Eileen Casey profiles a multi-talented director and scriptwriter
Having completed an enjoyable, informative and challenging screenwriting series with filmmaker Helen Flanagan, I felt readers would like to know more about this vibrant, intelligent maker and script writer. Especially now, as film watching continues to form such a major part of our lockdown routine. Where to begin then but the beginning! And what a beginning it was. At an early age, Flanagan learnt that life can and will give lemons. In her case, however, it happened to be Munchies! Eating them is very much part of an early memory entwined with her first time ever cinema experience, a momentous occasion by any standard but in her case, traumatic. A re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, instead of triggering awed delight, had the opposite effect. This much loved Disney favourite brought about such a terrifying response from child Helen, resulting in tears and screams; her mother had no option but to take her daughter home, placating her en route with a big packet of chocolate treats. An early lesson then in the light and shade, sweet and sour of drama. A couple of decades later, the child who exchanged tantrums for chocolate, has become an established, much respected, vibrant voice; not only in an Irish context but a global one. Right from the get go too. One of her early short films, made for Film Offaly called The Debt, screened in around 50 festivals around the world and toured as part of a couple of best of festival programmes. It was even dubbed in Japanese and shown across Japan, an achievement she’s rightly proud of.
‘It’s a little caper about friendship from the perspective of ten-year olds. The two young actors were amazing’. There’s no doubting that when the stars align (literally); an already good script elevates to excellence. Who hasn’t enjoyed a film not just for the story telling quality but for the way the main characters project that story? After all, although cinema is a collective activity, viewing the screen in a darkened auditorium delivers a very personal one to one experience. A true paradox, collective sensibilities distilled into the private. On the question of matching character to plot, Flanagan agrees, ‘Yes, casting is so important. I think you have to look for an actor who brings a part of their own humanity to a character. It can be really hard to find the right actor and for everyone to be available at the right time.’ This is undoubtedly a challenge. It would be unthinkable after all to imagine anyone else but Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in that timeless classic Casablanca (1942) or who but Robert de Niro could play Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a personal favourite of my own. ‘If you have the resources available, having a really good casting director or a producer with an eye for casting is really helpful.’ For Flanagan, whose credits include acclaimed short films, ‘having a good script that gives the actors characters with real depth and complexity is key’. She greatly admires a hit feature from last year, Parasite in terms of casting, acting and an ‘absolutely incredible script’.
So where did achieving her filmmaking goals start for this effervescent young woman? Her bio proclaims her an artist and writer, her practice starting out in narrative filmmaking and screenwriting. ‘I completed my BA in film and TV production and then my masters in screenwriting in the National Film School at IADT’. Her career, she explains, has branched into directing and writing, ‘mostly in development on television documentaries and series.’ Because of her talent and skilful crafting of material, she has written and directed a number of short films and children’s television documentaries and series which were all ‘very luckily funded by various film commissions and broadcasters.’
Lockdown has invariably given the nation time on their hands. For film buffs, it’s an ongoing feast. Netflix is booming. Now TV the same. For those lucky enough to have Sony Movie Classic Channel, the golden oldies are there to revisit. Great cinema like Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons (1973) starring Academy Award Winner Paul Schofield, is just one of the many quality productions available. Directors, in the past, seemed to rule Hollywood. A film’s success or failure was attached to directorial style. There’s no denying that films tagged with illustrious names such as Tarantino, Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, among others, will always have a certain cache. Names which still resonate from the golden days of Hollywood are those such as Cecil B. deMille and Mack Sennett. Such directorial authority is not always a good thing especially around ‘hierarchy and power’ Flanagan maintains. ‘ I don’t actually have any one director I would hold up on a pedestal but there are certainly some filmmakers whose work I think are interesting.’ There’s no doubting the fact that there are plenty of aspects of the craft and storytelling form that ‘are really fundamental aspects of filmmaking now.’ Asked to name directors whose work she admires, she cites some interesting choices; ‘Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker who made A Separation and The Salesman. His films are about moral dilemmas and contradictions arising from social class, gender and religion.’ What about women directors? Of which there seems to be a dearth, especially when it comes to handing out Oscar nominations. Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, 2014) is a name that springs easily to mind; ‘She makes really tight, authored films that explore the legacy of trauma and violence and she articulates that work through a feminist perspective.’ Because we’ve explored, to some extent, good films and filmmakers I just have to know if she has any worst film choices. ‘I kind of really enjoy watching a bad film,” she responds, surprising me. “I watched all of the fast and furious series over lockdown…I think the worst films though are films that aren’t operating with any awareness for the message they are putting out into the world or the wider implications of that message’.
