EIFF 2014: An Interview With Terry McMahon

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I guess I should lead in to this interview with a little bit of context. I saw Charlie Casanova a few years ago and thought that it was an interesting piece of work. It was quite unique, and indicated to me that the writer-director Terry McMahon was a smart man with a lot of anger that he managed to fit into his material in a way that impressed me. I didn’t catch up with the man himself back then, but I did know to keep an eye out on whatever he got up to next.

That ended up being Patrick’s Day, the main review is here. That review is deliberately vague, to allow viewers the chance to be as moved by the experience as I was, but I’ll say that it’s a film that continues to move around and around in my mind, despite the many other movies I’ve watched in the past few days. Moe Dunford was simply astonishing in the lead role, as schizophrenia-suffering Patrick, and Kerry Fox shows why she’s so admired, playing Patrick’s mother, a woman who has to make some tough choices that she simply justifies as protecting her son from himself.

Full disclosure here, I MAY have (AKA did) present myself as a gushing, bewildered fanboy when I was lucky enough to meet both Dunford and Fox at one of the EIFF parties I’d never before attended. Seeing how removed they were, of course, from their characters strengthened my admiration, both for the film and the main performances. I knew that I had to try to get a hold of McMahon and interview him about his latest work. And maybe also spend some time with ol’ Charlie.

A lot of the following interview is, some may think, irrelevant to the movies being discussed, but I disagree. McMahon has made two movies, informed in different ways by history, politics, and relevant cultural ideas that I feel deserve to be talked about, if only to further understand the maturing filmography of someone so uncompromising, smart and talented. Love or loathe him, and there are people in both camps, he makes for a hell of a great interviewee. In fact, even before I’d started recording we were discussing the emotional reaction to the Patrick’s Day screenings here at EIFF 2014, ranging from anger from a woman who has worked with people in poor mental health for many years and who could identify with much of what was shown, to people who needed reassurance that the ambiguous moments in the film could be interpreted in the way that they felt they needed to interpret them.

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FlickFeast: You seem to know the subject matter so well. There’s a real truth at the heart of Patrick’s Day which indicates that you’ve experienced some things first hand. That’s how well it is written. Has it come from real events.

Terry McMahon: I used to work in a psychiatric institution, a long time ago, and I used to see the parents or the guardians of the residents, or patients (as they were called), who would visit at the weekends. Firstly, again to clarify, there was no malice involved in their engagement, but there was almost always the presumption that they had the right to impose every behavioural limitation on the people who were diagnosed with mental illness. I remember watching this and thinking “this doesn’t make sense to me”. There’s a thin line between mental health and morality, and if there was any aspiration towards intimacy from any of these residents it was immediately treated with suspicion. It was immediately treated as if it was an aberrational behaviour. And you wonder since when did the right to intimacy, the aspiration towards intimacy,  become so intertwined with mental health that you are criminalised or punished for that very normal, noble human aspiration. I remember thinking at the time that I would have to find some way of writing about it, somehow, down the line.
But then you realise, many years later, you see homosexuality, which was deemed to be a mental illness until very recently. And it was illegal, and we had the moral authority to impose a crippling psychological and emotional attack on people who were behaving in what to them was a perfectly normal, and human, and right way to feel. Now, thankfully, we have at least some kind of progress, as individuals and as a society, to recognise that the aspiration towards love, and their right toward love, is none of our damn business. And, as long as nobody is getting hurt, they should be entitled, like everyone else, to aspire toward love.
We see the same principle applied to race, we see the same principle applied to gender, where people feel that they have the moral authority to exercise a power that can be granted to them through being in a position of social authority. They feel that they have the right to impose their morality on somebody. If I’m messed up, in relation to love, if I’m perverted myself, or if I’m broken myself, in terms of love, or cynical, or fearful of love, and I am given the right to project that on to someone else then I will exercise that in a way that is damaging beyond belief, and I will justify my prejudice by pretending that it is either in protection of that person or in protection of a broader society. And that’s a total fallacy, but it’s a fallacy that we keep on giving credibility to. The church has been allowed to do it for ever. The imposition of sexual mores imposed on a group of people by a bunch of eunuch-in-a-whorehouse priests who, at worst, have sex with children and, at best, know nothing about human sexuality. Yet they become our guiding voice and they impose their moral structures on us, so all of those structures are in play in Ireland. This film is as political as Charlie Casanova, but I wanted it to keep all the politics in the background.
But I do believe Ireland is a lunatic asylum. I do believe the worst kind of people are controlling it. I do believe that they are anaesthetizing us with multiple forms of manipulations that are essentially destroying us, and the film is representative of that as a metaphor, but much more literal as a representation of who has the right to impose what on you. The notion of what you can or cannot do in relation to your aspirations of intimacy.
And then you have the second thing, which is about parenting. Being a parent, particularly a mother. Mothers lie to their children every day. They lie to their children in the belief that it is best for the child to be lied to, so the fundamental one is religion, with Jesus and other tales, but for a child the biggest one is Santa Claus. We lie to our children about Santa Claus. Is that a good lie? Yes, it’s a superb lie. It’s a lie that I think should be protected for as long as possible, until the child begins to take responsibility for their own notion of what Christmas represents. Am I wrong in thinking that? I could be. Is it a deeply disturbing precedent to set for a child, where you destroy their belief in magic by lying to them in the first place? Again, just taking that idea further, if you’ve infantilised your son as a mother, and you’re deeply repressed morally, and then you take that child and keep him infantilised, you don’t want the cord to be cut. There’s no difference between the lie about Santa Claus and the lie about whether or not you’ve had a sexual, loving experience with a human being who may or may not have existed.

