With the release of What Richard Did, director Lenny Abrahamson and lead actor Jack Reynor sit down with Conor Luke Barry to discuss unconventional script-writing and taking poetic licence to the extreme
In a comparatively short time, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson has established himself as one of the few big names in Irish cinema. With his previous two features, Adam and Paul and Garage, he has dealt with heavy issues about troubled males in Irish society. His most new release, What Richard Did, based loosely on Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day in Blackrock, he continues this trend. The film focuses on Richard, an ambitious alpha-male hanging out with his friends from a prestigious Dublin school. Letting his pride get the best of him leads to a tragic event and Richard is left to deal with the mounting guilt.
With such heavy themes in his work there was a concern that discussing the film with Abrahamson and actor Jack Reynor, who plays Richard, would be somewhat emotionally draining. This was a fear swiftly quashed as we wander in on Abrahamson jokingly complaining that someone should open a window because of how much Jack smells, as if we’d stumbled upon a playground-teasing match. This casual back and forth between the two makes you forget that their respective ages are more than two decades apart. And for a film based so much in a teenage lexicon we were curious to know how much of an input the young cast had in forming the dialogue of the film. “It was all scripted when we shot it but it came out of our working with the cast”, recalls Abrahamson.
“But it was very informal,” says Reynor. “There was an eight month stint that we did where we just work-shopped all the time.” Abrahamson chimes in: “We just talked. We didn’t get up and improvise or we didn’t play theatre games or any of the stuff that people do that I’m not a big fan of. We just talked about it. And for myself and Malcolm Campbell, the writer, it just allowed us to get used to how people talked but also to find out so much about their lives and lots of what happens in the film came out of that.”
A process like this is almost unheard of, with the cast directly influencing the script. Reynor explains just how much the cast were involved. “Right from when everybody was cast and the ensemble came together and we had the first draft of the script, I remember work shopping at the beginning and kind of went, ‘Well, imagine if we threw the script away entirely’. We went ‘Okay, who’s actually going to be the central character of the film? What’s going to happen in it?’ We went to the bare bones and said ‘What film are we actually going to make?’ And then whittled it down all over eight months to where we actually had our solid structure and then, even during the shoot, if it wasn’t working at the time we’d throw away the scene and just do it the way we felt was right.”
One particular scene that seems to have benefitted from this process is one where Richard and his male friends are sitting around bonding with natural and familiar sounding Irish banter. “That was one of the places where improvisation does come into the film,” Abrahamson states “But very controlled. We knew what the topics of conversation were. And we’d done loads of them, done loads of deep meaningful conversations, DMCs. We did them all the time in rehearsal. Where we’d go into a DMC and I’d say ‘Okay, school. Is the ethos of school bullshit or do you believe it?’ and they’d actually forget that they were in a film and would just start actually having a conversation. You need to do that a lot because when you’re sitting in a room with two cameras on you, and lights, and people with clipboards, it’s harder. You need to have done a lot to be able to slip into that natural flow. But they talked about a lot of stuff. The DMC got quite ‘D’, got quite deep. But not that ‘M’.”
Seemingly these natural conversations are difficult to pull off in film. “Banter’s really hard to do,” Abrahamson argues. “The mistake people make is that they try to go in and detail it so it’s shot in close-ups. The way to think about it is ‘What’s it like when you’re sitting in the pub and you’re looking at a bunch of guys having a laugh?’ It doesn’t really matter what they say but you know exactly the kind of thing they’re talking about. You know who they are from that.”
Reynor agrees saying: “That was what Lenny was always trying to do because, like you’re saying, they make that mistake where they try and actually be part of what’s going on. They try and get into the action. Whereas Lenny was kind of observing this from a distance. It’s funny, you can laugh at it but you’re not actually part of it.” Abrahamson caps it off saying: “So if they make a joke, let them laugh at it, don’t expect the audience to laugh at it. It’s a really important difference.”
Letting the camera just roll on conversations does have the benefit of creating natural dialogue but blurring the line between character and actor begs the question; how many of the characters’ anecdotes were based on reality? “I did kill my gerbil, man, that’s true,” Reynor reveals with a certain amount of melancholy, referring to a story he tells in the film where, in his youth, he naively attempted to give his gerbil a bath. “I drowned my gerbil in a shot glass for real.”
