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Harvey Has a Headrush
16 Mar 2000 :
There's a point in every big project when you think things will never get finished - pack it in, the jobs too big. It can be a depressing time. Finally for Shimmy Marcus that's far behind him now and in the true tradition of famine or feast, he's wrapping it all up in the same month. Gary Quinn reports.

This week he picks up the Miramax Scriptwriting Award for his feature script, Headrush. Last week he won Best Short at the New York Film Fleadh for Seventh Heaven and in about two weeks time he will finish final-post on a four-year love affair with his documentary on the life and times of Aidan Walsh. You probably don't remember who that is but you might remember his biggest hit, The Community Games or Have you ever given money away? We'll come back to that later.

Meanwhile, Miramax. For months now people have been speculating as to the winner of this years award. Normally presented at the now defunct Film Ball in December, people had all but given up hope of finding out who the winner was - including Shimmy Marcus himself. "I was going to Scotland to do the Moonstone directors course and the day before I left my producer Edwina Forkin said I should send the script in. I threw it in an envelope and gave it to someone and said, if they have a chance drop that in for me. Then I forgot all about it until I got the phone call," he explains smiling.


"…anything that can go wrong, does go wrong…"

Described as a quirky black comedy, the story centres on two youths in Dublin who, trying to solve all their problems, decide to do a courier run for a drugs baron, bringing drugs from Amsterdam to Dublin. "It owes a lot to the caper movies, the Ealing comedies of the 1950's. The lead characters come up with this mad plan and, true to Murphys law, anything that can go wrong does go wrong."

Shimmy Marcus hasn't had a formal film training and considers his first short Seventh Heaven to have been, in effect, his film school. Over the years he had been experimenting with a second hand home video camera. When making Seventh Heaven he wanted to bring his love of film and the quirky style he had developed filming family and friends to the big screen. "It was a very different experience because Seventh Heaven was the first time I'd worked in drama. It was the first time I'd worked with actors, or on a film set. I think the only thing that didn't change was my idea of style, how I would do things." Marcus explained. Although on a very limited budget he insisted on shooting on 35mm because he was conscious that his first short could make or break his career. "It was my calling card. We worked as hard as we could to avoid making mistakes on set. We didn't have time to shoot loads of extra stuff to give an editor different choices. You just shoot the story as concisely as you can."


"…I'm honestly surprised that I won it…"

The one training course where he believes he can root his success is the New York Scriptwriting course held annually in UCD. A six-week course based on the model developed by NYU it focuses new writers to the scriptwriting format. Although wary of identifying the beginnings of a trend, he does point out that he is the second graduate of this course to have won the Miramax award. He believes that there should be more courses like this for scriptwriting. If he were to identify a skills gap in Irish filmmaking he would have to say that it is in scriptwriting. Being careful to state the obvious fact that Ireland produces great numbers of successful writers, they aren't necessarily screenwriters. "I think that there has to be a huge emphasis on screenwriting and addressing it as a particular science and technique which is far removed from other writing such as poetry, novels or plays. It's a completely different world. I know that it sounds horribly formulaic but there are buttons to be pushed [during a film], and the skill of a great script is that those buttons, well you don't see them," he explains.

Despite his win with Miramax he doesn't yet include himself in the realm of great scriptwriters. "I'm honestly surprised that I won it because I don't think that my script is of a good enough standard," he says with happy resignation.


"…they see it as a product…"

Marcus is particularly interested in the definition of an Irish film - what sets Ireland apart from other nations output. "Is it something which addresses uniquely Irish problems, uniquely Irish characters? My film is set in Ireland with Irish characters discussing a culture which they grow up in but it could be set anywhere in the world. I don't think there is anything uniquely Irish about it. I don't know if they [Miramax] see it as an Irish film, they see it as a product with an Irish angle."

"I'm certainly very conscious that I'm an Irish filmmaker, making a film in Ireland with hopefully Irish cast and crew but it's a universal story. Its written so that someone in outer Mongolia can get just as much of a kick out of it, without feeling alienated, that they don't understand the world the characters are in," he explains.

With Headrush set to go into production in June there will be little time to relax and enjoy the glamour of winning awards. Apart from clearing his debts, the Miramax prize money of £10,000 will also be invested in his documentary project. After four years of research and development he will finally bring it to fruition this month. Based on the story of Aidan Walsh, a 1980's pop sensation, the story charts much deeper than simply the singers hits. "He recorded his album, The Life Story of My Life, with Gavin Friday and Simon Carmody and suddenly people like Gerry Ryan and Dave Fanning became involved in promoting him. When I got to talk to him I discovered that there was way more to this guy than meets the eye. Bit by bit as he got to trust me, he told me his life story. It blew me away." Shimmy Marcus explains.


"…we had to beg borrow and steal…"

Initially he wanted to make a feature so he made a ten-minute short based on Aidan Walshe's life and sent it to the Irish Film Board for development money. "They wrote back saying that they weren't going to give me development money, we think its ready for production, we'll give you a production loan if you can find a broadcaster," Marcus said. Charged by this turn of events the production team went all out to attract a broadcaster and get the film made. "No-one would touch it," he explained. "So we had to beg, borrow and steal and that's why its taken four years to get this far." Set to premiere on the big screen in the coming months it has been described by those who have seen it as an Irish spinal tap. "They think Aidan Walshe is an actor pretending to be this character and that we made all the press cuttings that we use ourselves. People can't believe that it's real," he laughs proudly, "Its an incredible life story that will appeal to a lot of people".

It's this project which Shimmy Marcus will be working on when the Miramax Award is announced. Working from Filmbase, an organisation which he considers to have given him tremendous help with his work, he is located within easy access to the IFC lobby. When star compere, Robbie Coltrane, announces his name he claims he will simply pop next door to pick up the award and then get back to work. The chances are though that he won't escape quite so readily - and I don't think that just this once he will particularly mind.



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