UNDERWIRE FESTIVAL 2019
"I've experimented with form quite a lot and adopted choreography as an expressive tool, largely because I was engaged by the potential of the body to communicate on screen."
Five Letters To The Stranger Who Will Dissect My Brain
Dir. Oonagh Kearney
A medical student's first encounter with a cadaver in the anatomy room sends her on a soul-searching quest into the nature of what it means to be alive.
Hi Oonagh, it's great to talk to you, how's everything going?
Good thanks, looking forward to the weekend.
How does it feel to have your award-winning film Five Letters To The Stranger Who Will Dissect My Brain at Underwire Festival?
It's lovely thanks. I took a look at the Underwire archive and realised Five Letters is my 6th film in this festival! I'm so happy three of us on the creative team are nominated; editor Cara Holmes, cinematographer Eleanor Bowman and myself. Alongside producer Roisin Geraghty, we've decided to come over for the weekend. But there's been so much good stuff screening all week across several London venues. Hats off to the Underwire team who have gone from strength to strength each year, promoting female filmmaking talent.
What does it mean to you to be able to share this film at the Barbican with your crew?
First time screening at the Barbican so it's special. I've always loved the building and it’s brutalist architecture. I've seen so many interesting films and photography shows here over the years. The new cinema space and cafe are lush. Im also looking forward to the other films in this program. Can't wait!
Did you imagine you would get this type of reaction for Five Letters To The Stranger Who Will Dissect My Brain?
Honestly, no. I was dead surprised it won awards at both Cork and Dublin International Film Festival. It has dance sequences and a poetic voiceover and that needs careful handling. Anything in a poetic register on film can alienate an audience rather than draw them in. I was curious to see if we could pull off combining these experimental elements with a classic narrative structure. At 25 minutes long (it didn't want to be shorter, we tried) it's a bigger ask of programmers to include in their short film sections. So when it does get programmed, it's meaningful. We want to share it on the big screen with as many people as possible.
Can you tell me a little bit about your Five Letters To The Stranger Who Will Dissect My Brain how did this film come about?
I was rooting around doing research on the theme of 'living well with the dead'. As macabre as that sounds it's a fascinating cross-disciplinary area within academia. I was attending seminars at University College Cork that involved everything from archaeological and anatomical practice and the politics of organ donation to emotive issues such as the discovery of over 700 unnamed baby remains in Tuam, Co Galway in 2014. My sister studied medicine and I was always curious about her immediate access to the dead. As someone who loved drawing in school, I was probably envious too. With the support of an Arts Council of Ireland Film Project award, the film started to take more concrete shape when Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa sent me some poems including one called Five Letters To The Stranger Who Will Dissect My Brain. I knew immediately I wanted to work with it, and with Doireann.
"I've set myself goals with each project; as a director, you always want to be learning new things."
What inspired your screenplay?
Doireann's poem is very important, in particular, the first verse (letter) of the five. Some of the other verses inspired dramatic scenes and some were left aside. For new scenes, I invited Doireann to respond and she kindly came on board to write new poetic voice-over. She's an amazing talent, incredibly generous in outlook, and always open-minded. The development of the dramatic scenes was shaped by several things: Viv's character arc, personal experiences, philosophical questions and my interactions with the anatomy department at Trinity College Dublin where I learned about how well they care for the dead.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I've always had a passion for film. I used to stay up late and watch stuff on Channel 4 with my sisters growing up. I remember Kieslowski's Three Colours making a big impact as did David Lynch. Later I discovered the likes of Jane Campion, Lucretia Martel, Wim Wenders, Luis Bunuel. My passion for the story began in theatre and I wrote and directed plays a lot in my twenties. I came to filmmaking pretty late, I was 27 I think. Weirdly the first film I worked on (as casting director on The Wind That Shakes The Barley) won the Palm d'Or in 2006. That was a very unusual debut. Sometimes, you find yourself in the right place at the right time. I got lucky, it was pure magic working on that.
How has your approach to your films changed since your debut?
That's a good question. I've experimented with form quite a lot and adopted choreography as an expressive tool, largely because I was engaged by the potential of the body to communicate on screen. I've set myself goals with each project; as a director, you always want to be learning new things. I feel more confident now. And that's because I've tried and tested different things.
As well as writing, producing and directing you are also a casting director. BAFTA recently announced they're going to Casting Director to the awards, how important is this type of recognition for casting directors?
Well, firstly I haven't cast anything in ten years! So I can't lay claim to that title anymore. I loved casting every feature film that I worked on, and learnt a lot about working with actors. I made a conscious decision to stop in order to prioritise writing and directing my own material. Financially it was hard to make a living, especially at the start.
I really welcome this BAFTA decision. Casting directors are hugely important. As composers, they work deeply with their own intuition. The main instrumental sound needs to be accompanied by the right supporting sounds. It's never simply about who is the best for the role. It's more complex and sensitive, with each decision affecting the next. You are creating an ensemble with very particular chemistry - one you hope will communicate with the audience.
Do you think this type of recognition will help audiences know a little bit more about the role casting directors play in film and TV?
Yes, hopefully. Though I think a lot of audiences have a good grasp already. I often find it's the other heads of department that confuse. I'm often asked what is the difference between a director and a producer. And like, they are so different!
What are you currently working on?
I am working on my first feature Snow On Beara which is in development with Screen Ireland. It's a coming-of-age road movie about three women who meet on a remote peninsula in West Cork as the first drops of snow start to fall. One is English and two are Irish. All three are running away from their problems. They jump aboard a tractor and try to survive the night. The film testifies to the alchemical power of three strangers to listen and heal each other through the pain. In saying that, when viewed from a distance, human pain is pretty funny. So it's not all bleak.
I’m also having meetings with a view to building my profile as a director of other writers work. I’m really keen to direct for television. This week I launched a new website where you can see my previous work and some future projects: www.tyrellapictures.com
Is there any advice you've been given that's stuck with you?
I got some brilliant advice recently from an older, wiser director. She said, "don't forget nobody in this business actually knows anything". It helped me when I felt I was banging my head against the wall trying to convince people that I'm not a risk, that I'm experienced, ready and capable.
Do you have any advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
Find your voice. It's the one thing no-one can take away. It's unique. And because it's your thing - personal worldview, take outlook, vision - the desire and skill required to communicate that will spur you on. Over time, others will back it. But at the start, it's just you. And at the start it's hard. Because the gap between what you want to create and what you know how to create can feel large. Be patient with yourself. Crashing is how you learn.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Some find it quite a spiritual film about the circular relationship between the living and the dead. Others see it as a film about having a nervous breakdown or nervous breakthrough, that by teetering on the edges of that, we come to terms with big ideas and questions about life. Others again see it as a story about loss and legacy. It's up to the audience. For those who have recently lost a loved one, it can be quite emotional.