In Depth In Orbit with Katie McNeice

The short film In Orbit is dedicated to “the daoine who loved and those who couldn’t”. It’s a sci-fi story, or at least, a story rooted in a future looking back, that provides an insightful perspective on recent events in Ireland’s changing society and the impact that has on the people who live in it.In Orbit former optician Maura recounts her life story in an interview with the Head Archivist of the Human Experience Records, going over her memories as she meets Amy, a bright academic with broken glasses. For the first time in forty years, Maura wants to share her life. The only catch is leaving behind the world as she knows it.

Following on from In Orbit winning Best Irish Short at the GAZE LGBT Film Festival for 2019, Film In Dublin spoke to writer and director Katie McNeice about her process in making the film, its focus and more.

Film In Dublin: Congratulations again first on winning Best Irish Short at Gaze, can you talk a bit about what it was like to get recognition like that from such a prominent festival here in Ireland?
Katie McNeice: Thanks! It means a huge deal to me. Firstly as a filmmaker it was the first time I really thought of myself as a director as well as writer. I’ve been writing for so long now and In Orbit was such a personal story, directing it came out organically and almost accidentally.  On the other hand, GAZE is one of the single most important touch points for LGBT people in Dublin, especially when you’re in the creative industry.

I’ve been going since I moved up to Dublin seven years ago and actually started off as a volunteer. To come back this year with my first film and not only get into GAZE but win it is something I’d never imagined could happen. There’s a sense of belonging and community at that festival I really don’t think I’ve experienced anywhere else. It’s an incredibly moving but important event.

FID: As a writer, was there something about science fiction and the science shown in In Orbit that was particularly appealing in telling an LGBT story?

KMN: That’s an interesting question because I have to admit I didn’t set out to write a sci-fi film. I didn’t even consider ‘In Orbit’ sci-fi myself until I got feedback from people who had read the script and eventually seen the film. It’s funny because we’re obviously influenced by what we watch. I’m a big Black Mirror fan but in general I think we’re getting a really diverse wave of content coming out now for TV and film with this emotional quality which hinges on tech. 

With In Orbit I was trying to explain not just what loneliness looks like, but the feeling of it; what is it like to be in this isolated mind? What is it like to feel you are in a world of your own, under a sense of shame which isn’t of your making and which no one else can understand? That’s what my experience of growing up gay was and the primary goal of the film is to communicate that emotionally because explaining to someone with words alone is never enough. People don’t understand it.  I think we’re all so wrapped up in devices and social media now that watching Maura flick through holograms to communicate her feelings is relatable in a way.  She can’t show the interviewer what her life has actually felt like, but she can borrow images of devastation, death, war and heartbreak from elsewhere.

Secondly I think the involvement of social media in the marriage referendum had a lot to do with it. You’ll notice all my tweets have #YesInOrbit on them. That’s a nod to the swell of public conversation which surrounded the vote a few years ago. In one sense it was great everyone was talking it out and thankfully the result was good, but having other people debate your right to love is heartbreaking. 


FID: That comes across really well, as something set in the future it comments on the present (like the impact of something personal becoming a prominent social issue) in moving and insightful ways.

KMN: Thanks. It was a gamble doing that and I didn’t know if people were going to follow it, especially with an entire lifetime in one short. I’ve been asked by so many people now if it’ll ever be adapted to a feature because there’s so much of the story we don’t see. Fleshing it out as a feature length screenplay is definitely on the maybe list for 2020.




FID: In getting the audience in Maura’s head, it helps that there are two great performances from Claire Loy and Aire Ni Mhuiri – how did you work with those performers to bring Maura to life?


KMN: I’m so proud of the actors on this project. Claire was the first to come on board and strangely for a short film she was involved for almost a year. I had to do a live pitch at the London Short Series festival last year and wanted something visual to bring with me. I also needed to get the VFX tried and tested before we got into production so it made sense to shoot a teaser. 

