A little over a decade ago, Ruairi Robinson, a young Irish film-maker, caused a fuss when his animated short, Fifty Percent Grey , secured an Oscar nomination for best short animation. He has been working on commercials and short films ever since, but it has taken until now for him to deliver his first feature. Months before its release, Last Days on Mars has already clocked up all sorts of extraordinary achievements. This is that rarest of things: an Irish science-fiction picture.
Fantastic Films, a Dublin-based, genre-heavy production house, is handling much of the creative heavy lifting. The Irish Film Board part-financed the film. Although the picture is shot in England and Jordan, all the special effects will be created at Screen Scene in Dublin.
And, today, it unspools at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. It’s worth clarifying what that means. Thousands of films are selling themselves at the market this year. But only a select few get to compete in the main competitions. Set up in the aftermath of the 1968 disturbances that, at the urging of bolshie radicals such as Jean-Luc Godard, led to the cancellation of the festival, the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs offers a slightly left-field alternative to the main competition. It allows in experimental films, weird documentaries and, here’s where Ruairi Robinson’s film comes in, the odd high-quality genre piece.
Brendan McCarthy and John McDonnell, the founders of Fantastic Films, are happy to discuss what making the cut for the Fortnight means for their picture.
“It helps in things like casting films in the future,” McDonnell says. “To be able to say we have a film in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes adds credibility. It acknowledges that this is a very serious film.”
McCarthy and McDonnell make an amiable pair; the latter soberly dressed, the former long renowned in film circles for his taste in extravagant sideburns and what used to be called co-respondent shoes.
"We are a genre-focused company," McCarthy says. "What that means is we make horror films and science-fiction films. We do that because we feel there is a dedicated audience for these films. In the horror idea, if you look up sites like Blood Disgusting and Fangoria, you find that core audience in abundance. If they like a film, there's a chance it might break out."
The boys from Fantastic have, with impressive films such as Outcasts and Wakewood , become regulars at festivals such as the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival. This is a very different world to the one we are currently savouring on the French Riviera. (Mind you, with a brisk wind careering in from the Mediterranean, Cannes is, today, probably no warmer than Belgium.)
“That’s an amazing experience,” McDonnell says. “The audience have their own language. If you have a shot of the moon in your film – and a lot of horror films do – then the audience howls. If somebody smokes, they’ll all start coughing. They’ll cheer all the opening credits except one randomly picked person. How they do that I don’t know.”
The Fantastic team, through proud genre fans, feel that inclusion in the Directors' Fortnight should reassure a wider audience that Last Days on Mars is not just your run-of-the-mill rubber alien picture. Starring international talent in the form of Liev Schreiber and Romola Garai, it follows a group of scientists who, while surveying the red planet, finds themselves being picked off by some sinister hidden entity (or force).
"It isn't spaceships battling one another," Brendan McCarthy says. "It's about loyalty and betrayal when the chips are down. It's about the frailness of people wanting to survive. We needed to come up with some kind of angle to promote it because you are up against things like Oblivion and so forth.
“It’s a big-budget film in Irish terms. But in Hollywood terms, it’s nothing. Appearing in Directors’ Fortnight gives it an extra personality. We now have a different story to tell.”
The picture now looks set for a healthy run at the box office. Universal Pictures has picked it up for distribution in the UK and Ireland. Other territories were sold in advance.
It all seems hard to believe. Only a decade ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that such a project could have such significant Irish involvement. We didn’t build aircraft carriers. We didn’t launch space probes. And we certainly didn’t produce effects-based science-fiction pictures.
“It started as a short story,” McDonnell says. “Michael Kuhn, the UK producer, picked up on it. He then decided he wanted to work with somebody who worked in computer graphics. That’s where Ruairi’s credentials came up. We had been talking to him about a different project. He then phoned up and said: ‘Can you bring anything else to it?’ We said: ‘Are you kidding? This is what we do.’ We see ourselves as at the cutting edge on technology.”
So that all makes sense. But the average reader may still wonder why people like McCarthy and McDonnell feel it essential to come to Cannes. Like almost every other producer I meet here, they admit they have no time to see films at the festival. The official selection may as well be playing in Tromsø. So what the heck do they do all day? “We work very hard,” McDonnell says.
I’m sure they do. Nobody gets an Irish science-fiction film made without putting in the hours. But, seriously. What does a day at Cannes entail? “I had a funny conversation with my dad about this,” McDonnell says.
“He explained that he just used to go to trade shows. He tramped up and down from one booth to another. That’s what we do. The difference is, in Cannes we hope it will be sunny. We tramp from booth to booth, selling ideas and selling ourselves.”
He pauses to contemplate the madness surrounding us. “The truth is if you are not here, you are not in the business. Obviously you can miss one Cannes. The best reason to miss Cannes is that you are shooting.”
And it really matters when you are in one of the major strands? “It gives all Irish film a boost when one of our films is in Directors’ Fortnight.”