Screenwriter and director Sarah Ingersoll has got a fair bit of miles in while learning her craft. A graduate of The Glasgow School of Art, Sarah’s has a background in visual art and photography which informs her writing and filmmaking. After directing her first student film in 2016 through the Galway Film Centre, Sarah went on to study screenwriting at The New School in New York. In 2017 her feature script The Keeper was selected as a finalist for Best Inception and Best Overall Script at the Oaxaca Film Festival. Sarah’s short screenplay The Bridge was chosen for the 2018 GFC/RTE Short Film Commission and under the direction of Mark Smyth, the short premiered earlier this month at Galway Film Fleadh. The film tells the story of Cormac who after the sudden death of his parents must choose between returning to his home village in the west of Ireland to care for his estranged younger brother, and a bright future in Canada. She is a recipient of the New Writing Development Loan 2018 from Screen Ireland. Also in July, the iffy Short Film Festival screened Somebody, Somewhere, Who Looks After Critters, Sarah’s debut documentary short which focuses on the life of Alex Scade runs a one man animal sanctuary from his self-built cabin on the edge of the Beara peninsula in the southwest of Ireland. Film In Dublin spoke with Sarah to talk screenwriting, directing and the Jurassic Park vibes of emus.
Film In Dublin: So you studied at the New School in New York and then came here to work, was there something about Ireland in particular that drew you to working on films here?
Sarah Ingersoll: I was born in Cavan, and grew up between here and the States. I’ve moved back and forth my whole life, but when I was getting into filmmaking I knew I wanted to have a career here and work in the industry. I think things are in a great state of flux in the Irish film industry and I wanted to be a part of that. From a pragmatic POV there was also a lot of support for women filmmakers, that was very attractive.
FID: Would working here with those incentives in mind have been something you were thinking about while you were still in school? Or did you make up your mind for definite after graduating?
SI: My timeline was kind of as follows; I took a documentary filmmaking course at the Galway Film Centre with Jill Beardsworth (in incredible documentarian, co-founder of TwoPair Films). I was lucky enough to get to direct a five minute short through that, that I had pitched. At that point I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker and direct.
So after that experience (early 2016 I think), and working in documentary where everything about it is impossible to plan or know ahead of time, I thought maybe I should study screenwriting so I had some control. Little did I know!
But anyway, I went to study tat the New School in NYC, and was there off and on for two years to finish my classes there. In between times I came back to Ireland to work and save money. It was during one of those breaks that I shot Somebody, Somewhere, but it was always my intention to come back here to work. I had an idea that it would be more accessible than trying to break in in New York, and I had no notions of moving to LA.
FID: Getting onto The Bridge, can you talk a little about the process of submitting the script to to Galway Film Centre and RTE for that? You would have submitted a couple of different scripts as part of that process is that right?
SI: Well I submitted two scripts for the original the call out. The Bridge and another short, so a drama and a comedy. I think initially they only wanted a synopsis and logline. They shortlisted from there, and then interviewed maybe ten writers. At that point I didn’t have a script written, but the GFC chose 3 finalists to develop their scripts with Dee Roycroft. So that was the point I started writing the script for The Bridge. But the story was very much fully-formed and had been living in my head for ages. So getting the first draft done was a pretty quick process.
There was really very little change from that first draft to the shooting draft, except really just refining, cutting down scenes and a character. Sorry Lilly!
FID: How much of a benefit was it to have someone like Dee helping you with the script? What would be the main learnings you might take from her not just for The Bridge but on any script you would work on?
SI: The most important advice Dee gave me was to let the story breathe. I knew that it was meant to be a ten minute short, so the general rule is one page per minute of film. My initial draft was ten pages so I was self-editing, and kind of throttling the story creatively. Dee encouraged me to just write the film as it should be and worry about the page count last. Brilliant advice! I think the final shooting script was 11 and a half pages perhaps? But that was down from 16. You need to be able to let your characters inhabit the space and story and not worry about editing the final film when writing your first draft!
FID: That absolutely comes through with The Bridge, as it is very much a story about the characters’ relationships to each other.
SI: Yes it definitely became a character piece.
FID: In developing the two main characters, what was the priority in terms of how you want the audience to connect to them?
SI: I don’t think about the audience at all I admit! Those characters were just themselves from the beginning. I don’t do a lot of conscious development, the best writing I do is when the story just appears fully formed. Same with the characters. Though I did get to know them more when Mark (Smyth, director) was looking for character bios.
I ended up writing little short stories in each of their voices, snapshot of the moments leading up to the start of the film. I’m not sure who else saw those besides Mark, perhaps the actors if they felt the need? But that was a very natural way to access their inner workings. I find a lot of the techniques taught in my classes or screenwriting books just don’t suit me personally as creative tools.
Also what the actors brought was so far beyond what I was hoping for. I was really blown away when they brought these imaginary people to life the way they did. That was a very bizarre and humbling experience.
FID: The short takes a vulnerable character in Eoin seriously as a person, looking at his grief for his parents, the building of the relationship also between the brothers that comes from his end really struck me emotionally. In writing about sensitive topics like that, what are the challenges?
