Frank Kelly Interview
IFM was luckly enough to catch up with Writer/Director Frank Kelly as he puts the finishing touches on his latest project, the eagerly awaited Derelict.
IFM: First off, tell us a little about yourself Frank.
I’m a graduate of Ballyfermot College of Further Education, where I studied Animation Production from 1996 to 2000. After college I traveled a little bit, USA and Australia, then moved into filmmaking. I met Thomas Kennedy, who’s a film lecturer in the National Film School in Dun Loaghaire, and we started a writing partnership together, that was in 2001 and it’s still going today. We wrote a great deal, he was a mentor in many respects, but we just really connected when it came to writing. A couple of years in we decided we should probably try and make a film ourselves, so we made ‘Emily’s Song’ in 2005, my first real short film. That did quite well, got into a lot of festivals, won some awards, sold to RTE and Channel 4. It was also how I met my wife actually, she was a film programmer at the Heartland Film Festival. That was 2006, we were married two years later and we have little girl now. After Emily’s Song I naively thought the offers would come flooding in, they didn’t, so there was a bit of a gap till my next film. Thomas and I continued writing, we wrote several feature scripts, a couple of TV show ideas, lots of short film scripts. Many of them came close to being made but fell at some point. So out of frustration we went our separate ways for a couple of years. Just to try different things I think. I continued writing, made a short doc call ‘Bill for short’, a short film called ‘Slán agus Beannacht’ and then ‘140’ in 2009, which was quite a large project. My most recent short is a doc called ‘Raise My Hands’, and is currently touring festivals, I think it’s been to 14 festival now, which is great.
IFM: You originally studied animation in college, how did that lead into filmmaking, and was there a moment when you decided to pursue film over animation?
I love animation, I’d still love to make an animated film, some of my all time favourite directors are animation directors, Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, Brad Bird. But film was always my first love. I got into animation because of my love of film and because I was good at drawing. So when it came time to choose a college course I put them together, at the time Balyfermot was highly regarded, so I went for that. I started out well, but my interested waned and around my second year I found myself leaning back toward film, thinking about switching courses and I started writing during that time. I would write during class. When I was supposed to drawing I’d be reading ‘Story’ by Robert McKee, or some such book. Eventually my marks started to drop and by the end of the course I had pretty much decided I wasn’t going to pursue animation.
I did however give it a last ditch attempt. I went to LA and sought work. I got rejected from all the top studios! But already knew my heart wasn’t in it, and they probably did too. So it was on that trip I made the decision. I spent the next few months writing, working and saving to go to Australia. While I was working in Australia I bought a typewriter from a St. Vincent de Paul’s and wrote my first feature screenplay, my plan was to make it when I got home. Strangely enough it was a kidnap thriller, called ‘Blood Dirt Money’. It was really bad. But it lead to me meeting Thomas, and in turn, a better education in writing and of course to ‘Emily’s Song’, which lead to me meeting my wife… funny how life works.
IFM: Screenwriting was also something you started in college. How has your writing evolved since then, and how do you work at improving your written work?
I think I’m a lot more disciplined for one. It would take me forever to just sit down and write, and when I did, I just wanted get straight to the screenplay, and then just to be finished. I learned to be patient, and a love writing and the process of writing itself. I can honestly say that now I enjoy writing more than any other part of the process. I try to be clear with my ideas. My scripts are lean and concise now. I hold off writing the actually screenplay for as long as possible. Whereas at the beginning I would go straight to final draft, get 30 pages in then get stuck and frustrated. Now I think about it for a long time, write exhaustive notes, sit in cafes and fill notebooks. Take walks and think about it. If I’m co-writing, with Thomas for example, we talk endlessly, our conversation meander in and out of the story, if you overheard one of our story meetings you’d think we were just meeting for a gossip, but it’s all related somehow. When I feel like the store is full, like I’m about to burst, I start the screenplay, and I can usually write the first draft in a few days. But that’s just getting all the ideas out and on paper, what I call the blast draft, where you just blast it all out, almost without thinking. Then I’ll spend several month rewriting.
IFM: Give us an idea the work you’ve done up till now, as you’ve worked on a number of successful projects including recently doing a piece for the BBC.
The BBC thing was a segment for Michael Woods current series ‘The Great British Story: A People’s History’. It was small part of a much bigger series, but it was nice to be a part of it. I already knew Michael Woods work, I had actually just bought a book of his as research for a project I was working on. So it was a huge surprise when the producer of the show called me. The episode was about Oliver Cromwell, I live in Drogheda, where he landed and massacred a large number of people. With regard to my own work, it’s a strange thing to say but it has always come as a surprise to me. It’s as if the work finds me, and that’s the case with all my films. I’ll set out to make a werewolf movie and a drama about a rent collector will pop into my head and I’ll suddenly feel compelled to make it. All the ideas for the films I’ve made have just landed in my head unexpectedly, and then proceed to take over the next several months, and indeed, years of my life.‘140’ for example was an idea that came to me one night, after I was getting fed up with twitter, it was an idea that incorporated twitter as a tool to make a film. It was such a good and simple idea that I couldn’t ignore it, 140 people in 140 locations around the world, filmmaking 140 seconds simultaneously. As soon as I put it out there it exploded and I was just along for the ride. It took over my life for two years. But it was a fun project to do.I think the stories that inspire and compel me are about connection, characters trying to find connection, to each other or the world around them. ‘Emily’s Song’ was about two brother trying to reconnect with their father, ‘Bill for Short’ was about me trying to connect with my Grandfather, ‘Slán’ was about a man try to stay connected to the world as it changed around him. Even with ‘140’, it was about trying to find connection in a world that is increasingly alienating.
