There are enough complications to making a film without having to cope with the real world. It is late March and we – the crew, the cast, that bloke there, this woman here – are packing out one slim corridor of a hotel in west Dublin. There’s more. Maintaining impressive equanimity, hotel workers ease past with sheets and towels. Punters open doors to find themselves staring down the lens of a bouncing film camera. Imagine the scrum outside the stateroom in the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera and you’re halfway there.
The team has come to these western reaches of Dublin to shoot scenes for Paddy Breathnach's upcoming drama Rosie. The hard-working Sarah Greene and Moe Dunford – either one or both are in every second Irish film this year – play a newly homeless couple forced to stay in a hotel like this. Here's Roddy Doyle, standing behind one of those dollies that, often encountered on film sets, seem to contain more duct tape than any such operation could ever need.
It hardly seems possible, but this is the writer's first produced script for cinema since When Brendan Met Trudy in 2000. He hasn't been dozing. There have been plays. There have been his duologues on Facebook. There have been novels for both adults and children. But he really hasn't seen his name on the big screen since the turn of the millennium.
"At one point I just gave up," he says with no sense of bitterness. "Initially I was blessed. The Commitments went from being a self-published book to a national phenomenon in four years. When you are living through that it's four long years. Look back and it's a blink."
There is a sense of fury in the atmosphere, but the developing catastrophe has barely registered on our screens
Roddy explains that a film of his novel A Star Called Henry was ready to go with Michael Winterbottom. Then it wasn't. He was commissioned to write a TV series. That didn't happen either.
“This happened a few times,” he says. “And it is quite dispiriting. So I stopped and focused on fiction. I was never lost for anything to do.”
Rosie ended up coming together relatively quickly. Roddy was inspired by something he heard on Morning Ireland. He was half listening when his attention was snagged by a piece on how everyday life hampered a recently homeless family's search for accommodation. The father had to work. The mother had to take care of the family. Money was, of course, a factor. So was time.
Over the last two or three years, the homeless crisis in Ireland has become ever more urgent. Close to 10,000 are now without their own residence and around 4,000 of those are children. There is a sense of fury in the atmosphere, but the developing catastrophe has barely registered on our screens.
“Not in fictional terms,” Roddy clarifies. “I thought: that’s a story. I almost immediately went up to my office, put aside whatever I was doing and started work on a treatment. I remember it very clearly. I was listening to James Brown: brilliant, energetic music that I thought would suit my state of mind. I soon had something that I think worked.”
Roddy's idea was to "to follow a limited chunk of that woman's time". He wanted to focus on the practicalities. His characters had to cope with the new school term like anybody else. But they had to lug their stuff around in plastic bags. Mum and dad had to get all the children to sleep at the same time in a cramped hotel room. After three or four days he had a treatment that felt complete enough to send to Emma Norton at Element Pictures.
A year and a few bits later, Norton, as producer of Rosie, is among those filling up the current corridor.
“I had actually been thinking that we should do something about the housing crisis and then this arrived in my inbox,” she says.
The scene finds the characters hurrying in a panic towards the sort of appointment that housed families take in their stride every day. Innocent members of the public look on amused as the parents urge their four children towards the lift. There’s a real sense of the film being made amid random hubbub.
“There are guests here and there about,” Norton explains. “So that’s complicated. But Paddy’s quite receptive to that stuff. If there are guests in the lift they might end up in the film.”
Paddy Breathnach has the experience. Twenty years ago, he broke through with the much-admired comic thriller I Went Down. In 2015, he pounded the streets of Havana while shooting the ambitious Viva and was duly honoured with a position on the Oscar shortlist for best foreign language picture. Viva will have more than prepared him for the relative calm of a hotel near Clondalkin.
An unshakably mild-mannered fellow, Paddy does seem to take it in his stride. Indeed, he feels the scenes shot in the family’s car – as for so many homeless folk, a mobile base – were at least as tricky as those shot in the corridor.
“There was a long day when we were in one room and the claustrophobic quality got us down,” he says. “The kids began to feel a bit sick with the lights and so on. In the car was worse. You are in the car with small children and a film crew. We made a deliberate decision to be outside the car looking in. That was important. I didn’t want that observed quality.”
When you visit a set as a journalist, you're always half hoping that some minor catastrophe occurs. Obviously, you don't want anybody to get hurt or anybody to suffer professional embarrassment. But a small confirmation that hitches occur is always useful. The four young actors – Ellie O'Halloran, Ruby Dunne, Molly McCann and Darragh McKenzie – hurry through several takes with enthusiasm. Then somebody falls over and there is a bit of audible sobbing. Paddy calls for an actual parent to attend and, once mother has had a look and offered words of comfort, we are allowed one more scurry before lunch. It's adorable. Parents are, apparently, on hand to dial down such crises.
“We have chaperones on set, but we wanted the parents to be around,” Paddy says. “You want to create an atmosphere where people feel included. It makes it a more pleasant place. The kids were great. And nobody is an arsehole around them. You’d want to be a real arsehole to be an arsehole around kids. So, rather than making it more difficult, having the kids there actually became an asset. Everyone tries a bit harder. If you are an arsehole around kids then everybody knows it and you will be made to feel ashamed.”
