7 June 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Exclusive: Brendan Gleeson Talks with IFTN about Directorial Debut ‘Psychic’
27 Jul 2018 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN caught up with Brendan Gleeson ahead of the special Sky Arts screening of his new short film ‘Psychic’.

Brendan Gleeson's first outing as Director delivers a skillful and intriguing short film.

Written by Rory Gleeson (‘Rockadoon Shore’), ‘Psychic’ tells the story of a charismatic psychic (Brendan Gleeson) who is forced out of retirement by his two manipulative sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) and taken on the road. The last obstacle to gaining a large cult following is a TV show host (Ingrid Craigie) determined to bring them down. A light and dark tale of family showmanship and the suspension of disbelief.  

‘Psychic’, which launched at The Galway Film Fleadh is produced by Juliette Bonass (A Date for Mad Mary, Glassland, The Last Hotel for Sky Arts) and Brendan Gleeson and is co-funded by Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland and Sky Arts. It will air on Sky Arts next year (2019).

IFTN: Brendan, how did you find the overall experience of directing your first film, coupled with your acting commitments in front of the camera?

Brendan: “Well, overall, if I will take the acting in front of the camera first, or in front of my own directing, I found it a little bit irritating from a directorial point of view! I was concentrating on whether I need a director's eye, in terms of doing what I needed to do as an actor? I thought, ‘No.’ I knew what I wanted out of myself, if you know what I mean, as a director. As an actor, I kept thinking that that was something I needed to mind. Actually, what I missed most was being able to see the scene evolve as you were watching it, as against replaying it and seeing how it went, because you have a different reaction going on as it’s happening. Your instincts bring you into a different place. It's just slightly different than when you're replaying it, say, ‘Well, did that work or did that not?’ You get better ideas when you're looking at something dispassionately. In terms of whether I'd go back and do acting and direct together again, I'm not sure. I just found when I went in to just work with the lads and I was off-set as an actor, I really enjoyed it.”

IFTN: An actor I have previously interviewed who was also the director and producer on his film, found that he was rushing through scenes in front of the camera in order to stick to the schedule (as a producer) rather than focusing on the actual scene at hand.  Then of course there was the temptation, in the edit, to pick the take in which he looked best as opposed to what worked best for the film. Did you find yourself in a similar predicament?

Brendan: “I don't think so. I would hope I didn't do that! Because I started late into acting, I've been conscious of looking and trying to learn what's been happening. I've schooled myself to look at myself relatively objectively, I think. No, that wasn't the issue. The issue was that as a director, I just found it much more enjoyable to watch the thing unfolding, and I knew exactly where I wanted to bring it, as it was going on, whereas you could set it up as a director and then the cameras are rolling, but you're in the scene as an actor, so you can't be there as a director. I just found it irritating that I wasn't looking at the camera as it was happening, even when I was doing it on set. Or when you were seeing the reactions of how things were going, which way the camera was moving and stuff. I much preferred when I wasn't there.”

Brendan with Producer Juliette Bonass, James Hickey, and Sky Arts' Acquisition Manager Jack Oliver at the Sky Arts screening of 'Psychic' in the Light House Cinema, Smithfield.

IFTN: Even in the scenes between Brian and Domhnall in the studio, you are still in the background being interviewed by Ingrid, it must have been tough to direct from that position with no green screens!

Brendan: “Yes, I was doing it. It was part of what the conceit was, you see part of this story has to do with veils, and obviously as a psychic, the whole notion is that the television studio itself, for me, was part of the conceit. Also, the fact that Harding is apparently this tough journalist but she's also in showbiz.  There was a purple wash in the last television scene, for example, trying to just give the notion that when you're looking at all their stuff, the media have their own little sleight of hand going on, the editorial thing that happens there and the camera shots that are chosen.”

