We're delighted to present the latest in our series of in-depth interviews with notable Irish filmmakers, presented in association with Screen Director's Guild Of Ireland. Here, RTÉ Culture Editor Derek O'Connor talks to award-winning director Lisa Mulcahy.
Watch the interview in full above, or read a transcription below.
The Director: Lisa Mulcahy is an award winning writer and director. Having directed numerous TV dramas and documentaries including On Home Ground, Raging Bulls, The Clinic and Dan Dan, Dad & Me, her first feature film, Situations Vacant, was released in 2009 to acclaim. In 2010 she directed Gift of the Magi, a film for The Hallmark Channel, and she then directed the short, Coming Home in 2011. In 2015, Mulcahy won an IFTA Gala Television Award for her direction of the hit TV3 drama Red Rock, which also won Best Soap and The People’s Choice Award on the same night. Also in 2015, Mulcahy wrote and directed the epic children's fantasy film The Legend of Longwood. Her most recent project is a five-part adaptation of Wilkie Collins' classic novel The Moonstone for BBC One.
Tell us a little about your route into being a film director...
I've been at this a long time, in the film industry a long time. I started off in editing as an assistant editor here (in Ireland) - I did that for a year, then I went to London and did it there for a year. Much as I loved it, and it's absolutely brilliant training for directors, I just didn't like being on my own all the time.
I then changed and became an assistant director and I went up the ranks from trainee, to third, to second, to first (director). I first-ed for a number of years, before I started directing. Then I made a few short films when I was a first AD and then eventually decided that I have to do one or the other - so I stopped first-ing and started directing documentaries, and shorts, stuff like that.
In terms of your own process, you're a director for hire, and you create and develop your own material - is it important for you to get a mix of both?
I suppose I tend to work mostly on other people's material, with other people's scripts. But with the last feature film I made, we were presented with the scripts, myself and the producer, and while there were great things in the script it needed a lot of work, and we found that actually the best way to do this was for me to come on as a writer, even though I had never written anything before. So myself and the writer rewrote the script together. This was a kids' movie called The Legend of Longwood.
The film I'm developing at the moment is kind of the same thing. It's a true story based on a book, and because I really want to make this film, I just think that to get it made I'm going to have to write this film myself. I'm not saying that we won't ultimately get other writing help on board, but I think that if I want to make it, I'm just going to have to write it.
Is it important to have a good producer on board? And how important is that relationship between producer and director?
That film I made was with Michael Garland, who is also my husband, but that is the first time I have worked with him. Most of my work, if it's television work, I'm working with different producers. So the producer/director relationship is obviously very, very important. You work better with some than you do with others; that's based on whether both of you have the same sort of vision of the story that you want to tell. If you don't, then that is difficult. The best relationships are when a producer trusts the director and the director, likewise, trusts the producer, so that you both do your own jobs. You both know that you are aiming for the same vision. Then you can have a great relationship.
It's absolutely fascinating, because you're just dealing with human emotion all the time.
There are some directors, particularly those who work in feature films, who will always work with the same producer. This next feature film I'm going to be doing, Michael will be the executive producer, but there's another producer on it as well. So myself and Micheal, as a producer and director, work very well with each other. For a lot of husband and wife teams, it's probably not the most sensible thing to do, but we do work well together.
If you could give yourself advice starting out as a director, what would be the key things that you've learned along the way?
Well, it's funny, I still only feel that I'm really just starting off. I had came to directing in a more unusual way than most people do, because most people don't go up through the ranks of the crew, which is what I did, and then direct. Most people who end up directing either are writer/directors or they know that they've always wanted to be a director, whereas I didn't always have this burning ambition to be a director. But the more and more I worked as a first assistant director, the more and more I was around actors, and the more and more I was really at the heart of story telling, and realized that that's what I wanted to do.
In a way, I have an advantage on the technical side because I think some new directors can get overwhelmed by that, whereas none of that bothers me at all. The thing that I was kind of always keen to want to do more is work with actors. That's what I love doing most out of it. I think really only by doing it you keep learning what works and what mightn't work, and you take chances. It's absolutely fascinating, because you're just dealing with human emotion all the time.
How much of your process, as a director, is about being a good communicator?
I think it depends on what you're doing. If you're doing television drama as opposed to feature films, where you've got a tight schedule, particularly if you're doing shows like say the BBC show (The Moonstone) that I've just finished, or if you're doing shows like Red Rock, which I've done a lot, to get it done efficiently I think you have to be a good communicator, because you've got to do it fast. So if you have a vision and you really want to get that vision, the faster and clearer and more articulate you are about your communication, the more time that gives you to get the vision you're looking for.
If you're doing a feature film where you have got to achieve about three minutes a day of screen time, there is more time for people to not to be so articulate in their communication. There is more time for people to be more thoughtful about their vision, because there is more time to get it. Sometimes, when you're doing TV drama you might be doing anything from six-to-fifteen minutes a day.
For me, being a good communicator is really important, because what I want is as much time on set with the actors. So the more I've communicated to everybody about what I need and what I want to do, the more clear I am, that allows me more time to do what I really want to do. Which is to mess around with actors.