There are some lessons there about the film business. If I’m reading Paddy right, adults are potentially a lot more troublesome on set than the kids.
Anyway, the presence of children presses home the urgency of the current conversation about homelessness. Something has gone badly wrong with the state mechanism when it has become common for people to be propelled into such uncertainty at so young an age. Doyle is, however, characteristically measured in his assessments. He’s never been a ranter or a raver. He approached the material with a cool head.
“I was very keen that this would be a properly – for want of a better word – ‘ordinary’ family,” he says. “There is a little teddy bear – actually a rabbit – who is part of the family. There’s a dog, but they can’t bring him with them. The couple have been together for a long time, but they met when they were teenagers. I very deliberately made sure that neither of them smoked. Neither of them takes a drink. I didn’t want people to say: ‘Oh, there you go. She’s spent money on 20 Major.’”
Both 'Cathy Come Home' and 'I, Daniel Blake' made effort to separate the iniquities of the system from the people who are required to administrate that system.
The obvious model for such a project is the work of Ken Loach. Roddy is an admirer of that director's recent I, Daniel Blake. Cathy Come Home, Loach's breakthrough, had similar origins and concerns to those of Rosie. Broadcast in 1966, the BBC production charted a family's slow and apparently inexorable descent into homelessness. The legend that the programme led to the setting up of Shelter, still a campaigning homelessness charity, has been debunked, but Cathy Come Home unquestionably altered public attitudes about a developing crisis.
Eager to maintain accuracy, the Rosie team have consulted regularly with those voluntary organisations that fight homelessness.
"We've been talking to Focus Ireland, " Emma Norton explains. "Focus were clear that people can find places to stay with family for a while. But that does break down. That can't go on forever with a family of six."
Both Cathy Come Home and I, Daniel Blake made effort to separate the iniquities of the system from the people – often compassionate – who are required to administrate that system.
"I thought I, Daniel Blake was brilliant," Roddy says. "But in this film, when they confront bureaucracy, I didn't want anybody particular to be blamed. I didn't want someone to come away being angry with somebody behind a counter. That's missing a point. There are thousands of people in this position. If we are powerless to do anything about it then that's because we have decided to be powerless to do anything about it."
The seriousness of the homelessness crisis is beginning to alter wider attitudes. That comes with some empty, unfocused raging at the entire political class. But the shift has also led to effective lobbying. The growing sense that quick-buck bandits have hi-jacked the rental market will surely make some impression on the authorities. Dublin is in danger of becoming one enormous Airbnb. Can the audiences for Rosie actually change things?
“They can put pressure on their TDs,” Roddy says. “The system is such that TDs will respond to local pressure. It can happen. It has happened. I am not knocking politicians. I don’t like that. We elect them. But if they’ve sniffed the air and thought the time has come to say: ‘I don’t think abortion is murder’ – they couldn’t have said that 10 years ago – then we can make it apparent that all this is unacceptable.”
By this stage we've retired to the restaurant area. One benefit of shooting in a hotel is that you can get a perfectly decent carvery lunch between set ups. Still, the visit does – in a tiny way – press home the limbo into which such homeless people are pressed. Roddy's script for Rosie imagines a family evicted when their landlord decides to sell their rented home. There are currently hundreds of citizens similarly scattered about Dublin hotels. If nothing else, Rosie will educate the nation about a peculiar situation.
“Roddy doesn’t tackle it as a polemic,” Paddy clarifies. “I couldn’t make a polemic. I wish I could. Maybe I don’t have the conviction. My father and I have a family motto: ‘On the other hand…’. Ha ha! But this script allowed me to say something that has a polemical aspect. We also need to find a richness and poetry to it.”
When you leave such shoots, you tend to wonder airily how the world will have changed when the film finally makes it into cinemas. But the folk behind Rosie understand that relevance is everything with a tale like this. The picture will surely have a message for Ireland in 2018. The message may not be quite so current in 2019. With that in mind, Element plans to release the film in the coming autumn.
“When we started working on it, we thought naively: what if it gets resolved really quickly?” Norton says wryly. Obviously in autumn and winter the issue becomes more pressing and current. It would be good to feed into that. At the moment it seems to be getting worse rather than better.”
Sadly, Rosie seems likely to stay relevant for a spell yet.
Five films about homelessness
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)
There was a spate of films about homeless people subverting bourgeois saviours in the Great Depression. The greatest is surely Jean Renoir's wry satire featuring a damp Michel Simon.
Cathy Come Home (1966)
Officially a TV play, but Ken Loach's searing drama deserves mention for launching a career and defining a new class of neo-realism. The closing scenes are famously merciless.
The Fisher King (1991)
Not the only "problematic" film on this list, Terry Gilliam's oddly pitched, but moving allegory stars Robin Williams as another version of the "holy tramp". Saved from sentimentality by oddness.
Dark Days (2000)
Extraordinary documentary from Marc Singer about the people who live in the labyrinthine tunnels that comprise the New York subway system. An entire world is here.
The Lady and the Van (2015)
See a pattern emerging? Another film about a homeless person who gets taken in by a better-off saviour. The adaptation of Alan Bennett's play (and book) is elevated by a typically acidic performance from Maggie Smith as the complicated Miss Shepherd.