20 March 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
The Outsider's Insider
04 Mar 2015 : Paul Byrne
'Very Extremely Dangerous' is available now on iTunes and Amazon
As a recent New York retrospective attests, Paul Duane is one of Ireland’s finest documentary filmmakers. As ‘Very Extremely Dangerous’ arrives on the home market, he talks to IFTN’s Paul Byrne about being drawn to outsiders, the changing markets, and getting friendly with Bill Drummond.

With three award-winning documentaries under his belt, as well as a host of hit TV shows (including last year’s ‘Amber’), and a burgeoning career as a producer, Irish filmmaker Paul Duane is a man of many trades. And a master of quite a few of them.

As his celebrated 2012 documentary ‘Very Extremely Dangerous’ - Duane practically going on the run with veteran Sun Studios outlaw Jerry McGill - is finally available to download, Duane is in the early stages of filming his next unrepentant outsider, Bill Drummond, the KLF founder-turned-pop culture anarchist. That is due to shoot in Memphis early next year.

In-between, Duane had explored the extraordinary tale of Franco-Romanian propaganda victim Bernard Natan in 2013’s ‘Natan’, having made the move into documentary features with 2011’s acclaimed ‘Barbaric Genius’ - which explored the remarkable life of John Healy, the author, chess champion and street thief.

To help pay the rent, and flex a different kind of muscle, over the years, Duane instigated the hit TV series ‘Secret Diary Of A Call Girl’ - which ran from 2008 to 2010 - and, more recently, he co-created the four-part TV drama ‘Amber’, which has sold around the world.

Paul Byrne: It was May 2012 when ‘Very Living Dangerously’ came out in the US, heading around the world to very positive reviews. So, why has it taken nearly three years to reach the home market? Copyright? Voodoo?

Paul Duane: ‘No, no, no major things. Just everything took a long time. It was meant to be out a year ago, but it just didn’t happen. No one thing. It’s difficult getting distribution for low-budget documentaries these days, as there are just so many great films out there, all vying for the same outlets. So, I’m just thrilled that it made it, and that you can download it from iTunes and Amazon now.’

Online is a growing market, and I would have thought the need for content by the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime would be an ideal time for the low-budget, critically-acclaimed documentary...

‘At the same time, there are filters. Getting a documentary on Netflix is quite tough. Things are heavily curated, and although they want content, up there, they want a particular kind of content. So, getting on the likes of iTunes and Netflix can take time, and because we wanted to be the right label, the right distributor, meant we had to sort that out too. Fat Possum is a record label I love, and this is their first film distribution. So, couldn’t be happier about that, as they’re one of my favourite labels.’

The shift in how people view movies and TV to the on-demand market, is that all a new golden age, or is it all still a little like the Wild West...?

‘It’s hard to tell. To be honest with you, the finances of it are ridiculous. No one makes money out of documentaries. It’s not like I’m going to be getting any money out of this, and everyone involved in the film has pretty much given up on that idea. My producer, Robert Gordon, who just had a big financial success at Sundance, by selling his new film, ‘Best Of Enemies’, me and him talk about it, and we have to be happy with the fact that this film is just out there.’

There’s always the sweet documentary groupie action to compensate for the lack of readies though...

‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s really the only reason any of us make documentaries. Makes it all worthwhile for just one night. It’s finding an audience is the thing, and it’s just so hard to cut through all the noise. To be on a label with Spiritualized and The Black Keys, that will help us reach an audience. This film isn’t really that mainstream, but there is a certain audience out there for it. And I think some of them will be listening to Spiritualized, and some of them will be listening to The Black Keys...’

You’re after that lucrative outlaw market, and Jerry fits the bill. Sun Records veteran, with a hip flask and a fun in his cowboy boot...

‘Jerry’s the real deal. There are plenty of artists out there who bill themselves as outlaws, but they have a comfortable life, a pretty wife, all that. Jerry lived on the edge, and in the shadows, living by the seat of his pants every day of his life.’

One of the few rockers out there who could make Iggy Pop feel nervous around them.

