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Special Feature: The Irish Invade Sundance
21 Jan 2011 : by Aileen Moon
Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson in The Guard
Four Irish projects are this year representing the Emerald Isle at the Sundance International Film Festival. Element Picture’s latest feature, ‘The Guard’ is joining IFTA nominated shorts ‘Small Change’ and ‘The External World’ and feature doc ‘Knuckle’. IFTN spoke with the projects’ directors and producers to discuss their journeys to the festival and what they hope to get out of the international market event.

‘The Guard’, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (Ned Kelly), sees Emmy and IFTA winner Brendan Gleeson (Into the Storm) playing an unorthodox Irish policeman who joins forces with Don Cheadle’s straitlaced FBI agent in a bid to take on an international drug-smuggling gang. The film’s other Irish acting talents include IFTA winners Liam Cunningham (Hunger), Fionnula Flanagan (Lost, Transamerica), Pat Shortt (Garage) and David Wilmot (Intermission, The Clinic).

'The Guard' is an Irish/UK co-production, backed by the Irish Film Board and section 481 as well as International Financiers. It is produced by Chris Clark and Flora Fernandez Marengo for Reprisal Films and Ed Guiney (Garage) and Andrew Lowe (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) for Element Pictures. Producer Ed Guiney is hoping for a repeat performance of the TV drama, ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ which he brought to Sundance in 2009 and which lead to him and the team leaving with the festival’s World Cinema Screenwriting Award for Guy Hibbert (Omagh) and the World Cinema Directing Award for Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall).

Small Change

‘The Guard’ was given the opening film slot at this year’s event which Ed is delighted about, “It’s very exciting,” he tells us. “It suggests a certain faith that the organisers have in the film. And I just hope we live up to the expectations now!” Since the screening the film has already received rave reviews from publications such as The Los Angeles Times who reported that film buyers flocked to the sold out screening “like moths to a flame, making it a fitting festival launch,” whilst Variety praised lead actor Brendan Gleeson, saying: “It's Gleeson who rightly owns the screen as a beer-swilling, crotch-grabbing, Derringer-firing crusader with one hell of a filthy mouth to go along with his heart of gold.”

IFTA nominated short, ‘Small Change’, starring Nora Jane Noone (The Magdalene Sisters), is written and directed by Cathy Brady and is competing in the festival’s International Narrative Shorts category. It tells the bittersweet tale of a young single mother who becomes bored with routine. So much so that she becomes secretly addicted to slot machines. With Christmas looming, a desperate hope for a big win sees her life spiral out of control. The film has already started to create a buzz across the pond with director Cathy Brady describing how “since the invitation from Sundance, the film has generated a lot of interest, we’ve had people from all corners of the world getting in touch.”

Produced by Tommy Fitzpatrick, the film recently featured at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, and also at the Cork Film Festival, where Cathy won the Claire Lynch Award for Best First-Time Irish Director. Cathy, Tommy and the short’s lead actress, Nora Jane Noone (Savage) are all heading over to Sundance for the entire festival.  
Fellow IFTA nominated short, ‘The External World’ is being brought to the festival by director David O’Reilly. The animated short follows the story of a little boy learning to play the piano. The trip across the Atlantic will be a return visit to the festival for the Irish-born director who brought his other short film, ‘Please Say Something’ to screen at the event last year. As such, he has an idea of what to expect this year: I'm more relaxed about it this year,” he starts. “by the time I adjusted to the tempo there last year it was time to go! If you don't know what to expect there it can be overwhelming, or underwhelming as the case may be.”

‘The External World’ is directed by David who also co-wrote it with Vernon Chatman (Jackass: The Movie) and co-produced it with Henning Kamm (Father, Son and Holy Cow). The short’s music was composed by Brian Meindersma (4 Elements). It was recently chosen as the Venice Short Film Nominee for the European Film Awards and, as mentioned, also recently received an IFTA Animation nomination.

Ian Palmer’s feature documentary ‘Knuckle’ is competing in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition where it will receive its premiere alongside most of the other 12 features in the group. The film was directed, produced, shot and narrated by Ian over a 12 year period and examines the world of an Irish Traveller community. ‘Knuckle’ concentrates on the brutal, and secretive bare-knuckle fighting culture in the traveling community and chronicles a history of violent feuding between rival clans, focusing particularly on two brothers, James Quinn McDonagh and his younger brother, Michael.


