Donal Nugent Interview
IFM: Jumping straight in Donal, tell us about yourself and your background in filmmaking.
I can give you my background in filmmaking very concisely – before we started filming North Circular Road last year, I’d never stepped foot on a film set! Of course, the ambition to make films stretches back much further. There were many influences, but I can probably trace it all back to seeing Woody Allen films on TV when I was probably far too young to be allowed watch them. Something struck a chord in me and I always loved the idea of the quirky writer/director who could open a particular window onto the world.
IFM: You’re a freelance writer, but in 2004 you did your Masters in screenwriting. What made you move toward the process of writing for the screen?
I’d been dabbling in writing fiction for years and when the opportunity arose to do the masters I took it. It felt like a natural step for me. There’s an element of discipline and structure in screenwriting that challenges you as a writer, but it’s also quite liberating when you are in control of your material. Not long after completing the masters I was shortlisted for the Jameson Write Now with my screenplay Family Film – like North Circular Road it was written in one creative burst but it plays out on a much greater scale. My creative collaborator on North Circular Road, Paul Heary, was very passionate about getting it made and pushed very hard to get it in the hands of producers. That whole experience was really the genesis for North Circular Road. While the process was frustrating at the time, it also demystified the filmmaking process and led me to ask the question: why don’t we just take control of this ourselves?
IFM: ‘North Circular Road’ is your feature debut. How would you describe the film, and give us a brief synopsis.
People have told me the film is difficult to categorise but it brings together all the things I love about great filmmaking. At it’s heart it’s about relationships and power, reality and perception. The story centres on Janice, a woman who has made some mistakes in her life but realises that what she now has is all that she really wants. She and her husband move into a new house and she starts seeing the ghosts of a couple there. Gradually she realises that something quite terrible has happened – the husband is a sociopath who is trying to drive his wife to suicide. Janice begins to research the history of the house and finds a couple lived there who match what she is seeing. She starts to investigate. In the meantime, she has to deal with issues of work and family and, ultimately, answer the key question of whether she can be a less selfish less self-centred person by her actions. There are a number of twists that turns the story on its head and drive it to a very powerful conclusion.
IFM: Tell us how the idea for the film came about, and has the story evolved much over time?
One day last March I was having coffee with Paul Heary and he showed my a script he’d written for a short movie. A month later, we met again and he showed me the film. I was quite impressed that he’d made it and something clicked. I said ‘I’m going to write a script and we are going to make a movie’. As a freelancer you live by your word, so having said it I was determined to live up to it! I started work that day and I was quite amazed at how quickly everything came together. The central twist was an idea that I’d had floating around in my head sometime but everything else came together on the page as I wrote it. In about two weeks it was finished. This was while doing all the usual work of a freelancer. I’d get up at 5am some mornings to work on it; I wrote though lunch breaks, in other cases. It all just poured out. I showed it to Paul and he was a bit taken aback to that it had all happened so quickly. That was March 2012. By August the cameras were rolling. So from the very start, we were two people on a mission!
IFM: How challenging was it to be both writer and director on the film, and as the director how did you prepare for the shoot?
They were two separate processes so there was never any huge overlap between them. When the script was written, I always felt that I could be as objective about it as anyone else. It becomes the working document that everything is based on. As you can see by the time frame, we didn’t have an awful lot of preparatory time for the film but we were very focused on what we wanted to do and I think we used that time very well. We were incredibly fortunate in being able to bring together a brilliant cast and an excellent crew. I wrote the film around particular locations so as a director I saw the key challenge as sharing the vision, showing the cast and crew where I wanted to go and having the confidence in them to deliver on that. Everyone who got involved in the film was really passionate about it, so there was this shared collaborative ambition that brought out the best in everyone.
IFM: Tell us how long was the writing process, and how many drafts did you go through before you believed you were ready?
It all came together incredibly quickly – much more so that probably anything else I’ve ever written. The only significant difference from the very first draft to the final script was the relationship between Peter and Eileen, the two ghost characters. Initially, I’d made Peter a more physically violent character but I realised his control over his wife needed to be a lot more intellectual, and when that came right, everything fell into place. You make calculated leaps of faith when you are writing a screenplay – you jump forward not quite sure where to, but if your instincts are right, you are rewarded with this wonderful sense of surprise and delight when you land.
IFM: Give us an idea how big the film crew was, and how do you feel they performed?
It was small in number but big in ambition! I really don’t see how we could have done better if we’d had twice or three times the crew. When Stephen Walsh came on board as cinematographer, we knew we would have something special on our hands. I think he is the most talented young cinematographer in the country. Stuart Porteous looked after sound and he is just great to work with. Maria Trapper did a brilliant job with costumes and Paul Heary took on the role of production manager. We had a superb bunch of assistants and production crew who really gave everything to it. Of course, I also have to mention our producers Kathy Horgan and Michael Parle of Dark Window who were instrumental in driving the whole process. They help solve the inevitable problems that come with a shoot with great calm and ingenuity. Red Line Filmes are a very dynamic Brazilian film company based in Dublin who came on board as associate producers. The hugely talented Celsey McFadden has composed some beautiful music for the film and, finally, Stephen Lourdes was the final piece of the jigsaw at the post-production stage. He has been instrumental in bringing the vision of the film to life.
IFM: Were you involved with the casting process, and what qualities do you think the actors brought to their respective roles?
Paul and I led the casting process and Kathy and Michael had a large part to play when they got involved. There were a number of very big roles to fill and we had a few contrary viewpoints along the way but, as I think the film shows, the right person won every time! Lorna Larkin is really remarkable as Janice. I don’t think I’ve seen an actress in an Irish film give a performance quite like it. She is so tender, funny and vulnerable as Janice and yet has this hard, focused resolve. I believe the film will be a breakthrough role for her.
Pat O’Donnell is a very experienced film actor but viewers will see a different side to him in North Circular Road. The chemistry between him and Lorna is joy to watch. There’s a great argument between the two of them towards the end of the film where they are just on fire. I’ve watched it endless times and it always makes me laugh.
Vanessa Richter was my choice for Eileen from the moment I saw her. She has this beautiful grace about her and she understood the role intuitively. Her husband, Peter, is superbly played by Patrick Molloy. He pitches the character at this very fine level, with a mixture of menace and desperation. It is truly amazing to see the two of them together.
We have a great support cast who bring a very broad range of characters alive – from Orla McGovern who is hilarious as Mary Quigley (Dublin 3’s finest spiritual healer) to the Janice’s seedy boss Joe, who Conor Marren plays with great gusto. The supporting cast bring a great richness to the film.
IFM: Where and when can people get to see ‘North Circular Road’?
We are coming very close to the end of the edit we will be hitting the festival circuit in the second half of 2013.
IFM: And finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2013?
There are a number of projects in the pipeline. I’ve done some preliminary work on a sports documentary that I hope to complete filming on later this year and there are some film projects in the pipeline. Mostly I’m looking forward to getting North Circular Road out there. I’m very proud of this film and humbled by the sheer talent of the people I’ve worked with. I can’t wait for people to see it.