3 October 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Thank you for the Day
30 Jan 2015 : Paul Byrne
Terry McMahon's 'Patrick's Day' hits cinemas February 6th
With ‘Patrick’s Day’, Irish filmmaker Terry McMahon takes a great leap forward from his no-budget debut, ‘Charlie Casanova’. And he’s got the trunk-load of festival awards to prove it. IFTN’s Paul Byrne gets him on the couch...

There’s a moment, about half an hour into Patrick’s Day, when the floor just seems to swing up and hit you in the face.

As our main protagonist, the eponymous birthday boy (played beautifully by Moe Dunford) finds himself being told again and again by his highly protective mother (Kerry Fox) that the lost weekend he spent with a sun-kissed air hostess (Catherine Walker) was merely a figment of his schizophrenia, ‘Patrick’s Day’ starts to blur all the edges beautifully. You swing between outrage and empathy, between mother and monster, between shock and awe. Part of it is down to Dunford’s incredible performance, and part of it is down to Michael Lavelle’s stunning cinematography, but quite a big chunk of it, naturally enough, has to go to the man who wrote and directed Patrick’s Day, Terry McMahon.

Having taken the leap from actor (playing small parts in the likes of The Suicide Club and Batman Begins) to filmmaker with 2011’s ‘Charlie Casanova’ (shot over 11 days on a budget of €1,000), McMahon’s second film is a much more mature, and satisfying, affair. So far, ‘Patrick’s Day’ has picked up awards at the Cork International Film Festival (the Audience Award), the Galway Film Fleadh (the Feature Film Award), the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival (Recommendations of Cinema Owners) and the Woodstock Film Festival (where it picked up the Jury Prize for Best Feature Film along with Best Editing for Emer Reynolds and the Haskell Wexler Award for Lavelle).

PAUL BYRNE: You’ve worked in a psychiatric ward before - did you first meet Patrick there?

TERRY MCMAHON:‘You don’t have to work in a psychiatric ward to meet Patrick, he is everywhere. Confused, lonely and scared of reaching out, most of us with any degree of sensitivity were at some stage in our lives a Patrick. Some of us still are.’

The competing love stories in ‘Patrick’s Day’ - the motherly love and the cherry-popping, mindblowing love - provides some intense drama here. Nailed down in the script, or finessed on set with the living, breathing characters?

‘I’m a fastidious hack-whore, so the dialogue in the film is meticulously written, as are all the specifics of the plot but it would be arrogant and stupid to claim authorship of the performances. Rather than the reductionist notion of actors as “interpretive” artists they are in fact creative artists and their power to transcend the machinery of movie-making - including the fastidious script – is incredible; more than artists they are alchemists. The emotional, psychological and physical courage to do what they did in front of the lens of our cinematographer Michael Lavelle’s camera is profound and the facilitation of the artistry of Kerry Fox, Moe Dunford, Catherine Walker, Philip Jackson, Aaron Monaghan and the rest of the cast through the addition of Hugh Fox’s sound, and Emer Reynold’s editing, is what audiences are responding to on a humanistic and visceral level. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious prick, the actors are servants of the script, the rest of us behind the camera are servants of the actors, and, combined, we are all the servants of the audience.’

Some wonderful performances from Kerry Fox and Catherine Walker, but ‘Patrick’s Day’ feels like a star-making turn for leading man Moe Dunford - someone you and casting director Rebecca Roper had to fight hard to get cast. What convinced you that Moe was your man?

‘Some casting directors have no instinct for creating an environment where the actor can blossom but Rebecca Roper treats everyone like they have greatness within them. There were a few well-known actors who wanted to do the role but I couldn’t get them to that quietly broken place where Patrick needed to be. Rebecca brought in Moe Dunford and I had no idea who he was but his raw courage in the interview was already compelling so I logged him in the back of my mind and we continued the standard audition process, followed by call-backs. Yet, too many of the actors looked like they’d been born in a gym, had multiple lovers and not a moment of self-doubt in their lives, much less the capacity to take us into that necessary loneliness.’

‘We were getting close to production – too close – and we were getting worried. Moe was a risky entity. Unknown and untested, his raw talent was one thing but what if he didn’t have the craft, discipline or commitment for the role? If I was wrong then the movie would be dead before it began.’

‘Moe and I communicated privately to work against stereotypes, then I asked Rebecca to bring him back in, but what we didn’t know at the time was Moe had booked a holiday to Malta six months earlier and was due to fly out that day. Instead of driving to the airport he drove to the audition room. What Moe didn’t know was he was my only call-back. We filmed his audition and I believed we had found our Patrick but, if we were casting an unknown instead of a star, we’d have to show there was nobody else capable of doing what Moe could do while also proving that he could be “lovable” to an audience.’

