‘After the Celtic Tiger, maybe even ordinary people became a little more brutal’
Paddy Breathnach on making a film about a homeless family with Roddy Doyle
There was a time when we didn’t really make feature films. It wasn’t all that long ago that the nation would have collective hysterics if such a rare thing did emerge. Paddy Breathnach remembers. Now a little grizzled, but still handsome in lean, stretched-out fashion, he has joined me in the bar of the Westbury Hotel to discuss his work on the excellent Rosie.
Written by Roddy Doyle, the picture, which tackles the homelessness crisis with great economy, has already kicked up attention at the Toronto International Film Festival. Newspapers are building features around it. Rosie should do well. But the sense of wonder that greeted the release of Breathnach’s I Went Down in 1997 is no more. Back then it felt a little as if the director had launched an Irish space programme.
“Went I Went Down was made there was a brief moment when you were the Great White Hope in a way,” he says. “You had made this film. Then three or four years go past and you haven’t done what they expect. Then somebody else is the Great White Hope. That’s gone now. There are five, six, 10 film-makers who every few years will do something that’s good. It’s more broadly spread. That is hugely different.”
At the end of the Celtic Tiger, there were a lot of people saying: ‘Now we’re back to being ourselves. We’ve got rid of all that.’ That was a complete lie
One difference is that Irish films need to really deliver to attract the attention of a less forgiving audience. Rosie should do fine. It is an “issue film”, but the storytelling is so persuasive that it never feels like a chore.
Sarah Greene and Moe Dunford play a Dublin couple who, ejected from their home when the landlord decides to sell, find themselves shuffled from one hotel to the next. Their three children still have to be taken care of. Moe’s character has to juggle work with efforts to find a new house. It’s an everyday nightmare.
“There but for the grace of God go I?” Breathnach says. “The threat of that has come a few degrees closer to all of us. At the end of the Celtic Tiger, there were a lot of people saying: ‘Now we’re back to being ourselves. We’ve got rid of all that.’ That was a complete lie. After the Celtic Tiger, our institutions – and maybe even ordinary people – became a little more brutal in how they dealt with citizens. The banks? The institutions of the state? Maybe it’s the bind that technology has got us into. But the treatment of people who got into debt was quite harsh.”
The first draft
Roddy Doyle has constructed his characters with care. Too many people still have a desire to place some blame for homelessness on the homeless. The family in Rosie are in the midst of no other enormous emotional or personal crises. The father is in work. Neither smokes. Neither drinks to excess. Breathnach understands the perils here.
“There is a tension there,” he says. “That was part of its charm. We might have said we were in danger of moving towards hagiography – of pushing them towards being saints. So, we needed to bring some tension into the family.”
Doyle had the idea when listening to a discussion of homelessness on Morning Ireland. When I met him on the set earlier this year, he said he ran into his writing area and hammered out a first draft to the strains of James Brown. When Breathnach got hold of the script, the project seemed destined for television. He wasn’t interested in toying much with the clean plot arc, but he felt there was “space to develop the characters a little more”. We get a bit more about fallings out with parents. Internal tensions are heightened.
The result still feels “ripped from the headlines” (as the trade papers used to say). Viewers will, for instance, be struck by the references to homeless people sleeping in Garda stations. The film was shot three or four months before that much-discussed photo appeared of a family spending the night in a Tallaght station.
The team has rushed the film into cinemas, but I wonder if they worried if real life might leave them behind.
“There was a point where Simon Coveney said: ‘Nobody would be staying on hotels by July,’” Breathnach ponders. “I remember wondering if this would end up being a period piece. But the crisis had been brewing so long we felt that wasn’t going to happen. The Garda station story was always in the script. That was from the research. But when that story emerged we knew it had become zeitgeisty. It was a critical election issue. It might come to define this Government’s legacy. In fact, I think that’s how it’s panning out.”
Everyday human relations
An endlessly calm individual with a gentle speaking voice, Breathnach, for all his dismay at the crisis, is not one for flinging around insults or empty jibes. He sounds a tad unnerved at the tone of some discussions on homelessness.
“I think there’s sometimes a sense of disillusionment with our politics,” he says. “It maybe comes from talk radio. But there’s a sense that they’re all idiots. Well what’s the solution then? Do you want a Donald Trump to come in and sort it out? If we feel that about our politics then maybe we should be all more involved with our politics. Rather than seeking an easy scapegoat, remember that the culpability is with us as an electorate to change things.”
One should not come away with the impression that Rosie is didactic or preachy. Like all Doyle’s work, it teases out the tensions that drive everyday human relations. Greene is excellent at getting across the pressures that afflict a mother under such duress. Dunford bustles with his usual warmth. The characters’ stories are fleshed out with incidents gathered in the film-makers’ researches. Breathnach remembers talking to one young woman who was homeless with three children.
“She’d go to a restaurant and buy two meals – because that was all she could afford,” he says. “They’d need to go to the toilet and she’d be afraid to all go together because the food might get taken away. And she maybe wasn’t that empowered enough to say: ‘Don’t take our meals away’. The fear of having your food taken away because you have to take care of your kids?”
He sighs mournfully.
“That was useful.”
Rosie may be a simple film in narrative terms, but there were all kinds of practical difficulties. Large sections of the story take place in the family’s car. I naively assumed that modern, tiny cameras make this a doddle. Not so.
“Would I get two cars and cut them in half? On the budget we were on that went out,” he says with a laugh. “But it was important to place the camera in the car. There are practical issues. I don’t want to be in a car following, because then I couldn’t give direction. So a lot of the time I ended up in the boot with a false roof over me with a focus puller and maybe a sound mixer. Three monkeys in the back and Cathal [Watters, the cinematographer] is in the front of the car.”
So, there are still some things you don’t learn in film school. Breathnach has not had a conventional career. He founded Treasure Films, still a successful enterprise, with Robert Walpole in 1992. His first film, Ailsa, made nearly 25 years ago, played well at international festivals. I Went Down, starring Brendan Gleeson as an inconvenienced hoodlum, helped announce the coming new Irish cinema. He wondered into horror. Then three years ago – during a famous awards season for Irish film – he saw Viva, a lovely Cuban drama written by Mark O’Halloran, announced as one of the 10 films shortlisted for the best foreign language film Oscar.
“It gave us something to discuss at the film’s release,” he says with characteristic modesty. But did it change things for him? “For me? A little bit,” he says. “But I think the combination of that and this film will be good for me.”
Still unfazed after all these years.
Rosie is in cinemas from October 12th
FIVE FILMS BY PADDY BREATHNACH
Ailsa (1994) Bleak existential thriller sending the rising Brendan Coyle about a damp, oppressive incarnation of Dublin. Screenplay by Joseph O’Connor.
I Went Down (1997) Hugely funny, hugely energetic comedy starring Peter McDonald and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of hoodlums making all the wrong decisions. Helped launch Irish Film Industry 2.0.
Man About Dog (2004) Allen Leech and Tom Murphy star in a knockabout lads comedy that made a relative killing at the Irish box office.
Shrooms (2007) Paddy made a canny swerve into horror with this deranged shocker concerning a bunch of American students on the search for magic mushrooms. An early outing for Jack Huston.
Viva (2015) Héctor Medina stars as a young drag performer trying to square his sexuality with his bewildered dad in contemporary Havana. A wonderful film that came within a sliver of an Oscar nomination.