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Aoife Crehan on Writing and Directing
01 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Writer/Director Aoife Crehan.
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 with writer/director Aoife Crehan, whose debut feature film The Last Right picked up the Audience Award at the 64th Cork International Film Festival back in November. The heart-warming and bittersweet comedy-drama marks Crehan’s directorial debut in feature film as well as penning her first feature-length script. Shot on location in Cork by DoP Shane F. Kelly (Boyhood) and produced by Deadpan Pictures, CrossDay Productions, and Moonlight Bay Films, the film starred Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones), Niamh Algar (The Virtues), newcomer Samuel Bottomley (Wolf Hall), and a supporting cast including Brian Cox (Succession), Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones), Colm Meaney (The Snapper), and Jim Norton (Father Ted).

What filmmaker or director’s work has influenced or inspired you the most? 

“Well, I really love David O. Russell’s films and style, and Cameron Crowe’s. Nora Ephron was a legend. And I grew up loving Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan and feeling inspired that they were you know, Irish ha, and then of course Lenny Abrahamson. I really love Lenny’s style, from Garage to Room to Normal People.”

What other Irish filmmaker have you been most impressed by in recent times?

“Gosh, there are so many impressive Irish filmmakers at the moment! A Date for Mad Mary is one of my favourite films; I love Darren Thornton’s writing and style. And I love Paddy Breathnach’s work, I was in floods at Rosie; felt a bit punched in the stomach but in a motivating way. I adored Young Offenders; so Peter Foott, Mike Lennox and Lisa McGee for Derry Girls, and just hats off to Shelly Love and Tess McGowan and the whole team for A Bump Along the Way. And in producers - Louise Gallagher, Emma Norton’s on fire, Rory Gilmartin, Juliette Bonass, Katie Holly to name a few. It definitely feels like an exciting time for Irish film and TV.”

Is there an Irish film over the last few years that you wish you had been a part of...?

“Oh yes, that’s easy: I wish I had been part of the writing team on Normal People!”

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

“Yeah, that’s a tough one. Learning to deal with criticism and use it positively is probably the biggest journey arc I’ve had to go on as a writer (and person!) and I imagine it’s the same for most writers/ directors/ anyone creative who’s exposing themselves as part of their job. I love The Great British Bake-Off cos when a contestant bursts into tears after a judge criticises their cake and they say, ‘I can’t believe I’m crying over a cake’ I usually shout at the screen ‘I HEAR YOU!’.

“It’s definitely a learning curve to deal with it, cause as a writer your sensitivity is a crucial tool, but then it’s that very sensitivity that can make criticism tough to take. I’ve gotten much better at it, and as a result, I think I’ve more freedom creatively. Re: public criticism I just stay offline. I think a lot of people on social media have to deal with similar feelings of judgement (I’m not on social media for headspace reasons creatively, I just feel freer not being on it) and Re: criticism in the form of Producer Notes; I just accept my first reaction will probably not be a happy one so I try and deal with that privately ha, but then I calm down and see how many useful things are in the notes, how many things I hadn’t realised. You shouldn’t follow notes blindly, listen to your instincts, and go with the notes that resonate or figure out what’s behind the note. Having had work produced and mentally surviving the gauntlet of public criticism - I think I’m much better able to deal with producer’s notes and criticism in life in general.

“You’re learning publicly, making your mistakes publicly, so that can be scary and feel exposing but it makes you stronger. I want my next script and film to be better than the last anyway, for myself as much as anyone.

“In terms of inward reflection, I think the biggest thing I learned (the hard way!) is that you just have to let go of any ego. In general, just let stuff go, you have to keep letting stuff go so you can focus on the process. And if you love the process then that’s both a coping mechanism and armour. I write to make myself feel better, which is funny when the thing that has caused me to suffer in the first place is the thing that then makes me feel better – a weird but productive loop. Someone, up there is definitely laughing ha.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career, which you’d give to aspiring directors?

“I met producer Paul Myler for coffee to get advice when I was 18 and he said if you’re making someone a cup of tea make it the best cup of tea you’ve ever made. And that advice got me promotions (as a runner you can actually get noticed by the kind of the tea you make !). That’s real starter-out advice.

“Then from my own experience, I would say to aspiring directors and writers: don’t wait for funding. You can spend years waiting. Don’t get too stuck on applications and outlines, just write the script or make the short and THEN funding will come. e.g. I spent years hoping someone would fund a word document outline of The Last Right and then I realised that all I wanted to do was write the script, with dialogue rather than prose.  So I wrote it on spec, I started it on holidays from the development job I was in. And THEN I got funding off the back of that first draft from the IFB to write the second draft and lots of doors opened. So just write it (if it’s a feature!) or make it (if it’s a short!) and for no other reason than because you want to (as opposed to writing it cos you think it’s what ‘they’re’ looking for).”

What made you want to direct The Last Right?

