It's Halloween 1987, and we're back in an Ireland that will be familiar to many. In My Brothers, siblings Noel (Timmy Creed), Paudie (Paul Courtney) and Scwally (TJ Griffin) are facing one of life's greatest horrors: their father is dying. With his beloved watch broken, they set off to find a replacement. Harry Guerin talks to the film's director, longtime Shane Meadows collaborator Paul Fraser, about his feature debut, his young stars and why the script from Cork-born writer Will Collins meant so much to him.
Harry Guerin: Paul, congratulations on My Brothers. You've written nearly all of the films that Shane Meadows has made, so how did you end up in Cork in the middle of winter making your own directorial debut?
Paul Fraser: I was doing some adverts in Ireland and Will Collins, the writer of My Brothers, had just won this pitching competition at the Fleadh in Galway. One of the development guys from the Irish Film Board asked if I would have a look at the script because Will wanted me to advise him. I'm not sure what he won, but he won some money and a little bit to pay a struggling English writer to help him develop it!
I read the first draft of the script; I think it was about 200 pages. So the first thing was to tell him to bring it back so that it was a bit shorter as it went through the development process. The story was always the story but because he'd never written before it was lost in its length. I'd been looking for something to direct and hadn't really found anything, but there was something about this that was really resonating. Very casually I said I'd like to direct it, and before I knew it it was happening!
Your three young stars - Timmy Creed, Paul Courtney and TJ Griffin - are fantastic in the film. How did you find them?
We went to Cork and spent five or six weekends and weekdays as well doing a bit of press to try and generate an open audition scenario. We didn't know the first time what was going to happen, whether it'd be like X Factor or whether it'd just be weirdoes sitting in a little room with no-one coming in to talk to them! We got a really amazing turnout the first time. We got, like, 45-year-olds coming to play the teenagers - an intriguing mix!
Did the trio appear quickly during the castings?
TJ, who plays the little boy Scwally, I found quite quickly. The middle fella Paudie, who's played by Paul, took a while and Timmy Creed, who plays Noel, took a long, long time to find - originally in the script he was this 14-15-year-old kid. When I saw Timmy the first thing I thought was Bill Forsyth and Gregory's Girl, because kids in the Eighties looked a bit older so that [the casting] might be ok.
When I cast Timmy I went back into the script and looked at it again because Timmy had a brilliant face and I thought we had a main character here who's very reactionary - in many ways it's about how he looks, really. We went back into the script and just kind of rewrote it a little bit to reflect what Timmy was like as opposed to who we originally had, which was a younger kid who was a bit more oppressed and bullied.
What you're initially looking for when you walk in the room is 'Do they look like who I imagine them to be?'. If they do, if there's an essence of that, you go, 'I hope he can speak!'. And when those two things come together then it's about working on range and trying to get them to feel as much of that character as possible.
For newcomers, they work very well together and are very comfortable.
PJ Dillon, the cinematographer, and I made it very clear and didn't do any kind of mystery with them when we were on set. We showed them why we were doing stuff; what we were doing; what the cameras were doing and what everyone was doing. It's [about] making them feel comfortable in this bizarre, new and alien environment where they've suddenly got 30 people standing around holding stuff and looking at them!
I had some workshop time with the three of them and as much as possible I ignored the script and worked on that family dynamic and sent them out together to have pizzas and play bowling. They'd kind of think, 'This isn't really much hard work, is it? We're getting paid to go bowling!'. But they were bickering while they were bowling and I was going, 'This is brilliant'. Any exercises that you can find to make them feel comfortable - almost without them realising they're becoming who you want them to be. It's essentially three kids in the middle of a bread van for two-thirds of a film. If they were crap, we didn't have a film!
Watching the movie it reminded me of a Western - the three guys heading out into the 'wild'. Was that something that appealed to you about the script?
Absolutely. The voice that Will had really resonated with my own and it was almost me being lazy and saying, 'I could actually pretend I've written this and have someone else go and do those bits that Shane makes me do!'. It did feel really like it was something that I would've written myself. I'd always assumed I'd write and direct my own project so to have a project that I'd secretly pretended I'd written was a great thing! We did embellish on the Western notion - sometimes it was very hard to do but I wanted to keep it just the characters in the film. It's all very minimal. The notion of it being kind of a little mini-epic quest of a Western was there in the back of my head but, y'know, I couldn't afford the cow horns to put on the front of the bread van!
Well you did great without them!
My Brothers is one of those films that it's so slight in its tale. The premise is pretty strong - kids dealing with grief, wanting to get a watch for their dad - but the actual way it plays out is very slight and I wanted it to be. It was never going to have those epic landscapes or anything like that: it was about character as much as possible dictating where the story went. I tried to kind of hide the fact that we had this narrative: I wanted it to feel like a home movie where you're following these three boys. Wherever they went was dependent on where they went and not where you should be on page 60 of the script, if you know what I mean.
I think a lot of people who see the film in Ireland will like it because it brings them back to an Ireland they remember from childhood.
I'm from a small town in the Midlands in England and what resonated with me is that what was going on in a small town in the south of Ireland seemed to be the same thing that was going on in my world. Two small little lost worlds, I think! I was the middle of three brothers so I really identified with Paudie in the movie whereas Will the writer was the younger boy in that kind of three brothers scenario that he had as a kid. The film has a strong sense of nostalgia to it, which we hoped it would have. When I was a kid we just did these simple, simple things.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned as a director from working with Shane Meadows?
Not to be precious is one thing. To be open. I had much more of a learning experience actually doing it [directing] than watching somebody doing it. You never really know that you're going to be asked a question every 0.5 seconds for four weeks! But having been in around Shane and in Shane's world so much it was never alien. I was the only English guy on the shoot as well, and I was a little bit scared by that, but everyone was amazingly supportive on the project. I needn't have worried - it was very comfortable from the get-go.
What has been the most rewarding thing for you about working in Ireland?
I don't live in London - I live in Nottingham - so there isn't much of an industry [in film] and I have to move about and travel about. The strangest thing was to go to Dublin and within a few days I'm socialising with people who are passionate about story and passionate about film, be it from an actor/writer/director point of view or even producers' - rarely, but sometimes! There was a real sense of community for me in the film world that I hadn't had before because I'd been regional. There was something really beautiful and welcoming about that.
Finally, what is your advice to people who have an idea for a script but who are stuck in a rut and can't finish it - or even start it?
The little ethos I have is 'I'm going to make something, can you help me make it?' rather than 'I want to make something, can I have some money?'. You've got to be doing stuff and make stuff and produce stuff. So if an idea is a huge budget horror/sci-fi/zombie-western thing then you're going to maybe struggle. But if it's at all doable have a go - get a camera, get some friends and go and do stuff. That's what Shane and I first did when we were 16-17. We used to rent the old VHS camcorders from the petrol station and make these little films. If you can realise something and get it made in the simplest way - even if it's on your mobile phone - then do that.
I always equate it to being in a band: you can sit and write songs and stick them on cassette tapes in your bedroom for years, but if you don't actually have a tape that you're sending out to play people then you're never going to have a career. It's the same with scripts: you can sit and write and keep them in your drawer or you can send them out, knowing they might not be perfect but just to see if someone resonates with your voice. Will's script was far from perfect when he got to the end of his first draft, but some people had some conviction in him and his story to give him the push to get it out there and try and champion it.
My Brothers is in cinemas now.