Q&A with director: Declan Eames
You’ve recently returned to work in Ireland from Australia – can you tell us about your previous work?
I was executive producer of Fair City in the early 1990’s until I left RTÉ to take up an opportunity to direct drama in New Zealand and subsequently in Australia. I’ve also done shows in America but I’ve lived and worked mostly in Australia for the last twelve or so years. I returned to Dublin to direct ‘The Clinic’ last year, having done an Irish-Australian children’s series called ‘Foreign Exchange’ in 2004.
While I was directing ‘The Clinic’ an opportunity came up to direct BitterSweet and with that I started to consider a move back to Ireland with my wife and our two small boys. We’ve now moved back and are re-establishing ourselves here.
It’s an exciting time for television drama in Ireland. There’s a lot of innovation. A lot has happened since I’ve been away and of course there is the attraction of working with a talented cast and crew on projects that frankly hadn’t been dreamt of when I was at RTÉ.
You mentioned that working on BitterSweet was a rewarding experience, how did you find the whole process of making it?
BitterSweet was just fantastic from the get-go. We had a very supportive creative team at RTÉ Drama and an excellent producing team in Ed Guiney at Element and our very talented producer/writer Di Burrows. They were great collaborators to begin with and then it just got better because we were able to secure the best cast possible for the project. Really, the three lead actors picked themselves. I think it’s evidenced by not only their performances as individuals but collectively as an ensemble.
What you see on screen is very much what the experience on set was. There was an ease, a familiarity and – critically – a professionalism about our cast that made it the pleasurable experience that it was.
We combined that with top calibre supporting actors like Risteárd Cooper, who I’m sure is going to impress a lot of people with his versatility. I think BitterSweet has allowed him to show off his incredible range of talents.
Our cast were typical of the acting culture in Ireland which is a pleasure to be involved with – it’s highly professional, committed and conscientious. I know ‘conscientious’ is a bit of a mouthful but it’s so important – especially in series television, where actors have to be self-starters. We don’t have the luxury of lengthy rehearsal periods and essentially with a piece like this you have to come to set with your work prepared. And by that I mean having the character and the story worked out and being prepared to work with everybody else in the ensemble in bringing it to life. And that’s what you get with Irish actors.
BitterSweet is the story of three different thirty-something women in Dublin. It’s an upbeat, optimistic piece. How did you approach it?
It was all there in the writing frankly and in the way that these characters were drawn. There wasn’t a huge amount that I as the director needed to do other than to make sure that we dramatised the kind of self-confidence and optimism with which these three contemporary Irish women live their lives.
In fact, this self-confidence is the one thing that I have noticed most since I’ve returned home and I hope BitterSweet is in some ways a celebration of that. There’s nothing contrived about the manner in which we’ve dramatised this story. What you see is Irish actors playing Irish characters in an Irish setting. It isn’t seeking to imitate some foreign style and yet there’s nothing about the kind of storytelling techniques, style or approach used that would be out of place in anything I would have done for an Australian, New Zealand or American producer. I think that speaks of the self-confidence with which irish writers, actors and crew approach their work.
You obviously like women because you were able to deal with these characters very sympathetically. How was it to be bringing a male perspective to a female piece?
I grew up in a family with very strong women. My mother and my two sisters are very strong, confident individuals. I’ve got great female friends. And, most importantly, I’m married to a wonderful woman. She is in the same age group as the women featured in the film and I suppose I’ve her as much as anybody to thank if I have managed to achieve empathy with these characters. But as far as dealing with the cast is concerned, the women I work with are first and foremost, actors. I don’t differentiate or have a different approach professionally. With Deirdre, Catherine and Una we were working collaboratively to tell a story. We all had an angle or a perspective to contribute which made for a more richly-told story. Life is like that – you get many layers.
I think it’s also important to say that this project wasn’t targeted at just one, i.e. female, audience. There is plenty in it to entertain both men and women. .
It was obvious from even a short visit to the set for the making of BitterSweet that it was a ‘happy set’.
Television in all genres, but particularly in drama, is a big enterprise. There are a lot of people involved. We had 40-50 people on set every day and everyone not only brought their own skill, but critically, their attitude - which in this case was universally positive – to work. Like an army you’ve got to be able to move as a unit and deal with the (thankfully few) obstacles that are thrown in your way. But this was a group effort and as the director I was just one part of that effort. And that continues after the shoot. We have an excellent editor in Helen Chapman, whom I had worked with previously, who also brought an invaluable perspective to it.
With television productions anywhere in the world you are always on a tight schedule but everybody – particularly because we had a good script to work with – committed to this immediately and worked through it. It was all done with a lot of good humour and we had a lot of fun. Also, in anything like this you do need a couple of breaks. We got ours in that we were lucky with the weather. We shot this in Ireland in November, so it could have been terrible. But we got very good weather which was important because we were shooting 100% on location, so we had a bit of luck as well.
I think there’s a genuinely collective sense of achievement in the piece and I’m sure that the audience will enjoy viewing it as much as we did making it.
So what’s next for you?
I’m going to direct ‘The Clinic’ again which I’m really looking forward to. It’s a huge part of RTÉ’s television drama success over the last five years. For a series like ‘The Clinic’ to go into its sixth season is a great achievement and, who knows, if the audience like BitterSweet enough - we might have a series of that too !