30 March 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Alan Maher on Producing
09 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Producer Alan Maher (Credit: Niamh O'Reilly)
With the IFTA Awards Viewing Season in full swing, we showcase Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry. 

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

We spoke to Producer Alan Maher of Cowtown Pictures, whose most recent production, Rialto, debuted at the 76th Venice International Film Festival last year. Directed by Scottish director Peter Mackie Burns and based on Mark O’Halloran’s play TradeRialto features critically-acclaimed performances from lead actors Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Tom Glynn-Carney.

Maher’s previous credits include Pat Collin’s IFTA-nominated feature documentary Song of Granite (2017), which was Ireland’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards in 2018; BBC Film’s Being AP (2015); Inside Apollo House (2017); and Forever Pure (2016), which won a News & Documentary Emmy Award in 2018.

His upcoming projects include The 8th, a feature doc telling the story of Ireland’s campaign to repeal the 8th amendment against abortion, which recently opened the 2020 Galway Film Fleadh, and the highly-anticipated Phil Lynott documentary, Songs for While I’m Away, which is due out later this year.

What do you look out for in a story for you to consider developing it into a film?

“Authenticity; a distinctive spin on the concept or genre; and the potential to find an audience, however niche it may be.”

How did the decision to turn Rialto into a feature film first come about?

“I was a huge admirer of Mark O’Halloran’s work, and when I was looking for projects I could produce for ROADS Entertainment (the company Danielle Ryan established in 2013), Mark was one of the first writers I approached.  He gave me a copy of his stage play, TRADE, upon which RALTO is based; we loved it, optioned it, and started developing it with Mark.”

What was it that attracted you to Rialto?

“Mark; and the work itself felt raw, complex, and painfully honest.  I thought we could make something powerful that we could be proud of.”

Can you shed some insight on the cast and crew that worked with you on this project?

“After a few years developing RIALTO (then still called TRADE) with Mark, I met with Tristan Goligher of The Bureau, and we decided to work together as co-producers on the project.  Tristan recommended Peter Mackie Burns as director, whom he and Valentina Brazzini - also a producer on RIALTO - had worked with on DAPHNE, Peter’s debut feature: we thought Peter was a perfect choice and, fortunately, Peter was available and loved the script.

“Tom Vaughan-Lawlor had worked with Peter on DAPHNE, and we all felt he’d be perfect as COLM (the lead character in RIALTO), so we were incredibly lucky to have him accept the part.  With Amy Rowan, our casting director, we met with Tom Glynn-Carney, whom we loved immediately, to play JAY.  I had set up Cowtown Pictures with John Wallace by this stage, and John came on to produce the film with me, and we put together our amazing crew with our Line Producer, Emmet Fleming.”

Tell me about your experience on set, and your favourite moment during production?

“Peter was very well prepared so it was a focused, calm, and pleasant shoot.  The scene at the church for the ‘month’s mind’ of COLM’s father was probably my favourite day.  We were feeling confident about what we had shot, the atmosphere was good, and I got to dress up and say a few lines (off-camera).” 

Talk me through the journey of securing funding, support, and investment to make this film.

“Screen Ireland was one of the first investors in the project, and stuck with us all the way through production and beyond.  The BFI, who had been tracking the project for some time, came on board at the financing stage, and we also brought The Bureau Sales on at that point for international sales.”   

What was your first paid role as a producer, and how has your approach to projects changed over the years?

“I produced Chris McHallem’s short film This Little Piggy for the Irish Film Board’s Short Cuts scheme in 2001.  I had little confidence and was lucky enough to have the brilliant Cathleen Dore at my side.  Although I hope I have learned a bit over the years – and only recently have I felt wholly comfortable in the role of producer - I remain as naively passionate about making films as I did when I first started.”

Is there an Irish film over the last few years that you wish you had produced...?

“I’m not sure I wish I produced it – because I couldn’t have done it as well as Andrew Freedman – but Ken Wardrop’s joyous MAKING THE GRADE is a masterclass in how to make something of great rigour and craft appear effortless.”

The age-old question: What (in your view) is the role of the Producer?

“Taking responsibility, taking risks, and being prepared to be the last one working on the film, after everyone else is long gone.  Aside from that, it depends on the production.  For example, on THE 8TH, my role was a supportive one at a relatively late stage in the process, whereas on RIALTO and SONGS FOR WHILE I’M AWAY, I helped shape the projects from the very beginning.”   

What Director or Actor would you most like to work with and why (Irish or international)?

“As an actor, Julia Louis-Dreyfus; she is so truthful in everything she does, and commits fully to every choice.  As a director, Nicole Holofcener (who worked with Julia Louis-Dreyfus on ENOUGH SAID); her films are smart, insightful, and gratifying; and Joan Micklin Silver, whose films expanded my world view at a crucial stage, helping me to appreciate how effective subtlety and nuance can be.”

We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection?

“To deal with it in as healthy a manner as possible.”

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career thus far that you would share with aspiring producers?

“It is from my mentor, Simon Perry; the person I admire most in this industry.  When I was struggling in my first few months as a Production Executive at the Irish Film Board, feeling I was out of my depth and didn’t know what I was doing, Simon told me to simply do the job the way I felt it should be done.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

“Writing when I can, but Cowtown has remained busy – The 8th had its world premiere at Hot Docs in May and we are also in post on two other films - and we are hoping to be in production on our next feature in the autumn.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.

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