“From the beginning, for the opening scene we were trying to get a layer of reality within the studio. You were looking at a monitor, which was looking at that, that was real. That was actually in the camera, and we wanted to keep as much in the camera, any of that stuff as we caught. It was quite tricky now, and we played around him with the different formats, in terms of television formats and all that stuff. We switched it in the first open scene and hopefully it is relatively subliminal. We don't expect anybody to notice it, but it is sometimes filled and sometimes a picture of a camera and the television studio. You know what I mean? It has two different voices. All that stuff was really interesting, but the problem was, I was stuck in the scene over there... So there weren't any green screens. That was all in-camera, and we were trying to keep it that way pretty deliberately.”

IFTN: Making it easy for yourself... [both laugh]

Brendan: “That first scene was insane, it was fun though! It was fun, and when you get into the editing room then you're saying, ‘you idiot, why didn't you do that?’ It was one particular tracking shot that we took ages and ages and ages to get. There were just one or two things, the pace didn't seem right and we just needed to revamp the beginning of it in the edit. I always remember, I learned a lot from Braveheart going in and seeing the first battle, Mel shows the first battle, and we had spent six weeks on it. Just the amount of stuff that was cut out, the amount of amazing stuff that was in there, but it was a split second that would have taken two days to shoot, but it had the wealth of it. You do have to kill your baby, but it's hard to know what is going to stay in and actually communicating what isn't.”

Brendan with IFTN Journalist Nathan Griffin.

IFTN: You have obviously read a lot of scripts in your day, and it is your son Rory’s writing debut. Did you have any advice for him approaching the script?

Brendan: “We actually workshopped it a fair bit. He had it and then I basically commissioned him to write something for myself and the two lads and this is what he comes up with. Then we read it and we had worked through it, and he saying it started off where he just wanted to see me in a TURBAN at one point, found it DISTURBIN’... We were really raging that we didn’t think of that in time for the tagline!”

“No, what I found interesting about it was that he gave me something that was interesting, in terms of the line about all children must love their parents was in from the very beginning. There were lines that got me as an actor, for example, where he says, ‘The darkness now. I don't like this now.’ When he's actually getting into a depression, and you say, ‘Right, this is more than just a bunch of cowboys.’ It is obviously a travelling circus. There's a whole lot of nonsense but there's something else going on in there. I felt that there was stuff in the script and that points to a soul, in terms of these people, that they're not just show. So much of it was just show and the whole notion of whether a psychic, if there's anything else other than hokum involved in these psychics, or not. For me, it was a very interesting place.”

IFTN: Domhnall’s character touches upon it in the film whenever he asks Brian’s character, "Do you even believe in this stuff?" to which Brian’s character replies, "The two of us do.", which causes the audience to then question it.

Brendan: “’In the moment anyway’ is the next line, you're going to say. What was interesting about that was that it almost crossed into the notion of acting too, in terms of where you are in the moment in terms of... It just was very fascinating stuff because I found this and said, ‘Yes, this is something I would actually want to make, because I'm not sure which side is going to fall down.’ Part of what I was trying to do was to make sure that there was enough ambiguity and duplicity about it.”

“The script was pretty harsh. Not harsh, but it was taking the mick a little bit. Then there was this other element that kept creeping into it that had to do with the family and the relationships between them and all this stuff, and you're wondering whether, ‘Do they love their father? What is going on with the abuse that's hinted at?’ This whole dark side of it and it's very interesting. I showed it to somebody who was, I'll say, your generation. She said, ‘We had been talking about how one son apparently is the softer of the two, and then that seems to flip, and the notion of buying the old house for him.’ I showed it to somebody in her 30s and all she would talk about was how the sons were dealing with that parent. Even cross-generationally, it was interesting to see perspectives.”

Brendan with son Rory (writer) at the Sky Arts screening.

IFTN: While we are on the topic of parental love, the film itself is a very family-centred project, your son Fergus also did the music, and Juliette produced. I am interested to know what the dynamic was like and how much you enjoy working on it together?

