12 July 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
“The concept of purgatory is that it is a timeless and cyclical place;” Writer/director Robert Manson discusses experimental drama Holy Island
19 Oct 2022 : Nathan Griffin
Robert Manson's Holy Island.
We caught up with Robert Manson, the writer/director behind new Irish film Holy Island, an Art Council-supported experimental drama that is currently on release across selected cinemas.

Available across Dublin, Galway, and Cork, audiences can see Holy Island in cinemas such as the Lighthouse, IFI, Triskel, and Pálás.

Holy Island is a story about two lost souls, Rosa and David, trapped in purgatory in the form of a run-down port town. They meet awaiting a boat to leave the island, both longing to return home.  Together they are forced to traverse an abnormal maze, piecing together their past lives through shared conversations and memories. In the end, only one of them can be saved. The other must fall.

Written and directed by Robert Manson, Holy Island is an experimental drama, made for the Authored Works Scheme for the Arts Council, a scheme which provides film artists with the creative and editorial freedom to make a feature-length authored cultural film work from a strong artistic point of view.

The film stars a strong Irish cast including Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle, Conor Madden, Dermot Murphy, Maria Oxley Boardman, Mark Doherty, and Levi O’Sullivan. The lead role of David is played by two actors, an idea borrowed from Buneal’s That Obscure Object of Desire. The first half is played by Conor Madden, a darker and more melancholic performance. Then a switch occurs and a younger actor, Dermot Murphy, takes over the role for the middle and later sections of the film, this character is softer, more vulnerable, and compassionate.

Holy Island is executive produced by David Collins and producer by Claire McCabe for Samson Films. Other crew include line producer Fiona Kinsella, director of photography Evan Barry, production designer Noelle Slacke, composer & sound designer James Latimer, costume designer Sarah Heraughty, and editor David Byrne. The film is shot in both black & white and colour, across a range of footage including Format 5K (red dragon), 16mm, and S8mm archive from the 1970s.

Writer/director Robert Manson tells us about the inspiration for the project, his stylistic approach to the experimental drama, working with the Arts Council and Samson Films, and what he hopes audiences take from the film.

IFTN: Where did the inspiration to write Holy Island come from and what has the reaction been so far?

“My first feature Lost in the Living took around five years to make and dealt with a lot of early twenties themes, a hangover period from University and visiting European cities like Berlin for the first time. There is a certain amount of living that need to take place in order to garner enough experiences to lay the groundwork in a project.

“I liken creative projects to carefully collected questions all knitted together in the projects format, some of the answer arrive in the making of the work, but the real wisdom comes at the presentation stage, at festivals or during the cinema launch. Like now.

“Holy Island took five years to compile. This film explores the themes of death, loss, home, love, emigration, family, survival, redemption and loneliness. All touched upon topics amongst expat communities I found myself interviewing in the lead up to this project (and my next) Why they moved away? and what made them stay? This film is about returning home after a long absence away. Feeling outgrown in the places you used to know. Also how Ireland changes over time.”

IFTN: Why did you feel it was right for the Arts Council’s Authored Works Scheme and how did you find the experience of making the film through it?

“I thought this project was weird, visually arresting and surreal enough to potentially catch the arts council’s eye. The experience of making my first feature film Lost in the Living for little to no money also helped my case, as I was able to prove that I could bring in a high scope film on time, with limited means.

Lots have said that we did a great job manning this film on such a small budget. I thought it was a big budget, but I get the point and I think we managed well and put a lot a content into a small enough but very ambitious project. I thought this project was weird, visually arresting and surreal enough to potentially catch the arts council’s eye.

“The best thing about working with the Arts Council is that they trust you. They give you the funding straight away after you’ve secured the bursary and you then just have to go away and make the film, without too much tinkering from panels & professional overseers, etc. It was an unique experience to be left alone to our own devices, trusted to get the job done well, and push the boundaries of this fledgling, ambitious bursary. I’m forever grateful that the Arts Council took a chance on me and Claire for this project. I think we did pretty good job.”

IFTN: Can you give me a little bit of background about your career to this point and how you came to work with executive producer David Collins and producer Claire McCabe?

“I studied film in Dun Laoghaire. Started a company Annville Films; with four other classmates. We made 20 short films independently amongst ourselves that played at festivals in Ireland and abroad. My first feature Lost in the Living was shot on location in Berlin and distributed by UCM.ONE in 2015.”