‘I think Iggy and Jerry would be kindred spirits. They both lived that homeless life for a while, and they both hit rock bottom more than once. I’m sure they’d have some wild stories to tell one another.’

Did you revisit ‘Very Extremely Dangerous’, given that it’s about to be unleashed on the home market? Do you find it easy, watching your own work?

‘It’s hard to watch the films once they’re out. There was a retrospective of the three documentary films I’ve made in New York last year, and I went and sat through all three of them. For the most part, I was pleased enough, but it was a long time ago, and they each felt like slices of my life. I spent five years making ‘Barbaric Genius’, and maybe two years making ‘Very Extremely Dangerous’. For the latter, I was just out there with a camera and Robert Gordon, and you’re very much living that life.’

This attraction to outsiders - John Healy, Jerry McGill, Bernard Natan, and soon, Bill Drummond - where does that spring from? These are people diligently outside the mainstream...

‘Well, John Healy has had a number one bestselling book, and Bill Drummond has had number one singles...’

True, but I think we’re far away from Dan Brown and Phil Collins here, and deliberately so.

‘John would love to be mainstream. He would love to be in the position where someone like Irvine Welsh or Will Self is. He deserves to be mainstream, but he’s unfortunately not in the position where that is likely to happen, being marginalised by his origins, by his manner, for having lived on the streets.’

‘I suppose the core question here is, why are these people interesting to me? Well, they are completely unique stories. I’d never come across a story like John Healy’s, nor Jerry McGill’s, or Bernard Natan’s. Bernard’s story just bowled us over when we unearthed it. There’s a lot of competition out there for the big names, and if you want to tell the story of Lou Reed or Iggy Pop, you’re going to join a very long queue. I want to tell the stories that no one is telling. No one’s trying to beat me to it either.’

So, how did you convince Bill Drummond to let you tag along with your cameraman, Robbie Ryan?

‘I just sent him an email, and then, the next time I was in London, we met for a coffee. Bill is one of the most approachable, and acceptable, and giving people that I’ve ever met. And he cares about what people have to say. When I met him, he was in the thick of a controversy surrounding his painting over a UKIP billboard. He wrote an article for The Guardian about, after it had gone viral, and he got a thousand comments on that article. And he read every single one of them. And he wasn’t interested in the ones that just congratulated him; he wanted to hear from those people who disagreed. One person said that he was being anti-democratic, and that’s the one that struck home. So, he’s not at all autocratic, and when we sat down to talk about our plan, he was keen to hear what my approach would be. Luckily, he was happy with that approach. The main thing is, I’m not interested in looking back over what he’d done, but what he was doing now.’

‘I truly think that Bill Drummond and Alan Moore are the two people working in this part of the world right now who are truly extraordinary. I’ve never had the chance or the nerve to approach Alan Moore though. Actually, Bill told me that Alan approached him sometime in the 1990s, asking if he wanted to join his magic circle, but Bill doesn’t really believe in all that. So, yeah, he’s an extraordinary man, and it’s a great privilege to work with him.’

So, what is your approach to making a documentary with Bill Drummond?

‘He’s on a world tour right now, spending a period of time every year in a different city, and I suggested he head to Memphis. He’s got a lifelong thing about Elvis, and I’ve shot a lot there too, so, I felt that it would be fertile ground, and he’d bond well with the world there. So, next year, he’ll be in Memphis for four weeks, just doing his art, and I’ll be there with Robbie Ryan, and we’re going to treat it more like a nature documentary. No interviews, just observation. Bill chose the poorest, blackest part of Memphis, far from Graceland and Sun Studios, to do his work in. So, he’s going to be in a place where real people live. That’s what he’s interested in - interacting with people who engaged with life rather than art. We’ll see how it works...’

Spending a few weeks in a different city every year to do your art sounds like a luxury. Does Bill still have money to burn?

‘Not at all. He’s struggling, just like you and me, but he chooses to live this way. He just has to work to keep afloat, and he’s placed an enormous block in his path, because he refuses to see his art as a way of making money. It’s a deep philosophical thing for him that art shouldn’t be sold. So, how to make a living out of that is what he’s trying to figure out. It’s all ducking and diving, you know. Like anybody else.’