‘Ireland was playing that night and a bunch of mates were coming around to my place for a few drinks and the match. My daughter has a gorgeous dog, a Collie-Labrador mix and a complete floozy, so I brought Moe home after the audition, broke open multiple beers, watched the match and got the poor kid drunk. Then I called in the dog and filmed her on my phone as she lovingly licked Moe half to death; uploaded the footage to YouTube, sent it to the financiers, and Moe was green-lit that night. It's a testament to the financiers that they took such a risk on an unknown and the payback is that they ended up being blown away by Moe's performance.’

You had 11 intense days shooting ‘Charlie Casanova’, and with your second feature, you had the luxury of 16 days. Enjoy that kind of pressure, or would you love to go full Terence Malick for a change...?

‘The fundaments of filmmaking don’t really change; as Malick more than anyone proves, it's all about what is captured in front of the lens – and we had a secret weapon called Michael Lavelle - but the amount of people who make a movie happen is incredible. On a simple domestic level, before anything else happens, I have a family - a missus and three kids plus another one on the way - and Christ knows they’re sick to death of this deadbeat-writer-director-dad pursuing financially-doomed fantasies, yet somehow they still selflessly find it in themselves to breathe in deep, forgo the food that a real job could have put on their table, and magnanimously say, go make your damn movie.’

‘On ‘Charlie Casanova’ most of us were virgins in the whorehouse, with an inexperienced producer, so you'd have me and Emmett Scanlan and Eoin Macken, and the rest of the cast and crew, fighting to the death just to capture the impossible. That created its own desperate dynamic which suited the punk rock nature of that film but on ‘Patrick's Day’ we had the remarkable producer Tim Palmer and equally wonderful co-producer Rachel Lysaght to steer the madness. A veteran producer of seminal Irish work like ‘Into The West’, ‘Last Of The High Kings’ and ‘A Love Divided’, our film simply would not have happened without Tim. We hear all the horse-s**t about how many a**hole producers are out there but, aside from his extraordinary insights into the characters and script, the benefit of the respect Tim showed to cast and crew on this film is impossible to quantify, and his subsequent support once the film was completed is the main reason we were able to make it onto the world stage and win those festivals. The same applies to Rachel Lysaght, who has produced remarkable recent works like ‘The Pipe’ and ‘One Million Dubliners’. Gloriously different in approach but beautifully similar in humanity they became the Mammy and Daddy of the s**tstorm, and it was they who guided us to shore.’

‘Also, I hate to sound sycophantic but the generosity of the Film Board, particularly from Rory Gilmartin and James Hickey, went far beyond the substantial sum of money they put into the film. Rory's script smarts and casting instincts is second to none and he was a huge part of this film. Added to that, First AD, Scottish John Burns. They say John has a black belt in scheduling and that General Patton himself would be humbled by his military precision, yet, after witnessing our approach to making the film, John privately explained to Tim “I don't know what they're doing but it's working” - then John completely altered his scheduling approach. That kind of courage and decency is remarkable and it set the tone. Richie Egan, our grip, showed the same courage, as did Rob Flood and Josh Bourke, our focus pullers, and the rest of the crew. Then there are the two other genius perfectionists humanists who ate, slept and breathed every second of that movie; Michael Lavelle and Hugh Fox. Film is sound and vision and that duo, on and off set, made magic and I've had a man-crush on both of them ever since. And let's not forget our editor, Emer Reynolds. A profound artist, I want to have Emer's babies. Or our incredible composer Ray Harman. I want to have his babies too. Maybe we should set up a menage-a-cinq together and have a melange of babies.’

Despite the intensity of the storyline, and the short time frame in which to capture it all, ‘Patrick’s Day’ sounds like a happy shoot - you even managed to get a real, live, fire-breathing 747 to enter stage-left right on cue...?

‘We treated the material as deadly serious when shooting but it's imperative you don't get so far up your own a**e you forget filmmaking is a f**king privilege and that you should be having fun fighting to make reality out of fantasy. When you have someone with the staggering pedigree of Kerry Fox strolling onto set there may be a tendency to become reverential but Kerry dispels that horses**t in a heartbeat and utilizes her vast experience in the way that all great artists and natural teachers do - to empower those around them. Not just content to be giving one of the great performances of her career, Kerry possesses one of those insatiably curious, multi-story brains that feeds everybody. Philip Jackson, Catherine Walker and Aaron Monaghan have that same substance and humanity, and one of the great pleasures of working on Patrick's Day was witnessing the generosity these four multi-talented mavericks showed to Moe. As Patrick’s mother and lover respectively, Moe will attest to the profound impact Kerry and Catherine had on him. Kerry is an old-school acting goddess, we all knew that, but, despite a huge theatre career, Catherine Walker was not well known on film and, on the first day’s shoot, our schedule required Catherine and Moe to deliver a major scene. To be able to witness someone with the crafted genius of classically trained Catherine Walker go toe to toe with the raw moment-to-moment discovery of Moe Dunford was sublime and, scene by scene for the rest of the shoot, the synthesis of the different levels of crafted experience was humbling to behold.’