IFM: Moving onto ‘Derelict’, give us an idea what the film about?
It’s about a tiger kidnapping, a group of men who kidnap a bank manager and his family. The take them to a derelict building and hold the wife and daughter hostage while one of the men takes the manager away to rob the bank. The film focuses on what happens in the room, while they’re gone.It came as a response to what was happening to the country, and to me personally. It’s an angry piece, trying to make sense of a bad thing. Trying to find good in something terrible, when there really aren’t any excuses. I remember watching Enda Kenny’s state of the nation speech, and all I could hear him say was “It’s not your fault, but we’re going to make you pay anyway.” I was so angry about that. That’s the theme of this film, making innocent people pay for your mistakes.
IFM: How did the idea for the story first come about, and had the story evolved much when it came time to shoot?
Yes, hugely. Strangely it kind of happened backwards. I had finished ‘140’, my wife was pregnant with our first child and I was panicking, as most men do! So I decided I was going to shoot a feature before the baby arrived! Completely insane! So what I planned to do was find a space, find some actors, create a situation and go in for a week of adlibbing, see what happened, pray for magic! So first I found the location, then I found the cast, and then I was going to write it. But the venue pulled out and I couldn’t find a replacement. So I had no choice but to hold off, which was probably for the best. After thinking about it for a while I decided it would be better to have a script and a plan going in.
I started writing it with Mark Lebenon, a South African filmmaker who was living in Drogheda at the time. That draft was more expansive, it went outside the building, involved a lot more characters, it was kind of a cross between ‘Halloween’ and ‘Battle Royale’, which was cool, but not what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a contained piece that wasn’t going to cost a lot of money. Mark went back to South Africa, so I continued on the project alone, still trying to figure a way to keep it small and keep everyone in the same room. Then the idea of a tiger kidnapping dawned on me, and there it was. So next was building the characters.The first and second draft had the kidnappers as very stereotypical crooks and scumbags. It was producer Elliot Kotek’s idea to make the kidnappers normal guys, down on their luck, doing something extreme to get out of debt. I really liked that idea, so I ran with that. There was another three of four drafts until I felt it was working and I was happy to shoot.
What was different with this project was that the actors were involved with the script very early on, they read early drafts, drafts I wouldn’t normally let people see and I asked for their input and ideas. I thought it was a good chance for them to get to know their characters and be a part of building the story itself. Create ownership. What ended up happening was a series of delays with schedules, because everyone was working for free I was working around their paying jobs, and of course trying to find a week when everyone was free was nearly impossible. So two years went by. I wanted to shoot in October 2009, we shot in September of 2011, we’ll be finished entirely in September 2012! So it’s been a long process – for a film I wanted to shoot and finish in a couple of months!
But what it did give us was time for the cast to really gel with the story and their characters. Whatever they were doing over those two years this film and these character were growing in the back of their mind. Which I think was hugely beneficial. We only had one week to shoot, and when you see the film it’s in real time, it lands in the middle of the situation, there’s no set up, no back story, you have to get to know these characters very quickly, so it has to seem like they know each other very well. And I think it comes across that way.
IFM: How important would you say it is to have a solid script before starting to shoot a film, and how many drafts did you write for ‘Derelict’?
There were probably 6 drafts, maybe more. And we were changing and discussing things on set, as happens. I’m flexible with dialogue, I’m happy to move in and around the words I’ve written so long as the same message and feeling is being conveyed. But yes, the script, the plot, needs to be tight to be able to do that. You need to have worked out every wrinkle. It’s so easy get excited and go in without a finished script. But at this level, low-budget indie stuff, it really is the most important stage, and it’s free, so why not put the time and effort in.
IFM: As the Director and writer on the film, did you ever feel there was additional pressure on you and the finished project?
Not really. I’ve always written my own stuff, and I’d like to continue doing that. I’m a writer/director, I’ve never really had a desire to direct someone else script. I think if I did I would probably feel more pressure with that. With my own script I can change it, move it around, drop things, discuss things, try something new. And I know it better then everyone else. It’s not something I’ve learned; it’s something I’ve created. Although, I guess if it fails it’s complete down to me, there’s no two ways about that!
IFM: The film shot in only seven days. What was the pre-production time on the film, and was there ever a worry you would go over the seven days allocated for the shoot?
