The reel deal

DISAPPOINTED by the failure of three promising screenplays to make it to the big screen, writer-director Terry McMahon did two things: First, he had the words “the art is in the completion. Begin,” tattooed onto his body.

Second, he poured a glass of whiskey, logged into Facebook and typed: ‘Intend shooting no-budget feature, Charlie Casanova, a provocatively dark satire, in the first couple of weeks of January. Need cast, equipment, locations, and a lot of balls. Any takers? Script at terrymcmahon.org. This is sincere, so bullshitters f**k off in advance. Thank you.’

“It was about 2am,” he says: “I typed in the message and I was so embarrassed I didn’t press send — I thought I was going to make a total imbecile of myself.”

This was in late 2009. His 40th birthday was looming and things had not been going well. It was the last straw when Charlie Casanova was rejected by both RTÉ and the Irish Film Board.

“I was 39 when three commissioned scripts failed during the final stage and my own project, Charlie Casanova, got a vociferous thumbs down. I was massively frustrated; I felt I was never going to make anything. I had got to the point where I was beginning to wonder why I had ever got involved in screenwriting and in making films,” he says.

So, sitting at the computer screen, he thought, ‘what the hell’ and pressed the ‘send’ button.

It took less than 60 seconds for someone to respond to his appeal for help in making a film about an affluent sociopath who kills a working-class girl in a hit-and-run and uses a deck of playing cards to determine his fate.

“A load of messages starting coming in and when I woke up the next morning there were so many responses in the inbox that I was in a state of shock. I had got 130 replies,” he says.

He was stunned. Camera crews, designers, productions managers — all passionately interested in the idea. “I told all of them that the only stipulation was that they had to read the screenplay.

“The script was very different to what people would expect to come out of Ireland. It was a fractured narrative about a fractured man in a fractured state of mind. I didn’t want people thinking they were getting involved in a little ‘Oirish’ film but in a provocative visceral, polemic piece,” he says.

Once they read it, they were even more interested. They all read it and got it — they passionately got it.

“We attracted some incredibly experienced people; people who just wanted to be involved. They had to donate their talent and their time,” he says.

The incredible response to his appeal, the Mullingar-born father-of-three says, was a desire to be part of something that was not about money; it was about a desire to strike back on some small level against the fear of repression and gloom which had resulted from the economic crash.

“I had no camera and no crew even, but I figured that as Ireland shuts down for Christmas, early January was the time to get people,” he says.

Just three weeks later, in early January 2010, what he describes as a “renegade crew of strangers and actors, led by me as writer and director,” kicked into gear and Charlie Casanova was dragged kicking and screaming to life.

“We got a loan of two cameras and we shot the whole thing in just 11 days, with a crew of about 25 and a cast of about 11,” McMahon says.

The post-production process was helped along by what he says was the “staggering support and generosity” offered by Windmill Lane Studios. In real terms, says McMahon, Charlie Casanova would have cost a minimum of €500,000 — but he did it for about €1,000.

However, there was a price: “It cost two years of my life to keep it afloat, and submitting it to festivals cost me everything I had. I nearly lost my mind, my family and my home. The shoot is the pleasurable part of a film, but it is the post-production that nearly kills you.

“It takes forever to drag it up the mountain. It’s nearly impossible to get a film acknowledged at the best of times, but when you’re doing it with no money you are in real trouble,” he says.

He lost his screenwriting job on Fair City — and things became financially difficult for a while. “I was in a position where I literally could not put food on the table, and, at the same time, I was trying to pimp out the movie. It became a bizarre and grotesque situation, but after multiple rejections the pay-off came about one year later, at the end of 2010,” McMahon says.

A friend, Richie Smith, gave the film to David Flynn, a premier league agent with the United Talent Agency in LA. Flynn contacted him, urging him to submit the film to the hugely prestigious South by Southwest Film festival in 2011. “The deadline was just two days away.”

Just before Christmas, he was contacted by Janet Pierson, the head of the festival. “This was the kind of email you fantasise about. She said Charlie Casanova was the best film they had ever received, one of the best directorial debuts she had seen, that it had astonishing script and astonishing performances, that they wanted the world-premiere at SXSW, and that they wanted to select it for competition,” he says.

No other Irish film has ever been selected for competition at SXSW — to put it in context, the festival attracts 600,000 people to Texas and the Jodie Foster/Mel Gibson movie The Beaver was having its world premiere next door to Charlie Casanova.

“We had three screenings there and it split audiences in two — some people were raving about it, others despised it,” McMahon says. “The jury was split so we didn’t get a prize and after that we didn’t know if the game was over or not — we thought that might have been our day in the sun and it was over, but then we got selected for the Edinburgh film festival, as one of three Irish films, in July.”

Again it elicited contrasting — but always strong — reaction from the audiences. It was invited to the Off Camera Plus festival in Poland, another prestigious festival, and the same thing happened.

“It meant the film was doing its job — we were getting a mix of brilliant reviews and terrible reviews. We were selected for the Galway Film Fleadh, where we got a standing ovation and won best first feature,” he says.

