Irish writer/director/producer Terry McMahon returned from the Galway Film Fleadh victorious, after his debut feature ‘Charlie Casanova’ won Best First Feature, a prize that was shared with Darragh Byrne’s ‘Parked’. In his IFTN Insiders Diary McMahon documents his ‘Charlie Casanova’ experience at the Fleadh, from remembering the polarised responses to the film (with one reviewer calling it “intolerable”) to the ultimate reward as ‘Charlie Casanova’ came away with festival honours.
Thursday 7th July
The Galway Film Fleadh’s Irish premiere of Charlie Casanova was only two days away and my sphincter was already beginning to tighten with fear. To use that glorious euphemism, Charlie Casanova is “a difficult film” that has divided audiences and critics into such profound extremes they have even started fighting between themselves at the post screening Q&As. Made out of frustration at too many green-lit projects falling apart and rage at the destruction of our country, Charlie Casanova was rejected by the Film Board at script stage. The Board has been and continues to be exceptionally generous to several of my other projects so I knew it wasn’t personal but I felt there was something new in Charlie Casanova and, recognising that nobody was ever going to make it, I decided to make it myself, with no money, an unknown cast, and using only available source light. Shot in eleven days and edited over a couple of months, we were virgins in a whorehouse but, when the Board still rejected the completed film, that shook my confidence that the film had something to say to audiences.
Terry with Fleadh programmer Gar O'Brien
A fractured narrative about a fractured man with a fractured state of mind, Charlie Casanova was never going to be an easy sell but I was now afraid nobody was ever going to give a damn about this tiny film, much less see it screened in a cinema. Then, Richie Smyth passed a DVD onto heavyweight UTA agent, David Flynn, in Los Angeles, and he saw something in it that others weren’t seeing. He told me the one place I should submit Charlie Casanova to was SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Janet Pierson runs the festival, but she is also the godmother of modern American independent cinema, having, with her husband John, facilitated the first films of Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Michael Moore and Kevin Smith. Janet had a visceral response to Charlie Casanova and suddenly we became the first Irish film ever selected for competition at the SXSW Film Festival. Charlie Casanova was catapulted out of obscurity but when we didn’t win any awards and the Variety critic hated the film so much he used the word “intolerable” three times in his opening review sentence, I thought we were dead in the water. But there was one brave man who, in his inaugural year as programmer, didn’t give a damn about conservative critics, all he passionately cared about was the future of Irish cinema and he picked Charlie Casanova even before our SXSW screenings. Gar O’Brien, of the Galway Film Fleadh festival, had stones big enough to select this film and Miriam Allen, the legendarily astute head of the festival, had stones big enough to show the film. We were back off the canvas, and had even received some counter balancing brilliant reviews, but, after the mauling in Variety, I feared the humiliation of getting permanently knocked out on our home turf at our Irish premiere.
Having bummed a Dublin lift from a generous friend, I arrived in Galway in the early evening and, trekking around in the rain with a good mate and his daughter, we put posters, provided by another mate, up everywhere we could. The staff, without exception couldn’t have been warmer. I stayed in my mate’s place and he and his wife and kids were so astonishingly kind to me I almost forgot the fear. Almost. We drank great wine, ate great grub, and I had my first taste of many of Galway hospitality. There is no production company behind Charlie Casanova which also means there isn’t a dime available for any kind of advertising or promotional material. I knew I had scheduled meetings with important movie folk at the Galway Film Fair, but, with two empty pockets and a vacant bank account, I also knew I was in trouble. I went to Pound World and bought a series of transparent sleeves that had a purpose built section for a business card and I slipped one of the A4 Charlie Casanova posters, along with the homemade duplicate DVD, and the business card, into the wallet, zipped up its cheap plastic zip, looked at it and felt like a loser. The DVD had Charlie Casanova hand-scrawled onto it for Christ’s sake. I felt again like that amateur boxer with homemade, third-rate gloves, getting into a ring with the heavyweights, which is probably why, despite the beautifully copious wine, I barely slept that night.
