Raves, drugs and seagulls: Making a movie about today’s Dublin

Dublin Oldschool is set to be one of the biggest – and most important – Irish films of the year

Adapted from Emmet Kirwan's play of the same name Dublin Oldschool is the first feature film directed by Dave Tynan. Video: Element Pictures


The sound of Dublin, according to Patrick Downey, sound mixer on Dublin Oldschool, is, “things you don’t realise; keg deliveries in the morning, the sound of manhole covers that busses run over, there’s Portuguese, because there are so many Brazilians in the city. Seagulls. But seagulls can be in Glasgow, so what’s unique about Dublin seagulls?”

Dublin Oldschool, the film adapted from a play about brotherly tension over a bank holiday weekend in the city, and immersed in clubbing and hedonism, is set to be one of the biggest Irish films of the year, and one of the most important of the decade.

August 2017 in the old Player Wills cigarette factory on Donore Avenue in Dublin 8 and Niamh Buckley, the costume designer, is going through the tracksuit zip-up tops on a rail. Everything smells of bonfire and mosquito repellant following a night shoot in Wicklow the previous evening. One of the producers, Dave Leahy, plays some shots on his phone, a rave taking shape in a forest, lights flooding faces exposing grins on screen, and his own. 

Back in the city, Sean Flynn, the locations manager, managed to work in close to 30 locations in 20 days, a ridiculous undertaking. Flynn says he’s never encountered this level of support and goodwill on a shoot. “It’s a young crew. Their attitude mixed with the city’s attitude has just clicked.” When line producer Ailish Bracken was previously working with Katie Holly of Blinder Films, she learned that “no” is not really a word a producer should have in their vocabulary. That has stood to her during this shoot. 

In a kitchen in a redbrick, terraced house off the South Circular Road, they’re filming a scene where ketamine is being cooked in a microwave. Hair and makeup come into the room to watch the monitors and see if changes need to be made. Someone sneezes. “Baby formula coming down their nose again,” a crew member, working on the cast’s hair, comments. Leahy’s wife and son pop in, “you’re going to have loads of new words for school next week,” Leahy says to his young son.

Anna Harrison, the first assistant director, says it’s been one of the friendliest, happiest shoots she’s ever experienced, right from her interview with the producers, director and director of photography, to the shoot prep, to the lack of divide between cast, crew and production office. It’s a brilliant cast, rooted in Ireland’s theatre scene. There’s Sarah Greene who lights up every scene as always, and the brilliant Stephen Jones as Bobby, the ketamine chef, as well as Seána Kerslake and Ciarán Grace. Emmet Kirwan, who wrote the play, plays Jason, pin-balling from session to club. Ian Lloyd Anderson plays Daniel, Jason’s brother, living on the streets around the North Lotts.

‘He’s my mate’

In January at Windmill Lane post-production studios, Leahy and director Dave Tynan are ready to show a snippet of the film, anchored in an extraordinary scene between Daniel and Jason, who, in the time it takes to walk from the Liffey Boardwalk to Crane Lane in Temple Bar, distil their nervous energy into anxiety, then conflict, and finally an outpouring of pain and rage. Kirwan and Anderson are on fire. It’s this energy that made the play such a hit, pulling in repeat audiences and people yearning to go clubbing after the standing ovations.

Anderson got down to under 10½ stone for his role as a homeless recovering heroin addict. Late into the shoot in August, he has just wrapped, and finally able to eat, devoured two Bunsen burgers as soon as he could. Three years before this, he was in a room with Kirwan, with three pages that became a play. “I did it because he’s my mate and I trust him,” Anderson says. 

Brotherly tension: Ian Lloyd Anderson and Emmet Kirwan in Dublin Oldschool
Brotherly tension: Ian Lloyd Anderson and Emmet Kirwan in Dublin Oldschool

These magical journeys that people go on with pieces of art aren’t the frictionless creative waterslide sometimes portrayed. Dublin Oldschool was a creative endurance test, forced into will by determination, collaboration and hard work.

Kirwan envisaged Oldschool when he and Anderson were sharing a dressingroom during the George Bernard Shaw play Major Barbara in the Abbey in 2013. “He was like, ‘I’m sick of doing these dead, white man plays, Iano,’ Anderson recalls, “‘I’m going to write something and we’re going to do it.’ I said ‘yeah, cool.’ People say these things all the time.”  

