Read MA student Gabrielle Ulubay's interview with celebrated Irish writer and filmmaker Alan Gilsenan.

7 Nov 2018
Irish writer, filmmaker and theatre director Alan Gilsenan

Interview with Alan Gilsenan, October 21st by Gabrielle Ulubay.

Gabrielle Ulubay: First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I know you’ve been filming all week and your schedule must be very hectic.

Alan Gilsenan: Yes, it’s been crazy, but all nice stuff.

GU:That’s great!… So my first question is, tell me about what inspired you to be a filmmaker.

AG:I think it was kind of instinctive, really. As a young child, I was always interested in directing and telling stories. I even did little plays as a kid. I didn’t come from a particularly artistic background, and didn’t even study film later on, but it was just something that I was always doing. It was a kind of personal, creative impulse that was always there as long as I can remember. I went to study English when I went to college, and began directingplays there, but also began to make short films. And it’s kind of hard to imagine now, because it changed so quickly, but in those days, there weren’t really any film or media studies departments in Ireland, so you couldn’t really study film. And in a way I’m kind of glad, because I think it’s possible to get a bit obsessed with film itself, whereas as an undergraduate it was great to get a broader education so I wasn’t heading straight into a film environment.

GU:Yes, I can completely relate to that, having studied history and international affairs when I was an undergraduate, so I’m grateful also for having that broader outlook. I can see that you’ve indeed made a number of social justice films like The Meeting, and they’ve made a great impact in Ireland. So your interdisciplinary background is very evident. Could you talk about some of these themes, and how your other interests and areas of education have played into your filmmaking?

AG:Well, I studied English and sociology at university, and I suppose you could say they represent a double-stranded interest. One is a kind of pure, creative, lyrical, poetic sensibility, which attracts me. I think of films in that creative sort of way. But I suppose sociology represents a broader interest in social issues and marginalized peoples. I think one of the things that’s important to me is that I never really set out to make films about particular issues, you know? Sometimes people look at work I’ve done and say, “You made a film on suicide,” or “you made a film on mental illness.” And that’s true of course, but in actual fact, all of those started from a more personal motivation. For example, my close friend of mine’s son died from suicide, and that would have motivated the idea of doing a series of films around the area of suicide. So what I suppose I’m saying is that I don’t approach things from an objective interest, like thinking that something is an interesting issue. Instead, I come to the issue through the idea of a story or a personal experience. Therefore, the documentary won’t necessarily be concerned with the facts, the figures, or the current affairs. It will be more concerned with the emotional part and the stories behind those issues.

GU:Yes, I can definitely see that. For instance, when I try to describe your films to people, I hesitate to say “this is a film about rape,” or “this is a film about mental illness,” or whatever the case may be, because your films are more about people and their particular situations. And I think that’s great, because someone can say that they’re making a documentary about racism or sexism, and it’s very general and you can almost predict what’s going to happen in the piece. But in the case of your films, one has this increased drive to see the films because they’re about stories.

AG:Yes, exactly.

GU:On that note, when you’re on set, you demonstrate a great sensitivity to these social issues. In the case of The Meeting, specifically, you were directing two actors playing themselves in a very emotionally-loaded situation. How do you balance taking a leadership role with maintaining an emotional sensitivity during scenes that might be emotionally difficult for your actors and your crew?

AG:Well, I think directing film is always a series of paradoxes, because on one hand it’s your job to give direction to get the film done, and to get it done in the time you have, and all those sort of practical things. But paradoxically, then, you’re also trying to incorporate your collaborators, like the actors and your crew. You’re trying to gather all of their impulses and talents into the whole which makes up the film, so you’re always straddling two worlds: The practical world, which is to say the world you’re shaping as a director, because that’s your job. But also, you’re trying to incorporate other people’s contributions. Now, that’s a difficult balance, because if you get too democratic, things can get too sloppy and fall apart, but if you get too dictatorial then it becomes very one-dimensional. So I think that the director is always trying to gather these disparate talents, emotions, and instincts, and it was much the same in The Meeting. I think that The Meeting was particularly unusual because you obviously had Ailbhe in the film as well as being the subject of the film, so there was a particular delicacy there. But I think that in any creative process, you have to respect the emotional life of the people you’re working with, and you do that best through honesty and truthfulness. You have to approach things honestly and constantly ask what the truth is, what you’re trying to say, and what would be a truthful way of approaching it.

One kind of example is that I’ve spoken to actresses who have done nude scenes in which the director--who is often a man--is feeling embarrassed, and a bit awkward, and therefore won’t talk about it. And then the time comes to do the scene and they just say, “This is the where you get nude.” I bring this up because when you’re dealing with something delicate or sensitive such as a nude scene, you have to sit down and say, “Okay, we are going to do a nude scene. What is the best and most appropriate way of approaching this together? How do people feel, and who is most comfortable with what?” That’s a very kind of simplistic example, but I think that in all aspects, you have to engage truthfully with the people you’re working with, and that will also reveal the truth of the story.

