There are few Irish directors working today whose name commands the same currency as that of Lenny Abrahamson.
Such is his growing stature in his native country, stamp ‘a Lenny Abrahamson film’ on to a cinema poster and you have enough to entice interest from the Irish film-going public.
On the eve of the release of ‘What Richard Did’ – only Abrahamson’s third feature – a certain wave of anticipation has built up around what the director behind ‘Adam & Paul’ and the remarkable ‘Garage’ has done next. The Irish Film Institute has deemed the 46-year-old Dubliner’s career to date worthy of a retrospective, while international publications from Rolling Stone to The Guardian and Variety are filling column inches with news of his upcoming fourth feature, ‘Frank’.
However, it’s to speak about ‘What Richard Did’ that the affable director has taken time out of his busying schedule for. Joining him in the plush confines of Dublin’s Residence members club is the film’s young lead, 20-year-old Jack Reynor, whose star is similarly beginning to have the glare of the international spotlight shone upon as the ink dries on his deal with the renowned Hollywood talent agency, William Morris Endeavor.
Loosely based on Kevin Power’s novel ‘Bad Day in Blackrock’, which in turn was inspired by the killing of 18-year-old Brian Murphy outside the Club Anabel nightclub in the Burlington Hotel 12 years ago, ‘What Richard Did’ follows Richard Karlsen, a privileged South Dublin teenager and student of a rugby-playing secondary school, whose world and, that of those around him, is shattered following a violent assault.
Beautifully shot and, featuring a stunning central performance from Reynor, it’s nonetheless a thorny subject matter for an Irish filmmaker to navigate around. Given the high profile and tragic death of Brian Murphy, Irish audiences will find it difficult to watch ‘What Richard Did’ without that case coming to mind.
“I think that’s true,” says Abrahamson. “I think that Irish audiences know that the best known case where a boy from that world was killed, is that case. I mean there are other ones actually - and our film is as close to or as far from them as it is Anabel - but that certainly will occur to audiences. There’s nothing that you can do about that, but what I can say is that there are no sort of characters in common and that the events are radically different. Then I can stand over it…and it is not wrong for people to consider or to want to think about those sorts of events, but it is a fictional film that relates to those kind of events rather than a sort of fact-based film that relates to a specific one.”
I remembered similar boys from when I was in school
Having made his first feature, ‘Adam & Paul’, in his late thirties, Abrahamson says that, in taking on any work, “there’s often a little bit of a journey” before he decides to make something. ‘What Richard Did’ was no different, with Abrahamson describing the project as “a bit of a slow burn” in terms of spiking his interest. “What I found stuck in my mind was the character of Richard,” says the director who, like his central character, grew up in South Dublin, “and I was just really fascinated by this boy who I remembered.
“I remembered similar boys from when I was in school who were actually the ones that everyone loved the most and were the boys that were both kind of cool but also decent, you know that kind of thing? And yet there was a certain kind of sadness in Richard as well. I just kind of went off on one myself, in my own imagination, about that character and started to work with Malcolm Campbell [the screenwriter]. We came up with a kind of script that we thought was good; maybe not ready but sort of interesting.
Roisin Murphy and Jack Reynor
“The thing that really clinched it for me was that we decided to start casting it early, early, early to see if that would spark something for me. So when I started casting in – and particularly with casting Jack – I could see something really interesting, potentially, in the project. That’s when I said ‘yeah we’ll make it’. I think the other thing that I wanted to make sure – I was very keen to make sure - was that, what we did, didn’t relate to any specific events. Once we kind of had a shape that was really a Richard story and one which was quite different, in important aspects to the book, I was comfortable that we could stand over it and say that this was just a fictional film and that was the point where I said ‘yeah, that’s the one I want to make next’.”
Adam & Paul’ is a kind of Laurel and Hardy film, while ‘Garage’ has this extraordinary, beautifully-drawn central character
The decision to cast early allowed Abrahamson to workshop with his actors, something he hadn’t done before. What was intended as a one-day event grew into eight-months. “That’s the first time that I did it and partly it was because it was a way to unlock the story for me,” says the director. “Both ‘Adam & Paul’ and ‘Garage’ are quite, in their own way, quite stylized as films. So you’re looking at kind of archetypes. ‘Adam & Paul’ is a kind of Laurel and Hardy film, while ‘Garage’ has this extraordinary, beautifully-drawn central character. You don’t go and research Josie. Josie is quite a particular guy who speaks in this extraordinary way. Whereas this [What Richard Did] is quite a realistic and naturalistic film in someways, although it’s also quite poetic in the way that it’s made, in some respects. But I had to hear what those guys sounded like. There’s just no point in myself and Malcolm trying to invent the Argo of people based on my own experiences 25 years ago. It’s not going to cut it.
