making his directorial debut), stars alongside his sons Domhnall and Brian in a film written by his son Rory.  

Brendan plays a washed-up psychic who is father to two nefarious sons, played by Domhnall and Brian. The film was written by their brother Rory and produced by Juliette Bonass.

Rory Gleeson describes Psychic as “a film about family, about showmanship, manipulation, illusion and self-delusion”. The idea came after his family showed him some flips of Tommy Cooper, the legendary stand-up, being interviewed. “Tommy Cooper had this super interesting life, but every time an interviewer gets close to something real, something personal, Cooper pulls something out of his pocket or starts making jokes,” he explains.

“I started with the idea of someone like that, a performer, trying to avoid a grilling on TV, then began to flesh it out and make it a bit more cinematic, a bit darker.

“I also just liked the idea of Dad having to wear a turban.”

Producer Juliette Bonass points out that there’s a world of differences between features and shorts. “Well, speaking practically, it can take probably about five years (or even 10!) to make a feature from start to finish – including the funding and development stage, straight through to the marketing stage, involving several different expertise for all of the different steps,” she says.

But a short can take as little as six months to complete and by fewer people. Obviously this is because there is less to shoot, so there is less to organise and shorts don’t usually get a wide release. The funding is usually far simpler than a feature, as budgets are smaller.

The Gleesons had been itching to work together since the play The Walworth Farce. “[Dad] had his eye on directing for a while, especially for a feature, so this was a nice way of getting used to the role, the practicalities and the challenges of it, as well maximising the opportunities it presents,” says Rory. 

Psychic

With the family all working together, there must have been some interesting moments. Rory Gleeson says that though it was “brilliant” to work “with people you love and people you admire”, it did get a bit tricky when arguments needed to be had.

“Because on any project you do need to argue,” he admits. 

“Keeping the separation between the professional and the personal is hard. But it was a fantastic experience, and there were no punches thrown, so that’s a plus. ”

Bonass says that shorts can “pack a punch or inspire an idea in someone by doing something very concise and simple”, explaining that you have to often get into the film quicker, and be more clever in your exposition (ie giving some of the back story).

“You have to decide if you are just showing a few moments in real time that does the job of what you are trying to say, or craft it quite excellently that you are not cramming everything in,” she says. 

War Paint

WarPaint

In Yasmine Akram’s short, War Paint, there are some very intense moments in a dark tale that’s told in just 10 minutes. She plays a narcissist who befriends a despondent loner from a book club and drags her along on a gruesome misadventure.

Taking in the themes of rape culture, femininity and male behaviour, it’s a very timely piece.

Akram, an Irish actress best known for playing Janine Hawkins in Sherlock, wrote the film and acted in the lead role. She tells TheJournal.ie that she was initially going to write it as a book, but made the short film as a ‘proof of concept’ for a longer feature. 

She wanted to explore the idea of how women are treated because of their looks, and how they see themselves as a result of that. “It’s the greatest lie women get told, that if you are just beautiful enough you will be loved,” she says. “It’s something that is not really explored in many films.”

In War Paint, the woman “unravels to the point where she is starting to lose her mind,” explains Akram. 

Making the short gave Akram space to explore her own thoughts on the issue of beauty and societal pressure. “A lot of this is based on aspects of my own personality when I was younger,” she says. “The sense of if I didn’t have my makeup and hair done… I would never understand if I met a guy out and about that he would think I was attractive, because I wasn’t trying my hardest to be a good-looking woman.”

WarPaint1

The film, of course, comes post-Weinstein and during the MeToo era. So the time is ripe to explore the knottier ideas around women’s looks and identity.

“But I still don’t feel like a lot of the time we are talking about what women have to put up with,” says Akram. “The difficult contradictory ideas of what we are supposed to be and look. And we’re not supposed to age and if you do age and if you go to the dermatologist and decide to get botox or whatever, that somehow that makes you a failure. There are so many loopholes and trip wires for us.”

Akram would like to move into directing, and is glad that more opportunities are opening up for women. At the same time, she is open to discussing what she calls ‘box ticking’. “The unspoken thing is you might be getting that opportunity because [like me] you tick a mixed-race box and woman box,” she says. “You do understand that, but at the same time there were no opportunities for us before so now they’re making room for us.”

