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'I'm so lucky to have got it shot': Irish moviemakers on the challenges of getting their films on screen

In the run-up to Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, we speak to Rachel Carey, AnneMarie Naughton and Eva Birthistle about releasing films in 2021.

IT’S BEEN A strange year for those of us who love the cinema and films. At the beginning of March 2020, we could look forward to trips to the big screen to see new releases.

We’d cram into the rows of seats with our pals, boxes of popcorn in hand, anticipating a new blockbuster or indie flick. But by 13 March that was a distant dream, with cinemas closed due to coronavirus measures.

Since the country shut down for the first time, cinemas have only been able to open twice – and they’ll remain shut until April, possibly May. Every year, a highlight on the cinema calendar is the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival (VMDIFF), which tempts fans from around the country – and filmmakers from around the world – to the capital. 

This year’s festival, which runs from 3-14 March, has moved online. But though the format is different, the festival’s spirit remains the same.

We sat down – virtually – with some of the filmmakers involved in this year’s VMDIFF to find out more about their films, how Covid-19 has impacted on their work, and what their hopes are for the future. 

Eva Birthistle is a first-time director, of the short Kathleen Was Here, but she’s a very familiar face on Irish screens as she’s been acting for decades. Rachel Carey is a first-time feature director, and her film Deadly Cuts – a riotous comedy set in a working class Dublin hair salon – has been chosen as the festival’s closing gala film. Producer Annemarie Naughton is a veteran of the Irish film industry, and produced the US-set Irish horror film Son, directed by Ivan Kavanagh.

‘I got a kick out of directing’

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Birthistle began her career in Glenroe, and has starred in films like Ae Fond Kiss, and the new Netflix series Behind Her Eyes. She began thinking about directing about 15 years ago. “It was only about five years ago that it seemed the right time to get into it,” she says.

“I thought the way of getting into that would be to write shorts and direct myself on a shoestring and get a body of work behind me. What I didn’t expect to happen was falling in love with writing.”

She wrote a few short films, then came up with an idea for a feature film, and began working on development with Screen Ireland. They advised her to make a short film “before jumping into the deep end”, and so she made Kathleen Was Here, which is about a young girl leaving care.

Birthistle was introduced to “an amazing group of adults” who told her about their “shocking, moving” experiences, and this informed the short and the feature. 

The short has little dialogue but is incredibly moving, telling the young Kathleen’s story through flashbacks. After getting funding it was filmed in two days in December 2019, “just before the pandemic hit”. 

Birthistle realised she had “absorbed a lot more than I thought” from her many years on sets. That, combined with her research and her love of films, helped her feel comfortable directing. 

“I still had lots of fears and worries about what I might not know on set,” she says. “But what I discovered on my first day was I knew a lot of it purely by osmosis, I had absorbed it from 25 years of acting. That was a real relief when I felt I was where I was supposed to be – this feels natural, this feels right. I felt I had the authority.”

“I got a kick out of it, more than I ever do out of acting,” she adds. 

Over the years she had become aware of the dearth of female directors she had worked with – about five in total. “That’s not good, so it was definitely wanting to address that. And all my experiences of working with women directors were so positive.”

She wanted “to be part of that change” and to start directing herself. “It’s something I felt I should do and could do.”

Birthistle ended up working with a female-heavy team, including at Treasure Entertainment (her producers) and Screen Ireland. “In some ways it’s a matter of coincidence, but I’m also not going to ignore that there needs to be a focus on that – we need to have more opportunities as women in the business.”

She describes developing a film as “a slow, slow process”, and says “the pandemic has slowed things down as well”.

“We had been hoping to get the feature off the ground around now, but now we’re thinking next year,” says Birthistle. “Hats off to everyone who is shooting this year.”

“[Filmmaking right now] is restrictive and I just feel like for my first time it would be nice to feel a bit of normality and relax on set without those strict guidelines.”

She believes it will take a few years before “the real impact” of the pandemic is revealed. As she waits for things to calm down enough for her to start filming her first feature, she’s going to stay focused on writing and development. While the downtime might be in some way stressful, it provides plenty of time for pre-production. 

‘We worked hard and pivoted’

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The development space is also where AnneMarie Naughton, producer of Son, finds herself right now.

Similar to Birthistle, she was lucky enough to finish filming the movie Son (directed by Ivan Kavanagh) in the US last February. “It feels like it was a minute before Covid hit, literally a minute, I was over there and the smell of it was all happening. We were really, really lucky.”

The post-production was all done in Ireland, with the staff in various houses (and with covid tests used for when people did have to meet). The director even had to move to Ireland from Sweden temporarily. “That added another layer of complication,” says Naughton. “It worked but it was slightly challenging because it’s such a crucial part to collaborate on.”

“It definitely wasn’t as tough as a shoot, but it was tough – it had challenges,” she says.  Together the team “worked hard and pivoted and rethought everything on the fly”. 

