Tony Tracy | Roddy Flynn
NUI Galway, Ireland | School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2016 | Views:
ISSUE 11 | Pages: 275-320 | PDF | DOAJ |

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The Irish Are Coming: Irish Film and Television in 2015

Stephen Colbert: “How did I do with your name? ‘Sursha’.”
Saoirse Ronan: “’Sursha” is perfect. ‘Sursha’ like inertia.
SC: “What’s the worst pronunciation of your name that you’ve ever had?”
SR: “I’ve had a lot of ‘Sore-sees’, ‘Suarez’, ‘Sair-she’, ‘Sheer-says’…
SC:  “You do look a little bit like a Suarez.”

The Late Show 12 January 2016

Recent months have seen the “absurd” discrepancy between the spelling and pronunciation of Saoirse Ronan’s first name repeatedly exploited for comic effect on the American chat show circuit. Before Colbert, Ellen de Generes did it twice (producing cards with Irish names and challenging the audience to guess the correct pronunciation) while Jimmy Fallon couldn’t avoid referring to the Ronan’s brogue during a Tonight Show appearance in November 2015. Behind the cheap laughs, however, these exchange simply that US audiences need to get used to Irish accents and idioms (Interview magazine featured a similar encounter between Domhnall Gleeson and Angelina Jolie), pointing to a ‘mainstreaming’ of young Irish actors and – perhaps – Irish film within the US entertainment firmament.1

This ‘greening’ owes much to the critical success and extensive coverage afforded two recent Irish films – the screen adaptations of Brooklyn and, to a lesser extent, Room (reviewed in this year’s edition by Pat Brereton and Eileen Culloty respectively) – although for a variety of reasons, Saoirse has proven the more marketable personality. In the case of Brooklyn, the remarkable success of Colm Tóibín’s novel was replicated by John Crowley’s screen version. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, a carefully planned festival release strategy built critical momentum over nine months, paying dividends on the US and UK awards circuits, most notably for Saoirse Ronan’s central performance as Eilis.

The comparable success of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (the nomination of Abrahamson in Best Director category in some senses outshone Brooklyn’s considerable achievements) came as a late bonus given that the film didn’t receive a world premiere (notably at Telluride, not Dublin) until September 2015. Both films featured prominently among the nominees for the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, the New Film Critics Awards and, of course the Academy Awards.  When Colin Welland, on receiving the Best Screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1982, famously proclaimed that “the British are Coming”, he could only point to that single film. In 2016, the Oscar nominations created a hitherto unimaginable scenario: two Irish films vying not only in the Best Actress Category but also for the high status and financially critical Best Picture Oscar. The Irish, it would seem, have arrived.

So overwhelming has the critical praise and coverage of these films been that they have all but eclipsed other films produced in Ireland over the past year and become, inevitably perhaps, the benchmarks by which such films are measured. Notwithstanding their extraordinary achievements, Brooklyn and Room nevertheless raise provocative issues around the definition and ambitions of Irish cinema in 2016. (Along with the not-yet unreleased Viva – a Cuba-set Spanish language film shortlisted as Ireland’s entry in the Best Foreign Language category). While Room can unproblematically be identified as Irish at a production level, led by director Lenny Abrahamson and producer Ed Guiney (and substantial development and production funding from the Irish Film Board),the setting and characters are unequivocally North American. Outside Ireland, some media coverage has referred to the film as Canadian, reflecting Guiney’s creative exploitation of screenwriter Emma Donoghue’s dual Irish/Canadian citizenship to access Canadian funding. (The film is adapted from Donoghue’s novel). In this regard it’s worth recalling that the previous Abrahamson/Guiney collaboration, Frank (2014) had scarcely any textual relationship to Ireland at all (bar a brief stop-over for the band) and while two of its principle actors were Irish – Michael Fassbinder and Domhnall Gleeson – they were cast as American and British characters respectively.