Nice getting Robbie Ryan along for the trip. Wonderful cinematographer, with features such as ‘Red Road’, ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ and ‘Philomena’ under his belt...

‘I’ve known Robbie for a long, long time. We were in Dun Laoghaire - he was a couple of years behind me - and we’ve worked together before on a few things. This is the first collaboration though in about ten years. He loves Bill, and Bill likes him very much, so, should be a treat. Robbie’s keen to do a documentary, after so many years in features.’

Given that you are firmly established now - you don’t get a New York retrospective of your work otherwise - do you feel comfortable where you are now, career-wise, or is there always an itch to get somewhere else?

‘I’d like to be earning money. The three documentaries I’ve made were each made for under €100,000, and I certainly didn’t make anything from them. I’d like to be earning a living out of this at some point. In the meantime, it’s a survival game.’

You’ve had success with adapting ‘Secret Diary Of A Call Girl’ in 2010, co-creating last year’s hit TV drama mini-series ‘Amber’ - hits like that must move you up the food chain a little, and help pay the rent. Compare that to your early years - six years between your debut short, ‘Ink’, in 1988, and the follow-up, ‘Misteach Baile Ath Cliath’...

‘There was no Film Board when I started out, and when it arrived, I thought, great, there’ll be budgets aplenty now. But, that wasn’t really the case, and it took quite a while before I felt that effect. The trouble is, when I started out, you would make a short and it would travel the world. Partly because it was so hard to make any kind of film back then. Now, the situation has turned upside down. You can make a film on your phone, and then release it through your phone. Filmmakers find it very difficult to maintain a presence or a brand these days. Since I cover quite a lot of ground, that’s even more difficult. So, making a living now is even trickier than it was in the eighties. And the eighties were bad.’

So, does that mean you’re happy where you’re at right now, or not...?

‘Oh, I’m happy. I’m generally busy, which is a good sign. I’m currently writing a TV series with Rob Cawley, for the Americans, and that’s fun. The brakes are off. You self-censor when you’re writing for here, but with America, your imagination is widescreen. There’s just so many possibilities. To be honest, I love working on different projects, in TV, in drama, in the documentary world - it frees you up, liberates you.’

It’s a particularly healthy time for TV...

‘Oh, it’s amazing. Television now is where independent filmmaking was in the 1990s. People are keen to take risks; they want you to be adventurous. You go to meet someone at HBO or Showtime, and they’re saying, ‘We want you to come to us with something completely imaginative, something we haven’t seen before’. That’s so thrilling to hear. They’re not looking for star names. You go to the film studios, and it’s the complete opposite. They don’t want to take any risks, whatsoever. They want tried and tested.’

'So, it’s good to be working in an area that’s going through a gold rush...'

Do you see yourself as an Irish artist, or an artist who happens to be Irish?

‘I feel Irish when I’m abroad, I feel foreign sometimes when I’m here. If that makes sense. Americans love that we’re Irish, and it helps. It still has a certain amount of cache when you come all the way from Dublin to a meeting in Burbank. They’re impressed by that.’

‘Then again, I thought ‘Amber’ was very Irish, but it has played very well abroad. The most recent broadcast was in Germany, dubbed into German. So, is it Irish...?’

So, besides your American TV dreams and preparing for your Memphis trip with Bill Drummond, have you anything else on the boil right now?

‘Actually, I’ve got a film that I produced, coming out on March 13th, at the IFI, and then travelling around the country - Ciarín Scott’s Christina Noble documentary, ‘In A House That Ceased To Be’. Remarkable film, and again, a pure labour of love. It took an extraordinarily long time to get the film finished. Ciarín travelled with Christina for four years all around the world. A wonderful film.’

Ciarín Scott’s Christina Noble documentary ‘In A House That Ceased To Be’ opens in Ireland on March 13th

Paul Duane's documentary 'Very Extremely Dangerous' can be found on iTunes here and on Amazon here.

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