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 writer-director Mark Noonan.
Watch the interview in full above, or read a transcription below.
About The Director: Mark Noonan is a writer-director based in Dublin. He studied Architecture at University College Dublin, and began working with the award-winning Dublin based film production company Venom Film. His first short film Questions won the Claire Lynch Award at the Cork International Film Festival. Noonan’s feature directorial debut, acclaimed comedy-drama You're Ugly Too (2015), was nominated for Best Debut Feature by the Berlin International Film Festival, and was released worldwide.
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What are you working on at the moment?
I'm in post-production on a architectural documentary, and I'm writing my next feature, which is called Tiger, Tiger. It has no tigers in it, but will be amazing.
Tell me your route to becoming a filmmaker...
I think I just decided when I was 17 that I wanted to be a director because I had fallen in love with movies. I didn't have the self-confidence to actually go to film school, because I thought there'd be too much competition there. People would be far better directors and writers there, so I said, "I'll do it on my own pace. Go study something else and if I really still want to make movies when I'm 24, 25, then that'll happen naturally."
So I went off, studied architecture and then the week I graduated I decided to try and get a job in the movie business. I was really lucky to get a job with a company called Venom Films. They made a wonderful movie called His And Hers a few years ago. Got a job with them and fell in love with the process, I guess. I had written a short script in college. They read it and said, "Oh we like this. Let's help you get it made." I made my first short film the summer I think I graduated from architecture college and just kind of kept on writing after that, and making stuff in-between jobs, in-between being on the dole, in-between working anywhere I could ... anywhere that would take me, to pay rent. Eventually, when I directed my feature, I kind of thought, "Okay, now I'm a filmmaker." I didn't feel like a filmmaker when I was directing shorts because you can't make a living unfortunately from shorts - not yet.
You've written all your projects to date. Would you like to apply your filmmaking chops to somebody else's script?
It would be nice to apply it elsewhere. I've read a lot of scripts in the last year. I haven't read anything where I thought, "Okay this is better than something I could write," or, "It's material I could elevate, I could really make this great." At the moment I quite like working on my own stuff. In terms of productivity, it's very tough to make a film every two years, which is what you kind of need to be doing to be able to pay your rent and clothe and feed yourself. You don't really get paid for being in development.
To be productive, I'm trying to read other scripts, find writers who'd be excited to work with me, and who'd I'd be excited to work with, and just try and not be so slow because I don't want to like only make five movies in my lifetime. Because it's nice to have a body of work, and to be working. Directors like to direct, the same way actors want to act. Actors actually, they don't like all this sitting around in trailers. I never realized this. I thought 'Acting - what a great job. You get to sit in your trailer for, like six hours." Then I talked to some actors and they're like, "We hate this sitting around. We want to be on set."
Directors are the same. I want to be... being on set isn't that much fun, actually. That's really stressful. I want to be in the edit, or I want to be writing something I know I'm going to make. You just want to be working rather than thinking about it and planning for the next film, two years down the road. Directors will only get better if they direct. It's like everything, I guess.
It's like everyone has a first film and it's either good or bad. There's a really fine line. If it's bad, you don't really get to make a second one.
What about the process of making that leap from being a short filmmaker to a feature film director? What were the big lessons you learned?
Big leap ... it's just completely different. I wasn't really prepared for it. I thought there would be quite a natural segue into it, but it's really apples and oranges, just in terms of getting three weeks to shoot my feature, which is really short, but three weeks of 16-hour days. Your body has to get prepared for that kind of kind of workload. Then also thinking about the bigger picture - every time you're making a decision, you have to like think about the 95-page script, rather than a short one. I'd only ever shot one or two days on short films. You're thinking about ten pages or five pages (total).
I didn't find them similar at all. Actually found them completely different. (You're Ugly Too) was the first time I'd ever worked with a funded project as well, so it was ... I never had an electrician on set, so it was kind of funny to see two electricians there, and make-up people... I was like, "We need makeup people? What do we need makeup people for?" Getting used to that is part of the jump of moving from no-budget short films to micro budget features, which are funded, but still tiny.
The (real) challenge was stamina, actually. I never felt so much pressure. Because all these people are obviously relying on you, and actors have given up their time. You've said you can do this - and then you have to go and do it. You don't get to make your first film again. It's like everyone has a first film and it's either good or bad. There's a really fine line. If it's bad, you don't really get to make a second one.
