Nell Hensey is one of Ireland’s young creatives on the rise, a director drawn to Irish stories that are diverse, resonant, and relevant. Her most recent short film Good Chips screened this year at the Dublin International Film Festival, as a winner of Virgin Media’s Discovers programme. The film takes us back to Dublin in 1989, where a family of Vietnamese immigrants struggle to keep their takeaway business afloat. Meanwhile their 12-year-old daughter Tam finds common ground with a local Irish boy in an unexpected way. It’s sweet and charming while maintaining a real feel, and a worthy winner still available to view on the Virgin Media Player.
Irish viewers won’t have to wait long for Hensey’s next work, as it’s one of three of RTE and Screen Ireland’s latest batch of Storyland projects. The drama development project has acted as a launch pad and support for Irish writing, directing, producing, and acting talent throughout Ireland to develop and further their careers for over a decade now. Hensey is one of the latest names to come through their ranks, and while we’re excited to see where she’s going, we were also interested to see where she’s currently at. The director took a moment just after wrapping her latest work to chat with us about her last short Good Chips, her next film Falling For The Life Of Alex Whelan, and her ongoing development as a director.
It was great to catch up with watching Good Chips on the Virgin Media player, can you talk about that partnership, has it been very helpful for the film?
Absolutely. The film was funded by the Virgin Media Discovers scheme. We found out around this time last year that we got production funding, supported by Virgin Media and Screen Ireland. As part of the award, the film premieres at the Dublin International Film Festival, broadcasts on Virgin Media One and goes up on their Player. I had never had a film put up on a streamer before, so that was cool. And it was a really great way to reach a much bigger audience. The day after we broadcast I remember the figures came in at like 32,000 viewers, which is amazing considering it’s this short film about this small minority group.
Much of what we see in Good Chips is told through the eyes of kids, how did that element of the story help in opening the story up and saying what you wanted to say?
A key theme we wanted to explore was empathy – being able to find common ground even with someone who comes from a totally different background to you. What’s so wonderful about children and young people in general is how they see the world in a much brighter, friendlier way. When meeting new people they see the potential for friendship and are not so held back by the prejudices us adults tend to carry. There’s something beautiful in how Tam and Callum, despite coming from such different backgrounds, end up finding they share a lot in common.
What inspired the film in the first place?
I was doing research for another project and was looking through RTÉ archival footage, when I came across a news clip from 1989. It talked about the 212 Vietnamese refugees who came over in 1979 and how they were getting on 10 years later. In the news clip, there was an interview with a Vietnamese teenage girl. She had the thickest North Dublin accent and spoke about how she met her Irish boyfriend. She was so fascinating I immediately was like, I need to write a film about this character!
One of the things I really liked about Good Chips is the way it tells part of the story through little details in the set design, the setup in Tam’s family home, the condiments they keep in the kitchen as opposed to in the van, the way her mother slices and serves up fruit. As a storyteller how do you drill down and identify the specific aspects of a culture to include?
So I co-wrote Good Chips with my very good friend Brigid Leahy. She’s mixed race like me. She’s half Vietnamese, half Irish American, whereas I’m half Filipino, half Irish. So even though our backgrounds aren’t necessarily the same, there are a lot of similarities. One common experience we shared was how both our Moms, like a lot of Asian mothers, do this thing where they prepare sliced fruit for their children. Especially after a long or difficult day. It’s this unspoken gesture of love and care. We then decided to run with this idea of fruit as a symbol of love. We see it played out in the Nguyen family – how they want to provide the best they can for their children even when they are up against financial hardship. We also see fruit as the thing that brings Callum and Tam together, in the form of the Wexford strawberries Callum sells from a stall not dissimilar to Tam’s takeaway truck.
For more specific nuances of Vietnamese culture, Brigid and the Irish Vietnamese community were really instrumental. Brigid did a Masters in Public History in Trinity and her dissertation was on the 212 Vietnamese refugees that inspired the film. With Brigid’s help we involved a lot of members of today’s Vietnamese community, both in front of and behind the camera. We interviewed some of the actual refugees from 1979, as well as members of Brigid’s own family who experienced similar situations in the US.
Working with Brigid, someone who you have a personal relationship with who is also experienced in the industry, in what ways was that helpful for the both of you?