‘As for capturing Boeing 747s, we pulled up like a raggedy circus near the airport and were shooting in crap weather yet, somehow, the genius that is Michael Lavelle did a deal with the gods and they allowed the blue to break through the clouds to grant the ethereal light of a cinematographers wet dream.’

‘Patrick’s Day’ feels like a major leap from the controversial Charlie Casanova. Does it feel that way for you?

‘They're very different films. Charlie Casanova is about a soulless, vacuous imitation of a human being but ‘Patrick's Day’ is the antithesis of that. Both required entirely separate approaches.’

You’ve already picked up a truckload of awards on the festival circuit - does that matter to you, or is it all about the final edit, and the rest is just chatter?

‘If anything, those awards have shone a light on this movie in a way that elevates it beyond chatter. Winning The Directors Guild of America Finders Series Award led to this film being screened in front of Hollywood heavyweights that we'd normally never get to sit in a room with. Winning the Haskel Wexler Cinematography Award for Michael Lavelle, The James Lyons Editing Award for Emer Reynolds and the Maverick Grand Jury Prize at The Woodstock Film Festival in front of Darren Aronofsky, Nathalie Portman and Jennifer Connolly put this film on a reputable world stage in a way that no amount of money could have, and that's down to the tenacity of someone like festival CEO Meira Blaustein, who shepherded this film in a way that renders awards legitimate advocacy. She is also someone I will be working with down the line so awards can even impact future films.’

You added a little to the chatter around ‘Charlie Casanova’, most famously having a battle of wits with The Irish Times’ movie critic Donald Clarke - all good, clean family fun, or do you regret engaging in such a schoolyard scraps?

‘My favourite two line review still remains “Charlie Casanova is s**t on a stick. Without the stick." The cluster f**k generated by that film was fascinating to be a part of. Then it turned ugly and the insults became personal and you suddenly realized just how powerless you are. I believe Clarke's two page spread in the Irish Times on the week of the release was disingenuous but, if anything, he was kind compared to some of the bile that would come out later. Perhaps Clarke is unaware of his influence but his representation of the film and the filmmaker as frauds gave permission for the gloves to come off for everybody else. It got nasty. George Byrne made statements on Newstalk that could easily be construed as libellous. Former Minister for Health Mary Harney had received nearly half a million euro payout from the same station on the same show for being referred to as an "alco" whereas, with my children listening to the radio, George Byrne was given free reign to label me as "deep and dark and disturbed" among many other insults. A lawyer did make contact to say he'd take it further but the national narrative set in motion at that time, bizarrely facilitated by Joe Duffy, Tom Dunne and others, was that I was a moronic lunatic, so, instead, I chose to back off and focus on the next film. As for The Irish Times, they refused a right of reply to Clarke's article, which was disappointing, so I resorted to a semi-tongue-in-cheeky riposte imitating Clarke's style and faux outrage. In truth, I have no ill feeling towards Donald Clarke and even went as far as making a semi-invite to him to share a bottle of whiskey and fall in love over movies.’

‘What's interesting about ‘Charlie Casanova’ it that it was written at the same time as Patrick's Day and many of the Patrick's Day reviews celebrate the writing - and the film has won an American screenwriting award – but the ‘Charlie Casanova’ screenplay was damned, despite both being created by the same writer at the same level of development. That was one of the comical elements of the public flogging - the presumption that the screenplay was an abortion of incompetence rather than a deliberate construct. I haven't seen ‘Charlie Casanova’ in a couple of years but it is the film we set out to make and I happily remain unapologetic for it.’

‘All the hysteria and noise surrounding Charlie Casanova made us forget something important. A movie could be made for a grand and somehow find its way into the legendary Studio Canal's film library and be released in Irish and UK cinemas. Regardless of the emotional reaction to the content of the film it's still incredibly exciting that a bunch of strangers can get together and put their faith in a film that really had no right to go anywhere beyond the drawer at the side of your bed. Yet we did that. And Emmett Scanlan and Eoin Macken, the two forces of nature who had a baptism of fire with all of us on ‘Charlie Casanova’ are trailblazing their way through movies and major American television shows. Many others who grew up on that film or were influenced by its impact are also making movie magic and that means something. And I still get messages from people saying how much the film means to them. And it still sells. And life still goes on.’

What about the commercial aspect of ‘Patrick’s Day’ - do you feel a burning desire to appeal beyond the hipster crowd, and grab Joe and Joanna Sixpack too? Are you ready, willing and able to high-five the Xpose girls...?