Making a short film enables people to flex a new creative muscle, without the bigger funds needed to make larger projects. The more Akram worked as an actor, the more she realised that she enjoyed it but “you are a cog in a machine – even though it’s creative you’re not part of the whole creative vision”. So she stepped behind the lens.

Every creative step she has taken has led to this point. “I remember feeling a sense of ‘I just had an idea in my bedroom one day and that turned into something that has a life and all those people working on it’,” she says of her first play, 10 Dates With Mad Mary, which was later turned into a film. “That was the start of me realising there was a journey, there was a path for me to go to directing.”

She says coming from an acting background really helped in the transition to directing, as she knows how to communicate with actors. 

You don’t have to walk on set and be Martin Scorsese, she adds. “I think I’m surprised at how straightforward it is. I’d always thought I’d never be a director, and they seemed like they’re in charge of things – and I’m an idiot,” she jokes.

If you love film and you watch an awful lot of film, you know what you want, you know what a scene is suppose to look like. I was surprised at how supportive everyone is.

She has her sights set on working in independent cinema and creating more of her own work to star in and direct.

Juliette Bonass is positive about the support for women in film in Ireland. “The new initiatives set up to support female filmmakers have been excellent,” she says. “I think it has encouraged female talent, in particular female writers and directors, to pursue and keep working on their own projects.

It would be great to get some initiatives set up for younger kids in schools to instil confidence for them from a young age to consider themselves in this industry. Especially for technical roles.

Wren Boys

wrenboys2 Lalor Roddy

In the short film Wren Boys (which is beautifully shot on 60mm), we meet a priest who’s driving his nephew to prison to marry his partner, an inmate. Starring Lalor Roddy, Diarmuid Noyes and Fionn Walton, it’s produced by Sorcha Bacon. The film was Oscar long-listed, BAFTA and BIFA nominated and a winner at the Galway Film Festival. 

Like War Paint, it’s a very timely watch, exploring masculinity, violence, incarceration and same-sex marriage in just 15 minutes. It’s a short, sharp shock of a film. It doesn’t shy away from violence or disturbing scenes. 

“Harry [Lighton, the director] really wanted to do something based on the gay marriage referendum in Ireland and what that might look like for people in prison – whether or not it might be something that’s too late for that group of people in prison,” says Bacon. 

The wren hunt features briefly in the film, and acts as a metaphor for tradition and people’s resistance to change, as well as the violence inherent in the men’s’ lives. 

Bacon is experienced in making short films, and says that it can be quite a journey for a filmmaker to go on. “I think it’s really difficult. I think a lot of short film makers fall at the first hurdle while trying to tell a short story,” she says. “The themes are really broad and the actual story is really simple – it just happens on one day, one event, that’s it.”

A lot of short film makers feel they have to cover a lot.. I think let’s think of a moment that happens and let’s think about these characters.

“If you worry too much about the bigger picture you’re going to get completely lost,” she adds. “I’ve seen so many [short films that] danced around different locations.

“One of my biggest takeaways is the beauty of doing something so simple and short. It’s really contained and allows the narrative to breathe within the confines of a limited space.”

wrenboys1

Wren Boys was shot near Rutland in the middle of England, which stood in for Cork during the winter. A shoot in Ireland during the summer didn’t work for logistical reasons, so they just had to find the next best place. Little props like Christmas trees helped evoke the right atmosphere. 

Bacon says that one thing she has learned in her job is that filmmakers don’t have to be obsessed with progressing from short to feature. “Actually there’s something quite beautiful about the short form project,” she says. “The short does such a good job of telling a story really compactly.”

What advice would she give to people who want to make a short film? “To really trust the story that you’re telling and know that it’s worthwhile and you’re going to do something different,” says Bacon. “I think that’s why [Wren Boys] did so well – it moved dialogue forward, started a conversation. But it’s so simple.”

“If you look at the Oscar nominations – simplicity is key.”

Psychic will be featured in the DIFF shorts #1 programme on Saturday 23 February  - which features shorts funded by Screen Irelandat the Lighthouse at 6pm, and will air on Sky Arts in March 2019. War Paint will be aired in the DIFF Shorts #2 programme on Sunday 24 February at the Lighthouse at 8.15pm. Wren Boys will be aired in the DIFF shorts #3 programme on Monday 25 February at the Lighthouse at 6pm.

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Aoife Barry

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