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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Local Heroes

From last Friday's Day and Night magazine in the Irish Independent (22/6/2007)

When rising Irish director Graham Cantwell was starting out in the job, he was told something that speak volumes about making a living from the film industry in Ireland.

"I remember someone telling me when I was starting off, 'You're neither rich enough nor poor enough to be a filmmaker'," he recalls. "By that, they meant rich enoughto have the support to keep you going and poor enough to be used to livingoff nothing! It takes perseverance alright."

It takes extra perseverance when you have to film in the soon-to-be demolished Clancy Barracks on Dublin's northside on a cold early morning. Cantwell is speaking to me from the location shoot of a new low-budget Irish movie he's directing called Anton, a thriller based in the border counties in the 1970s and set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The title character Anton (played by Anthony Fox, who also wrote the screenplay) is a young man who grows disillusioned with his dead-end life in Cavan and gets swept up in the resurgent terror campaign of the IRA. But as he and his friend Brendan (Andy Smith) become ever more immersed in the violence, Anton loses his faith in the cause, and looks for a way out, little realising that his family and friends have been dragged into the chaos also.

The dilapidated barracks in which the shoot is taking place is soon to be transformed into a swanky urban village, but for today, it's serving as a 1970s Parisian bedsit. It requires a good deal of innovation and imagination to effect such a transformation, but those are the qualities that Ireland's young filmmakers have in spades. What they don't have, as I discover on the day I visit the set, is funding and support.

The scene being shot is the morning after a drink and drug fuelled session in the apartment. Four actors are getting their make-up done, quickly changing into costumes to avoid developing hypothermia, and getting into a variety of sleeping positions. It's a slow, painstaking process, where the inconvenient and rebellious daylight outside the window threatens to delay the whole shoot.

Graham Cantwell is in a good position to express opinions on the Irish film industry, having worked as an actor, director and producer for the past 10 years. His short film *A Dublin Story *was shortlisted for an Oscar in 2004 and won the Kodak Tiernan McBride award at the Galway Film Fleadh.

"For filmmakers in Ireland there are two separate entities: the Irish Film Industry and the film industry in Ireland, which is foreign companies coming in," the articulate 30-year-old says. "The two really depend on each other. We need the larger American or English productions like *Becoming Jane* or *King Arthur* coming across to support the indigenous film industry because there isn't a hell of a lot of support for very low-budget Irish filmmaking."

He continues: "Film-making is tight everywhere, but the difference between us and England, say, is that they have a huge television industry and that supports people. It's not perfect, but it's easier for crews to get work, as there's so many regional bodies through BBC and Channel 4. Over here, we only have RTE and the Irish Film Board, who have very limited resources and can't fund everything."

Be that as it may, low budget Irish cinema has been thrown into the limelight internationally in recent months. Lenny Abrahamson’s forthcoming release Garage, written by Adam and Paul’s Mark O’Halloran and starring comedian Pat Shortt, won the prestigious CICAE Art and Essai Cinema Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. On top of that, John Carney’s musical romance Once continues to garner rave reviews in the US and has been rhapsodised in Time Out, Variety and the Washington Post. What’s more, the influential website OscarWatch has installed Carney as a favourite to be nominated for an Academy Award next Spring.

The backbone of success stories like Garage and Once lies in the tax incentive scheme known as Section 481, which has been in place since the early '90s and is secured until 2008. However, other countries – in Eastern Europe in particular –have adopted similar schemes, which, coupled with lower cost economies, hasdiminished Ireland's once shining standing from the heyday of the 1990s,when the likes of Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan were filmed here.

The Minister for Arts and Tourism John O'Donoghue awarded an extra €1.5million in supplementary funding to the Film Board in 2005 and increased its2006 budget by 21 per cent to somewhere in the region of €20 million.Needless to say, the issues of funding and making a living in the industrydominate any discussion with filmmakers in Ireland.

"It's understandable that the government only have so much financialresources to give over to the Film Board," Cantwell explains. "But there isa shortfall, a lack of support for Irish filmmakers. Plus considering thelevel that we're operating at, it needs to be subsidised if it's reallygoing to work. We need support if we're going to have a cultural voice, ifwe're going to be able to make films that compete on an internationalstage."

Anton's producer Patrick Clarke is the go-to man for the realities offunding in Ireland today. Clarke is a highly experienced actor and producer,having worked in New York and LA since arriving there illegally in the mid'80s. His well-receieved acting and writing debut *Beyond the Pale* (1999)took three years to finance. On Anton, Clarke realised that it's oftenjust a case of who you know and calling in some favours.