FF: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And Kerry Fox plays her performance so well in the movie that I almost insulted her when complimenting her on gaining my hatred. Her actions are horrible, but lead naturally from what you said. It seems that the script had everything there for the cast to make the most of. For the cast, did the material just resonate equally with everyone that you got on board? 

TM: I am fascinated by what people are willing to do to keep the separation between illusion and reality intact, what we’re willing to do to protect our illusions. One of the illusions I had was that this script might be capable of getting to the kind of calibre of actors I dreamed of getting to. But the money wasn’t there. And yet Rory Gilmartin, on the Irish Film Board, he kept that delusion alive by saying  that it was good enough to get to somebody. And I’d seen Kerry Fox over 25  years ago in An Angel At My Table, and I’d been homeless for about a year and a half. I had to end up living in a bedsit, and I was very vulnerable, very lonely, kind of broken, and the level, ratio, of schizophrenia between the homeless and the settled is profound. There’s a marked difference, so you’re already psychically smashed. And I had seen An Angel At My Table and it had such a profound impact on me. I’d never seen a movie like it before, where I was so immersed in the empathy for a character and the world she was in. Fast forward decades later, I have this script and I asked the producer “what are the chances of us getting someone LIKE Kerry Fox?”, I didn’t even have the courage to name her outright because that’s how much of an impossibility it would have been. The casting director, Rebecca Roper, said that she could get a copy to her agent, if I also wrote a letter. So I wrote a completely sincere letter to Kerry. Kerry read  the letter and within 24 hours she said yes. For a very small sum of money, because everyone was working for small sums of money. All the money was pumped on to the screen, genuinely. But when Kerry said yes I was suddenly in a position to think “this is one of the great actors in modern cinema who has just authenticated the film by saying yes”. She’s just put her reputation on the line for this film.
Then the second one was Philip Jackson. He may not be a household name, but he will be a household face. People go “oh him, I loved him” without even knowing his name. I’ve loved him for 25 years, and I’ve always felt that he was one of those great, great actors who, if he was positioned properly, could make you deeply uncomfortable, but deeply compelling. There’s the tragedian notion of comedy and pathos combined, and he has that in spades. So I pitched for him to play the role, and nobody even knew who he was. But we got the script to Philip, and Philip said yes within 24 hours. Suddenly, as far as I’m concerned, two of the greatest actors I could ever dream of are now playing the most important, significant roles in the script in terms of anchoring these people in a reality of love that is broken.
Then the second pairing is Moe Dunford and Catherine Walker. Catherine Walker is a very close friend of mine, one of the great unheralded actors out there, and she’s done stunning work in theatre, and won all the major awards and all that. But, for some reason, it wasn’t translating to film. And Moe Dunford, he just walked in the door. I was very unhappy with the people who were coming in. We had a whole bunch of pretty, blue-eyed wannabe-boy band members auditioning for this. All perfectly chiselled, they had suntans, never a day in their life when they’d doubted anything. Their confidence is kind of skin-crawling, their sense of entitlement is disturbing, and