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Aideen McCarthy: Filmmaker Extraordinaire

The up and coming director on her favourite films and why London is the place to catch them

Written by . Published on November 4th 2011.

Aideen McCarthy: Filmmaker Extraordinaire

THE Irish; we love them for their Guinness, we admire them for their incomparable drinking abilities, and we can’t help but hope one eventually finds us a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But aside from exporting Angela’s Ashes, Cillian Murphy and Pierce Brosnan, Ireland has never been a country that many would associate with film. It’s true, there is no grassy hilltop with a giant Dublin sign welcoming you into a land of silicone breasts and fake personalities, but with such rich history and culture, and a beautiful landscape to boot, it is only natural that it’s cinema should be equally as captivating and visually stunning.

In order to be any kind of artist, you need to fuel your creativity with real life experiences. So that's what I try to do – I'll try anything once... well, almost.

Enter Aideen McCarthy, an Irish-born, London-dwelling filmmaker, whose talent and determination have not only achieved awards, but also international respect.

“I've always loved movies, but I never thought I could make it a career,” explains McCarthy. “Nobody in my family worked in film and to be a writer/director seemed like a bit of a far off dream, but after I spent three years studying for a law degree, I knew where my true passions lie.”

Embodying the spirit that anything is possible, the inspiring young director swapped the bar for the lens, and after studying a Masters in Film Studies at University College Dublin, her perseverance finally paid off. “I met Director of Photography Tim Fleming (Once, 2006), who gave me my first break into the industry as a camera trainee on one of his short films.”

The next five years were spent working as a camera assistant on feature films, TV drama, commercials, music videos and shorts, before McCarthy eventually directed her first project – a test commercial for Guinness. Her life has since progressed with rapid speed, and with an icewhole award for Best Original Screenplay recently tucked inside her belt, there seemed now better time to catch up with the Irish lovely on her latest endeavours.


Your short film, The Formorian, won you an award for most original screenplay, how has this achievement affected your life since?
I think any award gives you a certain amount of credibility within the industry. The more prestigious the award the more credibility you will have and the more likely it is that people will take a chance on you for the next project. It also helps to make you stand out from the crowd of other aspiring filmmakers. I don't know for sure how the award has affected my life, but I have a feeling it has made it easier for me to get my current screenplays read by producers and agents. 

The film is inspired by Celtic myths, a clear nod to your upbringing in Dublin. Now that you live in London, what is it about our city that inspires you the most?
Funnily enough I think living in London makes you feel anonymous – some people love that aspect but it has made me slightly ache for the community I left behind. Don't get me wrong – I love how full of life and opportunity London is, if I didn't I wouldn't live here, but I think it is the same for all emigrés – moving away from home makes you slightly nostalgic for it and you tend to view your homeland through rose-tinted glasses. As a result I have been inspired to option a bestselling Irish children's book Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon McKenna and adapt it for the big screen. I think the fact that I'm Irish and developing an Irish project in London is just another thing to set me apart from the crowd. Besides, they do say write what you know.

Where was the film shot and what went into its production?
The film was shot in Lugalla, in the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland. The film came together only because of the hard work and talent of the entire cast and crew and a little bit of luck besides. Tom McInerney designed the prosthetic make up for the Formorian creature, Team FX Ireland provided the snow, smoke and green fire. Graham Cruz created the amazing costumes with very little resources indeed. 

I think one of the aspects of the film that makes the biggest impact, other than the performances of my cast Norma Sheahan and Charlie Kranz, is the absolutely stunning cinematography of Stephen Murphy. He shot the short on 35mm, using Harrison Blue Grey and Jade Filters throughout, with very few lights at his disposal. He had to rely on natural daylight to some extent, but as we shot in March the natural daylight was almost entirely gone by about 3:30pm so he had to work incredibly fast. The film was later nominated for Kodak's Best Film Shot on Film.

Even once the film was in the can, there was still a lot of work to do to get it finished. Ciaran O'Floinn composed a completely original score for the film using traditional Irish instruments. Eminent actor Gerry O'Brien gave of his time and narrated the film and as no sync sound had been recorded during the shoot, the entire "sound" track had to be created from scratch in post by the talented guys at Egoboo. The film was produced by Dave Leahy of Warrior Films and posted by the guys in Piranha Bar, Dublin.

If you had both unlimited budget and time, what would your dream film be about?
My dream film is the one I am developing at the moment, Under the Hawthorn Tree. It is a film that is close to my heart because I fell in love with the book when I was just twelve years old, the same age as its heroine, Eily. It's about three children who are forced to take the journey of their lives if they are to survive the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s.

Like the Formorian, I think it will portray the rugged beauty of the Irish landscape and utilise the talents of traditional Irish musicians. It will tell the story of how three children lost so much   and through them tell the story of how a nation was changed forever.

I can't believe how lucky I am to have the option to adapt the book – it's a seminal part of Irish history, which has never been portrayed on the big screen and I might just get the chance to do it.

What top five films would you suggest our audience has to watch?
It's just too hard to give my top five films, so instead I'll cheat and give five of my favourite filmmakers, past and present, in no particular order:

Sidney Lumet: 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, The Group.

Powell and Pressburger: The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus.

David Lean: Brief Encounter, This Happy Breed, The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

Alan J. Pakula: All the Presidents Men, Pelican Brief, Sophie's Choice.

Terrance Mallick: Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line.


When you're not making or watching films, what is it that you like to do?
I'm interested in everything and anything really – that's kind of why I became a writer/director. It's a job, which allows you to examine so many aspects of life and combines so many arts such as photography, performance, music and literature. Luckily for me there's always something to go see or do in London – I particularly love the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. I also love going down to Borough market on a Saturday afternoon to munch on some delicious food. I've heard it said before and I think its true – in order to be any kind of artist, you need to fuel your creativity with real life experiences. So that's what I try to do – I'll try anything once... well, almost.

Where in London do you think is a great place to watch a movie?
I love my local cinema The Tricycle in Kilburn. I also love the Curzon Mayfair as I usually combine it with a trip to the nearby pub for a Sunday dinner, and for the Hollywood Blockbusters nothing beats the Empire Leicester Square.

What advice would you give to young filmmakers starting out?
I would advise them to find a mentor and learn on the job. Writing and directing are not things that can be learned from a book, though you may use these as bouncing boards. Practice, practice, practice your craft, ideally under the supervision of someone who knows a lot more than you. I learned a lot about directing just from being on set as a camera assistant and I'm sure you could learn a lot about writing from working as a script reader in a production company. But eventually you have to take action.

The best learning experiences I've had were writing and directing my own short films and writing my feature scripts. Sure I've made mistakes but I've learned from them. While in many other professions a PhD might earn you respect, in the film industry a track record of going out and writing scripts and making films, getting them screened and distributed, is worth a hell of a lot more. Be the hero of your own life story and act now.



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