"I just came from Mountjoy becuase we needed to shoot there for an hour ortwo, plus they had garda uniforms from the 1970s in the museum there,"Clarke says. "You find people are very helpful when they hear you're tryingto do a film on limited funds.

"We were up in Cavan last, using three different farms owned by AnthonyFox's relatives so right away we didn't have to worry about locationsbecause it was all enclosed. It's when you come down to places likeDublin when you encounter problems. You're like the daddy for 30-odd people."

"I've worked a lot in America and what I find is there's no infrastructurein place here, no mechanism to support filmmaking on a greater scale," he adds.
"Here, there's only one company that provides lights for film. Otherwise youhave to import it. Also, there's only one place that provides cameras so youhave to book them way in advance. There's only about 20 people doing soundin the country, 10 continuity people, half a dozen gaffers. We couldn't puttogether a crew when we started filming last September because the peopleand the equipment just were not available."

As producer, Clarke is well-versed in the nuances of film funding andmake suggestions as to what can – and should - be done to make theprocess smoother forall concerned.
"Look at it this way," he explains. "There's the Film Board, whose entireannual budget to facilitate the development of filmmaking in this country isnot even the fifth of the budget of one Hollywood film.

"It's up to the Government to provide support , but it's also up to thefilmmakers too to make films that are interesting enough to reach wideraudiences internationally. Irish films tend to be just that - Irish films -with subject matter that's not very identifiable outside this country."

Clarke continues: "We may be loved in the US, but the reality is an Irishfilm never opens on a wide release in America. *The Wind the Shakes theBarley* and *Michael Collins* both opened in small niche markets in LA, NewYork and Chicago. I'd love to see Irish films in the mould ofHollywood movies where it's irrelevant whether the subject matter is Irish or not."

In terms of raising funding for Anton, Clarke pursued less traditionalsources of revenue. "There's a kind of welfare mentality toward filmmakinghere because everyone goes to the Government for money when they're starting out," he says.

"I think there's other ways to do that now. The Irish economy is awash with money, especially in the corporate sector and private sector so that's whatwhere we targetted essentially. We had €5,000 in the bank starting this. Sowe went out to people in the business community to pitch and they said,'Everyone needs a leg up' and 'We admire what you're doing so we'll help youif we can'."

As I point out to Clarke and Cantwell, the average age of everyone on theset of Anton is 30. Is there a new confidence in young people today who want to pursue a career in filmmaking and is that confidence justified?

Clarke answers that it is a great thing to see, but that a harsh realitysoon sets in for Ireland's most ambitious and talented filmmakers. "Yes there is more confidence, but where do they go to make their first film?", Clarke says. "I think it's tragic because we have tons of youngpeople who want to try something different, they want to try something inthe arts. They don't want to get into normal professions. They're going to realise that they're going to have to leave this country to go to where thework in film and TV is because it's not here. And that brain drain is tragicbecause they'll go away and someone else will get the benefit of that."

Director Cantwell takes a different slant on the question."To be honest,what any artistic career is about is perseverance and a belief in what you're doing," Cantwell states. "If you believe you have the talent, it'sreally about persisting over resistance and to keep at it against the odds.
"I've been making films for 11 years, but it's really only this year that things have started happening.

"It's good that so many young people are pursuing film as a career. The culture of a nation is captured in the art of the time, and cinema is the major art form of this day and age. The mass art at the moment is cinema andwe really need to be representing ourselves through that medium. Yes, there are commercial considerations, but at the same time we need to support those low budget features that try to capture something of our history and how we are today."

With that point in mind, my eye goes back to the actors waiting on the set and on one in particular. It's none other than Scottish author Irvine Welsh,a friend of Cantwell's, and whose novel Trainspotting was adapted into a hit1996 film that soon took on the moniker of Britain's 'state of the nation'movie for the 1990s.

I put it to Cantwell that perhaps Welsh's presence on set is a presentiment that *Anton* could be Ireland's state of the nation movie. Or perhaps that movie has come and gone already?
"I think we're on the cusp of something," Cantwell admits. "With the amount of non-nationals who have arrived her, it's a cultural hotpot inIreland now. It's going to be the greatest opportunity forIreland to embrace that and take it forward and to look at our reputation for being the most welcoming. Here's our chance to prove that or disprove that."

He continues: "I'd love to see a culture here that's fully integrated, thatembraces all the cultures that come in, and allows them to influence us andat the same time not lose our own identity. It's only through integrationthat we can develop, that you can create. The alternative is to stick to theold values and destroy something new that could really blossom. That'sreally where the film industry can capture something and portray it in acertain light to the Irish population and further afield. I don't think that has happened yet, but I think it will. Any day now."

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