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Mumbai Film Festival: In conversation with writer-director, Kirsten Sheridan

Kirsten Sheridan is an Irish writer-director, who has made films like Disco Pigs and August Rush in the past and was nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Original Screenplay for the film, In America, along with her sister, Naomi Sheridan and her father, veteran director Jim Sheridan (best known for In The Name of The Father and My Left Foot).

Her new film, Dollhouse, which screens at the Mumbai Film Festival, is an independent film about a night in the lives of a group of street teens from Dublin’s inner city, who break into a house in an upper class suburb, and how things spiral out of control after that. Kirsten, who has just started a film company called The Factory with fellow Irish directors Jim Carney (Once) and Lance Daly (Kisses), talks about the process of shooting an, uncontrolled, experimental film with no bound script, and what it has taught her about the craft of filmmaking.

The idea of Dollhouse started from an empty house, is that right? That’s a really unique starting point for a script.

Kirsten Sheridan (KS): Well, it’s my parents’ house and they went on vacation, so I decided that I have a free location, I really should make a movie here (chuckles). The house is in a very beautiful part of Dublin, and I couldn’t write about people who would be from this house, because I didn’t grow up in that kind of environment, and it’s not what I know. So I decided to write a movie about people that I do know. So I decided to write a movie about five teenagers who decide to break into this house. And it was because, you know, sometimes, just you spend so much time having meetings about your next project that when you get the chance, you just take a camera and make a movie.

I’ve also read that you didn’t even have a bound script for this. You just had a 15-page outline and the film actually evolved during shooting. Wasn’t that a huge gamble, considering you’ve cast fairly new actors?

KS: Yeah, it was definitely a gamble. But, you know, because it wasn’t a big budget movie and because I didn’t have a studio or producers who were very controlling, I was able to take risks. And I thought, if you were able to do that only one time in your life, you better do it right now! I decided the gamble would be fun (laughs). So I just had plot points for all the characters and a general outline of where I wanted the film to go, and how the plot points would reveal themselves through the movie.

Writer and director Kirsten Sheridan in this photo. Image courtesy The Factory.

I also decided that I wanted the script to come from the actors. So I sent the actors down to a house for a week, in the countryside, I got them to just interview each other as themselves or as their characters, and then I looked at all of this footage and I picked outline, phrases and things that they said to each other. I picked them out and I put them into a document that I then later would tell them to say or do, while I was shooting on set — both lines and themes or instances I had picked out from their lives. I’d feed these back to them, it was kind of like live television, or this fine line between reality and fiction.

What was the initial idea that you started with, and how much did it change during the shoot, especially since the actors had no idea what their arcs were?

KS: Yeah, they didn’t really know what they were supposed to be doing. All they really knew was that they were breaking into a house, and what they were supposed to know in whichever particular scene that they were shooting. I wanted to capture their real reactions to when they were revealed a plot point — they were reacting to exactly what was in their minds at that point, in their own way of speaking, so there were a lot of fun surprises during the shoot.

And, you know, they basically, kind of, jumped in. I think it was because, for some of them, it was their first feature film, and they didn’t know if it was supposed to be different (laughs). So they just went, “Oh! Okay, this is normal,” and went through with it. And the other actors in the group had improvised before so they weren’t as scared of it either. So the story started from these teenagers in the house and evolved into something authentic, I hope.

The characters of the teenagers in the film are very violent and crazy. With an uncontrolled process shooting process, weren’t you ever afraid that things would get out of hand?

KS: Oh yes, it was very physically demanding for everybody, including the actors, because there was never any downtime — there was never any lighting setup or set construction, because all the lights were practical and the set was the house. And so there was never any time to relax, it was just always a ‘go, go, go’ for 11 straight hours. But we actually had a safe word — so that if things ever got out of hand for an actor and if they weren’t comfortable with the live revelations or plot points, they’d say the safe word and then I’d cut the action. But nobody ever needed to use it, you know, because they all became a very tight-knit group, because they had spent a lot of time together. I don’t think they ever really felt threatened with each other.

