The integrity of an artist is key to the value of his or her work
It is mid April, 2013, and the air is finally getting warmer, we are in the villa of Irish architect Eileen Gray E1027 in Roquebrune Cap Martin with Irish filmmaker Mary McGuckian for an exclusive interview.
Mary McGuckian was born and brought up during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Bizarrely she studied engineering at Trinity College in Dublin but spent more time with the university players, graduated as an engineer and then headed to drama school. Mary says life seems to have come full circle now that her engineering background is on call for the first time as she sets out to make a movie about Ireland’s most famous architect. She had no ambitions to be a filmmaker, but rather quietly as a writer, “I began writing poetry and plays in my teens, and leant into drama first as a theatre actress and then director.” She smiles when she added: “My parents are still wondering what happened and whether I’ll ever get a proper job.” Filmmaking was never a hobby, but rather a progression from playwright, to screenplay writer, to director. She grew up in a country with a strong literary and theatrical not necessarily film tradition, with her focus on classical Irish and modern Irish drama. Travelling widely, Mary took up every opportunity to train as an actress and movement artist in traditions as varied as Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, Stanislavskianism, Dario Fo workshops, Gaulier’s Balloonatics and even Noh Theatre, forming an early faith in the power of character driven narrative.
Circumstances and luck at a time when a number of plays she had written happened to be on stage at the same time in Ireland, gave a famous Irish producer the impression that she was very quick at writing. He had a requirement to deliver a number of treatments and scripts at speed to a US studio and asked her if she could write a screenplay in three weeks. “I’d never read, let alone written a screenplay but with the ‘hutspah’ of youth claimed that I could. Then promptly went to a local bookshop to buy up all the screenplays I could find, (there weren’t many published in those days), to figure out how to do it.” One of the early screenplays she had written for the Irish producer was given back to her as a settlement deal so she decided to take a year out of acting to see if she could raise the money. “Of course it took longer than a year!” Since then she has written/co-written about twenty screenplays that have been produced and produced and directed eleven films of her own. Her first film premiered at the Venice film festival, others at Sundance, Tokyo, London, Berlin and many other smaller American festivals. She had no idea when her first film went round the world festival circuit for a year what that would entail. She confessed, “I can never remember my state of mind just before ANY screening as my mind always goes blank, some people call that trauma!” And she added: “There’s no better way to judge a film than to sit at the back of an audience and listen to the air. When a film works, you can time the reactions like clockwork and when it doesn’t it’s horrifying.” Some of Mary’s films are still on line at iTunes or Amazon. She is always working on a script because as she says: “They take time!”
A career in movies
Interested in Mary’s opinion related to film as a career, I asked her to define the actual role a director is supposed to fill, to which she responded: “5% inspiration and 95% implementation. It calls for a lot of collaboration and quality control. For me, it’s mostly about bringing out the best in people. I love input as long as my decision is final!” As for the salary a director should typically expect, she said between 2.5 – 5% of budget, though it is often deferred in full or in part to get the film made. She added “Back-end, i.e. depending on the film’s success, is the last place you want to try to collect your pay check, as there are too many middle men.” Many independent film directors these days multi-task. Some are more camera orientated, others more editorial “I do a lot of my own editing, much to the frustration of my editors.” I asked Mary to tell us about her film education and she said that there were no courses in film in Ireland when she started out. “So I picked it up on the job. I would still maintain that the best way to learn is to try and fail and try and try again!” She has been very privileged to work with a wonderful range of international actors and crew on every subject she has chosen to tackle. “Pints of perseverance and smidgeon of madness is one cocktail that seems to fizz. The weird thing about film directors is that they are the only one on each film, so they don’t get to meet or compare notes. Her impression, though, from crew who work with many directors, is that directors are a wide and varied bunch. Films themselves tell you a lot about a director, what they focus on, what’s important to them. Some films are more technically proficient for example that others which might be more narrative focused or well performed or visually imaginative.