SI: I think a writer’s most important tool might be empathy. When you’re writing a character you have to live their life and see the world through their eyes. You really do have to leave yourself and ego behind to access that. There is a transmutation that takes place and you end up somewhere else. I never thought of the challenges while writing it to be honest. The characters were too real to me. But our producer Lynn was more aware of that and made sure we ran the script by various organisations. I also spoke with an actor who suffered a brain injury. That conversation had a profound effect on me. We spoke for well over an hour and he was so incredibly generous with his insights into his experience and how it changed and challenged not just him but everyone around him. It didn’t change the script, but I did send it to him in order to make sure that the character of Eoin was honest and felt truthful to him. Luckily the actor approved of the story! That ended up being very important for me.
It was always important that Eoin was seen as a real three-dimensional person. The two brothers are processing reality in completely different ways, and I wanted to explore a way in which those two experiences could overlap. Where do they meet? How do you let go of your own perception to really understand another?
FID: That’s all really great to hear and it comes through in the final product, the sense of empathy in the storytelling ties you closer to those characters. You’ve talked about sending bios onto Mark, what was the level of communication like between yourself and the director once the film got going?
SI: The communication between Mark and myself was pretty much constant! Mark is a great collaborator and we were constantly checking in. He knew I was really excited about the film and story, he was the same so that was fun. We had a couple small changes to the script he requested toward the end which i was happy to add as I knew he really understood the story. He never made any requests that hit a false note. We didn’t end up shooting those scenes in the end, being constrained by the budget and time, but yeah, he gets it.
FID: Going back to Somebody Somewhere, you mentioned that was a project you worked on during one of those breaks from New York, can you describe how that project came together and how you came upon that film’s particular subject?
SI: Long story! I was volunteering down at the Buddhist centre on the Beara peninsula, living there for month and a half or so. That was a pretty mad experience but won’t go into it here. Anyway, Alex used to come and collect scraps for the animals. We got friendly and would call around his place for tea some afternoons, it was about a twenty minute walk down the cliffs from the Buddhist centre. I think that was maybe 2015 when I was there. I always thought he was an interesting guy, so when my brother Joe, who is the cinematographer on the doc, asked if I wanted to make something together Alex and his Animals immediately sprang to mind. The landscape, pace of life, the animals who are full of character, were all things I thought would be great to try and capture. He didn’t have the emus when I first met him so that was a pretty big surprise when we got down there!
FID: That sense of empathy is present in this doc too, it lets Alex speak for himself and his way of life, how hands on were you in terms of getting that out of him behind the camera?
SI: I was the interviewer, and I had a vague notion of what I was after though couldn’t put it into words. There are moments in the interview process where you know yourself it’s a dead end (and that would be due to my lead, rather than the interviewee), but you can’t interrupt the subject or put them off. That’s always a challenge. Equally there are moments when the little nuggets of great stuff shines through. That’s what you’re always after.
When Alex mentioned his mum, I felt like that was a really important insight into who he was. So I had to try and push for that. Alex is a pretty guarded guy, so there were challenges along the way. But in the end, he opened up a little of his world to us. The best part for me was that after he saw the doc he felt like it was true to him, for him. He was saying how nice it was to see everyone again, that is, the animals! It was a lovely moment. Olive, who we see at the end, had gone missing (presumed dead) and he was saying how happy he was to get to see her as well on the film. The two of them had a special bond. I’m a big fan of the Maysle’s technique of observational documentary making. A lot of the time we just pointed the camera and let Alex say what he felt like.
FID: Animals have a bit of a reputation on film, and Alex’s critters have a lot of character, did they behave themselves during the shoot?
They did! Though I have some great pics of the emus getting very curious about the car. Very Jurassic Park. The goose was a bastard though, as was the swan who attacks Alex. That swan was actually insane. But they mostly took on Alex’s chill vibe. You see it in Willy the goat the most perhaps. he’s pretty sure he’s a dog and part of the pack.
FID: You had said that you started developing your screenwriting because you wanted more control, do you feel like you have more control with projects now, and is that sense of control very important to you as a filmmaker?
SI: You’ll never really have complete control as a filmmaker since it’s a collaboration. But that is also the joyful part about it. My background is in photography and art and that was a very isolated way of life as a creator. I still draw and very much appreciate that time by myself. Obviously writing means long hours alone as well. But with screenwriting, you give over your story and share it with others and it becomes something more. There are some instances where my need for control is more important than others. I’m working on more of an experimental short at the moment, and the approach is more intuitive than a straight drama or what have you. For this project I need to be able to experiment and explore, and play around. When you have a crew of people to answer to, that isn’t really possible. But I also have a feature animation that I just finished writing, and the idea of giving that over to animators, seeing how they would change it, change the characters, etc, is very exciting to me.
The animation is something I would love to see evolve. In this case the script is very much a blueprint to me, the process of making an animated film is so different that i would be happy to give myself over to someone else’s direction.
That is all hypothetical right now as the ink is only drying on this draft, it’s not slated for production or anything yet – fingers crossed!
FID: It’s great to go into different genres and different mediums of filmmaking, Film In Dublin will certainly be keeping an eye on what comes next for you!
SI: Thanks! Yeah, I definitely will always be interested in a challenge, and will never just stick to one genre. I hope to do more docs, and start directing dramas as well. The next feature I want to tackle is more sci-fi so really, anything goes.