Brooklyn, of course, is an overtly Irish text. Based on Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s novel, it stars the most prominent Irish screen actress since Maureen O’Hara in a familiar story of Irish emigration to the United States. Director John Crowley was previously best known for Intermission (2003) and the Irish Film Board, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and – in a rare move – RTE contributed towards the production budget. But, as the producers acknowledged in an interview with Screen International, the rest of the budget was a patchwork of international finance: the UK (the BFI, the BBC, Lionsgate UK and the UK tax credit), Canada (Telefilm Canada and distributor Mongrel Media) and Australasia (Transmission Films), with some gap financing on top. Although Irish production company Parallel facilitated the Irish shoot and secured the Irish funding, they were clearly the junior partner in a production led by London-based Wildgaze Films. Tellingly – but somewhat awkwardly for any “Irish are coming” narrative – the film qualified for the Best British Film category at the January 2016 BAFTAs, which it then won.

The point of all this is not to nitpick, or to undermine the efforts of the Irish Film Board, production companies and creative talent, which have unquestionably made decisive contributions to these productions. It is rather to raise the question of whether it even makes sense to think of Irish cinema in national terms anymore. And if not, then how might we conceptualise and relate the diversity of activities in Ireland’s audio visual sector.

Admittedly this is scarcely an original observation, nor is it one that uniquely applies to Ireland: for at least two decades, the idea that national cinemas can be treated as discrete entities has been increasingly difficult for the film academics to sustain. From the early 1990s, when scholars like Stephen Crofts and Andrew Higson sought to delineate the range of approaches which might be included under the rubric of national cinema, they had to include some categories which, on the fact of it, seemed to have very little to do with the notion of the national. Croft’s “Imitating Hollywood” category (into which he placed much Anglophone production from the UK, Australia and Canada) noted the extent to which such nations had become offshore production bases for Hollywood. While this has some bearing on Ireland – more in relation to high-end television than film these days, it does not quite capture the complexities of the situation.

For some years, this annual Review has traced an evolving trajectory whereby Irish screen policy has, in line with the wider industrial policies of Ireland’s open economy, sought to ‘balance’ what might be described as cultural priorities with a desire to maximize the potential for foreign investment – through tax breaks, co-productions, location facilities or other means. Behind the celebration of ‘Irish’ film, such policies continued to be developed this year by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan’s October 2015 decision to raise the cap on eligible expenditure using the Section 481 tax credit to €70m, a figure simply not relevant to Irish indigenous production. Similarly, in November 2015 a subsidiary of Ardmore, Troy Studios signed long term deal with Limerick City and County Council to lease the former Dell Factory in Castletroy (a company once attracted to Ireland for tax purposes but who have since relocated to cheaper Poland), promising to add 70,000 square feet to the existing 110,000 sq. foot of studio space already in Ireland, clearly with a view to luring international film and TV productions.

Such policies have borne fruit for Ardmore who are clearly keen to extend their successful business model: in March 2015 the History Channel renewed Vikings for a fourth season whilst the third season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful began shooting at Ardmore in September. Having been revived by Amazon Prime for a third series, Ripper Street secured a further two season renewal from the online retailer (and a Royal Television Society award to postproduction house Screen scene for their work on the series). Additionally, of course, in September 2015, the Star Wars franchise returned to the Skelligs to begin principal photography on Episode VIII.

The scale of studio expansion suggests an expectation that Ireland will share in anticipated future global production growth. This is a highly contested market – even within the boundaries of this small island. Similar strategies north of the border are paying serious dividends, perhaps to the detriment of inward production levels in the Republic. The Northern Ireland Screen/Invest NI-backed Game of Thrones (now in it sixth season on HBO) continued to shoot at Titanic Studios and carry out some of it post-production activity in Belfast. Endemol’s large budget series The Frankenstein Chronicles completed an NI shoot in 2015 and there were renewals for two major BBC police procedurals shot there, Line of Duty and The Fall. Even the Brad Pitt-produced Lost City of Z feature spent five weeks in Belfast.

Regardless, the bifurcatory manner in which the Review has traditionally characterized the Irish screen industries – a financially dominant overseas production sector on the one hand and (much) smaller scale indigenous production on the other – no longer captures the complexities of the sector. It may now be worth considering a third, overlapping category that encompasses content, production and distribution contexts: a transnational Irish ‘cinema’.

