“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?”
Terry McMahon is a Dublin filmmaker who recently caused a stir with his debut feature, Charlie Casanova, starring Emmett Scanlan. Having had it turned down for funding several times, Terry called for assistance from willing cast/crew on Facebook, braved an arduous shoot and the rest is history. In this second part of our interview with him, Terry he talks to writing.ie about Charlie Casanova and his thoughts on why the art of filmmaking can be a treacherous mistress.
What were your primary inspirations for this story?
Two similar incidents happened in Dublin around the same time that provoked my own evaluation of the class system in Ireland. There was a gang attack outside a nightclub in Dublin where a kid, Brian Murphy, got killed. When we hear of phrases like “gang attack” in Ireland we equate it with bad haircuts, tracksuits and working class accents. Four educated Blackrock College students beat Brian Murphy to death. The standard laws that apply to the aforementioned working class were suddenly open to obscene manipulation and Brian Murphy’s death became a footnote in the lives of his protected killers.
The second attack was on Grafton Street. A rural Librarian was beaten into a coma by two middle tennis players whose position in society bought them out of a conviction. I’ve always been fascinated by what men are prepared to do to convince themselves they are men and the obscene machinations of many of those in power – these two events were the seeds of the idea to create a dangerously pathetic modern Walter Mitty whose deluded deal with fate makes him a sociopathic God.
Is CHARLIE the great experiment gone right for social networking in lieu of film school?
Charlie Casanova could not have been made without Facebook, it’s as simple as that. I knew some people in limited ways in the Irish film business but it felt wrong to try to solicit from either them or others. Facebook allowed me to put it out there and let people decide whether or not to contact me rather than the other way around.
I knew Ireland effectively shut down after Christmas so there was only a window of two weeks to get things rolling. I also hoped the lack of precedent for this kind of balls-out endeavour combined with the seriousness of the script might provoke some interest in the more serious-minded out there. Relatively new to Facebook, I didn’t know if it even had the power to be harnessed in this way. I was very nervous posting the status on Facebook and rightly feared I had made a public fool of myself, but what I didn’t reckon with, was the level of generosity from some very experienced people who were willing to offer their talents and time for gratis.
That stunned me. Still does.
For those who don’t know the whole story, could you summarize how you recruited your primary cast and crew?
Frustrated by three green-lit projects collapsing during finance stage, I had the words, “The Art is in the Completion. Begin.” tattooed onto my body then typed into my Facebook status: “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. Thank you.”
I hesitated, stared at the screen, pressed send, and had no idea what was going to happen next. No idea if such a naive endeavor so full of ambition, full of impossibility, or full of shit was doomed to still birth failure before it began. I had seen people make ten-minute short films that cost a hundred grand and here was I blindly believing a bunch of strangers solicited on a social network site could make a feature film for free.
It took less than a minute for someone to respond. Within twenty-four hours a hundred and thirty people made contact. Camera department, designers, production managers, assistant directors, continuity people, gaffers, actors… I got back to everyone insisting they had to read the script before going any further so they’d know what they were getting into. They read it and, with the first day of principle photography only three weeks away, with this renegade crew of strangers and actors, lead by me as writer and director, a mass blind date was set, and Charlie Casanova was dragged kicking-and-screaming to life.
What do you attribute to such an overwhelming response? (Hint: don’t be modest.)
Luck and timing played a huge part in it. Apparently, in times of war, many people loose their inhibitions to such a degree they are suddenly willing to do things they would normally consider inappropriate. And I’m not referring to the extremity of killing for country or anything, I’m talking about so-called ordinary people doing remarkable things to and with each other, from acts of hitherto inconceivable sexual passion to acts of astonishing selfless courage.
At the time, Ireland was under siege. To a degree, it still is. Obscene corruption and incompetence from those in power left the once-proud nation going though such profoundly ugly changes that I think I may have accidentally tapped into that siege mentality.
I hoped that, if timed properly – the first two weeks in January, when Ireland effectively shuts down after Christmas – there might just be enough people to step up. But what I hadn’t figured on was a frustrated and talented youth, and the articulate invention of experienced counter-culturalists. Of course there were multiple problems along the way but it was tapping into the fury and focus of those two groups that made everything possible – and it’s to those two magnificently radical groups a small film like Charlie Casanovaowes its twisted existence and a small country like Ireland may owe its future to.
After securing your cast and crew, what were your biggest obstacles in making CHARLIE?
Two empty pockets.
What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, the script, principal photography or post-production?
The script for Charlie Casanova was unlike anything people had encountered in Ireland before so it was treated with initial suspicion then casual rejection.
There was the patronizing possibility of it being engaged with by the national broadcaster if I acquiesced to substantial rewrites but I knew there was something important in there as it was, and although I was broke, I remained adamant that the script shouldn’t be emasculated by the limitations of conventional tautology.
I had written many scripts in the past that divided readers but Charlie Casanova seemed to be evoking an unprecedented level of extremity either for or against and I knew that was precisely what it should be doing. It had to be subversive and provocative, yes, but it also had to be much more and I needed the reader to bring that final ten percent to it, which they did, with gloriously extreme responses.
I knew it was never going to be made within any conventional framework, and more and more I felt the only person who was going to drag it off the page onto the screen was the author – which is why I got the tattoo and uploaded the Facebook status. Filming was difficult, of course, and postproduction was its own exquisite madness, but once we kicked in there was nothing going to stop us.
Each of the female characters in this film appears to fulfill a certain role–I won’t say ‘stereotype’ because they are too three-dimensional to be confined in that manner, but could you elaborate a bit on what informed the constructs of these women and why they were assigned to their specific male counterparts?