“Well I wrote the script, so that definitely helped ha. But seriously actually that was a big factor. I’m a writer first, director second, and I feel more comfortable directing something I’ve written myself. I love how films can make us feel. I get very affected by films - a dark/oppressive film can make me feel like I’ve fallen down a hole and there’s definitely a lot of crime/dark stuff out there so I’m always really grateful to the writers/directors/producers who make comedy-drama. I wanted to direct it because it was the kind of film I want to see myself. I got a sense of joy/ hope from writing the script, which I wanted to pass on to an audience.”

What was your approach to making this film, and where did you take inspiration from during the process?

“My overall approach to making the film was to try and go with the flow of the process rather than try and control it too much. To hold my ideas lightly, I guess so I could hear what the immensely talented actors and HODs were saying or what the locations/last-minute-weather-change/latest crisis was throwing up. We had such a nuts schedule; I think this was the only way to achieve it. I learned the hard way on my second short that sticking too rigidly to storyboards or fixed ideas of shots can lead you to miss opportunities and can hamper the creative input of your collaborators, and filmmaking is fundamentally collaborative. So I wanted to let things happen as organically as possible, and to roll with the punches (of which there were many). I was really lucky in that I got to shadow Paddy Breathnach on the set of Rosie (such a brilliant film!) and I learned a lot from watching him and chatting to the team.”

What is your general style of working with the team, cinematographer, etc., and what is the most important focus for you during the whole production?

“My general style I think is pretty fluid. I was really lucky in the talent we had both in front of and behind the camera. I would usually know where my instincts were leaning, and I heard someone say (I think this is maybe a famous quote) that you only ever get one opportunity to hear someone’s first instincts. So I was always interested in hearing what the actors thought before I’d muddied them with my thoughts (I knew what they were!), or what the designers thought.”

Actors

“Michiel Huisman who plays Daniel is a really collaborative, open, and generous actor and he’s been on way more sets than I had so I was always genuinely interested in hearing his ideas, which were great. And you know if you’re lucky enough to get Brian Cox then you should listen to his thoughts on his character ha. And Niamh Algar has such a raw real talent that unless it felt right to her then it usually wasn’t. Samuel Bottomley too is such an instinctive actor; it had to feel right to him. There weren’t many occasions where Sam held fast about something, as we’d had so much rehearsal together, we were pretty connected in terms of knowing what Louis would or wouldn’t do, so when Sam had a niggle, I knew we had to listen.” 

DoP

“We had the amazingly talented Shane F Kelly as our cinematographer, and Shane was really supportive of me as a first-timer. The approach we took was that the actors and I would rehearse and block the scene as soon we got on location (and as fast as possible, time was always short!) then Shane and I would watch their performance, then discuss the best place to put the camera based on the natural movements of the actors and what I was looking for. Then our wonderful 1st AD Johnny Shaw would listen to our plan and try and not to pull his hair out. In big scenes especially, we tried to follow the emotion of the actors as much as possible. When Shane went handheld, such as in Padraig’s cottage at the end (a scene in which Louis finds something out and it gets very emotional) it was amazing watching him bend himself backward to follow Sam’s performance with the camera. Obviously, in some cases, the landscape or the size of the location dictated the camera, and then there were certain shots I knew we needed or that were more specific than the rest. We were really constrained by schedule and budget (as every indie director is!) and I wish, wish, wish, we had more time in the car especially, but we had to make sacrifices in order to just cover the script and the country.”

Designers

“With the designers, I took a similar approach, I really wanted to hear what they had to offer. Suzanne Keogh, our costume designer, her excitement and enthusiasm for the characters and for clothes, in general, was so infectious and her instincts were usually spot-on; same with Anita Brolly - our immensely talented makeup designer. Natural and real was our aim and Anita worked a lot with Ken Loach so ‘natural and real’ is her mantra! Anita also has this gorgeous big dog that was a lovely calm wise presence amidst all the human chaos we’d brought on ourselves willingly.”

“My most important focus during production overall was trying to keep hold of the film as a whole in my head and trying to keep hold of the feeling of the film. My most important focus during the shoot itself was on the actors, definitely the actors. It’s all about the actors on the shoot – there’s not much point in all the fuss that goes into getting to set and the lighting, etc. if it all falls down when the cameras roll. Everything from then on (in the cutting room) is going to depend on what the actors give, so I think it’s got to be all about the actors.”

How do you like to approach working with actors in general to get the best results and what advice would you give to aspiring directors on this front?

“My first experience of directing was in theatre as part of my Drama course at Trinity and the Edinburgh Fringe, and then in London and Dublin fringe theatre. I love working with actors, I love the rehearsal time especially. I think actors are really brave, and it’s a really rare talent. To forget everything you’ve been taught since you were in school and be totally unselfconscious and be utterly in the moment – there aren’t many people that can do that, and it’s a privilege to work with people with talent like that. I like to create the character with the actor, to follow the actor’s instincts and let the character evolve using discussion, improvisation, games, and chats. I once heard that as a director you should be the quietest person in the room cos you should be observing and listening to your actors.

