Originally Published in 2020
A young man struggles to find his place in the world after returning to Ireland.
Hi Sinéad, thank you for talking to The New Current, how's your Monday going?
Great thanks, I’m very busy but happy.
How does it feel to have Homecoming screening tonight on Shortscreen on RTE2?
It’s great to have a programme like Shortscreen on RTÉ, it’s such a great opportunity for people to get their work out to a wider audience outside of a festival setting. It’s great to be included in their line up.
Homecoming has had an amazing festival run and picked up a few awards along the way, what has it meant to you to get this type or reaction to your debut film?
It’s been great. The first festival we screened at was Kerry Film Festival and we won Best Irish Narrative, I couldn’t believe it. The jury was such a fantastic group of people from the industry including Academy Award winner Benjamin Cleary and Jim Cummings who had won at Sundance with his incredible short Thunder Road (now a feature film on Netflix by the way – highly recommended). It was just a fantastic experience at that festival, Maeve McGrath (Artistic Director at the time) couldn’t have been more welcoming.
From there, we obviously tried to get into as many festivals nationally and internationally and you learn that being programmed is an achievement in itself. It’s great to get awards but you have no control over that side of it, getting your work screened and out there as much as possible has to be the goal. I was delighted that David Greene picked up a Best Actor award along the way from Disappear Here film festival because he’s so strong in the role and the Audience Award we got from Chicago Irish Film Festival was lovely because I was there and had my family from Chicago with me.
What was the experience like for you watching Homecoming with an audience for the first time?
Nerve wracking and also very strange. My background is theatre, it’s a very different thing to make a film and then let it go into the world. People were very positive and generous so after that I relaxed more!
How did Homecoming come about?
I always would have loved to work in TV or film but I found it hard to know how to cross into the industry if you didn’t start there. I studied English and then went on to do an MA in Drama & Theatre and after that even though I continued to write and had some plays staged and stories published, I mainly worked in arts producing and administration. That paid off in its own way because I got great training working with Freda Manweiler (Smashing Times Theatre Company) in fundraising and development. I also got to meet and work with great people along the way including Dan Keane & Kilian Waters (Arcade Film). Now I work in Project Development with Arcade Film so those experiences paid off!
I applied for funding with Wicklow Arts Office to make my first short film. They were looking for artists to expand their practice and it was a great fit so we were awarded funding and we shot Homecoming in March 2016.
"I hope we will have hit upon something real and sincere with our story and characters."
What was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
I had written a one act play in college about the aftermath of a suicide of a young man called John and the impact on his sister Aoife and his best friend Mick. I felt as if I wasn’t done with that story or those characters so when it came to the film, I wanted to adapt the play into a screenplay. Of course it had to become a different thing and the film was taking place years after I wrote the play so I decided to revisit the same two characters eight years after the death. In the play Mick mentions that he is planning on going to Australia and Aoife is about to go to college so I thought it was a good time to bring them back together and see what had happened. It’s set in contemporary rural Ireland, I am from a rural area and it’s a story I wanted to see.
Was it easy to stick to your shooting plan and your script or did you find it easy to be flexible and allow for changes once you started production?
We didn’t deviate from our shooting plan too much but we were very fortunate that it didn’t rain because the entire thing is set outside bar two scenes inside a jeep. I honestly don’t know what we would have done if the weather had been against us. I think it’s very funny that the first screenplay I wrote I set the whole thing outside as far away from a theatre space as possible. The landscape was very important for the piece though, we wanted to show the duality of how beautiful Mick’s surroundings were but also it’s a harsh, unforgiving environment when your whole day is working the land.
What was the hardest scene for you to film?
I honestly enjoyed every minute of it and perhaps I’ve blocked something out but I don’t remember finding anything particularly hard. I suppose the scenes with Spencer the dog were challenging at first because we were trying to get him settled in the jeep and see whether it was going to work or not but it worked out great. He was my sister’s dog so the issue was every time he saw me outside the jeep he’d try to come over to me! Dan Keane (our cinematographer) sorted it, we found a place for me to stand so the dog couldn’t see me and then everything went great. Spencer was a charmer though, everyone on set fell in love with him.
Looking back on the process of making Homecoming what would you say have been the most important lessons you've taken away from your directorial debut?
