When Paul suffers a brain injury, the effects are bizarre, leaving him caught in a perpetual loop of joke telling.
Hi Hannah, thanks for talking to TNC, how is your 2020 going?
Hello TNC! It's my pleasure - thank you for interviewing me. 2020 is going pretty well from a personal/film point of view... I only wish the world wasn't falling apart at the seams simultaneously. I'm worried about power being in the hands of very selfish, privileged people.
Congratulations on having That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore selected to British Shorts, what does it mean to you to be part of such a great showcase for British Films?
Thank you! There's no feeling like it really, when a piece of your work travels to new places and resonates with different audiences. It's one of the most satisfying things about making films. British Shorts Berlin will be the film's first screening in mainland Europe and I can't think of a better place to have our European premiere. I'm going to be in Berlin for a couple of days for the festival and I've got my eye on loads of other short films I want to see while I'm there. I'm excited!
That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and won the BAFTA Scotland Award for Short Film what was this experience like?
I was actually unwell when the film premiered at Edinburgh so that time is a bit hazy for me, but winning the BAFTA Scotland Award was up there with the best experiences of my life. I only started making my own films in 2017 and The Joke Isn't Funny Anymore was my first ever funded project, made as part of the Bridging the Gap initiative for emerging filmmakers, so it was really surreal to be rubbing shoulders with filmmakers I've admired for years. I took full advantage of the experience and danced all night long, then took my BAFTA home in a taxi and gave it to my mum and dad.
Did you ever expect you would get this type of reaction to your film?
Not even close; I am super self-critical so when I finished the film I wasn't convinced I'd done a good job; I think I was being especially hard on myself because the film features members of my family and I'm protective of them. But after a bit of distance, some amazing film festival selections, the BAFTA, and some lovely comments from people who have seen it... I'm a little less hard on myself. That doesn't make the overwhelming reaction to the film any less surreal though!
What was the first thought that came to you when they called out your name, had you preplanned a speech?
Total elation. It took me ages to come down from the ceiling after the awards. Those who witnessed my BAFTA speech know that I had become well acquainted with the free wine on our table: I announced to a room full of film and TV professionals, "I am so steaming right now!" - but I think it went down well and Peter Mullan told me backstage that he loved my speech! I wrote it on the day of the awards, after meeting somebody at the pre-party the previous night who advised me it would be wise to have something prepared.
Can you tell me a little bit about That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore, how did you this film come about?
The film follows my aunt and uncle, who live in the remote Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, ten years on from the brain injury that turned their lives upside down. My uncle suffered an aneurysm, which left him in a perpetual loop of memory loss and repeating the same jokes over and over (one of the few things he can remember clearly). My aunt has stood by him, but life is very difficult for them. It's an exploration of dedication and resilience, and it raises questions about how much of ourselves we might be willing to give up for the people we love. I'd wanted to make this film for a really long time, but I didn't know where to start. I didn't gain the confidence to pick up a camera and try to tell a story in the medium of film, until I returned to university to study a Masters in Documentary Directing. It was while I was studying that I first started filming with them.
"The story matters more than the aesthetic for me."
Did you have any apprehension about making such a personal film?
Naively, no. But in hindsight, I should have. It was incredibly difficult to make, even though it's only 12 minutes long! I think my certainty (which has never faltered) that these were beautiful characters with a fascinating story, temporarily blinded me to the fact that making a film is really tough - especially when you have such a close personal attachment to the people in it and a tight deadline. But we got there in the end!
How did you pitch the idea to your Aunt & Uncle, did they have any doubts about taking part?
They couldn't understand why their lives were interesting enough to be made into a film; but that's them to a tee, humble and unassuming. They'd do anything for their family so they were willing to take part; at first I was filming them as part of an assessment at uni, so I think they just thought they were helping me get a good grade. But I always knew their story was universally appealing and I always planned for it to reach wider audiences; I certainly don't think my aunt and uncle expected it to go this far! It premiered internationally at DOC NYC and I took my aunt to New York with me because that's truly a once in a lifetime kind of experience. It's a memory I'll hold dear forever.
What would you say have been some of the biggest lessons you've taken from making That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore?
I shot the film entirely by myself, and fell into most of the pitfalls that inexperienced shooters fall into! For instance shooting when there wasn't enough light, or not holding a shot long enough... the list goes on. I cursed myself many a time in the edit, dealing with my own shoddy footage! Having said that, many people who have seen the film tell me it's 'beautifully shot' - so I think the quality of a film is in the eye of the beholder. The story matters more than the aesthetic for me.
"The only Directors I ever worked with in advertising were male and they knew everything about cameras and scripts etc, which I found quite intimidating."
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
No, but I've always had a passion for telling stories. I used to write my own magazines featuring 'real life stories' and agony aunt columns (all stories and letters fabricated by me), and release them weekly for members of my family to read (the magazines were all hand drawn so I'd get them to pass the same copy round themselves). When I was a teenager, I started interning as a journalist and I wrote features for national newspapers from quite a young age. I found my way into TV via advertising (I was a Commercial Producer for many years); but I always thought Directing was something that other people did. The only Directors I ever worked with in advertising were male and they knew everything about cameras and scripts etc, which I found quite intimidating. I knew deep down I wanted to make documentaries but it took me a long time to go for it. Eventually, I decided to take out two loans and go back to university to learn camera, editing, story, documentary theory... it was a good decision for me. I found my passion.
How has your approach to your films changed since you started out?
I've grown in confidence; I now understand that my style of filmmaking and my individual voice have a valid place in this world. I have something to contribute: my films are personal, empathetic, moving and funny, and in some cases they have had a social impact (my first film We Are All Here, about the suicide of a 21 year old rapper from Scotland, has raised thousands of pounds for mental health charities and is now being used as part of mental health curriculum at universities). I also feel far less intimidated; filmmaking is still really hard, mentally and financially, and there are times when you think 'Why am I doing this?' - but now, I know it's OK not to know everything. I know that the struggle is part of the process and that it's worth it in the end.
What has been the best piece of advice you've been given?
Be kind. My parents instilled that in me from a very young age.
Do you have any advice you would offer someone thinking about getting into filmmaking?
Don't be deterred, and don't be disheartened when you hit hurdles, because that's par for the course. Watch and read what you can, especially in your areas of interest. Identify the parts of the film industry that you don't understand and work on getting to grips with them; whether that's attending talks or trawling Google. Take every opportunity to learn. But also collaborate with others - you can't know everything, and your weak spots will be someone else's specialism. It's a joy to work with a team who all have different talents and watch your vision come alive before your eyes.
What are you currently working on?
I have two longer documentary projects in development, working with some very wonderful characters, and I hope to get both into production this year. I am pitching on some documentary-style commercial projects as a Director, which is new and exciting. And I continue to campaign for mental health awareness and tour We Are All Here around schools and universities in order to get young people talking about mental health. The social impact campaign around the film has been powerful and I hope to achieve the same with That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore, raising awareness about brain injury and disability, and perhaps changing the way we see and treat certain people in society.
And finally, what message do you want your audiences to take away from this film?
I think it's important for audiences to take away their own message from the film: some might think about their lives/relationships and the choices they make; others might take comfort if they too are affected by the isolation of caring for someone with a long term illness... I think the best I can hope for is that the film stays with people and encourages them to live life to the fullest, because it can all change in an instant. That's not meant to sound morbid - I just mean we shouldn't sweat the small stuff, and we should find the beauty in every day. In these troubling times it's important to take care of ourselves and others.