In her survey of how the concept of transnational cinema has been deconstructed and reconstructed Deborah Shaw, identifies fifteen possible modes. Key amongst these are transnational practices of production, distribution and exhibition, such as co-production funding and marketing films to global audiences.2 This is suggestive for Room, a transnational film at the level of funding but where the primary imagined audience is unlikely to ever have been only Irish. Since Room, Abrahamson has been linked with a plethora of subsequent projects which – like his past two projects – are textually unconnected to Ireland. These include the story of the gay New York boxer Emile Griffith, a possible adaptation of Laird Hunt’s novel Neverhome (about a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight in the America Civil War) and an adaptation of Sarah Water’s supernatural post-World War Two novel The Little Stranger. If, as Eileen Culotty suggests in her review of Room, the film is in part a “calling card” to Hollywood, then clearly it has been heard. Less interested in the socio-political complexities of the local than Abrahamson’s first three films, and set in a non-specified, ‘vanilla’ North America, Room is a transnational art house film (or Hiberno-Anglo-American at any rate), that eschews the social for the personal, even as it makes strong use of Irish production talent and finance.

It is not unique. Paddy Breathnach’s new film Viva, just missed out on making the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2016 Oscars. However, the language in question was not Irish but rather Spanish, since the Mark O’Halloran–penned script was entirely filmed in Cuba and shot through Spanish. For his part, having made two examples of resolutely national films in Pilgrim Hill and Glassland, Gerard Barrett’s next feature is Brain on Fire, a Ireland-US-Canada production filmed in Canada with Chloe Grace Moretz (Kickass) in the lead role. Finally Juanita Wilson (As if I was Not There) has just completed shooting Tomato Red, an Irish-Canadian co-production set in the Missouri Ozarks, starring a largely American cast but with key Irish talent in the roles of cinematographer Piers McGrail (Out of Here), and composer Stephen Rennick (What Richard Did, Frank, Room).

Stephen Crofts has also made reference to the risk that Anglophone cinemas may fall prey to Hollywood vampirism, i.e. talent poaching. In this regard the recent ascent of younger Irish actors in the Hollywood firmament has been remarkable – to the established names of Neeson, Brosnan, Byrne, Farrell and (Brendan) Gleeson, the last half decade has seen Saoirse Ronan, Fassbender (nominated this year for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Steve Jobs

[2015]), Domhnall Gleeson (over Christmas 2015 – multiplexes were running a mini-season of his work in the shape of Brooklyn, The Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Andrew Scott (Spectre), Aidan Gillen and Chris O’Dowd come to the fore.  The argument might be made that establishing such star power overseas affords those actors the opportunity to lend their names to indigenous projects.  The question is to what extent this actually happens. In some cases, the answer is clearly yes: Brendan Gleeson intersperses character roles in US productions with lead roles in Irish-originated films. Andrew Scott’s turns in John Butler’s The Stag and – this year – Handsome Devil were separated by appearances in Spectre and a reprise of his Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. In many cases, however, these younger actors are developing Anglo-American star personas whereby they move between a geographical range of projects and residences. Fassbender is perhaps the most striking example but Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson are also examples of actors seen as both Irish and transnational.

As already indicated the transnational character of contemporary ‘Irish’ cinema is less value laden when discussing production talent, particularly in relation to TV drama which is seen as intrinsically transnational in the age of Netflix and Sky Atlantic. Director of Photography John Conroy moved from Penny Dreadful to key cinematography on Sky’s Fortitude and the second series of ITV’s Broadchurch. PJ Dillon who lensed the IFB-supported Australian drama Strangerland also saw his work on Penny Dreadful earn a British Society of Cinematographers award nomination. Director Ciaran Donnelly has forged a strong international reputation with big budget productions such as Vikings, A.D. The Bible Continues and Crossbones. Daniel O’Hara, director of one of the best Irish shorts of the 21st century (Yu Ming is Ainm Dom) directed two episodes of Doctor Who.

This international focus is not limited to individuals. The perpetually ambitious Element Pictures will not only produce Lenny Abrahamson’s next overseas picture (whatever it turns out to be) but will reprise their collaboration on The Lobster with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimo on The Favourite, a story set in the 17th century court of Queen Anne and possibly the director’s mooted supernatural thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer. They have also reprised their relationship with Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s for 11 Minutes, his follow-up to Essential Killing (2010) which they also co-produced.