Director Ian never really considered the film’s future when making it, as he tells us: “I never paid Sundance a huge amount of attention when we were making ‘Knuckle’ because it was always like the Oscars to me – really far away from anything I was doing,” he says. “It has been a central part of my life for the last 13 years. It started on a quiet country lane in County Louth in 1997 and now will finally emerge in the Rocky Mountains in Utah in 2011. It’s amazing!” ‘Knuckle’ was funded by the Irish Film Board and BBC Storyville. The film’s other producer is Teddy Leifer (Road to Las Vegas) and the feature is edited by Oliver Huddleston (Cowboys in India).

Though enormously busy with their own projects there is a display of support and pride from the filmmakers when we ask them about the other Irish projects going to Sundance.  Ed Guiney tells us “I’ve heard very good things about ‘Knuckle’ and of course ‘Small Change’ is a great Irish short.” Whilst Cathy Brady praises the other Irish short selected by the festival’s organisers, saying: “One I have seen which is a great laugh is ‘The External World’, it’s fantastic!”. On the other hand Ian Palmer confesses that ‘Knuckle’ has kept him out of the loop somewhat, where the Irish film industry is concerned and that there are now obstacles in his way: “I’d love to go to some of the other films but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get tickets!” he tells us. “I’ve had a look online and everything’s sold out! So I’m hoping I’ll be able to swap tickets to our film for tickets to other ones!”

An important part of Sundance is the promotion and marketing of projects. As such, our Irish filmmakers have been perfecting their business handshakes and are headed to the festival armed with the best power suits. Ed Guiney knows exactly what to expect and has several meetings lined up already whilst ‘Small Change’s Cathy Brady has a different approach: “I very much plan to take it as it comes,” she says. “I’m going to observe a lot and see exactly how to properly approach a festival and then hopefully have a feature in a few years to bring over!” Ian Palmer and his team have already started meeting with people, as he explains: “Our producer Teddy is over there at the moment and we’ve had a lot of meetings and phone calls happening already and we’ll be kept busy during the festival also I would imagine.” In a different move again, animator David will take things as they come, to a certain extent: Some meetings are planned already, but I prefer to meet people casually,” he says. “I'm not so good at planned ones, I sometimes feel like I'm going in for a job interview. I'm the world's worst person at selling myself.” 

Ireland enjoyed recent success at Sundance in that Ken Wardrop’s IFTA winning feature, 'His & Hers' scooped the prize for Excellence in Cinematography at last year’s event and received a host of positive reviews from the critics present. But what does this year’s batch of filmmakers expect from their sojourn at the festival? Both David and Ian are looking forward to showing their respective projects to an audience, the former telling us: “I look forward to watching it with the audience. Being able to sense the emotions and reactions of an audience is the best education you can get, it's both exciting and humiliating and keeps you on your toes.” 

Ian has similar hopes, alongside another wish: “Distribution everywhere would be great!” he decides. “Also I can’t wait to see an audience reaction to it because a number of people have seen it so far but they’ve all been industry people whereas at Sundance we’ll have audiences of people who have paid at the door. I hope it works, I’m very nervous at the moment.” ‘The Guard’s Ed Guiney is also acutely aware of the possibilities that the festival offers: “The film has sold very well internationally so far,” he tells us. “But the U.S. is one of the few territories where it hasn’t sold yet. So hopefully that will all change after the festival.”

The External World

On a final note we ask the filmmakers what it is that makes a Sundance screening so important to them and what they hope to get from the experience. The responses vary. ‘The External World’s David tells us The scale of it makes it stand out. If you want to make an independent film in the US it's the place to go, everyone is there.” Ed Guiney tells us that “It looks to do what Cannes does for Europe in that it’s extremely U.S. focused so it’s an excellent opportunity for forging and keeping U.S. relationships.” Ian has mixed feelings about the upcoming event: “Honestly, I couldn't think of a better place for the film to be premičred than at Sundance! That said, I feel like I’m heading into a boxing match – there’s a hundred butterflies in my tummy!” Finally, Cathy lends proceedings a very positive closing note, saying: “Small Change’ has achieved everything I could have hoped for so anything else that comes along will be a bonus. I mean, this time last year I was at home with an idea for the film and hoping that Nora Jane would take part, so it has just been amazing!”

The 2011 Sundance Film Festival launched in Utah on Thursday, January 20th and will run until January 30th. For a full list of nominated titles and for more information about the event visit www.sundance.org


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