LENNY Abrahamson has directed three feature films: Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did.
Despite being ‘arthouse’, each one has been more successful than the previous, and his latest film, Frank (due for release in Ireland later this year) has a star-studded cast and is mostly set in America.
In the editing suite of Frank, Abrahamson says he doesn’t know the secret of his success. He says cinema is a “dark art” and it’s difficult to know how best to get a film made and marketed: “I have been very fortunate, in that, with my three films so far, audiences have gone to see them… I have faith in audiences that they are much more open to freshness, and to ideas, and to intelligence, than people often give them credit for.”
Abrahamson left studies in America to return to his native Dublin to get into film. Why? “I think that I must be the only person who left California and headed to Dublin in pursuit of a career in film. The arrow is pointing in the other direction in most people’s minds,” he says.
For Abrahamson, that arrow was only perception: “I think that, for various reasons, it was the right thing for me to do,” he says. “Hollywood is probably the most active centre of film-making in the world, but it’s also a very difficult place in which to find your voice… It was also a far more civilised industry in Ireland. It allowed me to work in the way that I wanted and getting support for the way I wanted to work would probably have been a bit more difficult in the States.
“If you’re in Hollywood, with no track record, it’s pretty odds-on that you can get swamped and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it all; particularly with the intense commercial push that you feel there.
“There was a golden era in film-making in Hollywood, back in the 1970s and, although there is some great independent film-making in America, it’s actually very hard to get independent films made in the United States. It’s much more feasible from Europe. I know, from speaking to peers in the States who are making fine stuff — and stuff that you’d know about — how hard it is to get those films made.”
A case in point might be veteran American director Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, which is in competition in Cannes this week: it has failed to secure an American cinematic release.
Abrahamson cut his teeth directing some of the best-known ads on Irish screens over the past couple of decades, such as the ‘Daydream’ advert for Carslberg beer; in which cleverly-edited clips show the Irish soccer team ‘winning’ the World Cup.
“That advert was a big one for me, because I got lots more work out of that and it was really good fun. People used to cheer in pubs when it came on,” he says.
Although he has been to Cannes on a number of occasions, Abrahamson won’t be attending this year. His films, What Richard Did, and Frank, are being ably represented by agents and producers, but he’s not downbeat about not going to the Mediterranean. He says Cannes is “busy, frenetic and tiring… not a holiday.”
Abrahamson is, however, looking forward to the Fastnet Short Film Festival in Schull next week. It’s Abrahamson’s second year attending, in the coastal West Cork town that has no cinema or hotel.
“The Fastnet Short Film Festival is exactly the kind of festival that Cannes isn’t: There’s a lovely opportunity to meet people, talk to them and hang out, so it’s very warm and friendly and very welcoming. There are great things being shown and the whole community gets involved,” he says.
There isn’t a scene in any of Abrahamson’s films that doesn’t flow naturally in the context of the story. But it’s hard not to get the feeling that much of what the viewer sees has been improvised on the set.
Is this how he works? “It’s a mixture,” Abrahamson says. One pivotal scene in What Richard Did was improvised on the day by his lead actor, Jack Reynor (soon to feature as the lead in the latest Transformers film).
“Putting a character under pressure and capturing moments where their certainties are crumbling… those are powerful ways of getting underneath a person; it’s like stress-testing a character. I’m always fascinated by those moments.
“If something’s not really working on camera on the day, I think that you have to face up to that as a director, dig in and find a solution. That can be a bit scary, of course, because it can make you feel like your whole project is falling apart, but, often, the best moments can come when you, and everyone around you, feel that a scene just isn’t working as scripted.”
The same philosophy might be applied to life.
For the lawyer’s son from comfortable suburbia who gave up a philosophy PhD in California to pursue a career in the arts, it’s something that he seems to have taken to heart.
On the evidence so far, the last thing that Abrahamson has to fear is departure from the set script.
* The Fastnet Short Film Festival is on from May 22. The programme features a Q & A session with Lenny Abrahamson on the Sunday, and a special screening of What Richard Did on the Thursday night. For details and bookings, visit www.fastnetshortfilmfestival.com.
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