There’s that word again…’lockdown’. Alright, we enjoy watching films and they help to pass the time but we miss what’s lost too, however temporarily. I ask what she misses most of all at the moment. Not surprising that in a very social, bubbly individual interested in people, should include ‘making shows, nights out…talking and chatting and cooking and eating with people, baking with friends…all things of the past for now. And I enjoy bumping into people in the studio and having spontaneous chats’. Which brings me to ask, where this hub of vivid conversation is. ‘A4Sounds, a Dublin Studio I’m a member of. It’s full of the best people.’
While Dublin is a big part of Flanagan’s life, she has very happy memories of growing up in County Louth. Her mum and dad live in Ardee, halfway between Dundalk and Drogheda. ‘There’s the two of us, myself and my brother and I’m the older sibling.”’ Clearly, background influences who we are today so I have to ask where the creativity element comes from. ‘Dad and mum are great gardeners and have an amazing greenhouse, a few really nice apple and plum trees and a really nice raspberry patch that produces great jam every year.’ When you think about it, gardening is very similar to any creative process, clearing the soil, planting, nurturing and harvesting. ‘Dad grows a load of pumpkins every year so I’ve got some seeds off him and am hoping to replicate his crop this year myself. My nana is also living in Ardee and she just turned 90 recently and looks fabulous!’.
Having spoken about creative gardening, I have to ask what her own writing rituals are; ‘I don’t really have any set rituals around writing (despite ritual being an important aspect of my work). I think I used to choke myself up by overthinking, not ‘Now I realise that actually just writing anything, getting words on the page is the important thing.’ Okay. Writing on a regular basis is definitely a good idea but bringing it to the point of production on a film set must involve a lot of drafting and rewriting. “I like to work through an idea through process, by writing and seeing what comes out. I navigate blocks or walls with free writing.’ Because Flanagan is also a facilitator in creative writing and storytelling classes, she has ‘a lovely opportunity to write and devise work through process and to work collaboratively also.’ As all writers know however, motivation isn’t always as easily available as talent. I heard a great quote recently from a fellow mentee on the script writing course I mentioned earlier (shout out to Offaly Arts for providing such a valuable opportunity). He said; ‘Passion may fail you but discipline never will’. How very true. Or as my own dear mother often said ‘Hell is paved with good intentions’. So of course, the subject of being driven is raised, the proverbial stinging fly that all writers need to either start and/or finish a piece of work. ‘Motivation can be really hard so I like to put myself in situations that leave me no choice but to write something, like planning a show and then absolutely needing to write something for it, or having a deadline of some kind to work towards.’ She realises also that she is so lucky to have studio space in Dublin, having moved down the country last year. “Space just isn’t an option if you are renting so I have space in the place I’m living in now”.
A reader of gothic fiction and classic ghost stories (she loves Shirley Jackson, Du Maurier, The Brontes, among others) I ask her how she would define good, solid writing, whether she’s fascinated by anything in particular about human nature? In other words, what brings her to the blank page? ‘I really love writing where moral dilemmas and conflicts play out and between people who have relationships to each other. I think one of the things that I like about screenwriting is that it’s a form that is so accessible and direct.’ I ask if this is a collaboration of sorts between writer and audience? ‘A really good piece of screenwriting is one that is having a complex conversation with the audience, but at the same time communicating that complexity simply, with clarity and focus and intent.’ John McGahern put it so well when he once said that a woman combing her hair or a man eating an egg were every bit as important as big events. Which is why Flanagan admires Kenneth Lonergan’s films, ‘he often uses the small details or incidents to reveal character’.
About five years ago, Flanagan started a collaborative, social arts practice with poet and performer Niamh Beirne. ‘We make very immediate, participatory DIY theatre as ‘social space’ in the Mummer’s tradition. I love this work. We use ritual, magic, games and storytelling to invite the audience to become part of a show and to give people a platform to share stories and experiences. We also make DIY videos and audio work. I’m lucky now to work in arts education. I facilitate and teach people and adults creative storytelling, writing and screenwriting and filmmaking and I develop arts projects for schools.’
When I ask if she has a philosophy about life she says; ‘Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.’ Which bears out Paul Klee’s ‘take a line or a walk’ maxim. Going forward, Flanagan, while finding the past year a real challenge, is starting to ‘re-assess and articulate what’s important”. She is thankful for the return of work opportunities that just weren’t there in the first part of last year. I can’t not ask, having heard about the Munchies anecdote, if she is an advocate of eating in the cinema. Is popcorn crunching a bugbear? Should it noisy crisp bag explosions be banned? On reflection she says; “I have to say that by and large I don’t mind the eating, within reason of course.’ She’s even been known to bring cake into a screening herself! No doubt we’ll be hearing (and seeing) a lot more from this exciting filmmaker.