Nick Kelly praised for debut feature looking at autism

Former singer Nick Kelly has been receiving warm praise for his debut feature The Drummer And The Keeper, a film partly inspired by his own experiences with autism in his family, writes Esther McCarthy

Dermot Murphy and Jacob McCarthy in The Drummer and the Keeper; below, director Nick Kelly.

AS FORMER frontman with Irish group The Fat Lady Sings, Nick Kelly loved the anticipation of performing in front of a live audience. So he’s been bemused to discover as the curtains go up at screenings of his debut feature film, the nerves start to jangle.

“I’ve now seen three screenings of the movie with audiences and I find each time I literally have palpitations when the lights dim.

“With music, on stage, I never particularly feel nervous. I think what it is, is with music, you’re about to do the thing, but with film you’ve done it, so all you can do is just sit there are fret!”

The worry is unwarranted. Kelly’s movie, The Drummer and the Keeper, opens at cinemas this weekend to good reviews and audience buzz. Shot as part of the Irish Film Board’s Catalyst scheme for first-time feature films, it centres on the unlikely friendship between Gabriel (newcomer Dermot Murphy) a chaotic rock drummer and Christopher (Jacob McCarthy), a straight-talking teenager who lives in an institution.

One may struggle with a recent biopolar diagnosis and the other with Asperger’s Syndrome, but the film, which Kelly also wrote, looks at their relationship in a refreshing and often-amusing way.

For the filmmaker, who had cut his teeth in commercial and then short-film making, he wanted to approach the theme of friendship in his first movie.

“I think a lot of us have a theory about who we are, and then at moments of great crisis we find out we’re somebody completely different,” he tells me.

“All of the relationships we’ve carefully curated for our theory of ourselves and then when the shit hits the fan, those people are completely useless. It’s not their fault they’re useless — they were cast under a misapprehension about who you were.

“And then the weirdest people come out of the woodwork and are helpful. That was my start off, then I think the two world of the two main characters in the film — I suppose dysfunctional rock’n’roll and autism, are both worlds I kind of know from personal experience. They’re incredibly different from each other.”

It’s been reassuring to Kelly that people have identified with the film — in part because his son, Finn, has autism. “My younger son is on the spectrum. I’ve had that experience and then through that, I’ve gone into the world of knowing lots and lots of people on the autism spectrum. People are very very different from each other as well.

“You’ve got whatever the condition is, and how it operates on you personally. And then you’ve got all the other parts of your personality, which is most of you, really.

“It’s a world that I kind of know, and in both cases you’ve got characters who are quite challenged by the rules of society. One of them doesn’t really want to fit in with society at all, and the other one would love to fit in with the rules of society, if he could be confident he knew what they were at any given moment.”

The son of the late Fine Gael TD John Kelly, Nick studied law but his passion lay in music. On completing his studies, he already knew he wanted to pursue other goals.

“I studied law, and gave up the day I qualified. I realised I was going to be a terrible lawyer and I’d started The Fat Lady Sings. I did that for the guts of a decade and mostly based in
London.”

The band brought out two great albums, spawned such fine songs as Arclight, Twist and Dronning Maudland and built up a committed and substantial live following. But bringing it to the next level was hard and elusive, and after a decade, Nick split up the band and moved back to Dublin.

On coming home, he laughs, his CV “was already a bit weird”. But his gift for writing in pictures got him work in the advertising industry.

“I kind of stumbled into a job writing ads. I think I had a head full of useless information and a very short attention span. I think the reason I got the job, possibly, was because I was a curiosity. Anything I’d done for a living had been writing. For whatever reason — it may have been to do with timing because Ireland was just starting to go ballistic in the mid/late nineties — I ended up writing loads of TV ads.”

Among them was a series of “sorry” themed ads for Guinness, the most famous of which saw a young Michael Fassbender cross land and ocean to make amends with a loved one.

In advertising, the writer is involved in picking director and cast for a project for a client. “I was in the casting room when Michael Fassbender came in. There was no genius, I think, in saying: ‘We should choose this guy’.

“I went to Goa, I went to Iceland, I went to New York a couple of times. Then you spend weeks and weeks in the post (post-production) house. Because you have the responsibility to bring it back to the client, you end up becoming very invested in the whole thing.”

On mentioning to producer Seamus Byrne that he’d love to have a go at filmmaking one day, Byrne told him of an Irish Film Board shorts project that had a deadline of the following Wednesday. “I said: ‘I don’t have a script’ and he said: ‘Well you’re supposed to be a creative aren’t you?’” he laughs at the memory.

Three shorts later, Kelly was whittled down to the final ten for best short at the Oscars for Shoe. “I got a great buzz over Shoe and thought: ‘I’m up and running’.”

Following a “frustrating” few years where he wrote numerous projects, Catalyst was announced and he won on the basis of his initial concept for The Drummer and the Keeper. He is developing various other projects.

“I felt I had to go back to the beginning again, and in retrospect, to be honest, that was a very valuable experience.

“I’m torn between loving the initial reaction to this — it’s so exciting for all of us, it’s really important to feel that. Making a film is like climbing a mountain where you only see six feet ahead each time. It’s really important when you get to the top of the mountain to take a minute to remind yourselves, we have made this
together.

“I’m torn between that and an incredible understanding that I want to get another thing going as soon as I can.”

  • The Drummer and the Keeper opens in cinemas on Friday


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