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Pictiúr Paradiso: IFTA-winner Terry McMahon on the films that shaped him
2015-07-10 : Paul Byrne
Terry McMahon
The man behind the IFTN-winning ‘Patrick’s Day’ takes us through those films that shaped him.

The Tesla-bothering Thomas Edison once said that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, but somehow, Terry McMahon has managed to even up the scale a little. To somewhere close to 95% inspiration and 91% perspiration.

After tax breaks, of course.

From the outset, with 2011’s highly-divisive, no-budget psycho thriller Charlie Casanova, McMahon played it loud. And when it came to talking about his work, he played it proud. That combination of walking the walk and talking the talk paid off handsomely this year, with the IFTA-winning, highly-acclaimed ‘Patrick’s Day’, out now on DVD.

One of Ireland’s most outspoken young filmmakers, it’s lucky then that McMahon is also one of our most articulate. So, when given the task by IFTN to come up with the map of films that led him here, well, we knew he wouldn’t disappoint...

Terry McMahon: When I was asked to make a list of formative films in advance for our DVD release of Patrick’s Day, five hundred movies immediately jockeyed for position. By the time those movies had been sifted through, the list had been reduced to two thousand. Then I decided, why not put together a list to make me look like an intellectual genius but, though I might be a fan of Bergman, and ‘The Bicycle Thief’ is a masterpiece, I know f**k all about Tarkovsky (including how to spell his name), and the formative movies that moved me most were as much defined by the personal context in which they were viewed as by their mastery. So, out of that list of three thousand films – yeah, I know – here’s a random ten + one.

Sleeping Beauty (USA 1959/G/75mins)

The first big screen cinema experience of early childhood, I remember the Queen scaring the s**t out of me but also giving my unformed sphincter a little tingle. Might have set the tone for the rest of my f**king life.

Batman: The Movie (USA 1966/PG/105mins)

Like everyone else on the street, we had a dodgy black and white television, but my old man was a movie lover and he was the first on the street to get a colour television - on hire purchase. Which means the poor bastard probably paid eighty times the original price – but when the television installer turned off our black and white in the middle of a Batman movie we went nuts. He assured us it would be worth it but we bitched anyway then he clicked on the new box and, like Dorothy stepping into the Technicolor world of OZ, our world changed.

Decades later, I ended up as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spear carrier on Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and still get occasional British Actors Equity residual cheques, which, when you’re as broke as we often are, brings that Technicolor right back to our dinner table.

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (USA 1971/G/100mins)

As kids we lived in a working class estate at the back of a vast mental hospital and some of the patients roamed the area on day-release before returning for lockdown. Most of them were harmless and some were magnificent.

Adoring Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and hating the musical genre, I remember sitting down to watch this film knowing that it was going to be a piece of s**t. Then Gene Wilder walked onto screen. This wasn’t how movie stars were supposed to look. Sure, he was dressed in all the purple wankery of Wonka, but, with those bizarre comb-over ginger curls, and that knowing broken smile, he looked like one of those day-release patients.

With the screenplay also by Dahl, this is one those rare occasions where the movie is better than the book, and the sequence near the end where Wonka becomes enraged at Charlie for the betrayal was as visceral for us kids as anything from an R-rated movie. Our hearts were pounding in incomprehension at Wonka’s destructive actions - and Wilder’s very adult rage - but when it is revealed as a double bluff and Wonka embraces the boy, we were too young to realize we’d just had our first lesson in dramatic irony.

Much later I was given a copy of the maligned Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx, with Wilder playing an Irish s**t-collector courting a high class Trinity dame, but, if you ever get the chance to watch it, do yourself a favour, it’s a sublime piece of work. If you haven’t yet experienced Tim Burton’s reworking of Wonka and get the chance to watch it, do yourself a favour and don’t.

Dawn of the Dead (Italy/USA 1978/18/127mins)

Every Sunday morning our folks were pressured into bringing us kids to mass but the freethinking, pleasure-loving hedonists that they occasionally were meant they’d slip us out the back door and sneak us a hundred yards down the road to Caulfields Bar. The place was a madhouse but we loved it, particularly because they had one of those huge projection screen televisions and little interest in protecting the delicate psychology of us children.

High on the sick sugar of Coca Cola and the adrenaline of being a child in an uninhibited adult world I remember watching the zombies on the screen and finding it impossible to differentiate between them and the drunks in the bar. At eight years old I’d had my first introduction to political metaphor but was too busy clenching my butt cheeks to curtail the diarrhea-inducing fear to give a f**k.