they seem to think that they’re just there to get rich, get laid or get famous. And I was worried, thinking about whether or not we’d find an actor who could do this, who could go this place that we need to go to with this character. We had big problems, we were going to pull the film, and then Moe Dunford came in. And I went “something very special just happened”. We brought him back in again, and I realised that we’d struck gold. He’s only 25 years old, he’s the same age as the character. Without us knowing at the time, he had an extraordinary parallel existence in his real, private world, and that gave him an insight that, frankly, you can’t steal or make up. Suddenly he started doing stuff, and sometimes you realise you’ve just been given a gift, and I think as a young man he is staggering and as an actor he’s a force of nature beyond belief. Way way beyond his years, and I think he could be a superstar. He anchored the film with that pathos and that heartbreaking reality that we needed. And then we had Aaron Monaghan, who I think is one of the great actors in the world, another award-winner and yet still seems unknown. We tried to populate the film with these incredible actors who would anchor it in the reality that we needed it to be. Then we got the hospital, we got a few different things. Before we knew it, even for a small budget, we’re suddenly immersed in a world. Even the extras, they were all students of mine – I teach acting in Ireland – and they were all suddenly bringing a reality to it. Suddenly you press play on the camera, and cinematographer Michael Lavelle is brilliant, and figure out how to find those moments, capture those moments, and make them discoverable on camera so that they’re as shocking for the person making the discovery, i.e. the actor, as they are for us, the audience. And I think most of it worked incredibly luckily. We had some extras who were scene-stealers because of a fundamental truth.
We know the movie isn’t for everybody, some people will be unaffected by it, it’s just not going to touch them, and that’s okay. That’s their taste, they just don’t have the compulsion towards this area. Other people, and it’s been very evident from the screenings in America and here in Edinburgh, they seem to bring their emotional baggage to the cinema. And it seems to have had a profound effect on some people. Even this morning I got a bunch of letters from strangers, via Facebook, and suddenly they’re spilling their guts and telling me what it meant to them. They haven’t slept all night, etc. And you realise that there’s a whole bunch of silent people out there, people who are largely ignored, who don’t have stories made for them, about loneliness, about the aspiration toward love, about the fear of intimacy, about the right to intimacy. We’re hoping that this film might become a film that, if we can get it out there, might touch those people. Even last night, the voice that came out of the darkness of the cinema, that’s the connection we want, those are the people we’re trying to connect with.
It’s interesting to go all the way back to me watching Kerry Fox in An Angel At My Table while I was living in a bedsit to all those years later, knowing that we’re trying to talk to that same person living in the bedsit. We’re trying to make someone’s heart feel like it’s capable, or possible. The courage to reach out for the thing that they think they have no entitlement to.

FF: And, while you had Kerry and Philip and everyone to work with, I’m really interested to know how you specifically directed Moe in his role, considering how much more demanding it seemed, and how he seemed to retain that kind of shining light through the darkness of it all.

