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.
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.