Independent Irish Film Director Joe Lawlor talks to Jack Walsh about working with Aidan Gillen, single shots and his latest feature, Mr John
Emerging from the English Theatre scene, Irish directors Joe Lawlor and Christin Molloy discovered early on that the conventional methods of storytelling within film was intensely overrated.
Their creative partnership has blossomed since 1992, when they first took on the nickname of the ‘desperate optimists,’ as the duo have developed a taste for adapting this non-traditional mode of portraying a narrative.
“We always used moving image in our work, and as the theatre developed, the moving image became bigger and bigger. Our last work was 50% image based. It was very gradual and very incremental. Our first passion is not really about story at all. Maybe that constituted 20 to 30% of the experience, but it’s only one part of the world you’re entering into.”
Lawlor began with single-shot short films, and in the creation of the partnership’s first feature length film, Helen, he was innately aware of their chances of artistic success. “That was the challenge, to make a feature film that would be accepted on an international level and make a debut feature.
“The big thing is how you’re going to do your first feature. If you do it right, it can help you. If you do it wrong, I remember going into Helen with the statistic that 73% of UK filmmakers never make a second feature.”
Describing Helen, a film based around the ideals of community, Lawlor asserts, “It’s a very unusual film but that made it stand out and it got a lot of coverage. It’s made up of twenty eight single-take shots.
“We shot for fourteen days and every day we had two shots. They are quite elaborate in the shots. Our short films were well known as they are all single-take films and that dictates a certain type of pace. You have to get into that pace. If you take a film from 1973 to 2013, it’s a profoundly different experience in pacing. Helen is most certainly of the European Robert Bresson type.”
Relating this to their latest feature, Mister John, the story of a man going to Thailand to retrieve the body of his brother, Lawlor explains, “It’s not about single takes, there’s a very different dynamic to it. It’s still quite a gentle film. Its performance is much greater and the central role that Aidan Gillen plays is much more demanding.
“As we shot it, we were covering scenes in conventional manners, but that doesn’t mean we are going to edit in a conventional way. The same obsession is there, somebody going through something of a crisis. A film where death is a catalyst for change, a death that is not necessarily to be grieved for. An act of death giving people opportunity.”
Although Mister John had the backdrop of Singapore, Lawlor was keen to stress that the film’s location is secondary in importance to the character’s own struggles having lost his sense of self. “Nobody ever says the word Singapore, so for all intents and purposes you would never know that it was actually Singaporean. It’s important that you don’t know where it is.
“The film is very much about a man who has no sense of his own self, and Singapore, with its history, has essentially had to find its own identity in the last hundred years. The character is very much in focus, and Singapore is kept necessarily in the background.”
Story has never been a subject of importance for Lawlor, character development, however, has remained a constant. “It’s all about character, and in many ways it’s about the internal nature and workings of the character. It’s a very insular film and not articulate emotionally.
“He doesn’t externalise his emotions. When people are in crises this can be seen to be very pertinent and with a man in crisis, emotions get very bottled up. They don’t get vocalised or externalised. I think that’s also quite psychologically true. So you’re not just watching a male character, you’re watching a closed off and frustrated character.”
Mister John and his reactions are the central narrative to the film’s emotional payload. The character was portrayed by Aiden Gillen, an actor Lawlor highlighted as a major factor contributing to the film’s artistic success. “Aidan was a great actor to work with, he’s very easy going and generous, he works very very hard.
“Getting the character to the bone was very important for him, and each take took work. He’s not just trying to coast on his ability; he’s always trying to search for something different.”
Driven by news reports about young Irish men holding a high suicide rate, Lawlor believes the film’s subject is “not like a piece of social realism, it’s not a thematic or subject driven piece. One can only imagine when a loss of self and depression starts to take over. The film is about grieving, depression and how people often have to battle their own confidence.”
Despite the dark subject matter of their work, the desperate optimists certainly have a bright future ahead of themselves. As for Lawlor himself, it seems that works like Mister John will only improve an already stellar reputation.