In Direct Line, Film In Dublin cuts to the chase, asking 20 questions of Ireland’s directors to get a brief look into their outlooks, influences and inspirations.
Short film The Observer Effect is a dark thriller with vivid imagery, telling the story of a man and a woman with a mysterious connection whose paths, when crossed, are destined to lead to a violent end. An impressive debut from director Garret Walsh, with an immersive feeling of dread and remarkable production design, the short has had considerable success on the film festival circuit, showing at the likes of the Richard Harris International Film Festival, the Silk Road Film Festival and more, picking up award nominations and wins along the way.
What is the first movie you remember seeing?
It’s a really faint memory, mainly of being terrified of it most of the time, but I think it was Dragonslayer – so that must have been when I was like 4 or 5. The only other one I can remember from that far back was Return of the Jedi a few years later; the speeder-bike chase blew my mind. I’d forgotten all about that actually – I must find a copy of Dragonslayer and re-watch it, I haven’t seen it since.
Which fellow director has had the most influence on your work to date?
That’s a really tough one, there’s so many. If I had to pick just one then I’d say Ridley Scott. The way he constructs the world his stories take place in, the aesthetic and the meticulousness of his staging; ‘the proscenium around the actors’ as he put it. There’s few directors who have ever composed more beautiful shots and scenes around their characters to enrich the story as he has.
What film do you love that not enough people know about?
Another tough one with a lot of potential answers. Today (because I plan to watch it again at the weekend) I’m going to say Predestination, a sci-fi by the Spierig Brothers with Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook. It’s based on a Robert A Heinlein story and it’s amazing – a brilliant time-travel film that goes places you’d never expect and Sarah Snook’s performance in it is just brilliant.
What was the moment you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I think it was something that just crept up on me really. I loved films as a child and I think I always had a creative streak of one sort or another – always loved writing, drawing and building things. That gradually evolved into trying to tell my own stories until in 1998 I remember there was a script competition offering a 1 million pound budget to the winner. I found myself writing my first script for that – bashed out 93 pages in three days to meet the deadline and I was hooked. I didn’t win of course but I knew straight away I was going to keep doing that until I finally got a film made.
What is your favourite horror film?
Funny, I don’t watch as much horror as I used to but one I keep coming back to is The Wicker Man. It’s skin-crawling and it just stays with you for days after. I love films that can do that, worm their way into your mind so you can’t forget them. Another one that does something similar is Christopher Smith’s ‘Triangle’, that’s another gem that deserves more credit that it gets.
The Observer Effect was your directing debut. What was your biggest challenge in making it?
I guess the scale of it. In hindsight it was pretty ambitious to do something that required the size of set-build we went for to realize the ending properly (I think I mentioned “the proscenium” more than a couple of times in pre-production). But I figured it might be the only film I ever got to make and it was my own money so I just went all-out on it. The flip-side of that though is it got a little daunting at times in case I messed it all up – the cast and crew were giving so much to make it all happen so it was pretty pressured at times as I realized I was the least-experienced person on the whole crew really.
Are you interested in entering different genres or exploring similar themes to The Observer Effect in your future work?
Yeah, both. I’ve developed The Observer Effect short into a pilot script and a series that explores the future we hinted at for our main character and I’m really happy with it, I think it could be an amazing and relevant series. I also have a number of completed feature scripts that could be described as sci-fi, horror and western in genre. In my head I have a whole career-path mapped out from one to the next for about four more films at least, the best-laid plans and all…
Best part of your job?
Shooting, without doubt. The atmosphere on set, the buzz and creative energy, there’s nothing like it anywhere else. The only thing close is maybe pre-production where there’s a similar excitement from all the creative possibilities you can explore when you’re working with really creative people – it’s just addictive.
Least favourite part of your job?
Well, as I funded this myself my job is technically also financier and producer. All the time and energy you’ve got to spend on somehow getting funds for the next project is a real pain. It can be rewarding but it’s honestly something I wouldn’t miss if I didn’t have to do it again.
Digital or film?
If I ever had the budget, film all the way. Digital has come on in leaps and bounds and I couldn’t have hoped to make my film without its affordability but there’s still something about the look of film that can’t be matched.
Big budget horror or indie scares?
Indie scares. Maybe it’s the budget constraints or something but the inventiveness and insidiousness that seem to come from them is way better; far darker and creepier. I think Orsen Welles said ‘The enemy of art is the absence of limitation’ and that seems to be so true in the indie sphere for all genres.
