Setting a sci-fi comedy about intergalactic adventures in modern Dublin, which also deals with grown-up themes of self-delusion and reality seems at once a hugely ambitious move. Add in the fact that the film features both a rather touching love story and absurd alien bounty hunters and the task seems unimaginable. However, this is exactly what writer-director Alan Brennan has done with his debut feature film, the new Irish release ‘Earthbound’.
The film stars Rafe Spall (Life of Pi, I Give It A Year), David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) and a host of Irish actresses including Jenn Murray and Carrie Crowley, with Spall playing Joe, a guy believes he’s an alien from another planet hiding from intergalactic bounty hunters. When he falls for Maria (Murray) he risks everything by telling her the truth.
The film, produced by Ripple World and Paper Dreams, opens next week and has already won accolades for its tricky mix of sci-fi geekiness and comic absurdity. It picked up the Best First Irish Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh and was also selected for the ‘Best of...’ list at the Seattle International Film Festival.
IFTN caught up with Alan Brennan and found him both relaxed and excited about the film’s release (“It’s a boyhood dream come true, hopefully it’ll be a big hit. But just to get this far is great and is a thrill in itself”) and with immense pride on the achievements of both his cast and crew.
Alan, Congratulations on an excellent first feature film? How did you find the leap from making shorts to a fully-fledged feature?
It is a daunting thing, just in terms of the scale. Once you get your head around the fact that it is the same process day-to-day, it’s just bigger. There are just more locations and more actors. It can be more tiring but ultimately the process is exactly the same, it’s just a marathon more than a sprint. The hardest thing to be honest is just dealing with the anxieties that come with this much responsibility on your shoulders, which obviously is a lot less on a short because there’s not as much riding on it. That’s possibly the biggest challenge, how much is riding on the work you produce. That’s really the big difference.
There are scenes set in the movie in the midst of a proper Dublin blizzard?
That was an accident, we had a four-week shoot and we got hit with snow at the very start of our last week of filming and it created logistical havoc for us, but it looks really nice. It’s funny watching the film now, while shooting I was worried that scenes weren’t going to cut together, for example there was one scene where Rafe Spall is walking in the Phoenix Park in a blizzard, while shooting I was worried that we weren’t going to be able to use it at all but now I think it’s one of the indelible images of the film. It’s really beautiful and it looks like we waited until the weather was like that. Just good luck and it really worked! But with the snow, we had to wrap shoots early because it was getting dangerous, one night people couldn’t get home or back to hotels and on the last day of filming we had David Morrissey flying in, we only had a day with him. And we literally didn’t know that morning if his plane was taking off from Heathrow and if he didn’t make it over we had no father character in the movie, which would have slightly problematic. But it was very touch and go for a while.
What inspired you to make the story of ‘Earthbound’?
I had grown up on science-fiction, I was a big fan of Spielberg and Lucas and I loved Star Wars, Superman and E.T. These were all the primary influences in my formative years and I’d always wanted to see a movie of that ilk set in Ireland and I still haven’t, I think we’re breaking new ground with the film, at least I hope. And it sort of came out of wanting to make science-fiction/ fantasy and also just the fact that I grew up wanting to make films in Dublin during the 1980’s, which was another recession and the notion that I was perhaps living in a fantasy by wanting to do that myself. So science-fiction and the theme of fantasy and self-delusion were probably quite inherent to my life so when I went looking for ideas they were the first ones that rose to the top. It’s kind of where the idea came from, to blend science-fiction and a story of someone being deluded because they seem to fit quite well together and tick a lot of boxes. It also facilitated for me to make a movie that felt really big but actually was pretty contained.
From an Irish perspective, an obvious comparison might be ‘The Boy from Mercury’ but there isn’t a strong history of making sci-fi films in Ireland. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s mainly budgetary. I think that immediately what you’re going to be doing is competing with Hollywood and you’re going to competing with 100-million dollar budgets, we were very mindful of that. I think you have to be clever about how you approach it, if you literally set out to make Star Wars in Ireland you’ll fail. I think you have to be very mindful of the pitfalls and you have to turn your limitations into a virtue. One of the things that I’m quite fond of in the film is the fact that his ray-gun, for example, is a toy and we make no effort to disguise the fact that it is a toy. So we used very low-rent stuff but the toy ray-gun actually works, we see it shooting a laser. So you know, I thought was a way to straddle those two things, to spend our money very wisely. There are visual effects in the movie but they’re very sparing, they’re used for maximum impact. That was the approach we took, spend it where it counts!
The film received an excellent reception in Seattle. Was ensuring that the film travelled well important to you?
I always set out to make something that was universal and my favourite movies are the movies that I think are universal. My taste would be more mainstream than arthouse, so that’s the kind of movie I like to see and that’s always the film that I wanted to make. Ideally, I think the themes of all movies should be universal whether or not they’re set in Mumbai or Dublin, they should always be relatable to anybody who watches it, so I mean this movie is about children growing up and dealing with responsibilities, reconciling with reality and how we cope with tragedy. It’s also about relationships and all of these things are universal, and you want it to resonate across the board. And what I found is that it’s pretty much received pretty much exactly the same response in the United States as with Irish audiences. It’s a movie anybody can enjoy and that was definitely the intention.
One of the films highlights is an animated comic-book title sequence at the beginning, was that an important addition?
