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Old Genre, New Tricks
12 Mar 2015 : Paul Byrne
James Fitzgerald's ‘Skunky Dog’ won Best Short Drama at the Royal Television Society Awards in RTÉ last week
With ‘Skunky Dog’, writer/director James Fitzgerald taps into small-town despair in the wilds of Ireland. And it’s hitting a nerve, picking up its second award just last week. Paul Byrne pulls up a couch.

As it prepares to go out into the big, mad world on the international film festival circuit, James Fitzgerald’s ‘Skunky Dog’ does so having already won over quite a few fans here. Having just picked up its second major award last week - bagging Best Short Drama at the Royal Television Society Awards in RTÉ – ‘Skunky Dog’ also comes with a seal of approval from Jim Sheridan, who describes the 25-minute short as both “beautifully shot” and “extraordinary”.

Having made his debut with 2013’s ‘Shadow In The Woods’, Fitzgerald seems set to move up the film food chain considerably as ‘Skunky Dog’ heads out around the world. Before all the madness begins, IFTN’s Paul Byrne managed to go deep with the promising young Irish filmmaker...

PAUL BYRNE: ‘Skunky Dog’ paints a grim but familiar picture of legless life in small-town Ireland. Part ‘Last Picture Show’, part ‘Nationwide’ report on Ireland’s rust belt - where did ‘Skunky Dog’ spring from?

JAMES FITZGERALD: ‘Dunmore East is where I grew up in County Waterford. It’s a beautiful summer-fishing village for anyone who knows it. But come September, all the tourists are gone, and it becomes very depressing and bleak in many ways. I was working in one of the local bars for a little while and I noted the amount of young people there. These people were school drop-outs, now working on fishing trawlers, and spending their leisure time drinking and wasting away their youth.’

‘One young lad in particular I got to know. He told me how he felt that he was “stuck” in Dunmore, and was never going to be able to leave. He told me that he was a school drop-out and could barely read or write. I found this rather disturbing and extremely depressing. The boy whom I spoke to was nicknamed Flick. All the elements were slowly coming together. The boy also told me the story of “the skunky dog”, a small homeless dog that was causing trouble with some of the locals. Apparently the pound came to put it down but Flick and his friends stood up and saved the dog. When Flick was drinking himself and the lads would often shout “I’m a skunky dog!”.’

‘I used this as the title of the film, because it sounds like a rodent, rogue-type creature that causes mischief. It became sort of a metaphor for Flick’s character. I asked the real Flick could I use his nickname and some of the things he told me in my fictional story. He was delighted and he was well informed of the story content. That’s the main influence of the story.’

The telling is in the small detail - the ass looking over the stone wall, the porcelain figurines on the shelf, the cold chips, the comatosed father on the couch, the hollow bragging. Lot of thought, or did DoP Aidan Gault just point the camera and shoot?

‘Most of the detail was planned out before we shot, and were in the script. When myself and Aidan went back for the pick-ups, for the opening credits, we both spent a day hopping around shooting loads of stuff. I had seen the donkey on our first recce. However, that dog shot was a gift from my dad, I believe. It’s my personal favourite in the film.’

Is that the garage from Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Garage’ at the start?

‘No, it’s not the garage from ‘Garage’. I love that film, and my main concern when writing Skunky was people thinking it was trying to be Garage 2… I shot that garage as a little nod to Lenny’s masterpiece.’

Ryan McPartland is well-cast as Seamus/Flick, as is Lacy Moore, and the way she might look at you . Part of the growing Paddy Slattery stable, or were they simply drawn in by the incredible writing and exotic location?

‘Ryan had worked with Paddy a bit before, in Martin McCann’s ‘Fishbowl’, so I’m guessing Ryan was aware of Paddy’s reputation as a film maker and producer. So, that was a start, and when he was shown the script he was very interested in playing Flick. I think it was quite different to the characters he’d played in the past. I met Lacy on a friend’s short film, and she just looked the part. I told her I had this idea for my grad film and straight away she was very interested. Lacy was actually the first person I cast, and I never looked at anyone else to do it. I think it’s safe to say I made a good choice.’

IMDB have two writers for Skunky Dog - both called James Fitzgerald. Shome mishtake, shurely...?

‘Yeah…that’s a mistake..unless I missed something?? Maybe there’s a clone out there..’

A follow-up to your 2013 debut, ‘Shadows In The Woods’. Does this feel like a great leap forward, or just a natural step...?

‘Each time I make a short it has to be better than the last. That’s every aspect of it, from writing to the way it’s shot. I had never had a budget on a short before, and Shadows was a 45-minute short shot and cut for absolutely nothing. It’s in no way perfect, but if you watch it, there’s quite a lot achieved for no money. Because Skunky had a miniscule budget - in film-making terms - it helped the quality of the production greatly, and gave it a boost. If there was no budget on the project, I doubt it would be half as good. It seems like a natural step and a great leap forward.’

Are you part of the growing Stand Mantra Productions? Does it feel like a budding Paddywood out west, or just a bunch of friends making movies?

‘Paddywood… Jaysus [laughs]. Em... I think it’s all about friends making films. And passion - there has to be passion. But there’s something special brewing, and it’s only a matter of time before something big happens in Paddywood. Hopefully… That’s my wishful thinking. But honestly, if the quality of work is kept up then I believe good things will happen.’

What’s your gameplan - world domination, or critical adoration?

‘I’d like to be known and respected as a film maker in Ireland and abroad. I believe if you really want something, you’ll get it. Sounds corny, but, if you fight for something you believe in, things kinda work themselves out…’

The Irish film industry is a small one, but we occasionally get it very right - with the likes of ‘Adam & Paul’ and ‘Once’. We’re well overdue a Great Irish Film though, one that’s adored around the world by smart, erudite, film-smart people; you up for the challenge?

‘What about ‘Calvary’? On the poster it stated, it was “one of the greatest Irish films ever made”…? Only kidding. Yeah, I’d definitely like to give it a shot - you only live once.’

What are your immediate plans? Are you keen to go beyond the post?

‘The short has gained me some interest from some of the Irish independent companies, who might be interested in doing a feature with me. I’m currently writing one at the moment, so, only time will tell. I think it could be quite interesting. Ken Wardrop and Andrew Freedman of Antidote/Venom Films called me in last August to be part of their new company, so that’s very exciting too. I guess the plan is to stay in Ireland for a bit longer and hopefully get established as a filmmaker. Then I can jump ship... maybe London.’

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

‘The film was dedicated to my dad, Paddy Fitzgerald. He was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer before I started my final year in IADT. I knew he wasn’t going to ever see the final film - so, I said to myself, I’m going to make the best f**kin’ film I can for him. I hope that I did him proud. He was a genius, and a spectacular musician. I have a lot to live up to.’

Watch out for ‘Skunky Dog’ at a film festival near you soon. You can watch the trailer here...

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