While Donal Foreman studied film at the National Film School at IADT, he started making films when he was eleven years old, winning his first film festival award at the age of seventeen. His debut feature, ‘Out of Here’ has now gone on to win the CINETalent award and a Dublin Critics Circle prize at JDIFF. ‘Out of Here’, which tells the story of Ciarán who after a year of travelling returns home to Dublin and struggles to reconnect with the city and its people, now gets an Irish cinema release. IFTN talks to the director about the film:
What did you choose the story of ‘Out of Here’ for your first feature-length film?
“I’d had the idea since 2007 when I was coming to the end of my degree in Dun Laoghaire and I wrote a version of it at that stage. I think what intrigued me to begin with was the idea of using the vehicle of a character returning to the city after a year away as a means to explore Dublin, especially Dublin as it is for young people, from a fresh angle - places he was once familiar with would now be estranged, so he has that double-sided relationship with the city. For my first feature, as well, I wanted to express something personal about growing up in Dublin and what that was like. I felt that that growing up here I hadn’t really seen those experiences reflected before in Irish film and that there was an opening there.”
Where did you draw inspiration for the story and the characters? Did you draw from your own life?
“I’d call the film personal rather than autobiographical. I was definitely drawing from different things I’d experienced and that my friends had experienced, which I had tended to do with my short films as well. So, for example, when Ciarán is sitting below the state on O’Connell Street and this drunk man starts talking to him, that scene basically happened to me years ago so I’d written it down and was waiting for the right project to put it in.
“When I started casting, I had certain ideas for who I wanted to cast for certain characters, for example, Jer O’Leary as the drunk man. But I also just walked around the city, thinking about casting all the time. I would go to gallery openings, parties and different shows, and if I saw someone interesting I would just ask them if they’d like to be in the film. In the Exchange Dublin in Temple Bar, for example I met the radio presenter Gareth Stack, who I also cast. So I was trying to involve people from these different scenes and communities to inform the project and to also create a more honest reflection of what was happening in the city.”
You used crowdfunding to finance the project and then had completion funding from the Irish Film Board. What was your experience of these processes?
“Crowdfunding was very stressful and also useful, because we couldn’t have made the film without it. My original ambition was to just get funding from the film board but the impression I got was because I wasn’t working with a full script, and had a thirty page treatment instead (I wrote a script later in pre-production through a rehearsal-improvisation process with the actors), producers were very resistant to funding a project of this kind because there is so much emphasis on script.
“So the only chance I’d have of getting funding was to get an established, reputable production company backing me up as a sort of unproven director. I pitched it to a bunch of companies but there was little or no interest, some saw it as too much of a risky project. Then Emmet Fleming [of Stalker Films] came on board as a producer and it was his idea to do crowdfunding by his particular method. So we set up our own website and offered donations, like a typical Fundit Kickstarter model but also we invited people to invest in a share in the film. It was a full time job, trying to get that done because there’s so much promotion that is needed to keep up the momentum of the campaign.
“I think the challenge with crowdfunding is that I don’t know if it is a sustainable resource to return to, unless perhaps you have a real fanbase that you’re drawing from, because the reality for emerging filmmakers using crowdfunding is you’re relying on people you know and then people they know, and a handful of other people who like the sound of it and want to chip in. I don’t know how many times you can go back to that well. I think also that ‘Out of Here’ looks like it cost more, because of the scale of it with three big crowd scenes and the camerawork, than it did but we really pushed that budget to its very limits. I think it would be hard to pull that off again and again.”
The film seems very realistic and the script is very natural. Was there improvisation involved in production?
“On screen it is more structured than it looks, we did have a full script with dialogue that we were working from by that stage. The exceptions to that are there are a few smaller scenes or moments particularly with actors on the periphery who didn’t have much experience acting – such as when it cuts to other conversations – but those were still rehearsed, albeit in a very loose way.
“I think a lot of that feel to it that you’re talking about is more about the method of preparation which used improvisation. I’m used to the improvised approach which I used as a teenager when making films. Then in college they are so emphatic about preparing everything and making every choice in advance, which was a great disciplinary to learn but I started to feel that the results on set would fall flat. It just felt like actors reading lines. So the way we did it at the rehearsal stage, when you're getting ideas from the actors and allowing them to inform the roles, they have a lot more ownership of the roles and I think that helps the performances. Also it just creates a lot more of a relaxed atmosphere and actors can just focus on what they’re doing.
“Another thing we did, though I think it drove our cameraman (Piers McGrail) crazy, was that we didn’t rehearse for camera. And I think that has an effect as well as it feels like the actors are exploring a scene, and anything could happen.”
What was your experience of directing the young, up-and-coming talent like Fionn Walton and Aoife Duffin?
“Aoife Duffin was one of the first actors I’d thought of because I’d seen her in a play by the Pan Pan Theatre called ‘The Crumb Trail’ maybe four or five years ago. I was really struck by her, and she was a pleasure to work with.
“Fionn’s part (Ciarán) was definitely the hardest to cast. As I was developing it, I never really had anyone in mind, but I had a very particular idea of who the character was, which makes things even more difficult. There were only three or four actors in the country that I was thinking about and then Fionn ended up being the right choice. He is the central character and is there in pretty much every scene so working with him was an intensive process, and we spent just a lot of time talking about ideas for the character.
“One of the differences as well was that he was one of the only actors who saw the full treatment. I usually just gave the actors the scripted version of the scene they were in rather than the whole script, because I really just wanted them to focus on their character’s story rather than Ciarán’s story and how they fit into that, so that they would be the centre of their own world.”
So a number of your shorts are also set in Dublin and this film is also very much about Dublin. What is it about the city that has drawn you to make films here again and again, especially since you are now based in New York?
“‘Out of Here’ is the only film I’ve made here since I’ve moved to New York. A part of it is simply it’s my home town and where I’m from. I tend to be inspired by my own experiences and I’ve twenty or so years of Dublin experience to draw on.
“I wonder if I had any connection to Dublin would I be drawn here, but I think there are things about the place though that are inherently cinematic and interesting.”
You also edit your own films. Does this help?
“I’d be totally open to working with an editor and I love the collaborative process, for example, I’ve worked with cinematographer Piers McGrail on a number of shorts. I like the economy of collaboration where you trust someone to bring their own thing to a film and you can inform it, tweak it and not micromanage what they’re doing, but you really have to have the right person. I guess I never found that person who could be that editor for me.
“It also just happened by default, I enjoy the process of editing. I think because of the way I shoot, it also helps that I’m the editor because it would be hard for another person to make sense of it. I use long takes and if I see something interesting on the street I’ll think ‘Let’s get a shot of that’ and have an idea in my mind of where it could go into a scene whereas an editor might go ‘What the hell is this..’ So it helps from that point of view.”
You won two awards at JDIFF – what was that like?
“It was really nice and encouraging. It was lovely to get a strong audience reaction there, and to be acknowledged by the Dublin Film Critics. Everyone was really impressed with the film and it was great to get the laurels too.”
So what’s next for you?
“There’s a script that I’m writing at the moment about two Irish brothers, set in New York. I got some development funding from the Irish Film Board to work on that. I also have a few other ideas at 'various stages of development', as they say, and I’m looking for more writers to work with on those.”
Donal Foreman will take part in a Q&A alongside cast members of ‘Out of Here’ following a screening of the film at the IFI tonight. ‘Out of Here’ will be showing exclusively at the IFI from today.