GU:Yes, I think that nude scenes are a great example of that. You and I were discussing this after the screening of the film, and you were telling me that actresses are sometimes told they’ll only be partially nude, and then when filming begins they find they’re expected to be completely nude, or to reveal more of their body than they were originally meant to.

AG:Right, exactly. I think that in that case, or in other cases, you just need to have a very clear conversation about what you’re trying to do, how it can be achieved, and how comfortable everyone is. A nude scene is an easy example, but it can also be an emotionally-charged moment of acting or an interview with someone for a documentary. And I also think that through embarrassment, people avoid facing things. To give an example that moves away from nudity, I did a documentary that included people who were dying, and it was very important from the beginning to be very clear in a sensitive and delicate way. Basically, you know and they know that you’re embarking on a journey in the film, where all the people in it will die, and you’re going to be filming them as they move toward death. It’s a hard conversation, but it’s one you need to have, where you ask, “How do we approach this together?” I remember that one woman I interviewed was in hospice and was a young mother in her 30s, and was a very funny woman, and she was dying of breast cancer. And sometimes we had to have very odd, very funny--because humour got us through it--conversations about what was appropriate. Was it appropriate to film her while she was dying? Was it appropriate for me to film her in her coffin afterwards? And that’s a weird chat to have, but it’s a better to chat than to not talk about it, and to have her wondering, “What happens when I die?” So I think that particularly in these difficult areas, as the director you have to be the one who says, “Okay, we’re in difficult, uncomfortable territory here for everyone, so let’s have a chat about how to approach it.” Then as you’re filming, you can say, “Okay, we discussed that we’re not doing that,” and people are relieved instead of saying, “I wasn’t expecting that.”

GU:Right, I think that’s a great and very poignant example. Relating to nudity or not, we want to address the discomfort and emotional difficulties of filming in a proactive way.

AG:Right, precisely.

GU:So to move into a practical, filmmaking sense: I know that you were saying you’ve done both narrative pieces and documentaries, but what’s interesting about The Meeting is that it straddles both styles.

AG:Yes, it does.

GU:Are there any differences between narrative and documentary filmmaking that particularly stand out to you? And considering those differences, how do you move into making a film like The Meeting,which lives in both worlds?

AG:I mean, I think that they probably have more in common than people imagine, because in some sense nothing is absolutely “pure” in a documentary. You are, in a sense, staging the documentary simply through the presence of the camera. Similarly, in drama, you could argue that you’re documenting the experiences of the actors in a particular scene, at a particular moment in time. Obviously, in some ways drama is easier, because people know the rules of the game. You can tell the actors, “Turn up at a particular time, and this is what we’re doing.” But in a documentary, you’re always following life, so drama is easier to control in a practical sense.

However, talking to people in a documentary, and telling their stories, isn’t a million miles away from dealing with actors who have their own sensitivities and life experiences. So I don’t think the two are that different--they’re both about people, telling stories, and matters of filmmaking like lighting. Intrinsically, the processes are quite similar. It’s like two carpenters making a table, where one would use one set of tools and the other would use a different set of tools.

Dramas and documentaries also seem to be getting more and more alike now, like the dramas that are structured in the ways documentaries might usually be. While I think all that cross genre material is very interesting, your audience also deserves to know what the rules of the game are and what they’re watching. For instance, years ago I watched a documentary film about a family and there was home-movie footage in it, and afterwards we found out that this home-movie footage was fake and dramatized, though we were led to believe it was real. And that annoyed me because I felt tricked. Here as something that was masquerading as reality, but was constructed. So I think that in filmmaking, you and your audience need to know what world your film lives in. I think that increasingly, there does seem to be a trend in documentary filmmaking in which they’re made to mimic Hollywood feature films in tone, and for that they manipulate the truth for dramatic effect.   But there are serious ethical considerations here.

GU:That actually reminds me a bit of The Act of Killing, which, in part, satirizes that trend of dramatizing reality for the sake of film. What do you think about films like that, which are sort of meta in the sense that they portray people during their dramatic processes while also filming them backstage, so-to-speak?

AG:I think that’s all good and interesting, because we know what we’re watching. We don’t want to feel, as an audience, like we’re feeling tricked. With drama, we know it’s all smoke and magic, but I don’t want to go into a cinema and be told that I’m watching the real thing, only to find out afterwards that I was manipulated by the filmmaker.

GU:Yes. In class fairly recently, we studied The Blair Witch Project, and how that was its whole marketing strategy, where audiences were told that these kids were actually missing, but they were really actors.

AG:Right, exactly.

GU:Relating to your other areas of expertise, it’s a very sociological thing to embark on these projects while seriously taking into account these ethical considerations. There really are many people, including film directors, who believe that the ends justify the means when making art.

AG:Yeah, which I really don’t agree with, especially when you’re dealing with people’s lives. I don’t think that you can use other people--particularly vulnerable people--for your own artistic projects.