“So initially I didn’t know that I was going to workshop it. I just knew that I wanted to start looking at actors and to see what that looked like – the actors from that world. Then once I started to do that it just became so interesting to talk to them. I thought it would be one session where I’d talk to them about their lives and ask them where they went drinking when they were 12… and it became eight months. That helped myself and Malc to build a reality to this film. I think that’s the thing that really strikes people. When they watch it they think ‘Jesus, somebody’s actually opening a window to that world. It’s not like a fabrication. It feels like that you are really present with people of that age.’ That’s a great thing to have done.”
While Abrahamson needed, in a way, to be let into the world of a modern South Dublin teenager, Reynor had less difficulty and was able to find common ground with his character in so much as he attended a similar rugby-focussed secondary school in Belvedere College.
“It was something that I observed when I went to school, growing up,” he says when asked about the pressures to succeed that are often put on the young shoulders of characters like Richard. “I was brought up actually down in Co Wicklow so I wasn’t even a Dublin guy. I moved up when I was 12 and went to Belvedere so it was kind of one of those things where I was observing these guys… I was still part of the group but I was kind of observing from the outside as well, these guys who came from backgrounds where they were put under so much pressure to perform all the time in every walk of life. They had the pressure coming from their homes, and from themselves as well, and that was something that I could definitely relate to going into this film. It was something that we all knew was very important to show for the character for Richard. So absolutely I could relate to that.”
Lars Mikkelsen and Jack Reynor in an emotional scene between father and son
Often holding whole scenes alone and exhibiting a huge range of emotions throughout the feature, Reynor’s central performance belies his years. A particularly strong and emotional scene comes mid-way through the feature involving Richard and his father, who is played by Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen (Headhunter).
“Well that scene was interesting,” remembers Reynor. “We kind of didn’t really know what way we were going to go with it at the start of the day. We just worked it and there was a lot of standing around between myself, Lenny and Lars talking about that scene and kind of figuring out what way it needed to go. Eventually we just kind of found where it was going to be most powerful, and the most truthful. Then we started to delve into that and it became a very intense experience, in a great way for an actor, but it was very much this kind of very intense, in the mindset of it, for a couple of hours.”
There’s a real tendency when you’re shooting a film to want to think it’s good because that makes everybody happy
Working through such a scene on-set is, Abrahamson admits, is a luxury, but also a lesson in the need to never settle for less than getting it 100 per cent right. “What’s interesting about that scene is that if you could work that way all the time, life would be great,” he says, “because it was written one way, then came out another while we worked with. We just kept rolling on the wide-shot and thinking ‘no it’s not there, it’s not there, why isn’t it there?’. That actually is a great liberation. I’ve said it many times when making a film, but there’s a real tendency when you’re shooting a film to want to think it’s good because that makes everybody happy. You go off for lunch or home for the night after going ‘that was good wasn’t it? It’s great! Yeah it’s really good, isn’t it?’ Actually, what you’ve got to do is say ‘no it’s not’ because maybe you’ll feel better that night but you won’t feel better when you’re sitting in the cinema with 500 people thinking that doesn’t really play.”
While Reynor will jet to New York this weekend to shoot his first big Hollywood studio feature – “I’m itching to tell you about it, I really want to, but I can’t” – Abrahamson will begin pre-production on the aforementioned ‘Frank’ with Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson. Like his previous three features it will deal with an outsider, but of course bigger names will mean bigger expectations. Abrahamson becomes noticeably animated when talking about the feature.
“The majority is going to be shot in Ireland, which is great. It’s set in Ireland, England and the States, but we’re shooting Ireland and England in Ireland. Ireland will be Ireland and Ireland will be England! We’re still casting a few more parts and hope to start in early December. It’s about a guy played by Domhnall Gleeson who wants to get into the music world but he’s failing. In a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’, he gets into a band that’s really quite crazy led by this sort of classic, outsider musician character who is so agoraphobic he has to wear a big huge fake head. So he kind of takes his room with him when he goes outside and that character is being played by Michael Fassbender. It’s going to be an exciting experience to get to work with Michael and Domhnall and, to be honest, I can’t wait to begin shooting it!”
‘What Richard Did’ is released nationwide tomorrow and is distributed by Element Distribution. Ed Guiney of Element Pictures produced a script by Malcolm Campbell. David Grennan was the cinematographer. All post-production was carried out at Screen Scene in Dublin.