Emmet Scanlan in Charlie Casanova
Friday 8th July
In the past I have worked in several hotels and you get to the point where, regardless of stars and jingles, all hotels become the same. All hotels except the Galway Radisson Blue. Paula, the wonder-woman who takes care of living and transport demands of the festival is effortlessly warm and witty and she is an expert on looking after the needs of the needy. The hotel room was balls-out beautiful, the blue steak at the bar a work of art, and the staff imbued the entire place with a gorgeous atmosphere. I threw everything on the bed, and took out the official brochure for the festival, flicking through pages to find Charlie Casanova, and thereit was, a full page dedicated to us, side by side with another full page taken out by Windmill Lane congratulating Charlie Casanova. I grinned like a kid on Christmas who gets a surprise toy better than he could have imagined. Windmill Lane didn’t even tell me they had taken out a full-page ad and it’s one of the classiest things anybody has ever done for me. The debt this film owes to the staff, management and owners of Windmill Lane is impossible to exaggerate and, when we were ignored by so many, they became our champions - remarkable people in a remarkable company.
I spread out the transparent folders for the upcoming meetings, breathed deep, blue-tacked a territorial poster of the film on the outside of my door and went down stairs for my first meeting in the ballroom. I really had no idea if the Film Fair would be of any benefit to the film or me but, for any of you who haven’t done it before, trust me, it’s a magnificent form of pragmatic engagement. And it even seemed nobody balked at my Pound World presentation either. Or maybe they just waited for me to leave before thinking, Jesus, what kind of amateur hour movie is this bloke peddling? Informally meeting the head of the festival, Miriam Allen, for the first time that night, she was a revelation. Uninhibited, sharply insightful, with balls big as church bells, she is the embodiment of everything that is iconoclastic about the Galway Film Fleadh, and long may she reign. Despite attempts to anaesthetize my ever-increasing fear with ever-increasing alcohol I went bed at about 6 a.m. with the sobriety of a dead man walking. I slept for about 40 minutes and, during that time, dreamed of being awake, so it was a waste. The next morning’s meetings were about to begin and I was already raw as sushi. Only a matter of hours to go to our Saturday night premiere in the Town Hall.
Why the hell did I make a movie that inspires loathing and love in equal measure? Next time, I swore to myself, next time it would be a romance or a comedy. Then, the other thought hit me; there never would be a next time. The film will be despised and the only thing I’ll be making is the bed in the guest rooms of the hotels I’ll be looking for work in after a disastrous premiere. Maybe the Radisson Blue might hire me? “You want to work here? Aren’t you the filmmaker who stayed here but got run out of town for making that piece of shit, Charlie Casablanca?” Despite the generosity of the Film Board paying for the cost of the 35mm print, maybe they were right about the film; maybe it as a piece of shit.
Terry McMahon and Emmet Scanlan on set
Saturday 9th July
Began early with the meetings and the folk today were as impressive as those yesterday, but they must have seen the beads of perspiration on my forehead as the combined alcohol and fear began to imprint itself in a glistening dance on my skin. Only a few hours to go and the angels and devils roaring for attention in my head were getting worse. Maybe I could get the lunchtime train back to Dublin and lock myself away in a room for a few months until everybody had forgotten the disastrous screening? Shut the hell up, wipe away the sweat, and listen to what the man in front of you is teaching you. One major distributor or sales-agent after another, magnificent men and women who run companies that can change the life of a film, and all I could do was try to wince away the migraine pain of the wailing duologues in my head. I even stopped giving a damn about the transparent sleeves and the ridiculous hand-written DVDs. They would all know pretty soon just how bad the film is and the game would be up. Why the hell did Gar O’Brien have to pick this damn movie of mine? Why couldn’t he be happy enough just being a handsome, charismatic bastard, why did he have to give lifelines to drowning filmmakers? Just nod and smile, nod and smile, you fool. That’s what I kept saying to myself to drown out the cacophonic couple inside. Just smile and nod.