What are the things that have really helped you to be the director you are today?
Well, I suppose it's unusual because I work in such a variety of things. Like to do, say, a show like Red Rock which has an incredibly tight schedule, you've got to shoot one episode in two days, and four days to edit four episodes in total, and then one day to get notes (on the edits). It really isn't for everybody because there are some directors who just cannot think that fast. I'm not saying that's a good or a bad thing, it's just not for everybody.
What is great about it is that it's five weeks (total); you get in, you get stuck into the scripts, you get to talk to the script department, what's working, what's not working - you get a big say in how they've laid out the story, as to whether that makes sense or doesn't make sense. That's a really great learning curve for telling stories. Then you get to work with the actors, and they have very accomplished actors, very intelligent actors who know their stuff.
If you go in as a director and you haven't prepared, and you don't know the storyline, and you haven't thought about the subtext of what this story's about and why a character does what they do or doesn't do what they do, you'll be caught out very quickly. So it's a really good training ground, something like that.
It's all the same really; you're telling stories, you're dealing with actors, you're dealing with emotions. Even if it's features, or television drama that has a much more relaxed schedule, or something like Red Rock. All of this is valuable.
Is Ireland a favorable environment to work in? How's it been for you as working director?
It's not a hugely favorable place to be trying to make your career as a director, because it's such a small country. Even though we do punch way above our weight as a nation, we are a tiny country really. There is very little drama produced here, and at least half of that drama doesn't go to Irish directors. I don't think that there is that cultural support in Ireland for Irish directors. That's a sweeping statement, but I think in certain areas there just isn't.
So you're finding Irish directors like me and lots of other directors who are having to go abroad to England to get work. A lot of directors would say "Well, I want to go out of Ireland because there isn't the storytelling that I want to do here." As a director I would be quite happy to work in Ireland if I was getting the work and the stories were good. I don't want to just work in Ireland and work on stuff that's not good. But there is lots of stuff being made here. There is stuff being made here that's not using Irish directors.
What could we actually do to make the environment more favorable?
Support Irish directors. Because there are a lot of talented directors. And support them more. Engage with them. (Films like) The Young Offenders and Dates For Mad Mary have gotten wonderful press and they're getting support. They're getting support from the audiences. Which is great. The more of that the better. But that demands good storytelling, good writing, and stuff that's going to engage the audience. There has to be good material.
I love doing this. I love the whole process of filmmaking and working with actors, working with crews, telling stories. I just love it.
Does this feel like an interesting time in Irish film, one where there's interesting work being made?
It's great to see Irish films in the cinema. It's great because the Irish distributors are supporting Irish work. But they're only supporting it because they think it's good enough to get an audience in. There isn't an industry here like they have in France, where there's this devotion to their own culture. That just doesn't exist here. Unfortunately we are competing with other English speaking countries; that's America and the U.K., but America primarily. And we're a tiny country. So the majority of the films that people want to go and see here are American films. And we're competing against that. That's actually very tough.
From a television point of view, a lot of the television that's been made here is from outside. There's so little drama been made here, and there's so few Irish directors directing it, that I'm not sure that I would say the same (for television) that I would be saying for film.
What advice would you give to people who wanted who are starting out, and who want to make a career for themselves as a director in Ireland?
You just have to be passionate about the stories that you want to tell. You really have to think "Why is this a story that is worth telling, and why would somebody want to see it?" Anything that you want to do, if you really, really want to do it enough, well that's a big start. It's so much easier now for people to make films, make low-budget films, but the writing, the material, has to be good. That's the key thing.
How much does being Irish inform your process? And do you think that this is always a place where you would like to make films?
The fact that I'm Irish, it's like when people ask me about 'Being a woman director...' I always find that difficult. All of it is just dealing with feelings, and I don't know whether it makes any difference that I'm Irish or not. I really don't know the difference. I don't think because I'm Irish it would preclude me telling a story that was set in a country, or a culture, that's different than mine because it's still going to come down to love, hate, desire, all of those feelings. I would like to work here, because this is where my family is. I've got a young family, so it's nicer for me being able to work here. But I also, primarily, want to work with good material. If that's not been offered to me here, then I'll have to go elsewhere - and have just gone elsewhere. Chances are, that's where I'll go back to because that's where I'm going to be offered the work.
What are our strengths that we bring to the table as a filmmaking nation?
I think it's the people, the Irish personality. That's why when I go to places like London, and Paris, and I see all these beautiful cities, you think "Why do so many people come to Ireland? Why do they want to come to Ireland?" It has to be because of the people. Okay, we've got some nice cliffs and a few nice mountains and lovely beaches and stuff like that - but I mean, the weather's terrible. People come here because of the people. Whether it's our intelligence, or our humor - you know, all of those things that make you so intrinsically Irish. I just think that that's obviously what our strength is. It's our own personalities.
The Big Question, then - what makes you continue to do what you do?
(Laughs) I've never done anything else... Because I love doing what I do. I love doing this. I love the whole process of filmmaking and working with actors, working with crews, telling stories. I just love it.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Find out more about the Screen Director's Guild Of Ireland here.