Claire’s got this really intense, intelligent quality to her which really makes the character of Maura, I think. There’s very little dialogue in the 2019 section of the film but you can tell at all times there’s so much feeling behind every moment she’s in. I think the character was with her for so long and we had so many discussions about what the intentions of the script were, she was completely immersed in it by the time we started filming. 

With Áine, I was actually scouting for an actor to play Amy when I came across her headshot. There’s such a likeness between herself and Claire! I couldn’t believe it. With the themes of sight and vision in the film I wanted to be sure all the actors had striking eyes. Both of them have that naturally emotional look and it really helped with Áine’s more demanding scenes in the interview, I think.  Rehearsing the movements of the holograms with Áine was really important and talking through the beats of the script in terms of what it meant to Maura. A lot of the voice over is so poetic to pull off that sense of memory and dreams that nailing the dialogue was my focus with her. She’s got such a lovely voice and a natural rhythm in her speech. It really drives the whole film.

FID: Absolutely, it really sets the rhythm and the mood of the short and  helps shape the memories that we see. Would the two have been in contact during production,  or would they have seen each others scenes also?
KMN: I kept the actors from both eras very separate on purpose. It really needed to feel like a different time and place and I felt if Áine or Michael-David were familiar with Claire and Sarah’s scenes, it could take away from it.  It was great to have Áine at a roundtable reading on the first day of production for everyone to understand the pace and tone overall, but poor Michael-David didn’t meet the others until our premiere in Galway.

As much as possible I wanted to align Áine and Claire in the edit, so matching Áine’s posture to hers as we filmed the interview scene was a focus as well.

FID: You mentioned earlier getting the VFX ready for pre-production, what was that process like?


KMN: I’m fortunate enough to work in a studio with a motion graphics team as well as AfterEffects specialists, so Ivo Andrade, my VFX Supervisor, was always to hand during planning. We had a pretty intensive schedule of shooting and testing in the lead up to the film to be sure we would nail the sky swaps, in particular. Because we work together and we’re friends the relationship was solid which is a massive deal. I think there are a lot of shorts being made now where the script and intentions are great, but with limited time and maybe even with crew you don’t know too well, it’s hard to get on the same page. For instance, I could have pulled off the short in five days if I pushed it. I wanted everyone to get to know each other and take the project at a calm pace because the mood on set injects itself so much into the finished film.

You’ll also notice I use #daoine on all my social media posts. I wanted to use a gender-neutral word when directing Claire and Sarah and this is what we landed on. It started off as a fond word I could use to address everyone on set and it’s become a cornerstone of who we are as a team.


FID: I know that Emer Kinsella has spoken similarly with Scannain about how she was involved very early from the music side of things, and how collaborative that was between you. The music is similarly key in evoking the mood of the film, what was it like for yourself working with Emer?
KMN: I love music. Absolutely love it. I knew from the get-go it would be crucial to pulling off the emotional punches in the film because of how it’s structured. The poetic language in it really needed an extra meter so the words didn’t land alone; they needed to fall with all the feeling of musical notes. Getting Emer involved before a lot of the other crew was a natural choice for me. Again, it was important to me not just to work with her but to get to know her as best as I could. She’s based in LA so it took a lot of Skype calls and emails but we kept on a good schedule of workshops.

I wrote out the whole film in prose form, bolding key feelings and putting in as much on colour as I could. From there I sketched out the emotional anatomy of the film, end-to-end, with every beat noted in it. I strung together a diagram from this were you see the positive and negative experiences mapped out.  Because of the two time periods in the film, these feelings sometimes happened simultaneously and that was the real challenge for Emer; to communicate strength, heartbreak, hope and regret all at once.

We put so much effort into pre-production together that she had a rough pass of the score delivered before we even shot the film. It was so helpful in terms of pacing the actors and blocking out scenes to already know what the tone was going to be. 