The film also travelled to festivals in Australia, New Mexico, Europe and the USA, picking up awards as it went: best actor in the European International Film Festival in Paris, best film and festival pick in the DMV International Film Festival in Washington, and best film in the Underground Cinema Awards in Dublin.

“It was very interesting to see how much the film provoked people — it generated hugely visceral responses,” he says. Charlie Casanova has been nominated for four awards at the IFTAS tonight — best screenplay, best director, best editing and best film.

“I’m really impressed that IFTA is courageous enough to back a film as divisive as Charlie Casanova — it’s not a comfortable film and the screenplay is problematic for many people,” he says.

The public will soon get to make up their own minds — Charlie Casanova is scheduled for release in cinemas in Ireland and the UK over the next few months. “It will be fascinating to see how people will respond to it — we’ll see how it unfolds,” says McMahon. “At any rate, it’s been a hell of a journey.”

Winners and losers

By Declan Burke

Celebrating the very best in Irish film and TV, the Irish Film and Television Academy convenes for the 9th annual IFTAs at Dublin’s Convention Centre on Feb 11.

Hosted by Simon Delaney, the IFTAs will see actress Fionnula Flanagan receive a Lifetime Achievement award, although it’s the comedy-thriller The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson, that is set to dominate proceedings in the main categories.

The Guard is nominated alongside Stella Days, Albert Nobbs and Charlie Casanova for Best Irish Film, and should triumph by a handsome margin, not least because it was a runaway box-office smash in Ireland last year.

Logic dictates that the Best Director award should go to the director of the Best Film, but that hasn’t always been the case with the IFTAs. That said, John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), who is nominated with Rebecca Daly (The Other Side of Sleep), Terry McMahon (Charlie Casanova) and veteran Thaddeus O’Sullivan (Stella Days), should go one better than his brother Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) did in 2009, and win the Best Director gong.

Brendan Gleeson faces some stiff opposition in the Best Irish Actor category, with Michael Fassbender (Shame), Martin Sheen (Stella Days) and Ciarán Hinds (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) all vying for top spot, but here it’s likely that Gleeson, one of Ireland’s living treasures, will win out.

The Best Irish Actress category is a little more clear-cut. The nominees include Antonia Campbell Hughes (The Other Side of Sleep), Aoife Duffin (Behold the Lamb) and Marcella Plunkett (Stella Days), but it’s hard to see past teenage prodigy Saoirse Ronan for her spellbinding turn as the ruthless young killer in Hanna.

The Best International Picture is a little harder to predict, as the Formula 1 documentary Senna goes head-to-head with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, although the real competition is between the thriller Drive and the comedy Bridesmaids. Expect Drive to edge it.

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) and Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) are nominated for Best International Actress, but despite Swinton’s very fine performance, Meryl Streep’s role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady has been sweeping all before her in the US awards season.

Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling’s existential hero in Drive should see off the best efforts of Don Cheadle (The Guard), Gary Oldman (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar).

The Best TV Drama has a strong international dimension this year, as The Borgias and Game of Thrones cross swords with the RTE’s Dublin gangland-set Love/Hate and TG4’s Corp + Anam. Game of Thrones has proved hugely popular with international audiences, but don’t be surprised if the second series of Love/Hate pips it to the podium.

Aisling O’Sullivan (RAW), Ruth Negga (Shirley) and Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) are among the contenders for Best TV Actress, but Maria Doyle Kennedy’s recent excellent work in Downton Abbey and Dexter could well be rewarded by a gong for her role in Corp + Anam.

Her co-star in Corp + Anam, Diarmuid de Faoite is nominated in the Best TV Actor category, alongside Chris O’Dowd (The Crimson Petal and The White) and the consistently superb David Pearse (Trivia), but Aiden Gillen’s compelling portrayal of sociopathic paranoia in Love/Hate should secure him the award.

Love/Hate’s David Caffery is shortlisted in the Best TV Director section, and he finds himself in fine company beside Brian Krik (Game of Thrones) and Daniel O’Hara (Being Human). Making up the quartet, however, is Neil Jordan (The Borgias), who could well add the Best TV Director award to his winning of the Best Novel gong at last year’s Irish Book Awards.

Other notable nominees include the debut series of Masterchef, which goes up against three comedies — Mrs Brown’s Boys, Hardy Bucks and The Savage Eye — in Best Entertainment. Also worth watching out for is the first Reality Programme category, which is a straight head-to-head between TV3 and RTE, the former contributing The Apprentice and Head Chef, the latter Celebrity Bainisteoir and ICA Bootcamp.

Finally, Fionnula Flanagan’s Lifetime Achievement award is a fitting reward for a long and varied career that includes Ulysses (1967), Some Mother’s Son (1996), Waking Ned (1998), The Others (2001) and The Guard (2011), along with a phenomenal number of roles in TV, both here and in America.

* The IFTAs take place tonight at Dublin’s Convention Centre.

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