Kirwan spent the guts of 10 months writing, and Phillip McMahon, who directed the stage version, took Kirwan’s script and sculpted it, editing about 86 pages down to 67. The play began as part of the Dublin Fringe’s Show in a Bag programme (with Fishamble and the Irish Theatre Institute) where the leanest plays reside, devoid of frills or safety nets. Project then stepped in to produce, and Oldschool packed the Temple Bar venue again and again. The show was contagious, pulling non-theatre-goers towards it. The production began to tour. Some 7,000 people bought tickets to Dublin Oldschool in 2017, 3,000 of them saw it in the National Theatre in London.

Dublin Oldschool is set over a bank holiday weekend in the city, and immersed in clubbing and hedonism
Dublin Oldschool is set over a bank holiday weekend of clubbing and hedonism

Anderson is hugely attached to the work. “I remember me and Emmet winning best performers at the Fringe, and I’d never won anything for acting. I’m not in acting to win anything, but I was emotional because it was the first time someone had gone ‘you guys are really good’… I’ve been hugely emotional after doing this play some nights. I hate saying that because I never want to sound wanky about the art of it. I’m a bit careful about calling myself an artist, but with this, it’s the most expressive I can be, particularly on stage.”

When the cogs of the film began turning, there was no other person who could have played Anderson’s role. Yet he was still humbled by his participation. “For the lads to come in and produce this film, have all this money put into it and not go ‘let’s go get Robbie Sheehan’ or whoever, but ‘Emmet is going to do it, and let’s have you in this Irish film with loads riding on it, and let’s back you’. That to me is huge. I’m the ‘other bloke’ always. I play leads in theatre, but I’m the other bloke when it comes to film and TV. It’s a big deal for me. I don’t take it lightly. I enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, but it matters to me. This piece matters to me.”

The ‘Late Late’ appearance

In June, Kirwan is sitting in a meeting room in Element Pictures’ offices in Dublin, off the Grand Canal, where, as the warm weather continues, someone somewhere nearby is definitely thinking “bag of cans”. It’s a few days after Kirwan appeared on The Late Late Show to talk about the state of the nation. “Myself and the Taoiseach would probably have been in Trinity at the same time but we view this country very differently,” he told Ryan Tubridy. “Through a very different prism – that’s a socio-economic prism I’m talking about.” Kirwan is wont to remind anyone getting a little too comfortable, about how classist neoliberal thinking and corruption damages Irish society. This point of view permeates his poetry too.  

Previously on The Late Late Show, in March of 2017, Kirwan spoke about how his brother became addicted to heroin, homeless and estranged from his family. Kirwan hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, and on 9/11 was flying to London for an audition. Kirwan found himself – movie-scene-like – watching the Twin Towers burning on a television outside a café in Piccadilly. Then he walked around a corner and saw his brother. They chatted for a few hours, and over time his brother made the journey back to Ireland, recovered fully, and now works as a counsellor. This whiplash encounter is central to the fictional Dublin Oldschool.

Kirwan believes in graft and payoff. “I hear people going ‘oh I wrote a play in a week’, and I’m like ‘no you didn’t. Or if you did, it’s shit. It probably has a beginning, middle and end and it’s serviceable.’” The transition from writing a play to writing a screenplay, where there are more people making interventions and suggestions, was hard. Some jokes didn’t jump from the page, but on screen they work. “The more esoteric something is – especially if it’s talking about a subculture or scene – people won’t question the authenticity of it, because if you believe it, they’ll believe it.”

Kirwan previously wrote Sarah & Steve, which was pitched as a northside version of Dan & Becs. Kirwan is from Tallaght, so wrote from the perspective of southwest Dublin. With work where drugs feature (and there are lots of drugs in Oldschool), Kirwan thinks a lot of the time things don’t come across as authentic because people are writing from the outside in. “A playwright goes ‘you know what’s really dramatic? Drugs.’ ‘Yeah, we know’. The reason why I wrote this drug movie is that this hasn’t been written from this perspective before. I think Adam & Paul is spot on, obviously. This is an anthropological study of working class youths, and the destruction that is wrought on them and their family through growing up in an area where drugs proliferate – an area of social deprivation, and the aftermath of that, how they dealt with it, the hypocrisy that’s around their drug-taking, and how they view it. I mean, I keep going on about the socio-political elements, but it’s a bleedin’ comedy.” 

For Kirwan and Tynan, Oldschool is the culmination of a filmed trilogy of sorts, the first two parts being two short films, Just Saying and Heartbreak, the latter being a piece of spoken word that was central to THISISPOPBABY’s – Jennifer Jennings and Phillip McMahon – hit show Riot. In all of these things, Kirwan’s writing is steeped in the type of empathy and perspective that plunges you into a moment and a voice. You are right there with him. Kirwan is equal parts intense and laidback, but when he’s in the moment on stage or on screen, his eyes bulging, spit flying, and neck lurching forward, the energy he transmits is ecstatic.

