20 September 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
'Sanctuary' Director Len Collin
11 Jul 2017 : Deirdre Hopkins
A still from 'Sanctuary'
IFTN talks to the feature debut director as 'Sanctuary' goes on general release.

IFTN caught up with ‘Sanctuary’ director, Len Collin, to talk about the film, the joyous production, and working with the Blue Teapot Theatre Company family.

The film itself is a beautifully cast comedy that walks a fine line between screwball and serious. It premiered at the Fleadh last year, and has received great reviews at festivals in Ireland and around the world. The film is currently on release.

IFTN: Talk to us about the shoot. It feels like there was a lot of love on the set.

Len Collin: Yes, definitely. I started with Blue Teapot Theatre Company back in 2011. They try to adopt you, and then you can't get away. It's really like a family. We wanted to create that same feeling on set really. When we were appointing crew, and when were casting the non Blue Teapot cast that was very much in our minds to make it as comfortable place to be as possible. It’s not normally that calm. I did make a decision actually at the start of it that I must never lose my temper at all. That was good advice to myself I think, but then I never had any reasons to, so that was good.

IFTN: How you got involved?

Len Collin: Essentially, with Blue Teapot, I got involved with them back in 2011, because I was commissioned to write a short film script for them, which was a short film script called 84. It was a dystopian future based very loosely on the T4 program that happened during the second world war when before the final solution the Nazis were gassing intellectually disabled people.

It was kind of dark and bleak, but with some humour in it, which was obviously-- now, I look back on it I think, "What was I doing? Why was I doing something so harsh?" We did perform a reading of it for Culture Night at the Druid Theater, and it worked really well. It was really good. Petal [Pilley] the artistic director of Blue Teapot effectively got me to direct the actors at that point for that project, and that was really the start of my association with them. I just really enjoyed working with them and started teaching them then how to act on camera.

I’d bring in my DLR and shoot little scenes with them to show them how it worked, and I did that for quite a few years. Then, when they commissioned Christian to write Sanctuary, obviously I got to see it very early on. Talking to Petal about it over a few pints in the pub afterwards, I said, "It really needs to be a film." I have never seen any film that was set in that world at that time.

Usually, whenever you do see any films that are based around disability, they're either documentaries or they're kitchen sink dramas, are miserable, or worthy ... all these things. This was a very fun piece, which had a very serious message at its heart, so what was just a conversation six years ago has now resulted in the film I guess.

IFTN: It's a beautiful cast film. I think particularly the two leads – Kieran Coppinger and Charlene Kelly - they're so well cast for those roles. Were the actors involved in the development of the characters or any of the script. Did they have input on that?

Len Collin: Yes, Absolutely. That's always the ethos of working with the Blue Teapot company actors; it is very much that when the play was developed they were involved.

The Irish Film Board had set up the Catalyst project for low budget films. Christian  [O’Reilly] and I decided we would go to Catalyst - we had it in our in our heads in advance that we wanted Edwina Forkin of Zanzibar Films to produce it because we thought she had the right kind of personality for this particular project.

Anyone who knows Edwina knows she's lovely, bubbly, brings great energy wherever she goes. Ironically I was taught by Edwina at the Huston Films School. What I did was that I shot one of the scenes from the play as it was then, and I shot it in Jury’s Hotel in Galway as part of a session in class and then edited it together. Iit was kind of like a proof of concept scene, and that turned out to be quite important. Actually good advice for film makers because it proved that Kieran could act for example.

The concept behind the film was entertaining because I was able to show that to Edwina and she just said yes straightaway I'm happy to represent this. When we went to the Film Board, and when we were shortlisted for catalyst, again that proved very convincing for them plus the arguments we had around the stamina levels of the actors etc.

As we knew then that we were going to going on to make the film, I made sure that I had rehearsal sessions with the actors around the scenes. One of the problems we had initially was that they were so familiar with the play and some of the lines had been learned like songs. There was a rhythm to them and I needed to break down those rhythms because those rhythms wouldn't work so well on film. So I would get the actors to play each other’s parts and twist them around, and then the very key point was any lines we would run them through the actors individually, and I would ask Charlene for example, "That word there you're having trouble with that word, do you want to change that word, what would work for you with that word?"

We would work like that and then I would take that suggestion back to Christian and he would work on it that way. Equally for people with down syndrome their tongues are thicker than most people so sometimes they literally cannot articulate certain words. You get an actress like Jenny Cox who's a brilliant actress but her speech is harder to understand. All these things we took into account when developing the script for the film.

IFTN: How long was the shoot?

Len Collin: The shoot was a five week shoot but with Christmas in between. They were six day weeks, so 30 days shoot; a normal 11 day hour shooting. What we tried to do within that was we would try and split up the couples because the film is conveniently in couples. We wanted to limit the amount of work each actor had to do each week. Kieran's obviously got the most to do but we would still try and give him two days off a week, and all of the actors, so they'd each get a rest. The break between Christmas was interesting because the one thing that we really, really had to drum home and we had to send letters out to carers, to parents, to all sorts of people, saying, look, this film is set on one day. No haircuts, no excessive eating at Christmas. Poor Kieran - if you noticed - in some scenes his shirt is a little bit tighter!

Charlene [Kelly] averted a crisis because she managed to convince her carers not to bring her for a haircut and colour for Christmas! They were literally on the way to the hairdressers! Charlene knew what she was doing!

So it was all quite fun. I'm sorry! I'm grinning and laughing a bit, because there were these joyous things that happened on the set.  I remember also one of our actors forgot their false teeth one day and turned up on set without their teeth so we had to go collect them.

Well, you've got to roll with it. It certainly meant that from my point of view as a director, you knew things were going to go wrong. You were just prepared for them. You just go, "Yes, that's going to happen. All right”. And we'd then just get on with it.

That was the great thing about having the Nox Hotel as the location because we could literally change our minds quite quickly if we needed to. Also, that was very true of Galway as a city because everyone was so supportive of the film. Literally, there were times when we could literally go into a pub and say, "Look, can we film in here?"

Our location manager, Kieran Hennessy, was absolutely brilliant. It really was a huge, big team effort. It was a wonderful experience for me, certainly, and to have that as my first feature, I doubt that experience will ever be repeated if I get to make another film.

‘Sanctuary’ is on release in Ireland now. The distributor is Eclipse Pictures.

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