Being a filmmaker
As to the best of being a filmmaker Mary believes it is when an audience is palpably moved or touched by the work, and the worst is the amount of time and energy it takes to put a picture’s finance together. Discussing what she considers the elements of a great film, she emphasized it is a film that you will watch time and time again and at each point in your life, it touches you differently and speaks to you differently. When watching a film she tries not to focus on particular elements. “If I don’t notice the camera-work, or the editing, or the performance values or the art-department, then the film is carrying me.” Her favourite movie, she said it changes every day; she just watched “Dans la maison” with a great performance by Ernst Umhauer. As for her favourite filmmaker, it changes every week, and Michel Gondry has recently captured her attention. Her best advice for someone new to filmmaking is “Do it for the joy of doing it, any other agenda will show on the screen.” Her major inspirations come from philosophy, modern history and classic contemporary literature particularly Yeats and Beckett. She believes film unites all the art forms: painting, photography, performance art and music as well as literature. The difference from other art forms is that cinema requires visually focused language; it’s the “movies” as in “moving pictures.” As for the difference between cinema and television, Mary used to think that resonant cinema requires a universally applicable underlying thesis in a way that television drama does not necessarily. “These days there’s a lot of cross-over between films that feel like television and television that is cinematic.”
The motivation behind “The Price of Desire”
As for “The Price of Desire”, she told me, “It crept up on me as I walked Cap Martin on many an occasion with friends and fans of Eileen Gray who would say, ‘why don’t you make a film about her’. The project felt relevant, just as the ‘financial crisis’ began, it seemed timely to re-invigorate the ‘essence’ of Eileen Gray, her under-stated, minimalist, functional elegance.” From the outset, she was encouraged by an Irish developer who also heads up Lightstream Pictures who is a keen Eileen Gray fan supported the development of the project. She is very much guided by the spirit of Eileen Gray: Simple, stream-lined and ultimately we hope, elegant. It took about four years from conception to production. “I did make another film in between, but this one needed gestation.” They are currently in pre-production, finalizing cast and crew and due to start filming as soon as the art department and final touches to the restoration work on Eileen Gray’s E1027 Villa is complete on site in early June. As for the difficulties for this film she said that most of all, it’s a single character narrative driven by a female character and sadly, it is still a challenge to put together a picture from a female perspective. To counter this challenge, Mary has contextualized the story around her relationship with Le Corbusier. Otherwise, it’s also an art film that presents an added challenge in the ever commercially conscious entertainment industry. On the other-hand, recent events, in particular the recent Pompidou retrospective of her work, have rendered the production timely. As for the audience for this film, it would be anybody who has an interest in modern architecture and design or the impact of creative women in society. The message she would like to convey is: “The integrity of an artist is key to the value of his or her work.”
Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the project
Mary explained how the idea came up for the KICKSTARTER campaign, and said that in the process of preparing the picture for production, after it was financed, it became clear that the production should and would very much like to give something back to Eileen Gray, her most important work, E1027 Villa and the community of Eileen Gray enthusiasts and experts who are voluntarily committed to preserving her work. An opportunity arose to support the final restoration of the E1027 Villa in Roquebrune Cap Martin when the authorities responsible for its restoration kindly agreed to allow them to film in and around the site if they could contribute to completing its restoration. So rather than do temporary art department decorative work sufficient for camera, they have undertaken to render the work permanent and thus ensure the lasting legacy of the site. Of course this work is beyond the remit of their actual production budget that had already been allocated, so they had to find a way to raise additional funds to complete the project. The hope is that the forward thinking Eileen Gray would be pleased at their initiative to embrace the latest fund-raising technology by presenting the project on KICKSTARTER! You can also actively participate in the realisation of this exciting project! Please do check out Eileen Gray E1027 Villa, Maison en Bord De Mer on www.kickstarter.com or visit http://bit.ly/EGE1027
When I asked Mary how does she see herself in ten year’s time she looked amused and said, “Perhaps happily scribbling away in a replica Eileen Gray E1027 Villa somewhere sunny such as here on the Cote d’Azur peacefully staring at the sea.”
- The Future Projects Light, The Past Only Clouds: Eileen Gray @ The Centre Pompidou, Paris (irenebrination.typepad.com)
- Help Restore Villa E1027 by Eileen Gray (apartmenttherapy.com)