Charlie is one of those pseudo-intellectual alpha-male imbeciles who regard women as “full of half-truths and complete fallacies.” When I watched these kinds of men in action I marveled at how the women, strained smiles stretched over their sunken faces, not only indulged these men but came back for more. Then I talked to them in private and they slowly revealed their characters and there seemed to be three categories: the kind of women who tolerate this sustained level of piggery seemed to be either deluded by deliberate blindness, anesthetized by religious conservatism, or the ones who revel in their own kind of alpha-femaleness – these are the three wives in Charlie Casanova. Ugly-pretty and pretty ugly.
I feel for these women because they could and should be so much more, yet remain instrumental in their own suppression. I love writing powerhouse roles for women as you’ll see in my screenplay Simple Simonbut it would have been untrue to the world of the characters to write powerful female roles for Charlie Casanova.
How did you schedule the film to be shot? Was it sequential, or was the shooting order determined by other factors?
I had read somewhere that the best way to secure the swift respect of the crew is to select a simple shot, get it in the can with minimum fuss and move on. In and out. “This guy knows what he’s doing. We’re behind him.” A contended crew and an efficient director.
A couple of days before we were due to shoot, I realized whatever limited chance we had of succeeding we didn’t have a shot in hell if we restricted ourselves to a conventional approach. We had to be brave. Balls out brave. They (the crew) accurately asserted that not only was their director a madman, worse still, he was an imbecile. That first day, a day of the hernia inducing fear bringing with it its own insomnia, I stood standing with a young crew (most of whom I had met for the first time that day) and a cast, courageous beyond measure (most of whom were now shitting themselves because they had spent a couple of days rehearsing with me, and were in a state of shock at the physical and linguistic gymnastics required in uninterrupted takes) and I knew all of them wondering if this freak show writer-director was going to drag everyone down the toilet with him.
I was wondering the same thing.
We shot the film in eleven days.
Our final scene was shot on a dark and dangerous roof top in sub zero temperatures. Then the equipment was returned and we all went to a nightclub, where a cast and crew made close by this near impossible endeavor, raised a glass or twenty to a film in the can.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days?
It’s imperative. When something is without precedent like Charlie Casanova people are often understandably wary of it, but when someone like Janet Pierson at SXSW puts her reputation on the line for an unknown film, the critical/media response kicks into gear in a way it never would have if Janet hadn’t stepped up.
Sometimes we need to be given permission to see things differently and critical celebration and media examination of that celebration facilitates bravery in an otherwise reticent audience.
There are many significant themes standing out in Charlie Casanova: regret, personal responsibility, absolute freedom, morality, culpability and of course–the predestination of the working and of the middle classes–what do you believe to be the primary theme of the film, and why did you choose to create a story around it?
I don’t know why but, as I said earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by what men are prepared to do to convince themselves that they are men. The world of one-dimensional black and white compels me far less than that grey area deluded playground between illusion and reality. On the surface Charlie Casanova examines the darkness that hides in emasculated class separation, but the deeper issues of self-loathing, the hypocrisy of personal and social justice, and the casual hatreds that manifest in domestic relationships are thematically just as important. Each one informs the other.
If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?
When I was eighteen or nineteen there was an old run down cinema on Abbey Street in Dublin, I think it was called The Curzon. This was during the recession in the 80s and they couldn’t compete against the bigger cinemas so they charged a small fee to see repeat double bills of films whose shelf lives had long passed. You got a large container of popcorn on entry and smoking wasn’t illegal in cinemas at the time so I often spent the last of my cash on a ticket and a pack of cigarettes. The clientele were mostly lonely people too scared to face the outside world but every so often a couple would slip in and all the lonely ones would pretend we weren’t discretely watching the exhibition.
Years later I was in a similarly squalid cinema on the corner of Hollywood and Vine and the ghosts of that old cinema in Dublin were everywhere. If I could go back in time I would love to screen Charlie Casanovain that broke-down but beautiful place.
What would you say to someone on the street to persuade them to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?
I’m attracted to the noisy manipulations of huge movies as much as anybody but sometimes the only way we can hear the real human truths is in the smaller whispers.
There are a lot of aspiring filmmakers out there curious about making a film of their own. What’s your advice to them?
You think you need someone to give you permission to make your film? You think you need approval from anybody? You think you need screenwriting classes or acting classes or directing classes? All you need are two actors, a camera and a taboo.
Fight for your truth but fight harder to make that truth compelling to an audience. Pose a life question that’s important to you, a question you yearn to have answered or at least substantially explored. Get ready to be emotionally, psychologically and physically consumed for at least the next two years of your life.
There’s nothing wrong with light-hearted films or entertainment, most people rightly adore them, but, if you’re going to get to make one film in your entire life, at least be brave with it. Finally, ask yourself is this going to be worth living and dying by, because, if it’s not, do something else. It’s too fucking hard.
What are your future projects?
The hardcore prison story The Dancehall Bitch is the one I have been obsessed with making, however the time wasn’t right, until now. It’s the dark tale of Isaac Greenblatt, a naïve academic who goes to jail intent on studying man but, when those prison doors slide shut, his cell mates are more interested in teaching him about the nature of woman. Powerful and provocative it has the kind of complex roles that actors rarely get to explore anymore and I know it would be an iconic, unforgettable film. I have several other original screenplays that I also want to make so there is plenty of choice. At this stage, all I really want to do is make provocative and powerful cinema, in whatever form that takes.
Finally, what is your favorite film and why?
If were forced to choose one desert island movie it would have to be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It just slays me on every level. I’ve watched it multiple times on DVD and recently got the chance to see it projected from an original print and it’s probably the most perfect synthesis of all the elements I have seen. A brave, humane, anarchic testament to the power of cinema, we should all genuflect in front of this enduring masterpiece.
Huge thanks to Terry for this interview!