The biggest influence on the score was Max Richter’s work on Arrival. Emer loves him as a composer as much as I do so it was a great fit. 

FID: It’s a fascinating way of putting a film together, would that approach, the diagrams and the nature of these collaborations, be very specific to In Orbit or would it be a process you would want to carry forward into future work?
KMN: In my day job I’m a Producer for HMH, which is a global learning company with a huge output of video content–animation, live action, puppets, you name it. Prior to that I worked on the news for IFTN and previous to that I was a Content Strategist for a UX studio. So with all that and being so constantly immersed in production you do see what can go wrong if the planning isn’t done. You learn the value of relationships and teams because of the immeasurable difference it makes to the process. In approaching a film just as you would a design project, you force yourself to understand the film’s every element and what you want for it, inside and out. All the sketching, diagrams and research were a natural way for me to flesh that out and get everyone on the same page.  The amount of drawings, spreadsheets and sketches I have to go along with In Orbit would blow your mind.
FID: How many would we be looking at total? Certainly the hard work comes across and paid off!
KMN: I think something close to ten different spreadsheets adapted for different HODs, about four boxes of notes (which I fall over on a daily basis) and a Google Drive which is just jammed.
FID: Going back to the ‘daoine’ aspect of the film, on screen and off,  would that again be something you’d want to continue in future films, in the stories you’d be looking to tell?

KMN: Absolutely, yeah. We’ve gotten to a point now I think that homophobia looks ridiculous, even if it hasn’t died down completely. But what we’re lacking is that deeper understanding of identity when it comes to gender, queerness, and similar. We’re making so much progress on these things but not near enough. The stories I want to tell are very much the ones I wished I’d heard when I was younger. My next short (fingers crossed) is called Lambing and is based around a couple expecting their first baby in rural Ireland. It looks at what the medical process actually is in this country when a baby is born with intersex, the social fallout that can follow and the impact it has on the parents’ mental health. 

I also co-wrote the feature adaptation of Lily with Graham Cantwell last year. It was incredibly taxing to be writing an eighteen year old girl at the same time as prepping In Orbit in which the characters are forty and eighty. That coming-of-age story of young gay women hasn’t been told in Ireland yet though. It’s just missing. 

So even though juggling a full-time job with the feature script, my own scripts and then directing a short was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, I’m glad I did. Being a part of Lily and helping bring an authenticity to her story based on my own experiences is something I’m very proud of. Graham’s achieved so much with his short already I can’t wait to see the impact the feature has on young people in Lily’s situation. 

FID: On that note, what do you think can be done to help tell diverse stories in Irish film, particularly in terms of getting them seen by audiences?
KMN: I think as a filmmaking community we need to write harder, more thoughtfully and with more clear intentions. Many people make films because that’s what they enjoy and that’s fine. But making a film and really wanting to reach people, to reassure them or to comfort them, to disrupt their thoughts on something or bring an issue to their attention, is very different.

Secondly I think Screen Ireland and similar funding bodies should be willing to take risks on people. I funded In Orbit myself because I hadn’t directed before. There was no way anyone would have funded it and yet it’s premiered at the Fleadh, where it got a Special Jury Mention and won its second festival with the award at GAZE last week. It wasn’t a “safe” project financially, technically, or even narratively and I think we need to be more open minded to supporting films that take risks like mine does.

Just as much as gender parity is taking off on screen now the last thing I’ll say is that an effort to make sure LGBT stories are making the screen is just as important. There are generations of people in this country who rarely see people like themselves on screen and it’s so formative to our identities. It really needs to be prioritised.


Follow the hashtags #YesInOrbit and #daoine on Twitter, FB and Instagram for upcoming screenings of In Orbit.

About Luke Dunne

Luke is a writer, film addict and Dublin native who loves how much there is for film fans in his home county. A former writer for FilmFixx and the Freakin' Awesome Network, he founded Film In Dublin to pursue his dual dreams of writing about film and never sleeping ever again.

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