Brendan: “It was difficult enough because everybody's pretty fiercely professional in their own way and it was crossing into family lines and talking about family. It was one of the reactions that we got, was that, ‘God damn, it's so weird, you all look the same.’ and all this stuff. It was an interesting one. It wasn't as simple as I thought it might be, and at the same time, I thought it was hugely enjoyable. Obviously, it was great. We were down in Galway at the weekend, and it was just fantastic to be involved in something because we did pour a lot into it. I'll put it that way, and we didn't always see eye to eye on what way that things should be, but I got a great kick out of it, I have to say.”

IFTN: This isn’t your first time acting alongside your two sons, having worked with Domhnall and Brian before on Enda Walsh’s ‘The Walworth Farce’. I am interested to know how the dynamic might have changed this time around.

Brendan: Well, the difference was that I was the director! It did change things. I have to say that because it was a challenging script for me psychologically. The psychological journey, it was such a high wire act, in the sense of trying to maintain what we had talked about. There is soul, there's spirituality floating around there somewhere, and then there's this just practical... these three logicals making money out of something and taking advantage of people. There were so many different areas, that psychologically the journey for me was... I ended up saying, ‘How am I going to shoot them?’ I can only shoot it if I understand psychologically what the journey is. But what that tended to do was to limit what I'd say the lads could do, in terms of getting on set and exploring this stuff because I already had to, because I was a first timer too. I had to set up the camera moves in such a way that they would tell the psychological story, so I was jumping the gun a little bit.”

It's always better if you can go out on set and explore and find things, but it was my first time, and the line was so thin for me to walk that I was a little bit more controlling than I would have wanted to be, in terms of the choices that were being made. That was difficult because no one wants to be that way. I didn't want to be bossy either, but it was just, I didn't know how, I couldn't figure out... I don't have the experience at this point just to be able to say, ‘Well, let's take it a completely different direction and shift location.’ You can't do that on the short. Or, ‘Let's just go into the back of the room,’ or, ‘let’s switch around the camera moves’ when I was really put to the pin of my collar.”

“First of all, it was a very complicated set up, especially the first day with the studio thing. It was very interesting from my own point of view because I'm not afraid of questions normally. I'm not afraid of different choices, ever. I like it as an actor and I didn't feel afraid of things. I just felt that I had to be fairly rigid if I was going to make sense of it psychologically. So that was the biggest challenge.”

IFTN: Dave Grennan did the DOP work on the project. How invaluable was his experience in assisting you through it all?

Brendan: He's fantastic. Absolutely brilliant and we had a really good run. It was a really good crew and the cast. It really was a very happy place.”

IFTN: Other great crew like Tamara Conboy and Consolata Boyle as well...

Brendan: Absolutely, smashing people and I think you can see it. The production values are great on it. But, I did feel the responsibility too, though I didn't want to be thinking about it. We got good help from the Irish Film Board and Sky Arts, and I had enough to make it, there were no excuses really, so I did feel a lot of pressure to deliver something, that didn't look like it was made in the kitchen.”

“It was all such a learning curve, but Dave was amazing and we had a great working relationship. I think I know what I don't know, at least I have a fair idea of what I don't know, and it's a lot. I was happy for him and he was happy to share what he knew, which was amazing, and the same Consolata, the same with Domhnall. It's just; it had felt very, very collaborative. It really did, they’re just a brilliant bunch.”

IFTN: Ingrid Craigie does a great job of trying to appease the three Gleesons in the film. Can you tell me a little bit about how she got involved with the short?

Brendan:  (Laughs) “I don't know if she is trying to appease us! She’s trying to show us up, isn't she? She does show us up, probably. I've known Ingrid for so long, she's just a wonder, she's just a national treasure basically. We wanted it to be four strong characters. Rory wanted very much that Harding was not just an addendum to the thing. She had to be putting a real challenge to these guys. She had to be tough and, on the other hand, she had to have obviously the vulnerability to be sideswiped by this thing about what's revealed about her. I just think she's amazing, she's just stunning and I wanted to see more and more and more and it's just, we wanted to keep going and tell her story but it was very short. You just have to get snippets and move on, but no, she was wonderful.”

IFTN: The humour in the film is very quirky. There is a definite sense that you all enjoyed the jokes, but could you tell me how you went about developing the jokes and humour on set?