12 ANGRY MEN (USA 1957/G/96mins)

Shortly after progressing to a colour television, my old man insisted one Saturday afternoon that I sit down and watch a movie with him. He rarely if ever did that so, as I was basking in this newfound father-son embrace, the opening credits began to roll on 12 Angry Men, and I railed against the film being in black and white. He wanted to beat me half to death, and he was right. Luckily, he spared my life, because the movie was more important; he could always kill me later.

A film about law and prejudice where one man nobly defends the disenfranchised, maybe I wanted to impress my old man, or maybe it was the beginning of becoming an irritating p***k who wants to push everything beyond its obvious manifestation, but I remember thinking that if noble Henry Fonda was in fact the Devil then the film could be a searing indictment of the Machiavellian manipulations of a deaf, dumb and acquiescent community. So, halfway through the film, with all the fervor of a young dumb-f**k who thinks he has stumbled onto the true nature of being, I loudly explained this theory to my old man. The poor bastard must have regretted ever having had a son.

Later, our first film Charlie Casanova pretty much explored that identical theme and my old man hated it. After it was released to critical evisceration in Ireland, we somehow ended up at a festival in Australia together. During the screening we were at the free bar knocking back booze like it was a national necessity and, as he stopped on the way back from the piss house, he had a little listen at the door of the screen then slipped inside. He was gone for twenty minutes and, when he came back, he ordered another drink and, without making eye contact, gave the closest thing to a compliment that he ever could. “That film might not be the piece of s**t I thought it was.”

ON THE WATERFRONT (USA 1954/G/108mins)

As a kid I despised my metrosexual forename. Having had a bad stammer, any time I pronounced a word beginning with the letter “T” my mouth would clamp in humiliating paralysis so, whenever I was asked my name, that ugly red flush would rise up my face and I’d struggle to spit out “Terry”. Apparently my mother named me after the writer Terence Rattigan, but what awkward, stuttering kid gives a f**k about some dead writer. I wished I’d been christened a more manly name like Steve or Kurt, or whatever the name of the moment was. Then I saw On The Waterfront and there had never been a more magnificent manifestation of balls-out masculinity on a movie screen than Marlon Brando as the hoodlum boxer who defies all limitations to become heroic; and, yeah, you guessed it, the magnificent motherf**ker’s name was Terry. And, when the stunning Eva Marie Saint repeatedly bellows out his name in the movie’s climax I momentarily thought that maybe my mother hadn’t given her son a nonce’s name after all. Momentarily.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (USA 1946/G/130mins)

It was Christmas morning and I had graduated to being a teenager living alone in a s**t-hole bedsit feeling sorry for myself. Somebody threw out a tiny television and I stuck a coat hanger in the back to see if there was any life in the tube. There were only two channels, RTE 1 and RTE 2, which was like being offered death by one bullet in the head or two. Mass was on the first channel - yes, live televised mass if you can believe that - and, just as I tuned in the second channel, the announcer introduced some “seasonal classic” I’d never heard of. Lonely, hungry and angry at the whole f**king world I was in no mood for some crass Christmas cheer. Two hours later, I was sobbing into my chest and wanted more than anything in the universe to fall in love, have a family and be saved by an angel.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (USA 1975/15A/133mins)

Some movies are intellectual treatises on the nature of mankind, some are smokescreen sideshows to distract us from the savagery of being alone, and some are a visceral punch to the core of what it means to be human; to have all three makes a masterpiece. Cuckoo’s Nest hit me like a train.

Years later, when we made Patrick’s Day, cinematographer supreme Michael Lavelle and I studied three films in pre-production; The Graduate, Punch Drunk Love and Cuckoo’s Nest, and when Michael won Best Cinematographer at The Woodstock Film Festival for Patrick’s Day, who should award him but the cinematographer of Cuckoo’s Nest himself, Haskell Wexler.

MIDNIGHT RUN (USA 1988/PG/126mins)

I signed on for social welfare on my eighteenth birthday, and, for the first time since I was fifteen, I had a miniscule sense of security. After buying s**t food for the week, my dole would be meticulously split between movies, books and cigarettes. Instead of multiplexes there were lots of cinemas around the city and, once you got in the front door, it was easy to stay for the rest of the day. I often watched movies multiple times, and smoking was allowed, so I’d enter in daylight with a fresh pack of smokes and cough my way back out to the darkness with one remaining cigarette for the stroll home.