GU:Right. And I do have another question about the practicality of making films: What is it like getting funding for your films? Because as artists and as students, I think we often get caught up in making the art, while practical aspects are swept under the rug because they’re much less glamorous.

AG:Right, they are. Film is such a practical--and such an expensive--medium. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to finance many films, but you’re absolutely right in that it’s such a big part. When you’re studying film, this gets neglected because it’s so tedious, but actually trying to get films made is a such a huge part, and often the artistic part is privileged over the matter of practicality and funding. And whether they’re broadcasters, funding agencies, or studios, they increasingly want to control what they view as a product, so there’s this constant tension between the artist and the people funding it. They hire a director or a writer because they think they have talent, but there are also all these bureaucrats who don’t have artistic talent but feel they can manipulate film and the filmmaker because they think they can make it successful. Many times, these are very articulate, intelligent people who can talk their way around anything but don’t have artist contributions, and there’s a lot of tyranny in that world. It’s probably the biggest challenge.

GU:It’s definitely something that’s intimidating, and I think part of the reason it’s not discussed is because many people want to avoid thinking about it, and want to pretend that doesn’t exist.

AG:Yes, of course.

GU:Finally, I have another practical sort of question: There are a number of shots in The Meeting which focus on various objects in the room, like Ailbhe’s hands, a glass of water, or the paintings of birds on the walls. And that reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard’s cinematography in films like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, where the camera focuses on something else in the room while the characters are talking. I was wondering if you were inspired by any filmmakers like Godard, and what inspired you to make these particular visual decisions while filming The Meeting.

AG:It’s not a conscious thing, but of course as a director you’re inspired by people like Godard, who I have huge respect for, and all the great filmmakers who you admire and whore films you watch. I think that when you watch great films, you absorb them, almost like osmosis, into yourself and into your imagination. So all those references are unconscious because I don’t consciously say I’ll do it like this or like that filmmaker, but those films are in you. In trying to tell the truth, you let your natural instincts take over artistically.

In terms of The Meeting,we had a certain set of challenges. I felt the film would be powerful if I stuck to the truth, and the truth, along with many important things in our lives, can happen in very banal circumstances. And in this case, it was this very functional, bland room. But I’m also interested in when those tense moments in life make those seemingly banal things take on a vivid intensity. I think that in the film, we were trying to take this very blank room and then try to imagine those little moments of heightened intensity, and capture that within the limited canvas of that room. When you’re in the midst of these moments, your senses are more finely tuned.

GU:Speaking of the canvas of the room, I really enjoyed the imagery of the birds in flight on the walls of the room, and I know you talked about that in the Q&A after the film was screened. It must have been really rewarding to work directly with the artist who painted them, and did she create the images specifically for the film? What was it like communicating with her to get the mural done?

AG:It came kind of late. I just felt that there was something missing. Even though I was going for this bland room, I felt there was something needed to slightly animate the wall. So I was doing the researching on rooms and environments and rooms like this across the world, and often I saw there was some kind of painting or some sort of mural on the walls. And this was often done primitively, often by children or by community groups. There were nice, hopeful images, and I’m a great believer in instinct, so I went with this idea I had of birds--bluebirds, specifically. I followed a gut instinct, and what stood out in my mind is a beautiful poem: Ted Hughes has a collection of poetry about his relationship with Sylvia Plath, and the last poem in that collection is about the fact that when they were living together, Sylvia Plath loved the color white, but she’d paint things red. And at the end of the poem, he says that her real colour, that she wore when she was most content, was blue, and he brings up little bluebirds.

Anyway, this was very late in the game in terms of planning, and so I phoned Chanelle Walshe and she just got it. And I like following my instincts, but I also like trusting other people, and Chanelle really understood. So she spent a day on the set and painted the blue bird, and followed her own instincts on that. So these things aren’t always totally thought out, and sometimes you can just feel that things are right although you’re not really sure why. This was one of those things, and when I talked to Chanelle I trusted her, and liked her, and told her to do her thing, and she did.

GU:That’s a great example of what you were talking about before, where you can’t be completely dictatorial as a director, and you have to trust your collaborators. It also shows what a beautiful medium cinema is, because you’re working with sound artists, actors, and visual artists, even as an artist yourself.

AG:Yes, I think it’s so true, and that’s the one thing Chanelle said to me. She said it was so lovely, because she’s often alone in her studio, and it was great to be out with other people and collaborating with other artists, because so much of that craft is such a lonely path where she’s painting in a studio on her own.

GU:That’s very inspiring, and it goes to show that many times, people get discouraged from working in film because it’s so collaborative and can involve compromises. But being an artist is also a lonely path in certain ways, even just in the fact that artists see things in ways that other people don’t see them.

AG:Right, yes.

GU:So it’s great to be around other people, making art and collaborating with them.

AG:Yes, it really is.

GU:Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I know I’ve taken up a lot of your time, and I wish you luck with your current projects!

AG:Not at all--thank you!

Department of Film and Screen Media

Scannánaíocht agus Meáin Scáileán

O'Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland