22 February 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director Brian Lally discusses The Curious Works of Roger Doyle
30 Oct 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Roger Doyle on RTÉ
IFTN caught up with director Brian Lally to find out more about the making of his new documentary, The Curious Works of Roger Doyle, its long journey to the screen, and working with one of Ireland’s hidden musical maestros.

The film will screen in Eye Cinema, Galway on November 1st for one week. A special screening followed by a Q&A with Brian Lally and Roger Doyle will take place in Eye Cinema on November 5th.

The documentary studies the life’s work of Irish musician Roger Doyle, and closely observes him presenting one of his most ambitious musical projects to the general public – his first electronic opera. Known as the “godfather of Irish electronica," the film follows Roger from August to November 2016 as he prepares for the staging of his opera, Heresy, in Dublin.

The Curious Works of Roger Doyle has enjoyed a successful tour of the Irish festival circuit with screenings in Galway, Cork, Dingle Film Festival and Docs Ireland in Belfast, and releases across select cinemas in October. Hailed as a "triumphant homage to a musical genius" in the Sunday Independent, the film was produced and directed by Brian Lally through his production company Instigator Films and part-funded by Screen Ireland. 

IFTN spoke with Brian ahead of the film’s release to find out more about the project.

IFTN: How and when did you first come across the works of Roger Doyle?

Brian: “I first came across Roger Doyle's music via his film soundtrack work a very long time ago in the early 1990s. I did the Film Foundation course in FilmBase which so many people did back then and one of the tutors showed us Joe Comerford's early experimental film 'Emtigon'. The film was a potent mix of very striking black and white imagery with a surreal, hypnotic soundtrack which really intrigued me and then the credit came up at the end; 'Music By Roger Doyle'. A few years later, I saw Cathal Black's 1984 film "Pigs" which had this very dark, brooding music sequence at the end which created a very powerful ending which seemed to elevate the entire film and then again, in the credits; that name Roger Doyle. They were just two examples of Roger's music but already, it made an impression on me and sounded totally distinctive and very different from what anyone else seemed to be doing in Ireland. In the documentary, I show clips from both those early films and interview Joe Comerford and Cathal Black, along with Bob Quinn who had also worked with Roger on the film "Budawanny". It was a privilege to have those pioneering filmmakers in the documentary as there are very much part of Irish film history from the 1970s and 1980s, a time when very few Irish films actually got made.”

IFTN: The film is a self-confessed labour of love, which was predominantly self-funded. What was it that compelled you to document Roger’s story?

Brian: “Well, I was already intrigued by Roger's early work and then when I finally met him in 2004 at the Galway Film Fleadh, he gave me a CD of his new work called ‘Passades’. I listened to the CD carefully, on headphones in a quiet place as I suspected it was going to be good. Listening to that first CD proved to be quite an experience, it was electronica, a genre which I always loved, but it was electronica on an epic scale, part dream-like, part nightmarish, totally cinematic and utterly compelling. That was 2004, a few years into the 21st century and I thought to myself, this is what the 21st century is supposed to sound like, it sounds like Roger Doyle's music. I could see right away why he was nicknamed "the godfather of Irish electronica". Roger produced 3 CDs of ‘Passades’ and won a major international award for it, like an Oscar for avant-garde music.

“Roger allowed me to use one of the tracks from ‘Passades’ on a short film I did which did well for me on the international festival circuit. After being enamored by ‘Passades’, I started to explore Roger's previous work which was extensive and fascinating and then I began to think about making a documentary about him. At around the same time, I started seriously making corporate videos, oddly the corporate video work and then later filming the documentary with Roger and other documentary work, neatly complemented each other. Whatever new technique I learned from making a new batch of corporate videos would feed into the next documentary shoot and vice versa. The documentary work also provided a welcome break from the corporate video work which could be very intense as they usually had very tight deadlines. I made corporate videos over a 10 year period and it became my unofficial film school in factual filmmaking. That same corporate work would also fund most of the shoots I needed to complete the documentary on Roger Doyle. I ended up making over 300 corporate videos which is enough for anyone.”

IFTN: How did you approach Roger about the project?

Brian: “After the short film which used his music did well, I asked if he was interested in making a one hour documentary about his work. I thought a one hour piece would also be a good starting point for me to get into making serious documentaries. He agreed and then in 2005, I started filming his concerts with a view to one day putting all of this into a documentary. However, it wasn't that simple. Initially, there was no interest at all in that one hour documentary from the usual funders, but I decided to keep filming Roger anyway as he continued to be interesting and intriguing and his concerts were never dull and always contained something surprising, either a performance of some radical new piece that the public never heard before or a novel reworking of an older piece, either way, his concerts were always interesting to film.”

IFTN: Doyle has a large and decade-spanning body of work. How did you decide your approach to telling his story?

Brian: “Roger has been making music since the late 1960s and his output has not diminished as he got older, in fact, I believe his output has accelerated in recent years. I knew I couldn't cover everything so controversially, I focused on the Roger Doyle music that left a lasting impression on me personally; mainly ‘Passades’, his film soundtrack work and his 2011 album "Time Machine" - an album with tracks built largely around old personal voice messages left on Roger Doyle's answering machine. That album contains some of his most beautiful and affecting music and is probably more appealing to a mainstream audience than some of his more challenging experimental work. The film returns to that album several times during the documentary. Soon I started to look at this project as a feature-length documentary as I realised there was so much to cover.

“To give the film a structure, I built it around the launch, preparations and the staging of Roger's first electronic opera "Heresy" which opened in the Project Theatre in November 2016. This wholly electronic opera was Roger's first opera and it offered him a chance, late in life to bring his work to a wider audience. Basing the film around that process gave the film a sense of urgency, a clock was ticking. Dramatic questions were posed.  Would the opera be a success and bring Roger’s work to a wider audience or would it fail? That made the documentary much more engaging for an audience as I didn't want the film to become a fan piece which is always the danger when you make a film about something you really like.  The film climaxes on the opening night of the opera which gave it a natural and very satisfying conclusion. The film also features several very striking musical set pieces from the opera as the show proved to be quite a spectacle and luckily for the film, featured some wonderful music, perhaps some of the best work Roger has ever done.”

IFTN: Can you give me a bit of insight into the day-to-day filming dynamic yourself and Roger shared during the project?

Brian: “Though I shot this over 10 years, much of the early work was simply me showing up at a Roger Doyle concert with a camera and filming what happened. That was certainly interesting but much of that material didn't actually make it into the final film. However, over the years I posted much of that early concert footage on YouTube. Most of the final documentary features material I shot in 2015, 2016 and 2017. For the opera footage, I filmed whenever something was happening, from the launch at the Project Theatre to getting into the rehearsals when I could, to filming the opening night, the big opera set pieces and the audience reaction.

“For the big interviews with Roger, I quickly found out that he had created so much material that just one interview simply wouldn’t cover it. I had attempted to cover everything in our first big interview shoot but after several hours we only made it up to 1979. In the end, it took several interview sessions in different locations ranging from his house, to the Project Theatre, to an interview in Paris, to actually tell his story properly and I used the best segments from those interviews.

“The opera sequences are largely fly-on-the-wall style but there were other set pieces that I actually engineered for the film as I wanted to showcase a particular track for a sequence I had in mind. We put on a free concert at the Hugh Lane gallery just so I could film Roger playing a track called "Coat Hanger Kisses". It is the best track on "Time Machine", one of Roger's best albums, so I knew it had to be in the film. Roger was friends with the late journalist Jonathan Philbin Bowman who I also knew briefly and Jonathan left this amazing late-night voice message on Roger's answering machine way back in 1989. It was a brilliant, totally off-the-cuff, stream of consciousness, spoken word performance down a phone line. Roger had actually kept the audio recording of this message and then set it to music. The piece was beautiful and haunting and a spellbinding rumination on loss and bereavement. I wanted to include the entire track in the film as it takes a while to cast its spell and draw the audience in, and including just a short clip simply would not have worked. During the sequence, Roger's piano performance is intercut with Jonathan's brother Abie Bowman sitting at home, listening to the same track on a CD player and thinking back to his deceased older brother. It has proved to be one of the most poignant and popular sequences in the entire film and really packs an emotional punch. I remember, at the test screening of the film, we handed out questionnaires to gauge the audience reactions and people were coming back with a rating of 10/10 for that particular sequence so I knew I was onto something.”

IFTN: The film is part-funded by Screen Ireland. How did they get involved?

Brian: “Using my own resources and time I took the film to the stage of a good rough cut and I submitted that cut to Screen Ireland for completion funding. I also held a test screening (as I mentioned) of that edit which proved invaluable. From the test screening, I got some superb and very clever insights which helped take the film to the next level.  I felt the film was getting quite good at this point and Screen Ireland agreed with me, James Hickey called it a 'wonderful film" and they came on board and covered most of the final postproduction costs and it was finished in Windmill Lane. They also included the film in their film catalogue, website and marketing material which gave the film a lot of industry exposure it might not have received otherwise. The film did well on the Irish film festival circuit and then I was lucky enough to get a small cinema release that is happening right now, based around the Triskel Centre in Cork, Cineworld in Dublin and the Eye Cinema in Galway. We've got some really nice reviews so far and it was very nice to get the film out to the general public, as a small film like this could have easily faded away after its film festival run.”  

IFTN: Upon reflection, how important do you feel it is for stories like Rogers to be documented and told?

Brian: “It was important for me, personally, to document Roger Doyle, one of Ireland's great contemporary composers, albeit an overlooked figure, as I was totally intrigued by his work and I always enjoyed documentaries that shone a light onto a subject that you might otherwise never have known about. His music is not something you would associate with Ireland and for this reason, I think people weren’t sure how to react to, or how to categorise his music and he often got side-lined. I have also noticed a theme in the documentary subject matter that interests me, I like filming people who have the courage to express themselves without compromise. Roger certainly has that courage as do the subjects in the other documentary projects I am currently working on.

“I also enjoyed filming his long-time collaborator in avant-garde theatre, the actress and performer Olwen Fouere who is equally fascinating. It was also important to document some of that first wave of pioneering Irish filmmakers; Joe Comerford, Bob Quinn, and Cathal Black. They got films made during a very difficult era and I think the documentary will introduce that part of Irish cultural history to younger people who might never have encountered that early Irish film movement. The Irish Times described the film in an interesting way; calling it "an alternative history of recent Irish culture" which is fine by me, I’ll take that and I’m glad to have captured at least part of that history on screen.

“For me personally, it was very important to complete this film and produce something I was proud of, which I am. Along the way, there were many naysayers and people advising me to abandon the film and as a small indy documentary, it was at times, a very fragile thing, but I had become addicted to making this film and the further I progressed, the more interesting it became and the more driven I became, and then it started to build momentum, leading to its premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh last year. Not completing the film was never an option. I also learned an enormous amount about postproduction, which will certainly help with the next project. My problem is, I keep watching the film again and again at festivals and cinema Q&A’s, as does Roger. We never seem to tire of it. I think it’s a case of, as Guillermo Del Toro puts it; ‘Getting high on your own supply’.

“Getting this film completed and getting it out there has also paved the way for my next feature documentary which has received some development funding from Screen Ireland and is actually a much bigger and more ambitious film. This new film excites me just as much as this one did, I just hope it won’t take quite as long to make.”

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