I learned so much from making Homecoming but mostly I learned that I could do it and to trust my instincts. All I wanted was to be happy that it was the film I wanted to make and I also didn’t want anyone to have a bad experience making it. Before our first screening, before any festival run, I was happy with it and proud of it and I felt everyone had enjoyed being part of it. That’s what matters, anything after that is a bonus.
How much has your background in theatre helped you make the move into film?
I think it gave me a great advantage in that I would have worked very closely with actors and directed actors before. I’ve heard through industry events at festivals and from some directors that some film courses don’t really give you much opportunity to work with actors which if true, I think is a great pity. Also I spend a great deal of time on the script, writing is very important to me and that has come from my theatre background. If you spend the time on the script and find some time for rehearsal with actors, you’ve such a solid starting point.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I would say I’ve always had a passion for storytelling. I always made up stories and wrote while I was growing up. I loved TV and loved going to the cinema but mostly I loved reading. When I did write it was either fiction or I would often start with dialogue and so I think I was leaning towards screenwriting.
You're currently working on your next film Stray, what can you tell me about this?
One of the best things about going to festivals is that you meet other makers and see a huge variety of work. I had met Gemma Doorly at the Bleeding Pig Film Festival where both our films were screening. A year later Gemma had an idea for a feature and because of the themes she thought I would be a good fit as director. I loved her idea and Arcade Film came on board and we started developing the script with Gemma. We were short listed for feature film funding as part of the POV scheme by Screen Ireland but unfortunately we didn’t make it any further. At that point we had developed the characters so much we decided to make a short film based on our main character Úna. Gemma wrote the script and we got some funding together to make Stray.
Stray is the story of a woman who returns to her home after a violent break in that has robbed her of her husband and her peace of mind. We loved making it, we were thrilled to have Tony Award winner Marie Mullen come on board as the lead and we shot it in May 2019. We have just started the festival journey with the film and so far it’s been received very well. You can find out more on www.strayshort.com
How different was your approach to making Stray compared to Homecoming?
It was completely different. I had a whole production company behind me and a bigger team so it freed me up to focus completely on directing which I found fantastic, once I got use to it! I think because as a team we had developed the script for so long it felt easy, we knew the tone we wanted and there was a shorthand there that just made everything easier. When you’re working with actors like Marie Mullen, Marty Rea and Noni Stapleton it was just a pleasure, they were all fantastic. The shoot itself went great, Kilian Waters (producer) runs a very calm set, we had an amazing crew and so it was just a great experience. Don’t get me wrong, it was still exhausting and long days and mentally draining but I couldn’t have been happier, there was nowhere else I would rather have been. It was also my first time directing someone elses writing but Gemma was a dream to work with. She trusted us completely and even though she was welcome, she only visited set once briefly and then waited until our first screening to see it. Thankfully she loved it!
We’d love to get it into as many festivals as possible, we haven’t premiered in the UK yet and in the meantime we are going to push forward and try to make our feature. If anything, making the short film has just made us more determined to tell the bigger story.
What has been the best advice you have been given?
Surround yourself with good people. I also try to take time after anything I have done to ask myself what I enjoyed about the process and why, who I enjoyed working with and what would I do differently and then make sure I remember that for the next time so you’re always improving, that’s the hope anyway! And take time to enjoy your successes and by that I mean, enjoy that you made a film not necessarily awards or anything like that. Don’t be stressing too much about what’s next, it’s not useful.
Now that you have your debut and follow up film in the bag do you have any advice you would offer anyone making their own debut film?
Surround yourself with good people! Get eyes on your script, get feedback and notes. Watch a lot of shorts, see what you’re interested in and ask yourself why. If you are just starting out, go see a lot of shorts from your home country and then you can contact the production company or writer/director and see if they would be interested in your idea/script. Research funding streams and see what has been funded and go for it. And when you are making your first film, enjoy it and don’t forget to say thank you because an awful lot of people end up helping you along the way, make sure they all end up in the credits!
And finally, what do you hope audience will take away from you work?
I wait for them to tell me! Once you release something out there you hope the audience will appreciate it, that they’ll get the story and the tone and everything you were aiming for but you can’t control it, they’ll let you know what they got from it and you have to respect that. Thankfully I have gotten mostly positive feedback for my work but also it’s not going to be everyone’s thing. That’s why there is such a huge variety of work out there and that’s a good thing. Also I am trying to push myself to direct different types of projects so someone might like one film and then not be into the next one. You have to just keep going. I hope that audiences who see our work think it’s an interesting story well told. Then they can tell me whether they liked it or not!