INTERVIEW: From Barrytown to Tinseltown; Walsh and Doyle's "When Brendan Met Trudy"
by Paul Power
(indieWIRE/ 03.12.01) -- Kieron J. Walsh has been blessed with the perfect writing partner for his feature directorial debut. A 10-year veteran of British TV and commercials, Walsh's feature is born out of a partnership with writer Roddy Doyle. Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy ("The Commitments," "The Snapper," "The Van") has already been adapted for the screen, and besides his six novels, he has written a gritty TV series, a pair of plays and a number of short stories.
Doyle, a former teacher, has written a quirky lead character in his new script, "When Brendan Met Trudy," directed by Walsh and released in the U.S. by Shooting Gallery, as part of its Film Series. Brendan (Peter McDonald) is a meek high school teacher, with a passion both for cinema and Latin plain chant. But when he meets live-wire Trudy (Flora Montgomery), Brendan's life takes a detour and he soon finds himself immersed in a life he thought only existed in the world of his screen idols like Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Part of the irony of the film is that it was shot in Walsh's former school (and my own). The years have been kind to us Blackrock College alumni, a school noted more for churning out rugby-playing budding captains of industry than filmmakers. As we sat down to discuss the film in a bar called The Scratcher, I thought better of asking him to join me in a verse of the school anthem, "Rock Boys Are We." indieWIRE speaks with Walsh about Lindsay Anderson, collaborating with Doyle, and Ireland's promising film scene.
indieWIRE: Did you have any visual or thematic style in mind for this film?
Kieron Walsh: It's quite an original screenplay and I hadn't read much like it before. I was trying to think of films that it reminded me of when I read it and there were a couple of films that came to mind. One was "Harold and Maude"; another was "Something Wild," which is kind of an obvious one. There's even parts of the Steve Martin film "The Jerk" which it reminded me of, and "O Lucky Man" by Lindsay Anderson.
iW: I wonder why you say "O Lucky Man," because with the anti-school theme running throughout it, the film is closer to "If. . ."
Walsh: It just had this odyssey feel to it. Brendan's character is this guy wandering through a landscape and weird things happen to him, which happens in "O Lucky Man." But there's also parts of "If. . ." which came to mind because it's set in a school. I have a nun with a machine gun running out of Blackrock College, so I got my "If. . ." fantasy out of the way and was very happy with that.
iW: Has Lindsay Anderson been a major influence?
Walsh: He probably made me want to make films really, God rest his soul. And of course he was a huge John Ford fan and he wrote the book about Ford -- I'm a huge Ford fan too. I remember seeing "If. . ." when I was I was only six or seven, probably too young to understand some of the seriousness of the picture, because it's quite a political and intellectual film, and I remember being absolutely captivated by it and thinking I'd love to be Malcolm McDowell in that film. It reminded me of Blackrock College. Anderson shot the film in his old school, Charterhouse, which is a Catholic public [U.S. subscribers: read "private"] school in England. It's the closest thing I've ever come to Blackrock College, so there was a lot of influence with that.
iW: I believe there were a few old codgers knocking around the school during the shoot who were teaching us during the 80s. Were there any kinds of restrictions that the school imposed on the shoot?
Walsh: We used a school crest, but they wouldn't let us use the real crest so we inverted it and Roddy put a different logo on it; it wasn't "Fides et Robur" ("Faith and Strength"), it was "C'era una volta il Ociente" ("Once Upon a Time in the West"). When you'd be on location recess, and even shooting, these priests would come out of the woodwork that I hadn't seen since the day I left the place. The last time they were whacking me. But it was odd going back and filming there.
iW: You spent ten years in London mainly as a commercials director. How useful has it been for your narrative work?
Walsh: My commercials aren't necessarily that glossy, they're performance commercials -- they're gag- or comedy-led commercials. The Bass ale ones are just basically people sitting around taking the piss out of each other in the pub, which is very Irish, and very representative of what goes on in pubs. There were no product shots, so I treated them like a little bit of drama, a little sort of slice of life.
iW: Your shorts, however, are highly politicized and, when they were made, timely and topical. Having worked in both mediums, have you found that TV provides a better avenue for that sort of immediacy?