Another intriguing story was one Richard tells in the film about an unfortunate rugby player who gets his testicle destroyed mid-game. Abrahamson sceptically remarks: “I think that might have been one of those urban myths. It’s exactly the kind of thing you would say.” A debate between the two generations ensues, Reynor arguing: “Everybody knows that a dude got his ball ripped off playing rugby.” As Reynor racked his brain trying to remember this poor guy’s nickname, Abrahamson suggests “Goebbels only had one ball, so maybe that was the nickname.” Pondering for a second longer he follows up with: “Handy that he already had balls in his name.”
Moving away from Goebbels and back to the film, the novel on which it’s loosely based is a multi-character narrative, following different people from the group. With such a unique writing process for the film any one of this group could have become the protagonist, so why focus on Richard? “Because for me,” Abrahamson says, “his was the most complex character in the story. And our Richard is very different to the Richard in the book. But then I started to think about that alpha-male, the sort of beloved one in school, the one that both the teachers and the kids like, which is very unusual. You still have a kid in the middle of all that, having to handle all that expectation and pressure. And there’s something very moving and sad about that. I don’t know how to really describe that except I think that it’s captured in the film, which is why you make a film, to try and capture things which are otherwise very hard to talk about.”
Richard is a particularly well thought out character with more depth than teenagers are usually given in film, a point that Reynor seemed to take joy in. “There’s not really films where there’s that kind of young character who’s layered as much as Richard is. It was like we were really going for it, which was great. That’s a dream for anybody to do.”
Abrahamson feels this depth is what lends to its hopefully universal appeal. “The way I always think of it, I think the film is for people the age of the characters, and it’s also for their parents and for their grandparents. Because the film is not a teen film, it’s a film about teens. And yet what I found is that teenage audiences and early twenties, people who are just out of that world, are very affected. When you’re still trying to work out who the hell you are and you have no real idea of who you are. Meanwhile you go about town acting like you really did know who you were. That’s the condition of life until you hit the disappointed years.” The two laugh before he continues: “The decaying years. I’m just entering that myself now. I’m no longer struggling about who I am but I’m kind of just dealing with maybe not being here for too much longer.”
This very genuine way of showing young people, not as clichés but as three-dimensional characters, has had an interesting effect on families according to Abrahamson. “Anecdotally people have told me that they’ve had incredible conversations with their kids after this film. When both of them have seen it and they talk very candidly about their lives, about the attitudes in their circles to sex and drugs, to drink, to life. And that’s brilliant. I think the film is very candid and really does throw up a lot of question for people of any age, parents and kids. But it is about that. Fundamentally it’s the study of Richard but it’s also a study of relationships.” Reynor, getting mock-serious, suggests: “We made this film to get families talking.”
Dealing with provocative issues is nothing new to Abrahamson, his last two films similarly challenging audiences. As one of Ireland’s top filmmakers, does he consider himself to be making ‘Irish films’? “No,” he responds without pausing to think. “Irish film got a lot better when it stopped worrying about what an Irish film was. And it’s fair enough, the first people who went out and made feature films here, set here, about here, with Irish talents and actors and crew, there’s an awful lot of pressure on them because the first film everyone’s going to say ‘What’s an Irish film like?’ and you cannot make films in that way. You’ve got to be led by the interior of the film not by its overarching meaning. You can’t do it, or if you try to do it you’re terribly weighed down. So I don’t think about that, I start with something that grabs a hold of me and I trust that if I make it truthfully it will be a true film, that it will have resonances about the society that it’s set in. But funny thing is that it also travels. That it also means something to other people as well.”
Things were wrapping up but one intriguing point that hadn’t been touched upon was why, for a film based on a book that was based on true events, is the film so far removed from what actually took place? “I just didn’t want to give anybody any more grief,” states Abrahamson, sympathetically. “People were so obsessed about that case and it was poured over so much that I wasn’t going to do any good by having another go at it. Instead I was just interested in this character and that’s where it started.”
Of course, it is still based on the novel and he is aware that elements remain. “It’s inspired by the book and the character of Richard, and things that Kevin wrote about Richard’s childhood that aren’t in the book helped me write the character. We used it as a starting point. I just liked to be able to imagine it myself, where I wanted to go. That way you’re on set and you find something interesting and you can just go for it. I’ve seen films based on real events; I never know how real those connections are.” Lenny sums up his sentiment succinctly: “People say ‘Well, we took some poetic licence’. I decided to take the entire poetic licence.”
What Richard Did is released on the October 5th and is reviewed here.