One of my friends was telling me about this depressing statistic of directors who go on to make a second film. It's less than 10%. There's this massive falloff. Then you're kind of thinking, "Okay. I'm fighting for my career, and for what I think I'm good at." You're really relying on your own delusions. You have to be a little bit delusional to think you can make films for a living. Whereas short films were a little easier, a little less stressful. There’s no real pressure on you. You can crank out shorts as much as you want. No one's really going to judge you that harshly for them. Features are different. I think you have to be a bit more careful.
So what were the lessons you learned from making your first feature film?
We didn't have a lot of pre-production time on this because it's such a low budget movie, so just more time to prepare, more time to scout locations, more time to look at actors, more time for auditioning, more time for last minute script rewrites. Probably the same thing every director says: "A little bit more time at the beginning, a little bit more time on set, and then a little bit more time at the end." I think making a first movie's great though, because you do learn.
I'd always thought, "Oh, I know how to speak to actors because I've made some shorts." Then working with someone like Aiden (Gillen) you go, "Oh there's another way to speak to actors as well," which is really great. There's another way to work with them that I wasn't aware of from shorts. You know, I'd never worked with someone as experienced as Aiden. You talk with him about the script, he goes, "Oh yeah - and what about this this?" He brings it to this level where you go, "Oh God I didn't know it could be actually like that... This is great. This is better."
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Something I learned on You're Ugly Too, that I'm going to continue to do, is to work with people that are better than you at everything - people who're better photographers, better actors, better musicians. Because you can't really do everything. Some directors try to, but if you can recognize a good idea or a smart individual on set... Like, our first AD (Assistant Director) was really helpful sometimes when we were running out of time. Like, "You know what? We don't have time to do the scene that's here because we took too long this morning, but we could do a different version of this scene." Very helpful, in terms of just thinking outside the box: if we can't light the interior, we do it outside. We do it by candlelight. Surrounding myself with good people is kind of good advice.
Is there a particular situation you can remember where you had to find creative solutions to potential filmmaking problems?
Yeah. There’s a scene in the movie. It’s one of my favorite scenes, actually. It’s where Aiden and Lauren, two main characters, are eating chips beside a fire, just like a fire in a trashcan. It’s kind of a centerpiece at the end of the movie, and we scheduled that to film it inside. It was an interior scene, there was no fire. They were eating chips inside. We didn’t have time to film that scene. The Assistant Director was like, “Look, let’s find a trash can, make a fire out of it, shoot outside, natural light, schedule it at the end of the day, the sun will be going down. It will give a nice softness to it." And we didn’t have very much time. We shot that scene in about 20 minutes. I felt a little bit rushed, but because we were able to work outside, we could use those 20 minutes really effectively, because there was no real lighting.
It was literally about just talking to the actors and going through the scene a little bit. It was a completely different scene to what I had written, or what I had had in my mind - in my mind, it was very interior, with a lot of coverage. It ended up being pretty much a two-shot outdoors, by a fire. I really loved it. I'd probably say that was my favorite scene. You kind of do have to be open at that budget level. On a higher budget level, I can dig my heels in and fight for stuff, but it’s always good to be flexible.
How important is it to be able to communicate your vision?
Vision is a horrible word. I mean I never use that word (laughs), because I think it implies an insane person. I think an insane person has visions. I think trying to get my idea across to people of what the script should be ... the most important thing is with the actors and the DOP (Director Of Photography). These are the people that you really need to be on the same page with in terms of being on set. You really need to sit down with the actor and go through (the script) page by page, by page, by page... And with the DOP, page by page... You normally have time before the shoot for a natural conversation like that to happen. That’s a different kind of communication onset. Then you have a shorthand with the TP and with the actors because you spent time either talking about films or directly related to the script. Then communication with the cast and crew. There’s no rocket science to it. I think it’s just like how you communicate when you get your haircut or you're in a café.
You can be polite with people, but know what you want. It’s like, “Yeah, I want my hair cut like this,” or, “I want my coffee like this.” The worst thing is to kind of say, “I’m not really sure,” and then stand around for 10 minutes wondering if you're sure or not. I’ve been trying to make this movie for a few years so, there wasn’t a whole lot of, “I’m not sure.” It was pretty much, “Yeah, I know his shoes need to be like this, and he needs this kind of jacket,” and, “That’s not right - that’s right,” or it was pretty straightforward. Communication with a director shouldn’t be a problem. A lot of directors are not people persons. They're not good with people. So yeah, I think I’m okay with people. I like people.