It was brilliant. Brigid and I first met in Weft Studio, an artist initiative run by the Dublin Fringe Festival that supports POC artists specifically. During the programme, I came up with the concept for Good Chips and approached Brigid with the idea. I knew she would make it more authentic than I ever could and knew there was no way of making it without her. She’s also one of my favourite people to work with and is such a creative talent… thankfully she said yes!
We co-wrote it together and Brigid also co-produced with our lead producer Lara Hickey. With her background in acting, Brigid was also instrumental in working with our young cast – Elly, who plays Tam and Zac who plays Callum. During rehearsals it was always the four of us. Then on set, Brigid would help the kids warm up and serve as their acting coach whenever I got caught up with other responsibilities.
What was your experience of working with young actors like Elly and Zac, and how did they develop as performers between casting and the end of the shoot?
It was wonderful. Both of them are so talented and it’s been amazing watching them grow. They both had a bit of theatre experience, but neither of them had done film before. What’s great about working with first time actors is that they’re so natural. With trained actors you almost have to help them unlearn things, but with kids play and games and trying different things comes so easy to them. They were honestly some of the best creative collaborators I have ever worked with on set!
There is a mentorship aspect to the Discovery programme, and I know that Lenny Abrahamson was involved here in that capacity. What I’m curious about though is how you are as a mentee; how do you approach that opportunity?
It was amazing to have someone like Lenny be so invested in the project and wanting to help. To be honest, I was a bit conscious going in that I had to be organised and not be wasteful of his time. But he was just the warmest, loveliest and most generous person. He would answer any questions and was so open in sharing his experience, insights that were extremely helpful. I’m always so curious how different directors like to prepare and approach certain things. Personally I find doing prep right so crucial. I have to storyboard everything. I showed Lenny the boards for Good Chips and we talked through them together – they made sense to him anyway, which was great! As a director you are looked at as the leader and so naturally you can feel isolated in the role. A good mentorship is having someone who relates to that and you can really discuss things with them that maybe you couldn’t with your cast and crew.
How did you feel about your own development as a creative by the time you wrapped on this production?
Before Good Chips, I would experience a lot of burn out after I wrapped on a shoot. I’d need like six months to lie down! But what I’ve come to learn from observing other directors, especially ones who have been in the business a long time, is that it’s much like being an athlete. You have to build up stamina for it. In the last two years, I’ve been moving from one project to another without taking too long of a break in-between – which is important. And then the scale gets bigger and bigger with each new project – in terms of budget, shoot length, cast and crew size, everything. After I wrapped Good Chips my confidence grew because I knew I had built up the stamina. Even though I still needed the couple of days recovery, I was rearing to get back into it. The same thing happened on Storyland. I was able to go straight into the edit almost immediately after we wrapped. Now I can’t wait to line up the next thing and keep the momentum going.
Is that what excites you most about directing, that momentum?
You do get a bit of a rush and a bit of a high, which maybe isn’t the healthiest thing (laughs). But I don’t think it’s what I value most from the job. Working as part of a team is a big one. I also love seeing a story through from beginning to end, that’s a very satisfying part of being both a writer and director. But for directing specifically, I love being part of a crew, collaborating with cast and creating a space where we can all do our best work. I’m a big believer in building community on set. I also only pick projects that I really believe in and, for me, there is definitely a deeper sense of satisfaction in doing work that you know is important.
Are there other directors that resonate with you, in terms of the stories they tell and the way that they tell them?
There’s not one major person to be honest. I think because I don’t see myself in a lot of other directors. Especially when I was growing up. In saying that, I’m working a lot with teenagers at the moment and a lot of the girls reference Greta Gerwig as the person who made them believe they could ever be a director. And I think, regardless if you like her work or not, Gerwig has made such a hugely positive impact in allowing young women to see themselves succeeding in these types of roles. Gerwig is very inspiring to me, in that way especially.
You mentioned your Mam earlier, who is from the Philippines originally. Have you gotten much of a sense from her about her thoughts on Good Chips and the elements of that story that might be resonant with her?