That was an idea I had pretty early on in the writing, I wanted to convey, and going back to my earlier point about trying to create the sense of scale without necessarily having the budget, in a Hollywood movie you would see that depicted in live-action with incredibly expensive visual effects and lots of extras and spaceships. But what we’ve done is try to convey that in a visually exciting way that is far more affordable. The comic book was drawn by a artist called Stephen Daly, who is also a production designer, who did a brilliant job. I knew I wanted to convey all this information, I wanted to do it visually, I wanted it to be fun and feel consistent with the narrative of the film. Joe is a big comic-book fan and works in a comic-book store so it made sense that this kind of device would be used. It gives an awful lot of information, it gives a great sense of scale and it feels like a big intergalactic adventure without being hugely expensive. The nice thing about it for me is that the audience won’t feel short-changed.
The sci-fi references, are they deliberate or accidental?
That was an intentional thing, and something which I really enjoyed doing. I’m not sure that everyone will pick up on every little sci-fi reference I threw in, there’s an awful lot of Superman, there are a few direct quotes from E.T. thrown in there. Some of my closest friends who would know the films very well picked up on them but the audience haven’t always registered. But they are there for you to enjoy, extra hidden treats. That was important to me because I love those movies I hope people will recognise them and it’ll resonate in some way. But also made sense for the character to be influenced, if you take the interpretation it is somebody he’s creating he would use freely available elements to construct that fantasy. He talks about Battlestar Gallactica, he’s a fan of Superman, he reads Flash Gordon comics and that was something I was happy to put in. It’s fun for me and it made sense for the movie.
Tell us about working with the crew?
With PJ [Dillon, director of photography] we just sent him the script and he really liked it, initially it looked like he wasn’t going to be available and luckily it turned out that he had an opening. With PJ he doesn’t have a lot of openings in his schedule, so we went him the script and set up a meeting with him as soon as we could. He’s a lovely guy, he had great ideas and he was really excited about doing it and it was just music to my ears. It was right before he did Game of Thrones and he was very enthusiastic about what I wanted to do. Unlike other DP’s he said “Yeah let’s just do, it’ll be great” and he worked miracles on a very small budget and incredibly punishing schedule. It looks like it cost five times what it did. The same goes for Liam Bates with the music and Jon Stevenson with the sound. Liam Bates was recommended to me by a friend of mine and I actually contacted him quite early in the process, before filming, so he had read the script before we did any shooting. Liam was another guy who was really enthusiastic about creating a huge sound, a sweet lovely orchestral score and that’s exactly what I wanted and we were simpatico in that respect. Shooting is tough, so it’s hard to enjoy. The pressure is too high and you’re too aware of how much money is being spent to completely relax and enjoy it but the music was great fun. I had a great time with Liam, a lovely experience. And Jon I was thrilled to work with and I think he really enjoyed it too. It was really nice, because the thing about this movie is there are so few movies like this made so he was very happy. I think he had a lot of sounds for science-fiction movies that he had in his back pocket. I can’t specify the scene he’s referring to because it’s a bit of a spoiler but he did say to me “I’m really pleased to be able to do this”, and at the time, maybe he’s done better since, but at the time he felt it was his best work. So I was thrilled to hear that.
How did the cast come into place?
Carrie Crowley was suggested to me by Louise [Kiely, casting director] and first thing I thought of was “the woman who presented the Eurovision”! That was my initial impression but she came in read the part and I thought she was absolutely perfect, she was great for the role and she looked perfect and there are a lot of notes to play for the character and she was able to do them all. And the fact that she’s such a pleasure to work with, I know that everybody says that kind of thing about actors and actresses but she was a dream. The actors made it really easy for me, and the whole cast were brilliant. That was such a relief, because when you’re auditioning for the role and people that aren’t right, I don’t mean bad actors but just people not right for the roles do the readings you start to get a little worried that you’ve written something that’s odd and unplayable. But then when the right people come in and it does click and finally comes to life, it’s such a relief. Watching good actors perform is one of the joys and it’s an absolute thrill to see them at the top of their game. I had a great time with all of them, Rafe was excellent, great comic timing and Jenn was heartbreaking in the role, and adorable. She’s a brilliant actress and she can do anything. It was a movie that I think tested people’s limits which I was proud to do, and everybody got on board and got it which is always a worry when you’re doing something ambitious in this regard, you’re worried that people won’t play to the tone that you’re aiming for but it worked out so beautifully. So that was a pleasant surprise!
Rafe Spall is very impressive in the role of Joe, what do you feel he brought to the role?
The first thing I was looking for Joe was that he have good comic timing and Rafe is world-class. My philosophy regarding actors is that if they can do comedy they can do anything, which I think is true as I think comedy is actually the hardest genre. He had some powerful scenes, I had never seen him do that before and I knew he could. He was great, he carries the movie for a lot of the time. It’s him onscreen alone for a lot of the movie and Jenn shoulders more than her fair share as well but most of the movie is on Rafe’s shoulders and you need a leading man of real charisma to pull that off and keep the audience engaged and he’s a magnetic screen presence. We were lucky to get him as well because he’s blown up since, we’re probably the last low-budget movie he’ll ever do, so the timing was very good in that respect.
Finally, after this what will you work on next?
I’m back at the drawing board writing now so we’ll see how that goes. I’m a big fan of genre, I can’t see myself doing a kitchen-sick drama, in a way I would find that impossible to do because in a way I find having a science-fiction, fantasy or supernatural element facilitates an enormous range of stories and themes, far more so than the “reality-based” films. I think having the genre element makes it all palatable and keeps it entertaining.
'Earthbound' is released on March 15th.