‘I wrote over a hundred episodes of television soap opera, which kind of renders me the Mary Magdalene of this whorehouse; and, if the communal emotional impact of Patrick's Day is considered commercial, then I'd man the register in person because this movie has taken up two years of my life and I sure as s**t could do with the cash. As for the Xpose girls, I'd high five them till it hurt. Then use the other hand.’

You’re already busying yourself with feature film no.3 – ‘Dancehall Bitch’, a prison movie. What’s the gameplan? Tell the stories you know and feel, or become a Jack of all genres?

‘When we made ‘Charlie Casanova’, I never thought we'd get to make another movie so I couldn't believe it when Tim Palmer made ‘Patrick's Day’ happen. I have no game-plan. The international success of ‘Patrick’s Day’ means we have people interested in our next projects but it doesn't get any easier. You have to begin the bulls**t all over again in order to drag the next impossible aspiration towards reality.’

And what of the acting side? You’ve turned up in the likes of The Suicide Club and Batman Begins, but nothing since 2010’s My Brothers, for director Paul Fraser. A failed experiment, or just a foot in the door?

‘I love working with actors and have been teaching for over twenty years so it feels right to facilitate them rather than being one. Paul Fraser wrote many of Shane Meadows masterpieces so I adored working with him on ‘My Brothers’ and I do occasionally get offered stuff but, for some reason, people keep seeing me as a murderer or rapist and I don't understand why. If I do it again I'd prefer to play the Joe Sixpack you mentioned; a small man treading water in a big sea of s**t. That's a world I have intimate knowledge of.’

Did you always harbour a desire to be a writer/director? You made the move by writing two episodes of ‘Fair City’, one in 2007 and one in 2008 - missed those episodes, but I’m guessing someone suffered an existential crisis in both - before making your big-screen debut with ‘Charlie Casanova’ three years later. Which seems like a long wait. Stage-fright, or did it just take you that much time to come up with the €1,000 budget?

‘You'd think with all the money IMDB makes they'd keep details up to date? Add another hundred to those "two episodes" and you'd be closer to the figure. ‘Charlie Casanova’ was made out of artistic desperation not economic necessity. The fact that the economy collapsed and I lost my writing job and ended up dead broke by the end of it just gives us another indication of the true cost of filmmaking.’

In both films, one of your main characters harbours a deep desire to be Ireland’s answer to Bill Hicks. Does Terry McMahon harbour a deep desire to be Ireland’s answer to Bill Hicks?

‘There's only one Bill Hicks and we should genuflect at the mention of the prophet's name.’

‘I'm fascinated by dark stand-up comedy and Richard Pryor's early live concert was a big influence on Charlie Casanova's anti-comical monologue. In ‘Patrick's Day’, the detective moonlighting as a failed stand-up was always going to be a tough one to get right but, when we tentatively offered it to the iconic Philip Jackson, I knew if we were lucky enough to get him he could bring the necessary pathos and loneliness to the role. Just like Kerry Fox, he said yes within twenty-four hours and, again just like when I met Kerry, I was a complete fan boy when I met Philip. Turns out, just like Kerry, he's one of the most beautiful people you'll ever meet. Also turns out he's naturally one of the funniest, scene-stealing f**kers you'll ever meet so I had to threaten to break his legs if he didn't stop making us laugh during takes. It didn't work.’

Given that you’ve been in the thick of new cinema, as you go from festival to festival, are there any new filmmakers that are getting you all excited and delighted?

‘Off the top of the head in relation to Irish cinema, Ivan Kavanagh made ‘Tin Can Man’ several years ago and it's a masterpiece of suspense so I'm waiting for his new film ‘The Canal’ to come out. I didn't fully understand Lenny Abrahamson's previous two movies but ‘Frank’ just took my breath away. Mark O'Connor's ‘Stalker’ was viscerally comparable to Shane Meadows, while that trio of basket cases Crooked Gentlemen are a fantastic force of nature and, if the emotional impact of Aoife Kelleher's debut ‘One Million Dubliners’ is anything to go by that woman has a hell of a future.’

Finally, is there anything else you want to share with the group?

‘Firstly, Patrick's Day may have won that truckload of awards and all that international critical acclaim but if people don't drag their arses off their couch and come to the cinema to be part of the communal engagement then these kind of love stories exploring issues that impact all of us will cease to be made and all we'll have left is CGI surrealism. Come to the cinema and be part of the bigger conversation; worst case scenario you'll end up with a little heart ache; best case scenario your heart will be broken.’

‘Secondly, and sadly, Gaby Rooney, with superb vision, complex pathos and seductive humour, was our costume designer on Patrick's Day, and we were all looking forward to drinking with him during the cinema release, but he didn't make it. We would like to send our condolences to his family and raise a glass in silence to a beautiful man. R.I.P.’

‘Patrick’s Day’ hits Irish screens Feb 6th.

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