What was it that you expected to learn from this process, and what did you end up learning?

KS: I don’t know if I expected to learn anything since it was a fun experiment, but what I did learn was that sometimes, it’s very hard to recreate tension or paranoia or shock in the actors. It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly, but the feeling that they don’t know what’s happening translates much better when it’s actually true. And so, when they are at the edge of their seats, they kind of bring the audience along with them… the audience is as uncomfortable as the actors. And I think that translates on screen almost subconsciously. So, in a way, as a director, I learnt to let go of control a little bit because up to that point I had been a very, very controlled director.

So how do you edit a movie like this?

KS: Oh! The editing was a nightmare, a terrible nightmare (laughs). We had a very tough time because we had 100 hours of footage and it took 6 months of a lot of work. And it was just me because I was the only one who really knew the story… You can’t really leave an editor and say, “There you go, make a story out of this” (laughs).

Is there anything in common with this process of shooting with, say, an August Rush kind of big-budget Hollywood production? Would you shoot like this again?

KS: No, I’ll do it again, and I’ll do it in an even more extreme manner next time, with complete non actors and people who have never, ever been on a set or in the film industry! I think I’ll do it in a way that it’s almost a drama, but also a documentary, so that you are not sure what it is, and it really blurs the line between the two. That would be very interesting!

As for what’s common, I think it’s really about wanting to get the best performance out of the actors, no matter how that works. Each film required different approach because of the story and because of the actors. So a film like August Rush was like a symphony and conducted that way because it was about people whose actions are very controlled and I did it in a very controlled way. Whereas if I’m doing a film about people who are completely lost and out of control, then the process would be lost and out of control too. What I would like to be able to do on every film is change as much as I can if it facilitates the story, you know. The story’s most important to me.

I’ve noticed that good directors generally make movies on subjects that are either nothing close to what they’ve done in their personal lives, or on subjects that are extremely close to their lives. From your first film that you made at the age of 23, Disco Pigs, to Dollhouse, your films have generally been about coming of age, in a way. So what is it about this subject that fascinates you?

KS: My teenage years were pretty tame actually (laughs), which is why I wanted to make a movie about people who aren’t tame, you know. I was 17-18 when I went to college for 3 years, then I made some shorts, then I made Disco Pigs, then I had a baby, so there wasn’t much scope for a crazy time (laughs).

But I’m generally interested in the teenage world, because I like the idea of people who sometimes can’t use words to the best extent, and have to learn to communicate in different ways, which is what Disco Pigs was about. I feel that I am like that, in some ways. I don’t trust words a lot of the times, and like visuals, so I am attracted to relationships that are based on things other than words. Also, I like films about real people who are not portrayed on screen often. It’s a changing time in Ireland, so the young today don’t really have any real control and don’t know what’s going on. So with Dollhouse, I wanted to make a movie about teenagers who don’t have any connect with each other, whose worlds are shifting, but they somehow find the one moment that connects them all.

What are you upto next?

KS: I’m trying to make a film called Mooch, which is based on a book by an author called Dan Fante, which is a kind of a cult novella set in Los Angeles, about a recovering alcoholic who lives in LA and whose life has, kind of, gone to hell and about his relationship with this woman and her child. It’s a very, very black funny. It’s my first American indie film and I’m doing it with an Irish producer called Tristan Lynch and an American producer called Michelle Weiser, and we’re in the process of casting for it next.

Finally, what did your parents have to say about your actors trashing their house?

KS: (Laughs) They were fine because “Anything for art!” you know? (Chuckles) They really liked the movie!

Nikhil Taneja is doing a series of interviews with directors whose work will feature at the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival. Coming up next a conversation with writer-director Brandon Cronenberg (son of David Cronenberg), about his debut film, Antiviral.

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