Walsh: Yes. And I think TV is more effective, because it gets into peoples' homes whether they like it or not and they're confronted by it. Northern Ireland does not work in the cinema. People do not go to see films about Northern Ireland. The only two films they did actually see that were about Northern Ireland were "The Crying Game," which is set in London, and "In the Name of the Father," which had Daniel Day Lewis and a topical story. But it's difficult to get people to see them, in Britain particularly, which is where it matters because basically it's a British-Irish conflict. So TV is a much better option. My shorts were political: I was living in London at the time and it was before the Guilford Four and Birmingham Six were released. So "Bossanova Blues" was about three people, like the Winchester Three, who were stitched up. It was reflective of a particular time for Irish people in England. I think there are very interesting stories about refugees in Ireland: We were emigrants in the UK and were treated like refugees so now all of a sudden immigrants have come to Ireland and there's interesting stories there. That's what I'd be interested in and that's the project I'd want to do next.
iW: You've done a fair bit of TV drama work prior to this debut film foray. As a director, how differently do you have to compromise yourself for TV over film?
Walsh: Some of it is obviously money. I think [Channel 4's] "The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star" had a better budget than "When Brendan Met Trudy," to be honest. In terms of shooting, unfortunately you've got to actually get in close for what they're saying and you're told to. And the main difference between directing for TV and film is that as a director in TV, you are given no respect. You are treated like everybody else on the set; you're just another cog in the machine. The writer is king; whereas in cinema, the director is king and the writer's a nobody, generally speaking. If you ask anybody on the street in Ireland or the UK to name one TV writer, I guarantee they'd probably be able to name Jimmy McGovern ["Hillsborough," "Cracker"], Dennis Potter ["The Singing Detective"], Lynda LaPlante ["Prime Suspect"], Bryan Elsley ["The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star"], but ask them to name a TV director and they wouldn't be able to. Yet ask them to name a film director, Spielberg will come up, Hitchcock will come up, but no writers: they wouldn't be able to tell you who wrote the films. So the only way I can approach making films is: "Is this the type of film I would like to see if I was to go to the cinema?" If it's yes, well then I can make it. It's the only way I can separate the wheat from the chaff.
iW: So how did you work with Roddy Doyle, especially as regards doing back-and-forths, rewrites and the like?
Walsh: Roddy is very definite about what he wants to say, but he's very, very open and will listen to reason. He's not precious, although he should be, because his work is so good. If you explain the situation to him -- this is what we need here, what you've written doesn't really work, or it could work better if you do it this way -- he'll automatically get the pen out and start going at it. I have been in situations that have been awful, but he was great. Roddy had some peculiar things he wanted to include in the film like the telly headlines: the gay Orangeman is his. Nun with a gun is his. And the news headlines comes in: you see the nun with a gun and explosions and then it says "But first the headlines." She goes on "An Irish band has topped the British charts, the Irish economy is going from strength to strength and a UN official says he loves Ireland." That was all Roddy's and again that was a bit of a pinprick to the Celtic Tiger.
iW: You're in the midst of an active Irish filmmaking sector. How do you assess the health of Irish film at present and what sort of themes do you see being explored by Irish filmmakers?
Walsh: I think there's a little bit more confidence as a result of the financial situation in Ireland at the minute, or in Dublin anyway. The confidence people have, because they have money in their pockets, is reflected in the films, books and music. Sometimes the confidence turns into something smug, which is what's happening more and more, which is what Roddy and myself really wanted to have a go at in "When Brendan Met Trudy" -- to let the air out a bit. But it's a small country and there's always going to be a small amount of indigenous Irish films made. More people like Roddy and Pat McCabe that write screenplays that seem to have an international appeal. Those guys don't think about what's going to have international appeal; they just write and it just appeals. They're not that contrived. Roddy just says, "I'm having fun here, I want to do this and it works." We can literally afford to laugh now which is nice, and we can afford to laugh at ourselves. And the more films that are made and the more money that's about means that we're not as precious with film stock or with film any more. The reason most of the films that came out of Ireland before the last couple of years were so serious and conscientious, was because it was so rare to get a film made and it was so expensive that you said, "I've got all this money I'd better bloody say something serious," instead of feeling free to have a laugh about it if you wanted to. So that's what's going to happen more and more in Ireland, I would hope: that we'd be free to laugh. It's happening in Northern Ireland, which is great and I made a short for the BBC which was the first film that was made after the [first] ceasefire [in August 1994], which was a comedy, "Out of the Deep Pan." They'd never made a comedy before and Northern Ireland people were just laughing at themselves and their predicament. More of that is needed.
[Paul Power (Blackrock College, class of '83, and still a lousy second-row rugby player) is Managing Editor of The Independent Film and Video Monthly.]