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The Smaller Whispers: Talking Madness and Movies with Terry McMahon PART I

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Stage & Screen

By Rioghnach Ni Ghrioghair

Terry McMahon is a Dublin filmmaker who recently caused a stir with his debut feature, Charlie Casanova, starring Emmett Scanlan. The film was premiered at the prestigious South by Southwest® (SXSW®) Film Festival in Austin, Texas.  A unique convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies, the SXSW Fesitval fosters creative and professional growth and is the premier destination for discovery. 

Charlie Casanova is the first Iirsh film to be premiered at SXSW, and the first Irish film to be entirely conceived on Facebook. When the Irish Film Board rejected the script, writer-director Terry McMahon had the words “The Art is in the Completion. Begin.” tattooed onto his body and then announced on Facebook that he was planning to shoot the film and needed crew.  Within 24 hours, 130 people had made contact with Terry and 3 weeks later Charlie Casanova was in production with a patchwork crew of strangers and actors. The film was made for less than €1,000.In Part I of a our two part interview, Terry talks to writing.ie about his past and how he got involved in film making.  

Describe your movie Charlie Casanova in a sentence.

A ruling class sociopath kills a working class girl in a hit-and-run and uses a deck of playing cards to determine his fate.

Was this your first film in SxSW?

It’s not just my first film at SXSW, Charlie Casanova is my first film anywhere. SXSW was the world premiere and I attended all three screenings.

Tell us a little about your background?

I’m from a small town in Ireland and estranged from my family for some time. As a teenager, for about a year, I lived alone in a series of abandoned buildings. I had been young enough for words like ‘fear’ and ‘loneliness’ to be little more than abstractions, but, now, usually around 4am, their meaning started to become less abstract. I’d tune into the late night music of a small battery operated radio. That’s where I first heard the Andante from Mozart’s Concerto No.21. The transformative high of art hit and I was an instant addict.

Fitting all I owned into a bag, I hitched a lift to Dublin city. Too young to get welfare, I got a job working in a fish and chip takeaway. The hours were long and the pay was crap but those late night engagements with nocturnal creatures of Dublin gave a darker, more compelling drive to the 4am fears. I knew I was drawn to those outsider stories. Buying a hand-held tape recorder, I began secretly taping the conversations of a group of hobos. I kept this new desire to write a secret but it was with these people that the hack seeds of aspiration were sown. Dangerous and sometimes mad, they were also occasionally noble beyond measure, incredibly protective of me, and, beyond their broken souls and bodies, they had more humanity than the dismissive multitudes could imagine. The shadow of their dark, comically twisted danger and insatiable drive to get to the extreme humanity of every endeavor would permeate throughout all my future writing.

I signed on the dole the very day of my eighteenth birthday and spiraled fast down into a world of isolation rediscovering the loneliness that hangs around like cancer and the people who are so afraid of contagion they unconsciously smell it off you.

I used to walk around St Stephens’s Green Park in Dublin from early in the morning, making sure never to sit down in case anyone spotted my shame at having nowhere to go. I’d collect butts of cigarettes at Connolly Train Station because people tended to light up for a final quick drag of a smoke before stamping on the butt and catching their train. Watching lovers embrace their hello or plant their farewell kisses I’d roll my own cigarettes from the collected butts and smoke away an empty stomach. Because they had heat and you could walk around for some time with apparent purpose without attracting the security guard, music stores and bookstores became cathedrals of sanctuary and the books originally picked up to evade the knowing eye of staff who were beginning to recognize the freeloader in me soon became more than mere evasions. On welfare day I’d buy food, deluding myself into believing there was enough until the next week then decide which cut-price books I could buy.

Books were drugs, I was hooked and life became half fiction. I remember reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and relating so profoundly to Raskolnikov I feared I might murder my landlady. Thankfully that feeling went away but the loneliness didn’t.

So how did you go from homeless to writing and directing your own film?

I saw an advertisement for Dublin Youth Theatre, a free group of young actors and directors who met weekly. Barely capable of coherent speech, I feared I would vanish into nothingness if I didn’t somehow reach out to something, so I turned up for the audition; and, after standing in line, wailing in my head “you can’t walk away,” my turn came and, as I stumbled into that room, it may have been only two in the afternoon, but that old four a.m. fear ripped through me like an old lover who you know you shouldn’t see yet can’t help being excited by.

Sitting in a coffee shop afterwards, trembling with adrenaline, one of the others who had auditioned invited himself to join me and, as I blanched with social inadequacies, he effortlessly strut his stuff, with me in awe of him. He told me about a full time course he had just started which was free if you were on welfare and suggested I should get a couple of monologues together and see if I could get a late application. He knocked back his coffee, told me what a pleasure it was meeting me and left me with the bill. I don’t think I said more than a single sentence the entire time but he was so shit cool I didn’t care.

Next day I went to the head of the course and, after the audition, he offered me a place, to begin the following afternoon. I didn’t sleep that night, picked up my welfare that next morning, and turned up at the school to be told the other students were at lunch in the local bar and I should join them.

Paralyzed by shyness, I loitered outside the bar for ten minutes. Head down, I went to the end of the bar, ordered two drinks, and discreetly listened in on the confident conversations of my fellow students. I downed both drinks and bolted out of the bar.

They were experts on every facet of acting, throwing about phrases on Stanislavsky and Chekov like inaccessible confetti. The full sum of my knowledge on acting was the certainty that Montgomery Clift and Lee Marvin pissed all over cinemas vacuous slew of new pretty boys. But Chekov? And who the hell was Stanislavsky? It took me two weeks to learn how to make just pronouncing his name sound casual.

I was in over my head and loving the drowning. Movies now joined books as co-addictions and, with the local video rental store doing a five-film deal, that same relentless junkie chasing every impossible high now gorged on everything cinematic. Guilty as charged then, worse than ever now, and long may it continue.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

My only thought was, when I grow up I want to be anywhere other than here.

Charlie Casanova is your first major writing/directing project what made you decide to decide to take such a huge step?

Having acted in and written, conveyer-belt style, for a dodgy soap opera, along with occasional acting forays in hugely enjoyable to work on, but equally-dodgy Roger Corman movies, daily life was supplemented by commissioned screenplays that got green lit then never made. One too many of those and, with no money, I had to find a way make my own movie.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world?

Obviously Robert Rodriguez remains the benchmark maverick in terms of having the balls to make a movie for next to nothing then progressing on to a remarkable career. Throw the amazing cinema of John Cassavetes into the mix and what Paul Haggis achieved withCrash and you got the triumvirate inspiration for Charlie Casanova. Of the current pool, Spike Lee and P.T. Anderson remain for me the most exciting filmmakers of their respective generations, both of them somehow having the ability to make the most complex themes incredibly compelling.

How far do you want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

At the risk of sounding naïve, I just want to be involved in great cinema. If that takes the form of multi-million dollar films or no-budget films, I really don’t care just as long as it is provocative, visceral and hopefully unforgettable cinema.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

I’m probably going to come off as some beauty pageant nonce but I worked with the mentally handicapped years ago and it was the only other job I’ve done that came anywhere close to the transformative power of filmmaking.

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

From my limited experience filmmaking is an addictive poison that does almost as much damage as it does good. Akin to chemotherapy, when it works, despite all the pain, it elevates life, but when it doesn’t, you wonder what the hell was it all for? There is madness in it. Filmmaking is a sickness that takes over you, destroys all elements of character and ego, and renders you its humbled servant. What’s not to love?

Find more out about Terry’s film Charlie Casanova in the second part of this interview coming next week…


About the author

© Rioghnach Ni Ghrioghair for writing.ie

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