TM: Moe would be the least experienced of the central players, but one of the things he did from the outset was just to trust me completely. And that trust is so delicate and so fragile, and it’s so important that you protect it, that he knew that whatever he would do, and wherever I would take him, I wasn’t going to mess with him. I wasn’t going to do it for emotional pornography. I wasn’t going to do it just  to titillate the audience. It was going to be coming from a place of complete, anchored reality, but at the same time would require huge courage for him to dive in.
Take the breakdown scene, for example. That was a major scene and we shot that on the second day. And there’s always a moment on a set when the crew realise that something just shifted, things just changed. This is going to be more than just a phone-in job. And the direction I gave Moe was,  frankly, quite disturbing, and it was very pragmatic. It was quite disturbing, it was about the devil being in his head and the devil was telling him to do something. But the thing that the devil was telling him to do is related to private information in Moe’s life. But the moment that I said that the devil would make him do this thing if he didn’t get him out of his head, Moe suddenly clicked in. So those punches that you’re seeing, they’re all real. There’s nothing acted there. That breakdown is completely real. He’s literally trying to beat the devil out of his head.
When you have a mental illness, where somebody has taken over your soul, or taken over your mind, the courage required to try and fight back is profound. Moe understood that from his own brother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he saw the profound courage in his own brother, but the realisation of how he anchored that in his own reality, and how he responded to that in his own reality, is that he fought to the death to get the devil out of his head. And we have that on camera. That’s a close up, and that’s real. It’s not an actor moment. It’s somebody who has taken things to a whole new place, and that level of courage – we knew from very early on that Moe was willing to go there for us.
Then you’ve got the other side of it. Is this guy capable of reaching out for love like it’s everything to him? And suddenly he is. Bizarrely, and paradoxically, the least experienced actor on the set, in a very short time frame became, possibly, the bravest actor I’ve worked with in years. And all the other actors helped. Kerry Fox was a major part of it. She’s one of those really smart, smart people who knows more about acting, and all of the other elements of film-making, than most people around her anyway. She’s not just great at what she does, she’s great at other people’s jobs as well. What Kerry did, which was so incredible and selfless, was that she looked after him. She took him to the places that he needed to go, and protected him while he was there. Then she would try to soften him, or protect him too much, and I’d step in and push him, and I’d make him more vulnerable. That kind of parental to-ing and fro-ing between the two of us allowed him to know that, wherever he went, he would have at least one person to catch him. So Kerry was a profound part of it, too.
And then there’s Catherine Walker. She gave her life blood to Moe. This strange, kind of twisted, air hostess who you don’t quite understand. She seems to use dialogue almost like it’s from a movie. She hates her life, she hates herself, and the vacuity of who she’s become. She’s accustomed to men wanting her briefly and then disposing of her. She’s no idea who she is. The meaningless of her life is suddenly giving meaning by this guy, and she’s confounded, and confused, by that. It doesn’t make sense. It’s the least likely source. So someone like Catherine Walker turning to Moe, she just gave him everything. And, suddenly, Moe is in a position where he has Aaron Monaghan giving him the world, Catherine Walker and Kerry Fox, and that trio just gave him everything he needed. All of the actors were a major part. The generosity, the selflessness.

FF: So circling back, ever so slightly, the good reaction you’ve been getting to Patrick’s Day must be all the sweeter after some of the reactions to Charlie Casanova. I recall something about the bus poster . . . . [covered well, in Terry’s own words, here].

TM: Charlie Casanova was a punk rock movie. It was designed to be divisive, it was designed to provoke angry reaction. We didn’t know it was going to become what it became. It was picked up for distribution by Studio Canal and, for whatever reason, there was a small coterie of critics who decided that I needed to be stopped. I was scum. I needed to be put in jail for making this movie. On one level it was kind of funny, with the level of extremity, the insanity of their level of extremity. And, on another level, you end up wondering: “this is 90 minutes of fiction. How the hell are these people taking it so seriously?”
What happened with the bus all to do with an Irish Times reporter, who, frankly, very disingenuously reported the story. And sometimes the lie becomes more important than the facts, and a small coterie of critics ran with that lie, and suddenly we were hung out to dry. Then you realise that you’ve made an anti-establishment movie, it’s operating within the very establishment that it’s against, so it’s going to get shafted. With Charlie Casanova, it’s extraordinary to think of the level of hatred it generates within people. But on the opposite side, there’s a level of incredible, almost religious, fervour from other people who adore the film. It did exactly what it set out to do, which was cause a bomb.

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FF: So it’s all a much nicer, sweeter experience this time around, surely, after going through that.