If you’re in such a lucky place that you’ve shot it, there’s no point whinging and moaning. You have to go for it. 

They already had a distributor on board – RLJE Films – but the film wasn’t ready to be submitted late last year to festivals. The film is due for release in the US on 5 March.

One perhaps disappointing element is that they spent a lot of time working on the film’s sound, but here in Ireland it won’t be able to be shown in a cinema for VMDIFF. But in the US, they’re getting it into as many cinemas as they can.

“We just want to get it out there. It’s in good hands,” says Naughton. And she adds that VMDIFF “is absolutely perfect for this film”.

She’s currently busy writing a TV series. “A lot of our work didn’t change because we’re developing so much, which you can do everywhere,” she says.

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She adds that in the industry these days there is “extra demand for female directors” but “not enough for all the content that’s swirling out there”. “It’s manic trying to get in the queue to shoot your film or tv series.”

She says that the cast is key, and that “cast is going to be an issue this year for everyone” due to the pandemic.

As you know, everyone has a value on their head. So you need those attachments and people are booked up. It’s hopeful as well, I think the development work that has happened in Covid, certainly in our case has made companies stronger, everyone is really tight, more work on scripts, more work on packaging.

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“The world of making films is ever cutthroat, ever changing,” adds Naughton. “[Covid is] probably not the most insurmountable thing. It’s a problematic industry with many variables, and moving parts. I’m always complimentary of anyone who pulls off a TV series or film.”

‘I think I’ve hit at a great, great time’

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Director Rachel Carey’s debut feature Deadly Cuts also finished shooting just before lockdown, and is set to be the closing gala feature at VMDIFF. It’s also set to be shown at cinemas once they reopen this summer.

The idea came to her a few years ago. “I’d written down somewhere ‘Cutters’, and it was like vigilante hairdressers at a working class salon. I wanted to do something with young Dublin women – I felt that perspective, that angle was missing from the screen. I felt it was an open goal in terms of comedy,” she says.

She found moving from short films – which she had previously made – to a feature not too difficult. “I had such brilliant support in my producers, they are so experienced. And obviously, Screen Ireland and [producer] Lesley McKimm were working with me as well.

“The writing of it, for sure was a learning curve, of getting a feature-length screenplay together, it really is a different beast altogether. And my background is advertising. So I’m [used to writing] 40 second scripts and went to six minutes and then to 90.”

But she says she didn’t let it daunt her, and instead took it one day at a time. “So okay, what do I have to crack today? And how do I figure this out? And you just do and it comes together, and then the actual shooting of it, you fill the gaps in your inexperience with an experienced DP [Director of Photography], and you make sure the people around you know what they’re doing. And then it’s one foot in front of the other.”

Carey says she feels “really lucky” to be a female filmmaker working now. “I think I’ve hit at a great, great time. Attitudes have changed a little bit, and there is definitely more of an effort to be inclusive. And also, films with female protagonists, and maybe a bit of a female perspective, are just popular – they sell, you know, we have the receipts, as they say.”

As someone who wants to do comedy, right now, it’s a really, really great time, and people are super open to it. So I just feel lucky. I think there’s loads of great talent in Ireland, let alone abroad. And you can just see how quickly people are coming up now. And how many women are making shorts even compared to five years ago, when they weren’t getting the applications.

She praises Screen Ireland for the work it has done in encouraging more female filmmakers.

“It’s getting more women to go ‘fuck it, maybe I will throw [my script in the ring]‘. And that’s been the first barrier, I think, to get more people, to getting that sort of gender parity. So I think it’s a great time and I think more and more women will and should get involved. And we all benefit, you know, we all get great stories.”

Carey and her sisters are big fans of ‘women’s pictures’ from the 1930s. “There weren’t that many female directors, but there were a lot of female writers. And if you look back then they were streets ahead of us, they were incredible. Like the days of Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, there were amazing female ensemble comedies, dramas, there were always rich, intricate characters, doing really interesting things.

“So I think it’s sort of come full circle. It’s not like this has come out of nowhere, but people always liked those films. We just went through a weird patch, I guess.

“I think it’s back to the way it should be, where film represents society, not just a section of it.”

Like the other two filmmakers, Carey isn’t letting the lack of an in-person premiere get to her.

“It’s a little bit shit, if you let yourself think about too much. [But] it really only is in terms of we’re missing the premiere, and we’re missing the drinks. I’m so lucky to have had it shot, and been able to get it finished in lockdown, which was tricky.

“And I think now it’s just about I want audiences to see it. And I hope it gives people a lift in a shit time. So whatever way people end up seeing it, I hope they get a laugh, and I hope it does something to lift the mood… so maybe it’s the best timing ever, you know?”

Deadly Cuts, Son and Kathleen Was Here are all showing as part of this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. To book tickets and check out the full programme, visit Diff.ie.

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