“When I lived in London, I was part of this collective of writers, directors, and actors who used to get together to put on ten-minute plays in a bookshop. We’d each get a short script from a writer and then we’d get assigned actors, and then we’d go away and rehearse and come back a couple of weeks later and perform them. The idea was to give us all a chance to flex our muscles while we were working towards our career breaks. I think doing that kind of thing is invaluable as an aspiring director because actors and directors need each other! Some directors can be intimidated / afraid of actors so I think the more time you can spend working with actors the better, to become comfortable with them. And it goes the other way too, actors can be afraid/ wary of directors, there’s a lot of trust involved. So if you’re an aspiring director I’d say go find yourself some actors to mess about with; especially because films can take years to happen.

“We had a week of rehearsal in pre-production for The Last Right but this was bolstered by lots of time spent in advance chatting in person and on the phone with the actors, and Michiel Huisman and I skyped a lot and discussed the character that way. Niamh Algar and I met in person and workshopped a bit in London. Samuel Bottomley and I workshopped the character of Louis on camera in London, before prep had officially started, and we also did dialect coaching together in London, which helped the character a lot too. Then we had this huge bright rehearsal room in our production base in Weston airport where Sam, Niamh, Michiel, and I would work together. I wanted the three of them to have a bond developed before we got to set because we were shooting out of sequence. I like working with actors together and then also alone. Eleanor O’Brien and I had real fun rehearsal on our own; developing Sheila. Sam and I spent a lot of time building Louis together – we had an amazing consultant Chris Pike from the National Autistic Society, and I would send Chris videos of Sam from the workshops we did so he could give advice/nudges.

“The rehearsal time was invaluable because it meant I could have a shorthand with the lead actors on set, which became especially useful with the character of Louis. Sam is an incredibly instinctive actor; he was only 17 when we shot, and he was portraying autism as well as the Cork accent (he’s from Leeds) which is a lot of pressure for any actor. One of the most useful things we discovered in the rehearsal room was “Red Seat Louis”, which Sam came up with it during an improv, where one of Louis’ favourite memories was sitting on a red seat (Louis’ favourite colour); watching a Red Sox game. Thinking of that red seat made the character Louis feel happy. It meant that on set if Sam’s performance was becoming too dejected/low, I just had to say ‘But it’s Red-seat Louis’ and he’d know immediately what I meant, or he’d correct himself and say ‘shit it’s Red Seat Louis, isn’t it?’.  On set you’d never have time to come up with that kind of thing, as it’s so pressured on set, so I’d say to any first time director: ask for rehearsal time and ask for more than you think you need because you’ll get less than you ask for and then that time will get chipped away by other demands (costume fittings, etc.). Be protective of rehearsal time. Try and grab snatches of it wherever possible on set. Bearing in mind what your actors’ individual needs are and being respectful of their space. Every actor is so different; your approach has to be different for each actor. e.g. some like / need/ take more direction than others. Some need very little and actually do better the less you say, in that case, just shut up and get out of the way!”

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

“Being on set is non-stop; you don’t get a second to yourself! I really enjoyed it. Pre-production was pretty stressful because it seemed to be hearing a lot of ‘no’ all the time ha, but being on set was thrilling. And exhausting! I loved working with the actors and with Shane (DP) and the crew; we had a really great crew. It is kind of amazing to have so many talented people work together towards one thing; there’s an energy to that. I can totally see why being on set is addictive, but I wasn’t prepared for how physically exhausting it is. It was literally back-breaking (I banjaxed my back spending too much time in the boot of the car) so I was actually in pain for a good chunk of it.

“The biggest challenge I found is just keeping calm so you can hear your own thoughts in the eye of the fffing hurricane. Accepting that time isn’t going to let you do as many takes as you want so trying to balance wanting to go again with knowing you either have it, or you simply have to be happy with what you have cos if you don’t move on you won’t make the day.

“In terms of favourite moments…Rathlin Island was utterly mad in terms of schedule but amazing in terms of the simple fact that we managed to get there (storms had cancelled the ferries only days before so it was touch and go!) and the locals both in Rathlin and in Clonakilty were so supportive.  Directing Brian Cox was pretty amazing (kept thinking, oh my god that’s Logan Roy, don’t be scared now) and seeing Michiel (Huisman), Niamh (Algar) and Sam (Bottomley) bouncing along the sea in the speedboat, getting drenched and still smiling (it was December, the sea was freezing!). Another special moment was when my little nephews became part of the cast, they played Mary’s cousins. Seeing my 8-year-old nephew Sam, on his first day ever on a film set, telling Catherine Byrne and Colm Meaney he needed just one more take to nail his performance (which was off-camera) was pretty great.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.





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Joe Murtagh on Writing
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