TM: It’s funny because Patrick’s Day is such a different kind of movie. Tim [Palmer, producer] and I work together because of Charlie Casanova, so I owe a huge debt to that film. And it’s a film that I would still protect completely. There’s no shame in that film, but it’s a very different kind of film. With THIS movie, this is an emotional film, and that emotion is either real or not. It’s not something that we can manipulate or orchestrate as film-makers. It can only come from the audience. It can only be their response to it. To have that level of emotion, it’s an overwhelming emotional response for some people. For others it’s not, but for those who it is . . . it seems to be genuinely overwhelming. And all you can do is stand in humility and just say thank you. It seems that the movie’s doing that, and now we’ve got to get it out there.
And the whole point with Charlie Casanova. First, you’ve got Emmet Scanlan in it, giving an iconic performance. But Scanlan’s such a hateful prick as Charlie that you think it’s him, you think it’s real. Yet he’s one of the hardest working, most magnificent, blokes you could ever meet. But he [Charlie] is so easy to hate. And then there’s me, front row and centre. I had nobody to sell the movie so I had to do it myself. I thought that people were kind of in on it, but I am front row centre and I’m this mouthy asshole and people started asking “who is this prick?” and ended up thinking that I was Charlie, that I believed those fascistic monologues, when in actuality the film was about the kind of people who took over Ireland, and who sank Ireland. What seemed so extreme at the time now looks kind of bland compared to these scum and what they have done to the country.
Patrick’s Day is still dealing with that psychic cancer that is in our country, and in our last few generations, but it’s dealing with it in a much more emotional way, and hopefully a much more emotionally truthful way. Charlie Casanova was about a bunch of liars. There’s no such thing as a sincere emotion in Charlie. He’s dead from the neck down and everything is designed to manipulate. Whereas in Patrick’s Day our central character is a guy who is so incapable of manipulation because all that matters to him is truth, and he’s surrounded by these liars who are given the authority to protect their notion of the truth, which is in fact a fallacy. That phrase you used earlier, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We have a government in Ireland, who I am sure, on some level, think that they’re doing the right thing. But they are killing people. They are literally wiping out people. Even apart from those killing themselves through suicide (and the numbers have gone through the roof), they are wiping out the aspiration to a better future. They are crippling two generations of people. Now, do they think they’re doing the right thing? I don’t know. I think they’re scum, frankly, but they can still try and qualify it in their minds as being some economic necessity or a model that needs to be implemented in order to protect the next generation. But there’s a whole generation of Irish that have been hung out to dry. My home has been taken off me now. The banks are repossessing my home. These are the same banks that were bailed out by the taxpayer, the Irish citizens. That same bank, that is now state-owned by those same citizens, is now taking my home off me, and I’m an Irish citizen. That’s the corruption, and the obscene paradox, of Ireland.
But I think the main difference is that Charlie Casanova was a screaming, rage-filled, ugly, punk rock movie. This is a much more private, much smaller, and much more real, emotional movie.

FF: It’s interesting to view a lot of Irish movies at the moment, within that context. Calvary and Patrick’s Day both had moments that just left me crumpled. Is the Irish film scene in good health at the moment? Are the films able to get out there?

TM: Well, I think that one of the reasons that Charlie Casanova was despised so much was due to their being no precedent for it in Ireland anyway, and the UK, by extension. But Ivan Kavanagh just made a movie, called The Canal. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve seen his other movies and he’s a visionary director. A great, great talent. Glassland is another one coming out, just been announced as having a world premiere in Galway. That’s from Gerard Barrett, who also made Pilgrim Hill. There’s a film called Gold, which is apparently very good. There’s a whole slew of movies that are all playing in Galway this year that are all up for best Irish film. And, in any other year, each one individually would have been remarkable, yet there’s a lot of them now. I think it’s because there have been new policies brought in by the Irish Film Board which I think are hugely beneficial. Rory Gilmartin is the head of development at the film board and he greenlit this movie for us. That took balls, that took real tenacity to do that. He was new to the job and the first decision, the first greenlight he gave, was our film. That takes courage.
This film has travelled to America. It’s been embraced by South By Southwest, which is fantastic for the film. Also, because of the nature of the film, because it’s a drama, and drama has been taken over by television brilliantly (television has gone through such a renaissance), people are wondering why they should reach into their pocket to pay £10 0r £12 to go to the cinema for a 90-minute movie when they can have 27 episodes of a masterpiece boxset on Netflix for about half the price, once a month. So the timing is heartbreaking, because this is a collective movie. Emotion is contagious. We’ve seen that the more packed out the screenings are for this film, the more contagious the emotion. You feel it in your stomach, you feel it travelling through people.
Can we get this movie out there? That’s the next question. It’s a long journey ahead of us.

FF: Well, I hope the film receives the love, and audience, it deserves. Thank you for your time today, and safe journey home.

The next stop for Patrick’s Day is the Galway Film Fleadh. Check out their schedule site here, and book a ticket if you can. You won’t be disappointed, and everyone involved deserves your support.

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