When you take really careful writing and then combine it with really talented actors, which we have here, it sounds really simple but that’s what good movies are.
Does it feel like Irish film is having a moment right now?
It certainly feels like an exciting time. I mean, kind of feel like people are going to get a little bit spoiled because I’m not sure we're going to have, like nine nominations at the Oscars every year. I don’t think that’s sustainable. I just hope that people don’t think next year when we have no nominations, or if we only have one, people are going to be like, “Oh Irish film was so good, and now it’s on its way down..." I don't know. I can't explain why the last two years have been so conspicuously above average, in terms of quality films. Lenny’s (Abrahamson) always made good films, and Paddy Breathnach has always made good films, so I’m not really that surprised that Lenny's getting Oscar nominated. Lenny has been up there for a while. Paddy as well.
In terms then of a certain style, or certain something that makes Irish films what they are, I don't know. I mean good film is good film, you know? I kind of hesitate to bracket even my film as specifically an Irish film because it got the best reception in Germany, and the biggest release, and it’s Irish, in terms of all the talent being Irish and I filmed it in Ireland - but I don’t just watch Irish films. I really love European films, they're the films I watch the most. The thing about Irish films, from the films over the last two years that I’ve seen, a lot of care and a lot of love has been spent on the writing. With A Date For Mad Mary, I can tell that they worked on that script for a long time. You can just feel the love. You can feel the time. When you take really careful writing and then combine it with really talented actors, which we have here, it sounds really simple but that’s what good movies are.
it’s great being Irish and working in the film industry at the moment. They love us. (laughs) Long may it last...
How is it, to be a working filmmaker in Ireland today?
I’ve nothing to compare to, to be honest. I think it’s kind of great. At the moment as well, there's such good will about Irish films. The Irish Film Board totally backed my project, wasn’t a lot of money, but they still took a huge chance on someone who they hadn’t funded before, which is always tough. Even with my next film, they’ve been receptive about that idea and I’m in development with them on that and they're really supportive. Every conversation I have with them, I get the sense that they understand what I’m trying to say, and then if they have comments, I can see where they're coming from. They're like extra producers, which is the highest compliment I can pay them. Because your producer is your most important relationship as a director. And then to have another producer, like the Film Board, someone who’s smart and has a creative voice (smiles) that you can take and pass them off as your own ideas. This is what directors want to do, steal good ideas and then take credit for them. At the moment, I think it’s pretty good. I could never have enough money, which people are going to be sick of every director and writer saying, “Oh, the Film Board needs to be backed,” but they're still nowhere near as well-funded as they were 10, 15 years ago.
Because they have to keep bringing through new talent. We have to find the next Young Offenders, the next Mad Mary. There always needs to be new directors making debut feature films. Then you have to support people like me, who are trying to make a second film, and you still have to support people like Lenny, who are crossing that bridge to bigger productions - it’s about that balance. With trying to do that, you just need a little bit more money to ensure there is that well of talent coming through. Otherwise, you'll be back to the good old (bad old) days of the ‘80s.
Do you want to stay and make films in Ireland? Or are you thinking further afield?
It'll all be generated by script. I got sent a really great French script, and I understood about half of it but loved it. I was like, “I’d like to make this. This is an amazing French movie.” Absolutely nothing to do with Ireland, but it’s just it’s a great script, great story. Why not? I read a great American script recently, and I was like, “Oh that’d be interesting. That’s something I haven’t seen before. It’s got interesting characters. I know that I could bring something to that.” I think you have to go where the work is.
I’m quite open to working wherever. I’ll always sneak in some Irishness, just because I think that comes out in your movies. Your personality will come out, and I think every movie I make will have a certain Irish trait, because it’s bad to suppress that. In terms of your career, I think you should be open to working in different places, and taking your Irish influences with you - and to get some Irish acting talent into every movie. Because we have some of the most amazing actors in the world, so it’s great. Yeah it’s great being Irish and working in the film industry at the moment. They love us. (laughs) Long may it last...
This interview has been condensed and edited. Find out more about the Screen Director's Guild Of Ireland here.