“John Wallace, the prolific Dublin producer put me in touch with Claire. I used to work as a trainee with John on a good few films during university, to gain on set experience. Myself and Claire hit it off quickly and put in for the Authored works scheme through Samson film. We pitch the film together to a panel in November 2019 and got the grant that Christmas.”

“We shot the film between two lockdowns in Autumn 2020 and delivered the film in the summer of 2021. The film had its IFI world premiere at the 66th Cork film festival (2021) and screened subsequently in India, the US, and Spain.”

IFTN: What can you tell me about the shoot itself and your stylistic decision making? (to shoot in B&W, shooting across Format 5K (red dragon), 16mm, using S8mm archive from the 1970s)

“The film shoot was fast paced, exciting, and unusual in many ways. The overriding theme of the film is that of a metaphorical storm renders the quiet ‘limbo’ port town inactive. So that is what we were aesthetically preparing and hoping for. What we actually encountered was a costa del sol Indian summer in the sunny south east, Co. Wicklow. So our creativity juices were pushed towards draping that spectacular weather into a wearable gloom. The real storm was happening elsewhere. We manage to get the film in the can between two lock downs in 2020. So in compliance with SPI guidelines, union's and working guilds of Ireland, and weekly changing instruction, we accidentally made what felt a little bit like a dogma 95 film, in adherence to government rules set out.

“The film’s aesthetic for ‘limbo’ the port town, black and white, lifeless, is a reference to Michael Powell’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death,’ in which the question is asked, ‘why is heaven in black and white?’ The answer - because there is no life there. Rosa has the ability to find little pockets of life and that is seen in vivid switches in the aesthetic where 16mm is introduced. The Super 8mm represents past memories seen through the fulcrum of the characters, when they close their eyes or get distracted. It is not their lives or their direct memories but the transplanted images of a collective conscious.”

IFTN: Can you tell me about bringing these ideas to reality while working with cinematographer Evan Barry?

“Working with Evan was great. He understood the overall aesthetic from the get go and we shared detailed references and inspirations over a period of weeks. I had shot some test footage with Evan for another feature project. So it felt the most natural to continue this creative journey together. It helps that we know each from before. Evan was the 1st AC and focus puller on a number of my early short films in the Dun Laoghaire days so we have a good creative understanding. Our university prides itself on having a rich visual history. Many good cinematographer have emerged from IADT over the years.”

IFTN: The lead role of David is played by Conor Madden and Dermot Murphy, an idea borrowed from Buneal’s “That Obscure Object of Desire”. What can you tell me about that and working with the cast?

“I know Conor and Dermot the longest and was delighted to get them both together on this project. I think splitting their role into two parts is always going to be a risk in some ways but experimentation is the key to this project. We were given so much freedom to express ourselves and this was an idea I have been waiting to test out for a long time now.”

“Both actors handled it well and we all had a lot a lot of fun on set together in the process. My casting director Barry Coyle suggested Jeanne for the role of Rosa. I will be forever grateful to him for this. A great performance. The magical spark that makes the whole film glisten in my eyes. The collection of great actors involved in this production are sight to behold on screen. Maria, Mark, Levi, Arthur, Bryan, Manchan, Aindrais, Lesley, and Fiona. The sad thing is how short the time was that we got to spend together on set, in the flux of filmmaking. They all did an amazing job and I’m glad I didn’t scare them all off with my unusual script.”

IFTN: What do you hope audiences take from the film?

“Reviewers have noted so far that the film is an intense journey through a strange place that seems familiar but on closer inspection is totally different and alien to anything that you might know. There are moment of richness and moments of disjointed surrealism, even nihilism. After finishing the film you might not remember anything of what has gone on in the story, or how long the film was, but the film bares the curious aspect that you might need to rewatch it again. (Paraphrasing) There is a lot going on in the film.”

“The concept of purgatory is that it is a timeless and cyclical place. Storylines and happening, even characters overlap constantly and maybe some aspects of the storyline only become clear the third or fourth time you’ve watched it. I have seen the film five times during the post production stages and I still look forward to seeing it again and again. It is maze like. It could be said that it's a puzzle. It will take some time to go away and think about what all these critical opinion correlate to in my own understating of the work. Anyway get along and see the film in the cinema from the 14th. It’s in the Irish Film Institute, Dublin, the Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin, The Pálás Cinema, Galway, or Triskel Arts Centre, Cork. Reach out and leave a review. Let us know what you thing the film is about.”

Eclipse Pictures currently has Holy Island on release in select Irish cinemas. 

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