With the huge financial incentives to film in Ireland, it’s not surprising that the island has become a hub of filming activity. Game of Thrones, The Tudors and The Lovely Bones were all filmed here, though the action is placed elsewhere within the narrative. Few productions make a feature of the Irish landscape and culture that is so familiar to natives.
One director who aims to break the trend and strive to always feature the Ireland he knows is Ian Fitzgibbon, director of Perrier’s Bountry, A Film With Me In It and most recently, Death of a Superhero, a light-hearted drama about a 15 year old Irish boy called Rory (played by Thomas Sangster) who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Adapted from the book of the same name, the story was originally written and set in New Zealand, but the location was shifted to Dublin when Fitzgibbon signed on as director.
“I was approached by the Film Board who were interested in investing in it, but were interested in what I was going to do with it,” Fitzgibbon recalls. “So I explained that what I wanted to do with it was re-set it here in a very specific place which is near to where I live. I sat down with this guy Mark Doherty and rewrote the script, knowing that it was going to be within that small part of Dublin, that very specific part of Dublin that I felt had a kind of a magical visual aspect to it.”
This is not the first time Mark Doherty has served as a writing partner to Fitzgibbon, whom he also worked with on the 2008 black-comedy A Film With Me In It starring Dylan Moran and Doherty himself as a down on their luck writer and actor having the worst day of their lives. After a series of unfortunate accidents, the two desperately try to figure a way out while re-imagining the events as a potential script. Though a comedy, it has many dark dramatic moments which have a similar feel to the primarily drama based Death of a Superhero.
“It shares some tonal moments for sure,” Fitzgibbon agrees. “It has a certain darkness and dryness to it, but I think its the kind of subject that needs that. I think often times you see films that lapse into a kind of mawkish sentimentality and we were just not interested in that… In fact I banned actors from crying, that was one of my first rules, because I was really nervous about trying to generate emotions artificially somehow, or in a slightly more facile way… I think one person sheds one tear at one stage but that’s about it … I wanted to infuse Rory with a lot more humour as well, so Mark and I worked very hard to trying to find the beats that gave us laughs, because it would have been a tough story otherwise.”
In addition to moving the setting from New Zealand, and adding Fitzgibbon and Doherty’s signature dark humour, the film takes a more fantastical angle, interspersing animation with live action showing Rory’s feelings and struggles to come to grips with his illness. “I’d never worked with animation before, it’s the first time I’d done it. It’s kind of what drew me to it as well… When I became attached to the screenplay, the animation was taking a different role. It was more about a visual way of expressing the boy’s emotional development and growth and the fact that he’s learned to accept death. I found that a bit dull. I wanted to find a way that was a bit more fun and naughty, exploring what was going on inside the boy, because he’s quite cool and aloof, and I like the turmoil and the high energy of the animated world as a contrast to all that.”
There has been mixed response to the style of animation in Death of a Superhero, with some criticising it as overtly violent and sexual. Sex and death however have always seemed common teenage obsessions, even without a life-threatening illness as motivation. “Well yeah, what else is going to be going on in your body at that age? They’re very teenage preoccupations. When speaking to a psychologist who deals with people who have incurable illnesses, she said the most challenging thing are the teenagers, because they have one foot in the childhood world and one foot in the adult world but they’re neither really. They have all this energy going around in their body, all these hormones; they’re trying to find out who they are and who they might be. Certainly as a boy you just go around with a permanent erection, I mean, what are you going to do? What are you going to think about? So it felt to me like, that’s exactly what he’d be drawing, albeit in a heightened fantasised way. I think a lot of adults don’t want to think that’s what’s going on because they’re uncomfortable with it, but I think that’s what is going on, so I think it’s a fair reflection of what’s going in his head.”
Since Death of a Superhero Fitzgibbon has moved back from more serious topics and back to directing comedy. Since production wrapped up last year, he has since filmed a new series of Threesome, and was taken on to direct the second series of Moone Boy, a sitcom about a boy with an imaginary friend written and starring Chris O’Dowd. At first describing it as a complete change from working on Death of a Superhero, Fitzgibbon was surprised when Otwo drew a link between the two projects. “You know, I never thought of that but I suppose I did. It’s not dissimilar in that sense; it is a boy living in an imaginary world, where the imaginary part of him is just as big as the 3-Dimensional ordinary bit. So maybe I did have an affinity to it without realising it. And maybe that’s why Chris asked me to do it, I don’t know.”
Death of a Superhero is released in Ireland on November 30th.