Amidst all this, the once core element of the Irish screen industry – indigenous production – endures and in some cases thrive. In this issue we review I Used to Live Here, a micro-budget and socially committed exploration of teen mental health set in working class Dublin. Frank Berry’s deeply responsible and patient effort deserves to be viewed and praised. Stephen Bradley’s bio-pic Noble garnered much critical attention and was widely distributed internationally as was Mark Noonan’s low-budget debut You’re Ugly Too which was not only released in South Korea, Israel, Turkey, Denmark, Romania and – on 50 screens – also in Germany and secured a showcase screening as the Directors Guild of America theatre in Los Angeles having won the Directors Finders series. There remains a discernible shift towards overtly generic work within indigenous features. To the horror genre discussed in these pages in previous years, we can now add Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal (also reviewed here), Corin Hardy’s The Hallow, and Brian O’Malley’s Let Us Prey. In the fantasy/sci-fi mode, there was the children’s film The Legend of Longwood (included in this year’s review) and Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist. Cardboard Gangsters and Paul Mercier’s Pursuit can be broadly described as thrillers whilst Darkness on the Edge of Town is a neo-western (appropriately shot on the west coast in Kerry) from newcomer Patrick Ryan. While there is some fine work on display in all these films (Pursuit features a stellar Irish cast include Liam Cunningham and Brendan Gleeson), none have made much impression with the wider public. The reasons for this deserve wider examination. One possible explanation is that average production and publicity budgets for such films remain generally low, increasing their appeal to newbie film makers but also reflecting the effective freeze in the Film Board’s capital budget at €11.2m in 2015 – an almost comically small budget given the success and activity within the sector.

It is perhaps telling that unlike so many contemporary fiction films set in Ireland, the Feature Documentary format continues to enjoy relatively rude health; creatively, socially and, more pointedly, commercially. For a country that seems to have been constantly negotiating social change over the past two decades, documentary seems to reach the places of Irish experience that fiction cannot. Following on from the success of One Million Dubliners in 2014, several docs made an impact in 2015. Older than Ireland from Snackbox Films (who previously produced the well-received The Irish Pub) demonstrated the ongoing potential of the talking heads approach. Dignified and humorous this assemblage of the lives and experiences of Irish centenarians earned €160,000 (on an €100k budget from the Irish Film Board) in Irish cinemas and enjoyed the best opening on DVD of any Irish film in 2015. Conor Horgan’s bio-doc on Panti/Rory O’Neill The Queen of Ireland (reviewed here by Debbie Ging) had the third best cinema opening of any documentary (after Fahrenheit 9/11 and Amy) at Irish box office, taking €110k by January 2016. There were also significant contributions to the genre from Se Merry Doyle – (the Arts Council-funded Talking to My Father on influential Irish architect Robin Walker) and Pat Murphy’s Tana Bana, a poetic exploration of the impact of globalization on the silk weavers of Varanasi on the Ganges River in India. In October, director Ciarín Scott won the George Morrison Award at the IFTA for an unflinching study of Christina Noble (the subject of the fiction film Noble mentioned above) and her harrowing Dublin upbringing. Two other docs – Fortune’s Wheel (about a lion-tamer based in Dublin’s Fairview in the 1950s) and A Doctor’s Sword (the remarkable narrative of a Cork-born doctor who as a WWII prisoner of war survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki) – enjoyed unexpectedly long runs in the localities connected to their respective narratives, clearly demonstrating the appeal of local stories to (intensely) local audiences. Finally, although it technically belongs to next year’s review it is worth noting that the most powerful piece of audio-visual work commemorating the Easter Rising has been the sumptuous University of Notre Dame-funded documentary series 1916. Co-directed by Ruan Magan and Pat Collins with a Liam Neeson narration, 1916 succeeded not only in delineating the “long history” of the Rising in a clear and engaging manner, but also commercially, selling to an extraordinary 120 television stations across the US and UK.