Some of the cast and crew began to arrive and with them they brought their collective magic. All films are a battle but Charlie Casanova was our ‘Nam’ and some of us we were soul brothers because of it. Emmett Scanlan, who plays Charlie, swaggered into the hotel like the star he has deservedly become and we embraced. Sometimes you don’t know just how much you’ve missed someone until the moment you see them again. Then the delight that is Valeria Bandino arrived and, as men yearned for her and women yearned to be her, Johnny Elliott and Tony Murphy, two of the most open-minded, funniest, complete wack jobs a man could have the honour of knowing, exploded into the hotel with the tenacity of two men taking no prisoners. The party had begun but I feared it was going to turn into a wake. I had dinner with Janet Pierson, who was such an advocate of the film, she had flown to Galway to introduce it tonight. Can you believe that? Sometimes angels are right in front of us. We began to make our way down to the screening; me, my missus, the cast and crew and other fantastic lads and ladettes who had come to support us, and though I felt I was going to puke with the fear, I kept thinking, just smile and nod.
Terry McMahon introducing Charlie Casanova
The screening had already sold out but evidently a few folk hadn’t been able to extricate themselves from the comfort of their barstools because there were a couple of empty seats, however, there was a palpable sense of something extraordinary in the air when Gar O’Brien stepped up to begin the proceedings. Explaining that he “felt dirty” when he first viewed Charlie Casanova he described how he felt compelled to re-watch it ten minutes later and then watched it another five times because of the complexity of emotions it generated within him. Then he introduced Janet Pierson and she read out the original screener’s report from her iPhone who ended a series of passionate description of the film by describing Charlie Casanova as “Probably the most effecting thing I have seen all year.” All the while I’m standing there thinking, Jesus, don’t big it up so much, they’re going to hate it even more. Janet introduced me and I took to the stage with a bottle of beer in my hand and the only words I could think of in my mouth, “It’s all fucking downhill from here.” The movie started and I was expecting the standard walkouts after fifteen minutes but nobody moved. Same after half an hour. Then and hour. Then the movie was over and during the last long final shot nobody moved until a dedication to my mother, who had died during postproduction, came up on screen: ‘Dedicated to Brenda McMahon 1950 – 2010.’ A woman stood up but she didn’t leave, she just began to applaud. Then another bloke stood up and started to whistle those spine-shredding whistles that some blokes can do. Then somebody shouted out a roar so primal it was impossible to tell if it was pain or pleasure. And that’s when it happened, the sound of seat after seat folding back on themselves as people joined each other in giving Charlie Casanova a standing ovation.
Sunday 10th July
I think we went to bed about 6 a.m. but we were up and out early because sleep was impossible. I met Miriam Allen and, when she enquired about the screening, I told her how stunned we were at the response but she shrugged as if it was the most natural response in the world, “Audiences will tell you when it’s a great film. It’s no surprise to me they loved it.” I kissed her on the head for probably the hundredth time that weekend. What a woman. I spoke with one of the heavyweight sales agents and he told me the film had, “knocked him on his ass” and he would be making a formal offer in the coming days. (Which he did.)
We needed a breakfast beer to stop the hangover horror of sobriety creeping up so a gang of us arrived at Ti Neachtains where we were treated to the kind of Guinness that makes a man want to never drink anything else again. The award ceremony was on tonight and, though we hadn’t a hope in hell of winning anything, we still felt proud to be part of the festival and honoured to be shoulder to shoulder with such remarkable movies. Peter O’Toole’s daughter was presenting, and to be only once removed from the genius of that man was, in itself, awe inspiring. The Guard was announced as ‘Best Irish Film’ and I was delighted for Ed Guiney who had been very generous to us on Charlie Casanova. Then it came to ‘Best First Feature’ and it was explained that the award would be given to two films this year, and, for the first time, I allowed myself the pinch of yearning I hadn’t allowed before. Parked was called out and, as the lovely producers went up to receive their award and have their picture taken, the wait was interminable. You’re up against some great films this year, you fool, films that have gone to The Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, you muppet, films that have been produced by the mythical Jim Stark, you imbecile, films that…then miss O’Toole raised her head, grinned a little and read out ”Charlie Casanova!” To Miriam, Gar, Windmill Lane and the 2011 Galway Film Fleadh, we are in your debt, because though we were merely your servants, you crowned Charlie Casanova king.