Netflix or cinema?
There’s far fewer good movies in theatres now but it’s still cinema for me.
What makes a film great for you?
That’s another tough question. Every great film has something different about it and and one person’s classic is another one’s rubbish but I guess for me, whatever it’s about or how its done – it’s the ability of a film to transport you to its world and keep you there. When a great film ends I think it feels a little like you’ve just woken from a dream, that you were completely elsewhere without even realizing it. I think maybe that’s why certain blockbusters try so hard to bombard the senses so hard for two hours, trying (and failing) to do the same thing with effects and noise. But a great film draws you in without you even realising it, something very hard to achieve but priceless when it does.
What is your main focus when working on a script?
I used to try hold everything in my head as I wrote a script: plot, score, angles of shots, performance beats; even if I didn’t explicitly put it on the page I was always trying to steer things toward those broad concepts. Since I shot The Observer Effect though, when you have to cut corners and improvise in the moment and when you see just how much more the cast and crew brings that you never expected, it’s boiled down to something far simpler: character and performance. The story doesn’t make any sense or carry any weight if a character’s motivations or their emotions aren’t clear. I think if you write something that’s good enough for a great actor to perform well then all the rest will fall into place around that on the day.
What kind of project is your dream to work on?
I have a fondness for certain seventies and eighties sci-fi like Soylent Green, Silent Running and of course Blade Runner – films that not only created amazing worlds but were trying to say something deeper about ours at the time. I’d love a chance to make a film like that again – and yeah, that’s the sci-fi script I mentioned earlier on my list.
What is the biggest challenge directing in Ireland today?
From the creative and technical point of view it’s a great time to be working. The talent that’s out there in front of and behind the camera is huge and the equipment that’s available is also top-notch. But getting funds to even start any of that is still incredibly difficult so it’s hard for directors to create what they want to. There’s too little to go around and what little there is seems to go to the same kinds of films and companies all the time. That’s not to criticise their high quality in any way and Ireland is a small country, granted – but the breadth and range of Irish films produced, regardless of those factors just doesn’t seem to compare to other countries with better-supported independent sectors that take more creative risks. But of course, I would say that being on the outside of it so that could easily be construed as just sour grapes however sincerely I feel it.
What is the biggest change you see coming to film in the next few years?
Streaming is obviously changing the whole landscape of film and how its consumed at the moment. That and the growing prevalence of 100-million-dollar-plus blockbusters in cinemas every year. The industry’s probably following the same trends of market economics as it ever has but I think a de-facto “studio-system” has re-emerged now. That’s both good and bad for film. Creatively the output is pretty poor right now, mostly existing IP’s adapted for screen rather than original scripts but I think that builds a creative pressure within the industry. Hopefully that’ll eventually erupt into new wave of ground-breaking original directors like those those that came in the seventies after the last studio system – the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma and Mallick – and the streaming sphere might be exactly the place where they do it. That could change everything.
The Observer Effect was a success at numerous festivals. How do you recommend up and coming directors get their work out to film festivals?
Well, this only my first time around so I’m no expert by means but sites like FilmFreeway and FestHome are a god-send. You create a profile for your film, upload your screener and press kits and then you’re good to go: it’s just a matter of selecting the festivals you’d like to try for. I’d say do your research though, make sure your film is a match for the theme or type of festival you’re picking and if you can at all, go to them. I’ve been to a few now and the experience has always been great. The people are always so supportive and enthusiastic of course there’s no more valuable a place to learn how your film actually works or doesn’t than in a screening.
Are you interested in working on other aspects of filmmaking – feature, music videos, advertising etc?
Feature films have always been my main aim and this short was an attempt to do something on a cinematic scale in a short form to show I could bring that to the screen – but yeah, I’d also love to do a music video or an advert for the right kind of artist or product if the creative scope was there to do something really interesting.
What’s next for you?
I’ve a few irons in the fire at the moment. I’m working on a small re-edit to The Observer Effect to get it out to broadcasters in the next few months so fingers crossed people will be able to see it outside festivals soon. I’ve also adapted the first of my feature scripts into a short and got more money together so I’ll be crewing-up soon to shoot that early next year. I also expanded it into a novel manuscript lately so I’ll be sending it to publishers as well and after that I’ve a few episodes of the Observer Effect series to write up and then it’s back to that first feature to polish it up based on the novel. And I might try fit in some sleep at some point too!