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Shrooms (2007)

Directed by Paddy Breathnach

Written by Pearse Elliott

Principal Cast: Lindsay Haun, Jack Huston, Max Kasch, Maya Hazen, Alice Greczyn

Produced by Robert Walpole, Paddy McDonald et al

From a textual perspective Shrooms offers limited possibilities for analysis. It is a genre film, and a banal one at that even if efficiently constructed. It follows a more or less entirely American cast oversexed youths (an anonymous crew of graduates from US television drama that — piquantly — features John Huston’s grandson Jack) who travel (“trip”) to a forest park somewhere in Southern Ireland to take magic mushrooms. They are chaperoned by slumming gentry: Jake (Huston) who primes them for consuming the fungi with stories of a now-derelict industrial school and the psychotic cleric who used to run it. Under the influence of the ‘shrooms’ and increasingly unable to distinguish reality from imagination, the ‘trippers’ become convinced that they are being watched by the deranged spirit of the cleric and — as the genre demands — meet their grisly ends one by one.

If pressed, one could possibly construct a hypothesis on the manner in which the script mobilizes the spectre of industrial schools — now universally understood (in Ireland, at any rate) — as sites of irredeemable evil for thousands of young men and women. To do so however would not merely credit the script with depths that are entirely absent but would crucially miss the point that Shrooms seems expressly designed to evade any local references that might confuse overseas audiences.

Thus, Shrooms is interesting for what it suggests about the current direction of Irish cinema. For all the critical success of Once and Garage, 2007 was not a good year for the indigenous industry. This was most overtly signaled by the February 2008 Irish Film and Television Awards which included Becoming Jane, in the nominations for Best Irish Film. This despite the fact that Becoming Jane is a film about Jane Austen, is set in England, features leading cast members exclusively drawn from the UK and US cast, an English writer and director and was largely crewed by UK Heads of Departments.1 The sole basis for that film’s inclusion amongst the nominees was that it was shot here and was part-funded by the Irish Film Board (although the bulk of the money came from the BBC and UK Film Council so even finance wasn’t a clincher). The fact that Shrooms itself was nominated in the same category gives one some sense of how little there has been to enthuse about.

But Shrooms (along with Becoming Jane) is indicative of an increasingly pragmatic/cynical/desperate (delete as you consider applicable) outlook not just on the part of Irish film-makers but also on the part of those institutions which support audiovisual production on the island of Ireland. Both the Irish Film Board and the Northern Ireland Film Commission put funding into the Treasure Films production along with private finance from Nordisk and Ingenious Media.

Irish filmmakers are by no means alone in embracing this orientation: after four decades of work at the heart of the German film industry, 2007 saw Werner Herzog make his first Hollywood-financed film albeit the Christian Bale-starring Rescue Dawn was a fictionalized version of his earlier German documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Similarly by the time you read this Michael Haneke — whose career to date has seemed like a lengthy critique of mainstream (i.e. Hollywood) cinema — will see his shot-by-shot US remake of his 1997 film Funny Games arrive at your local multiplex courtesy of Warner Brothers. Since the 1920s Hollywood has deliberately hoovered up talent from other national film industries in a bid to add a touch of the exotic to the marketing of output.  And, to draw an analogy from physics, Hollywood remains a cinematic singularity today: light striking celluloid cannot escape its pull.

Indeed, one doesn’t need to be directly employed by a Hollywood major to see this influence at work. When Jim Sheridan accounts for the success of My Left Foot in terms of its being a universal story, one can’t help suspecting that he was really describing it as a story that — happily for Sheridan’s subsequent career — could “play” in front of US audiences. This has been the holy grail for Irish filmmakers since: finding the universal story that is at once local (i.e. culturally specific) yet which can appeal to international (for which read “American”) audiences.

The other option is to make a film which is only incidentally local but which is primarily directed to overseas markets: The NephewThe Matchmaker and The Closer You Get spring to mind. However, these were basically US projects to begin with. But Shrooms marks the most comprehensive eschewing of all cultural specificity yet seen in a domestically originated project.

This is evident in the fact that it is impossible to discuss Shrooms without referring to “genre”. Nods to other examples are pretty much overtly acknowledged: intertextual references to Blair Witch and Deliverance come thick and fast. Of course genre is usually considered a nasty word in any discussion of national cinema (as if national cinemas didn’t of themselves constitute genres). And certainly, much of the negative response from Irish critics was predicated on the assumption that genre was something that Irish filmmakers shouldn’t get involved with. Nonetheless there is clear evidence that Shrooms is but the latest in the emerging sub-genre that is Irish horror.  Some examples of these have been given a decidedly local inflection: the hurley-wielding zombie killers of Dead Meat for example. Others less so: Boy Eats Girl clearly targeted (but largely missed) the international market whilst the five leads in last year’s Isolation came from four different countries. The predilection for such films seems to reflect a sense amongst that subset of Irish film-makers who I suspect self-identify as “pragmatic” that, given the budget levels available to small European film industries, survival in the international cinema market may require them to work within the confines of genre.

Such thinking is certainly supported by the Shrooms’ relatively wide local release: 37 screens in the Republic of Ireland and a further 199 in the UK, taking nearly $2 million (US) across the two territories in the first three weeks of its release, a performance comparable with the likes of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and Sarah Gavron’s adaptation of Brick Lane. Admittedly it has been less successful in the US where, at time of writing, it has been on release for two weeks, on a mere 4 screens. Based on the disappointing returns from even those few screens it reached, it seems unlikely that US theatrical rights holder Magnolia Films will seek to broaden the release.