Oh she loves the film. She’ll hate me for saying this but I remember looking over to her during the premiere at DIFF and tears were streaming! She did find it very moving. But to be honest, when it came to creating Good Chips, the key relationship was Brigid and her Mom, and their willingness to support the project and help tell its story. While for me, it was more about helping facilitate them and their community to tell the story the way they felt it should be told.
But I am currently writing a feature film about Filipino nurses which is a much more personal story. I haven’t written about being Filipino yet and it’s definitely a lot closer to home so I am leaning a lot on my Mom and family while writing it. But yeah no, both her and Dad are very proud of the work I’ve done so far. I’m really the first one on either side of my family to make a career in the arts but they’ve always been so supportive. And even though it’s new territory for all of us, they are very excited for what comes next and do help out in any way they can.
Your next project Falling for the Life of Alex Whelan is one of RTÉ’s Storyland projects as you mentioned, can you talk much about that and how it’s coming together?
Absolutely. The film is based on a short story by author Yan Ge. My producer and business partner Claire Mooney first came across the piece in the Irish short story collection Being Various. She came to me being like ‘Nell I think you’re going to like this’ and sure enough she was right!
It’s about a young Chinese woman living in Dublin who goes to a film screening and meets this guy. They get along really well and add each other on social media, but the next day she finds out that he died during the night. She then sets out to discover what happened, at the same time imagining how things might have turned out between them. It explores a lot of themes that I find really interesting and has an array of very compelling characters. Having an Asian Irish young woman as the lead was something that was especially exciting to me.
When Storyland was first announced at the start of the year, we thought this was going to be the perfect fit. It’s the only scheme that supports standalone 30 minute dramas and we felt this story suited that medium perfectly. We found out around May that we had gotten greenlit, went straight into production in August and delivered in September – it’s been a very quick turnaround!
Does that quick turnaround suit you? Does it affect the production much?
It was the first time Claire and I experienced a turnaround that quick, but I know things tend to move faster in TV. To be honest, I didn’t really mind it. Sometimes you’re waiting months or even years for stuff to come out and I find it frustrating when things drag on for too long. The fact that we made it so quick meant that the time we were working on it was so concentrated and focused. I do like to work fast and I’m excited more than anything about getting it out there.
Falling For The Life Of Alex Whelan will air on RTÉ 2 in early November and will be available to stream on the RTÉ player. Starring Lila Coleman, Chris Walley, David Rawle, Patrick Martins and more. With a soundtrack featuring songs from CMAT, Denise Chaila, jyellowl, Tebi Rex and D Cullen.
Pure Divilment Pictures, the production company co-founded by Nell Hensey and Claire Mooney, officially launched this week. The company announced an exciting debut slate of TV and film projects, kicking off with Falling For The Life Of Alex Whelan.
FURTHER INFO ON PURE DIVILMENT
Pure Divilment Pictures is a new independent production company based in Dublin. Founded by award-winning director Nell Hensey and producer Claire Mooney, Pure Divilment is Ireland’s first all-female, Gen Z led production company. The company’s goal is to champion the next generation of great Irish film and television.
ABOUT THE FOUNDERS
Tipped as one of Ireland’s most exciting directors to watch, Nell Hensey is a Filipino-Irish filmmaker from the West of Ireland. Nell was one of 10 international directors selected for Toronto’s International Film Festival’s prestigious Filmmaker Lab 2023. Co-founder Claire Mooney (formerly DNEG, Cartoon Saloon) acts as lead producer of Pure Divilment Pictures. Nell and Claire met four years ago, while studying Masters in Creative Production and Screen Finance at Ireland’s National Film School. The pair previously worked together on the award winning anthology film Baths, financed by the Arts Council of Ireland.
DEBUT SLATE ANNOUNCED
In addition to the release of TV Special Falling For The Life Of Alex Whelan (more below), Pure Divilment has a number of television and film projects in development. What Feminism Is, based on the short story by Louise Nealon and directed by Emma Smith, is set for production later this year. The company is also currently developing Displacement, the highly anticipated feature film debut by director Nell Hensey. In addition to two TV series and an original feature film musical which are currently in development.
L-R: Claire Mooney (Co-Founder & Lead Producer), Brigid Leahy (Talent & Development Exec), Nell Hensey (Co-Founder & Creative Director), Lily Sweeney (Associate Producer)