Star and co-writer Emmet Kirwan, director and co-writer Dave Tynan and cinematographer JJ Rolfe on set of Dublin Oldschool
Star and co-writer Emmet Kirwan, director and co-writer Dave Tynan and cinematographer JJ Rolfe on set of Dublin Oldschool

He hasn’t seen the full film on the big screen yet. He’s apprehensive and excited. “My girlfriend says this to me a lot of the time, ‘you don’t seem excited’. But it’s just steeling yourself for,” he pauses, “never taking anything for granted.” Kirwan thought his big break was going to be one of his first gigs out of college, the TV drama The Big Bow Wow. It wasn’t.

“It takes a lot for something to catch fire. It’s usually not just one thing, it’s usually a succession of things that do it. For myself and Dave [Tynan], because Heartbreak and then this, and for myself and Phillip working together, Oldschool, and this, and Riot as well, you’re working with people on a multitude of various different things that lead towards an apex of something being successful.”

‘Good value for a tenner’

Tynan emits nervous energy. During the edit at Windmill Lane, he gestures to editor John O’Connor, “I know this man much better than I used to,” an understatement about the amount of time they’ve spent together honing the picture. “How many weeks has it been?” O’Connor asks. “You kind of lose track…” The scene with Kirwan and Anderson in Crane Lane plays.

“It was very quiet actually on set,” Tynan recalls of that moment. “You know a day like that is different from a day with Sarah Greene having all the craic in a gaff or something… I think there were only two or three takes, but they’re long takes. You let them go.”

Is Tynan happy with the film as a whole? “It’s good value for a tenner,” he deadpans.

The film flips through a Dublin many know so well; after work pints in Grogan’s, afternoon drinking in Anseo, record stores (where Mark O’Halloran plays a brilliantly sardonic and quasi-dodgy boss), District 8, a house party where Mango and Mathman play in the corner, rooftops, session gaffs. There are glances of familiar faces. Didn’t I meet that guy at a party once? Wasn’t I in school with her?

It’s a step up for many of those who worked on the film, it’s hard to quantify how much they learned shooting it. “Everything,” producer Michael Donnelly says, “it’s a good learning curve, a big learning curve doing a feature. The longest shoot I’d done before was six days. Everything is on a different scale.”

For cinematographer JJ Rolfe, who previously directed the Irish skateboard documentary Hill Street, which Leahy produced, the bigger scenes – a lakeside rave, club venues – were logistically difficult to shoot. “I think we nailed them. Going in, I was very aware of not wanting it to look like a corny club film. I think we’ve gotten the best of that world and it feels real. A lot of club films or youth culture films tend to over-light things and make them really bright. We’ve gone slightly darker and tried to capture stuff as real as possible.” Lighting was crucial, (“you have to watch that it doesn’t turn into a music video,” Rolfe says), and using real clubs as sets, and existing lighting rigs, makes “it feel real, authentic,” Rolfe says, by no means an easy thing to do.

People will be quoting lines from Oldschool for God knows how long. There are crease-yourself moments and tearful moments. As for the subject matter, within the hedonism and darkness there’s a Dublin innocence. The drive to have a good time, either just for the crack, or to escape external pressures or the absence of a stable future, is embedded not just in the film but in the people it represents. The city feels perfectly captured, but it’s a moment that may also be passing. The gaffs rented by young people in Dublin 8 are way too expensive now. The clubs are closing. A homogeneity is being imposed on Dublin, while its inhabitants desperately, subconsciously, try to hold on to the character of a place that increasingly feels like a diorama marketed to tourists.

Dublin’s nightlife is being steamrolled by multimillion-euro refurbishments, expensive bars, and restaurants that could exist in any city plucked from a filtered Instagram feed. Will this film be a historical document? Or can we hold on to this crazy village a million-plus call home? Where at any moment you can bump into a best friend or long-lost brother on the street. Where the tops come off when the sun comes out. Where the wheels go up on the suspiciously expensive bikes cycled by young lads down bus lanes. Where a plastic bag could never take flight in an American Beauty updraft because it’s weighed down by a naggin of Huzzar and a pouch of Amber Leaf. Where the raves are still happening in some magical place, somewhere out there, like, you know, Wicklow. Where the blinds go down as the sun comes up. For some, Dublin Oldschool will be a revelation. For others, it’s home. 

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