Nonetheless the commercial wisdom of such filmmaking remains undeniable. Sales agent Capitol Films picked up worldwide distribution rights for Shrooms in February 2006, a month before shooting began — indicative of its genre appeal. The film has also travelled in a way few Irish films have (at least without MEDIA/Eurimage assistance). Even aside from the fact that the film received any kind of US release (a dispiritingly rare event for the vast majority of Irish films), Capitol almost immediately sold all Spanish rights to Spanish producer-distributor DePlanta in 2006 and in Feb 2007, Swiss distributor Ascot Elite picked up rights for all German Territories. Indeed the real market for genre work like Shrooms is less likely to be the cinema and more that identified in European and Irish audiovisual policy documents as a basis for developing local film industries since the early 1990s: the burgeoning cable and satellite television markets which voraciously consume low-cost content. In a manner similar to other Irish genre pieces like thriller Dead BodiesShrooms is custom-built for the kind of  sci-fi/fantasy/horror channels long characteristic of the US cable market and now increasingly prevalent on this side of the Atlantic.

As such, Shrooms prompts a consideration of what a putative indigenous cinema hoped for in the early 1990s — before the Irish Film Board was re-established and Section 481 was altered to allow more investors to avail of it. If one cuts through the verbiage that characterized the Coopers and Lybrand Report and indeed the Film-Makers Ireland report of 1992, a curious kind of doublethink emerges. That Ireland should become an active producer of ‘local’ stories rather than a passive consumer of those made overseas was “important”. But the nature of that importance was left rather vague, so obvious perhaps that didn’t require elaboration. Nonetheless there was clearly an echo of the kind of thinking that informed cultural nationalism in the 1890s. Though separated by their emphasis on Irish and English respectively, Douglas Hyde and W.B. Yeats agreed that if independence was to mean anything more than switching from one administrative structure to another it would require the development of independent modes of thought informed by the creation/rediscovery of a national culture. In the 1990s there was a sense that the headlong rush to embrace economic globalization should be counterbalanced by some assertion of cultural specificity. “Should” was not enough, however: the clinching arguments of the Coopers and Lybrand and the FMI reports were the assertions that the liberalization of European broadcasting would create hitherto undreamt of opportunities for content producers and that Ireland needed to ‘gear-up’ to fulfill the demand. It was the promise of new markets that ultimately underwrote the decision to re-restablish the Film Board and adjust Section 481.

In the event those new markets largely failed to materialize: although new cable and satellite channels mushroomed across Europe, for the most part they have relied on cheap content imported from the US, a strategy exemplified locally by TV3 and Channel 6. However, until 2003 this didn’t matter. The seemingly endless influx of large-scale international productions indirectly subsidized the production of smaller-scale indigenous films such that it appeared that the audiovisual sector as a whole in Ireland was self-sustaining. Since 2003, however, as exchange-rate fluctuations saw the incentive for US production companies to shoot in Ireland dwindle to nothing, the indigenous market has been left increasingly exposed to the exigencies of the market. This is at once reflected in a decline in average budgets for indigenous productions (as exemplified by micro-budget output like Once and the Film Board’s “Catalyst” scheme) but also in the more commercial orientation informing a project like Shrooms.

This orientation may be pragmatic (it may in fact be the only way for the industry to survive) but it raises questions about the kind of career paths left open to Irish directors. That the director of Shrooms is Paddy Breathnach makes the point in a particularly acute manner. His 1997 collaboration with Conor McPherson on I Went Down (which itself followed the warm  critical success of Ailsa in 1994) was regarded as proof that it was possible to contemplate a career making Irish films. Breathnach was poised for great things: there was talk of first-look deals with Hollywood and Breathnach’s follow-up Blow Dry featured then A-Listers Josh Hartnett and Rachel Leigh Griffiths. A decade on from I Went Down though, Breathnach is back making what, to all intents and purposes, feels like a calling card movie. The Pearse Elliott script is clearly (and cleverly) designed to afford the director/cinematographer/editor triumvirate of Breathnach/Nanu Segal/Dermot Diskin plenty of scope to show off their respective skills without getting bogged down in cumbersome plot exposition. Although this is not a film that could ever conjure the kind of persisting existential dread associated with the most successful horror films, Breathnach et al demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the visual aspect of the genre. The inevitably small budget is occasionally reflected in slightly dodgy special effects shots and though the film may lack any popcorn-flying, leap-six-feet-in-the-air-in-a-sitting-position showstoppers, the minor climaxes, coming as they do every 3-4 minutes, are quite sufficient to slake the thirst of all but the most jaded horror aficionados.

Nonetheless the question remains — what is a director of the caliber and experience of Paddy Breathnach doing making a film like this? Perhaps more pertinently, how will the decision of the Irish Film Board to fund such activity be read by those who have in the past queried the need for such an institution? The Board’s response will be that it is unfair to judge it solely on the basis of a single film: and they would be right. However, the Board’s own future is not now and has never been secure: it’s not so long since a Department of Finance committee seriously recommended simply shutting it down entirely. And funding films which are indistinguishable from teen horror flicks like Jeepers Creepers or Cabin Fever (i.e. so generic as to be almost entirely devoid of local cultural markers) is grist to the mill of the kind of individuals who question why the Irish state is involved in supporting film production at all.

  1. In fairness Eimear Ni Mhaoldohmnaigh did look after the costumes but Consolata Boyle’s work on The Queendidn’t make that film Irish.  []