Art from improvisation

Kirsten Sheridan was seven months pregnant when she used her dad’s house as the location for a film about a group of wild teenagers, says Colette Sheridan

KIRSTEN Sheridan’s new feature film, Dollhouse, has a punk spirit and a free-flowing improvisational style. Dollhouse will be screened tonight at the Gate Cinema as part of the Cork Film Festival and will be introduced by Sheridan. Filmed in Dalkey in the home of her filmmaker father, Jim Sheridan, Dollhouse takes place over one night. Teenagers from Dublin’s inner city break into a house in an upper class suburb and start partying. Chaos and revelations ensue.

Sheridan, who refers to the novel, Lord of the Flies, in describing the film, says she was keen to improvise. “In a way, when you write a script, the work is done and all you’re doing as a director is executing the script. It can get tedious and sometimes predictable. Also, I didn’t want to put words into the mouths of the cast, because it’s about a group of kids who are not from my generation. I wanted them to speak with their own voices,” she says.

The casting took longer than the filming. Sheridan wanted six distinct characters. “One of the teenagers had never been on a film set before. He was cast from a FÁS office. I cast the net wide, going to shopping malls and a boxing club. I didn’t necessarily need actors. I just wanted great personalities.”

Because she was casting a group, Sheridan considered the dynamic. “It was important that no two people were similar. I had to have a leader, a quiet one and a joker, for example,” she says.

Given an outline of the story, the actors then had to develop their characters. “I incorporated that into the film. The cast didn’t know the plot until we were filming. They’d be standing (in the house) and a doorbell would ring. They would, literally, have no idea who was going to walk through the door. So I ended up getting really authentic reactions to the revelations that were made through the course of the night. It was difficult, because you had to be on your toes all the time. But some of the unpredictability and tension and madness of the process translates onto the screen.”

Despite the free-form, a strong structure was necessary. “I knew what the five different reveals were going to be and I knew they would happen every 10 or 15 minutes. So I very much knew where the story was going, but the cast didn’t know. I would have given them all different bits of information, so they all had their own individual direction,” she says.

Directing the film was like live television. “I’d have two cameras rolling, no script and no safety net. I would jump in and start shouting directions and I’d shout a few lines of dialogue at the cast. It was really intense. I was also seven months pregnant at the time. That was mental. But it kind of gave me energy, because I was in that trimester where you actually have a big of energy,” she says.

Each character starts out fairly one-dimensional. “But, as the story goes on, the audience’s preconceptions are challenged. By the end of the film, everything is kind of turned on its head. I wanted it to be a story about teenagers who don’t articulate very well and don’t connect with each other and are somewhat lost. But then, there’s a moment where they all connect. That was my quite focused goal.”

Sheridan’s film is set in contemporary Ireland, where it seems like all bets are off. “There’s no church; money isn’t safe and no one feels safe. In the film, the characters are great friends but, two minutes later, they’re enemies. And, then, they’re friends again. There’s a lot of shifting and unpredictability. I’m trying to give them something real by the end of the film,” she says.

Sheridan hopes the film will cross the commercial and art house divide. “I hope that people will say ‘let’s go to this film about mad Dublin kids having a party’ and, at the same time, will get something from it that maybe they didn’t expect.”

Dollhouse’s budget of €500,000 came from the Irish Film Board and private equity funding.

“Part of the reason I wanted to do this film was because I had spent two years trying to get films with bigger budgets off the ground. I felt I wasted a lot of energy waiting around. I just thought, ‘Give me a camera, a tiny crew and actors who hadn’t necessarily been on a film set before. I wanted to do my own thing.

“The hardest thing for every writer/director is trying to get your movie green-lit. I thought that if I kept dropping the budget, it would make it impossible for people to say no to me. The film is just one night, one location, no extras and no visual effects. I had to keep it about characters and relationships and emotions.”

Sheridan, whose previous films are Disco Pigs and August Rush, says the film industry in Ireland has taken a battering. Television seems more accessible given the success of Love/Hate, but, she says, RTÉ only funds one or two drama series a year. “They don’t have the budget to do drama, so that leaves filmmakers in Ireland in a very difficult position.”

Being the daughter of Jim has eased Sheridan’s path into film. “It certainly got my foot in the door. But it’s such an intense industry that the foot won’t stay in unless you deliver and keep going. I think it’s nearly all about perseverance. Inspiration is only a small part of it,” she says.

Despite the pressures and frustrations of the industry, Jim never tried to talk his daughter out of a career in it. Sheridan says she caught the film bug when she appeared in My Left Foot, directed by her father and starring Daniel Day-Lewis. “I was 12 at the time and even though I was only an extra, I loved it. The crew was like a little family and it was all-consuming,” she says.

Sheridan and her sister Naomi wrote the screenplay for their father’s film, In America. They haven’t collaborated since. “In America was a one-off, a personal family story. We actually devised a lot of the script through improvisation. I think that planted the seed for Dollhouse.”

Along with John Carney (Once) and Lance Daly, Sheridan manages The Factory, an actors’ collective that runs an acting school in a large premises on Grand Canal Dock. “We feel that Ireland really punches above its weight in relation to acting talent. So we’re trying to harness that by teaching filmmaking and training actors through workshops.” On the evidence of Dollhouse, their efforts are bearing fruit.

Dollhouse is at the Gate Cinema at 9pm tonight. Some tickets still available. www.corkfilmfest.org

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