Overall 2015 was a relatively quiet year for Irish television drama. In straight drama, although Telegael’s production of three episodes of the Jack Taylor franchise (with Iain Glen) and RTE’s Wexford-based Clean Break ensured some continuity of crime drama, Love/Hate was conspicuous by its absence, having dominated Irish ratings for its first five series. Its absence seems likely to be short-lived as a sixth series has reportedly been commissioned with previous series sold internationally to UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, the Middle East, Australia and South Korea. The hiatus is notionally to permit additional time to refocus a show that, of its nature, has seen most of its characters suffer violent expirations. However, given RTE’s finances, it seems likely that it was impossible to contemplate funding both Love/Hate 6 and the 1916 centenary-themed series Rebellion. The €6m-budget series (reviewed here by Seamus Sweeney) was not critically well-received although its heavy promotion saw it maintain respectable audiences (500,000 plus per episode) even after negative reviews. (These will be augmented by those US viewers who watch is via the Sundance TV cable channel later in 2016.) Elsewhere TG4’s scheduling of the Abu Media-produced An Klondike (reviewed here by Sean Crosson) tapped into the Deadwood market, leading to a subsequent sale of the series to Netflix UK (where it screens as Dominion Creek). Taken together, along with the sale of TV 3 soap opera Red Rock to Amazon Prime, we see an increasingly transnational pattern emerging in small screen production and distribution.

If there is a field of screen production that has long been recognisably Irish, it has been the indigenous animation sector. Song of the Sea (reviewed by Liam Burke) ultimately lost out to Disney’s Big Hero 6 at the 2015 Oscars, but Cartoon Saloon have enjoyed remarkable success by having both their last features nominated by the Academy. Saloon’s success is not limited to the big screen – the Chris O’Dowd-voiced Puffin Rock was nominated at the 2015 Miami Kidscreen awards. For their part, Jam Media saw their long-running BBC series Roy spawn not one but two spinoffs for CBeebies and CBBC commissions, while relative newcomer Geronimo successfully sold their Nelly and Nora series to CBeebies. However, the main animation story of the year, saw a potentially significant dilution in Irish control of the indigenous animation sector in the sale of Brown Bag Films.

Brown Bag has long been the star performer of the indigenous sector, as they moved from commercials work to Oscar-nomination success of Give Up Yer Aul Sins in 2001 and ultimately into serial production for a range of international markets, working on both original content (Granny O’Grimm) and producing work based on children’s books (Peter Rabbit, Olivia, Henry Hugglemonster etc.) 2015 saw two of their current show – Doc McStuffins and The Octonauts – nominated for Producers Guild of America awards. In August 2015 Brown Bag was sold to 9 Story Media Group, a Toronto-based 2-D animation company. Though framed as a means of developing Brown Bag’s distribution reach (whilst bringing the former’s 3-D animation heft to 9 Story), the sale raises questions as to the extent to which the interests of Brown Bag (which employ over 200 in Dublin with an additional operation in the UK) interests will be subordinated to those of the new parent. If the corporate element of 9 Story’s website is accurate, neither Cathal Gaffney and Daragh O’Connell, the founders of Brown Bag, have been offered senior positions within the higher echelons of 9 Story.

Overall then, 2015 saw a wide variety of developments that augur well for the continued stability and development of a diverse and thriving Irish audiovisual sector. Some of those achievements have been incredible by any standard and represent an ever-growing economy of experience and confidence that would have been unrecognizable twenty years ago. As we reflect on the success and diversity of the sector we recognize that the reality of Irish national cinema, while still the totemic and structuring principle of moving-image production (symbolically and financially), is quite different from what was once meant – and aspired to – by that term. Thus in framing this year’s review we have begun to consider a conceptualization of transnational cinema as a means of recognizing both the national and international contributions to that broad effort multiple levels that include content, financing, production, stardom and distribution. As Irish film is increasingly understood and supported on the level of production (finance, personnel) rather than content, the era of the transnational brings with it evident rewards but also risks to the critical and aesthetic function of the local.

  1. “So, Brad had a question for you. What the hell is the M doing in your name if you’re not going to use it?”Angelina Jolie to Domhnall Gleeson, Interview Magazine, 6 April 2015. []
  2. Deborah Shaw, “Deconstructing and reconstructing ‘transnational cinema’”, in: Stephanie Dennison, ed. Contemporary Hispanic Cinema: Interrogating the Transnational in Spanish and Latin American Film (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2013). []