I knew nothing about Midnight Run. Robert DeNiro was in it, yeah, but the cartoon poster outside wasn’t promising and buddy movies weren’t my thing. Then Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro, supported by dream cast and golden screenplay, did their thing and I remember the glee of discovering a gem. The scene where Jack Walsh is forced to revisit his ex-wife and meet his daughter for the first time in years, leading to a humiliating shouting match, stunned the cinema and introduced me to subversive pathos in comedy.

There’s also a moment on the bus between the two leads where DeNiro looks directly into the lens and says, “I can’t believe this guy”. I’ve seen several major actors do this and, if that moment of breaking the illusory “fourth wall” is chosen correctly, it can create an incredibly personal connection between the viewer and the character. Later, when we made Charlie Casanova we had Emmett Scanlan semi-address the audience via a video confession but, on Patrick’s Day, we have Kerry Fox look directly into lens for a large sequence of a monologue before revealing she is talking to somebody other than us. We were afraid it might be pushing the subversion of the fourth wall too far but, no, audiences have embraced it.

After I left the cinema, having watched Midnight Run twice, and lit that final cigarette, I realized I was hunching my shoulders just like the bounty hunter from the movie. As I strolled home, I couldn’t stop walking like him either. Robert DeNiro, the f**k, has done that to a million young men and this new inhabitation was as exciting as it was frustrating. Soon afterwards, I was terrified doing it, but I joined an acting class.

AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (New Zealand/Australia/UK 1990/15A/158mins)

A ginger-haired, awkward, wanna-be writer, plagued by increasing paranoia and dislocation, Kerry Fox as Janet Frame was the female version of me at the time. Few films ever connected as personally as this one and I’m still half afraid to watch it now because it holds so many memories.

When we set out to make Patrick’s Day, and our casting director Rebecca Roper asked who I wanted to play Patrick’s mother, the idea of even saying Kerry Fox’s name, much less asking for her, was out of the question. Rory Gilmartin in the Film Board convinced me to write Kerry a letter and Rebecca got it to her with the script. Twenty-four-hours later Kerry Fox asked me to come to London for the day. When I realized I was going to visit the woman from An Angel At My Table, I didn’t sleep for two days.

Turns out she’s a goddamn goddess and gives one of the performances of her life in Patrick’s Day. Still can’t believe that happened.

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (Ireland/UK/USA 1993/15A/133mins)

Republicanism is something to be ashamed off. That’s what we’d been taught. Fighting back against an occupying force is for fools. That’s what we’d been taught. Lie down and take it in the ass. That’s what we’d been taught. The Crying Game had been released the year before yet, despite the great screenplay, Jordan’s dehumanized directing damaged that film. Then Jim Sheridan told everyone to go f**k themselves with a film so swaggering with cinematic bravado and narrative balls that he briefly shook the British establishment and woke us all up to our potential.

I remember sitting in the cinema and marveling at the courage of depicting Daniel Day Lewis’s Conlon as a fool before taking us on the journey of how he would become a sort of hero. Watching that opening sequence where he steals lead from the rooftops, utterly indifferent to the horrors of occupation below him, and badly plays Jimi Hendrix on the broken piece of pipe, you’re thinking to yourself, this bloke’s a bona fide asshole. Then, Conlon’s arrogance shattered by a gunshot from a British sniper, Sheridan blasts out the real Jimi Hendrix to a montage that will pound your chest and prejudices - and you realize that Irish cinema had just stood proud on the world stage and decided, like McGregor, that it’s not here to take part, it’s here to take over.

In the end the Irish invasion didn’t happen – some damn good actors and directors made it through but talent like Jim Sheridan’s comes once a century - yet I remember leaving the cinema at the time and wanting to join a revolutionary movement. I never did, but, when I see the devastation being visited on the vulnerable by our own government right now, I wonder when we’ll find the courage they had in Northern Ireland to fight the f**k back.

The IFTA-winning and critically acclaimed PATRICK’S DAY is available to purchase on DVD in stores across Ireland including HMV, Xtravision, Tesco, Heatons, Golden Discs, Tower Records and the Irish Film Institute. It will also be available to buy online on Amazon and WildCardDistribution.com

The hugely controversial CHARLIE CASANOVA is available in HMV and Tower Records





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