Brendan: “I hope so, but you don't want the crew laughing and the audience not. You always have to be careful with that vibe... There's great chemistry when it works, but you've got to be careful not to be self-indulgent. We were keeping each other on our toes a lot. At the same time, it was a great bunch of people, there was a great vibe on set and stuff. I was thinking about this after Galway and there are certain things that take a little bit for people to understand what's going on. There was always the idea that maybe you should explain this at the beginning, especially the second scene, or the third scene - if we should see a tarot card first. Basically, I like it being a cryptic crossword as against a simple crossword, but there's an awful lot to be said for simple crosswords. I've been thinking about it ever since because I hadn’t, and we had screened it before, but I hadn’t seen up on a screen before, but with the Galway audience where nobody knew or nobody did anything on it. It was very interesting knowing and still thinking about it. The fact that it's cryptic, you run the risk of leaving people out of certain aspects of the film, and then people are not going to get it. That's a very interesting question I'm still mulling over actually.”

IFTN: Due to the fact that it was your two sons who were playing your sons in the film, did you feel that you could be a little bit cryptic because people would almost naturally make that connection?

Brendan: I think visually, we didn't have to over-egg it because they're looking back at you, you're looking back at yourself... Yes, I think that was certainly in the room and there were things that were happening between them, I noticed it most where I was watching Brian and Domhnall go at it, and there's a couple of things in that, that just came because they were brothers. That was a huge joy. That's where you get every gift because you're saying, ‘That particular reaction would not have been the one that somebody who was pretending to be a brother would know.’ You get a few gifts that way, and then against that, obviously me being the dad and the director, that's a little bit of a difficulty that you have to negotiate. It was interesting, it was just fascinating, the thing is, we asked Rory to come up with a script, and Rory is also a son. Even Fergus's music in that scene where the turban is coming off and stuff like that. He got a particular poignancy into it that I wasn't expecting. The dynamic was definitely involved and sometimes, I'm not sure, I feel it was a good thing, but who knows, maybe it was getting in the way of something more objective, I don't know.”

IFTN: Finally, you have touched upon it already, but can you tell me a little bit more about the screening of ‘Psychic’ at the Galway Film Fleadh?

Brendan: “It was great just to hear people laughing and people getting it. That's where I could feel as well, you could hear a pin drop basically. I do have a notion that I wanted something that you could look at a second time and get a bit more out of. I just hope, I didn't want to be leading people outside the door there and say, ‘Watch it twice, and you’ll know.’ I didn't want to be doing that, I don't believe in that. I don't believe in being tricky for its own sake, but I do love having a bit of a challenge where you have to be exercised a small bit, try and figure out. I wanted people talking afterwards about what they felt it meant or the relationship between the people. I wanted it to be a talking point rather than an answer if you know what I mean.”

‘Psychic’ will air on Sky Arts early 2019.

Brendan Gleeson is best known for his roles in John Michael McDonagh’s ‘The Guard’ (2011), ‘Calvary’ (2014), and Martin McDonagh’s ‘In Bruges’ (2008). The three-time Golden Globe nominated actor received critical acclaim for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in HBO’s ‘Into the Storm’ (2009) for which he received a Primetime Emmy award in 2009. Gleeson is also a two-time IFTA winning actor having most recently received the ‘Best Lead Actor - Film’ award for Calvary in 2014.

The Irish actor currently stars in AT&T’s original series ‘Mr. Mercedes’, created by David E. Kelley and based on the critically acclaimed Steven King novel. He is also set to feature in Ireland’s first stop motion feature film ‘Captain Morten & the Spider Queen’ later this year.

‘Psychic’ stars Ingrid Craigie, Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson and Brian Gleeson. The short film is written by Rory Gleeson and produced by Juliette Bonass. Directed by Brendan Gleeson, David Grennan is DoP, the music composed by Fergus Gleeson, editing by Isobel Stephenson. Production design is by Tamara Conboy, while Consolata Boyle is costume designer.

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