Yes, there was always that worry. The schedule was so tight you wouldn’t believe. I knew we would have no time for experimentation, or time for a lot of takes. We would be flat out running from the word go. Pre-production was a few months, I said before we were delayed over two years, but around May 2011 I knew it was going to happen in September so I started making plans, raising money etc. We had a full week of rehearsal the week before the shoot where we just read the script several times, and blocked out the action. It wasn’t so much about performance, though there was discussion, as it was figuring out movements, and where people were going to be, so when we got to set we could hit the ground running. Which of course didn’t happen.
Two days before rehearsal one of the lead actors, who was also the fight coordinator, was forced to pull out, through no fault of his own, but it left me without one of the main characters a week out from shooting. We started rehearsal on Monday with one of the other actors reading in. The Steve Gunn, who plays Davey-boy, suggested Patrick O’Donnell, he emailed me his reel and I near fell over, I said if he can do it the YES! Bring him in. Pat arrived on the Wednesday and launched himself into the roll, and I love what he created.
Then Michael hit me with a bombshell on the last day of rehearsal, again, through no fault of his own, and it was something we discussed earlier, but he booked a two-day gig in the middle of the week. Michael is the lead and he’s in every single scene. So that really just knocked two days out of the middle of the shoot. I remember saying to Michael “Don’t worry about it, we’ll figure it out,” and then turning to head for the train and nearly crying!
But I decided to shoot on the Sunday, which was meant for blocking, and rescheduled as many scenes without him into the middle of the week. But Michael was a trooper. We were shooting nights anyway, so he would do his day shoot, then drive to our set and do our night shoot, and then go back and do his day shoot. I remember looking at him at 3am on the second night, he was pale, his eyes were closing, he was slurring his words in between takes, the poor guy was exhausted. But fair play to him, he did it.
We did run over, because of other delays, problems with equipment, noise outside delaying shots, it all added up and we ended up dropping scenes, which we picked up the following month.Realistically I should have scheduled two weeks. I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to shoot a feature in one week. It’s chaos and unbelievably stressful. And I would have liked time to breathe, and think and have been able to take time on some scenes. Going back for the pick-ups was a delight. The stress was gone. We had two scenes to get in one whole day and we had fun, everyone was relaxed, I remember thinking, this is the way to shoot movies! Next time I’m not going to be so ambitious… or maybe it was naiveté! Overall though, it worked, we shot a movie in a week, so that’s pretty cool. It looks like the movie I had in my head. So I’m happy.
IFM: Do you remember how you felt on the first day when the crew, actors, cameras were in place and awaiting your direction?
I was excited, and feeling quiet relaxed actually. By the end of that day it was a different story, I wanted to be anywhere else other than on that set, but to begin with, yes, I was thrilled to be back on a set, with crew, cast, cameras. I was nervous the day before. I went to set with DOP John Lawlor, Gaffer Roger Byan and a friend, Wendy Tinsley, to set up lights, gear, lunch break room, and to clean… we were shooting in a loft that had been home to pigeons for a long time. We cleaned out 35 refuse sacks full of pigeon droppings that day! It was grim. But I had that strange hollow feeling you get, I think it’s doubt, like I’m not up for this, I’m pretending, I’m not going to able for it. But then once you’re in it you’re in it and you just have to get through it.
IFM: How big was the film crew, and how do you feel they performed?
Crew and they were amazing. They all did several jobs. Everyone just gave themselves over completely for the week. I’ve never actually seen such a bunch of devoted people, none of them complained, at least not to me, I was always met with a smile and they were all problem solvers, they all had ideas, they all chipped in. Brilliant. These people need to be hired. If you’re reading this and need crew, go to IMDb, look at the crew list on ‘Derelict’ and hire these people. Keep them in this country before they’re poached!
IFM: ‘Derelict’ is about to have it’s world premiere next month, what can people expect from the finished piece, and where can they get to see it after it’s initial screening?
Great performances from a superb cast. I was so lucky to have gotten to know these guys, which I did through doing readings at the Attic Studio. But they really delivered. Every time I was watching the monitor the stress of the production would dissolve and I was at the movies. It happened on more than one occasion that I forgot to say cut because I was enjoying the performance to much, Steve or someone would look around and say “That it?” – oh yes, Cut!
The film itself is a dark piece, I stated earlier that it came out of person anger and frustration at the state of the country. But it was inspired by film noir, films like Rififi, The Killing, Asphalt Jungle, the kind of films about a crew who plan a simple, perfect job, one last job, you know?! But then things start to go wrong. I think people are going to enjoy it. After this screening there will be another screening in Drogheda, for the home team. Then, it’s on to other festivals, hopefully to find a distributor and get DVD and VOD release, something like that. Watch this space.
IFM: When all the work on ‘Derelict’ has been completed, and all the promotional work is over, what else have you got planned for the future?
I had been working on a much bigger project for about a year, which I had hoped to start right away. Unfortunately it fell through recently which left me somewhat bereft. There might be a chance to breathe new life into it in September, I’ll have to wait and see. I’m immigrating to the US in the New Year, so I’m holding off until I move before I start something new. Thomas Kennedy and I have been working on a script on and off for about 4 years, another crime thriller, which I may try to shoot in the US at a later date. But you never know, something unexpected might land in the meantime and I’ll be off on another adventure for a couple of years!