Where did it all go right? The secret of Irish cinema’s success

Global acclaim and a fistful of Oscar nominations: we ask four industry heavy hitters what is going on

What's going with Irish cinema? Two Irish films – Lenny Abrahamson's Room and John Crowley's Brooklyn – have picked up nominations for best picture at this weekend's Oscars. The two movies accumulated seven mentions in total. And Paddy Breathnach's Viva beat films such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin to the nine- strong longlist for the best foreign-language feature Oscar.

A few weeks ago, seven Irish films – more from any nation other than the US – played at the Sundance Film Festival. John Carney's Sing Street and Rebecca Daly's Mammal were among those receiving raves at that Utah event. Last year, The Lobster, an Irish coproduction filmed in Kerry, took third place at Cannes.

We bring together four professionals to discuss how it all happened. James Hickey is chief executive of the Irish Film Board, which helped develop all of the above films. Rebecca Daly directed Mammal, a Dublin-set drama starring Rachel Griffiths, and The Other Side of Sleep, which played at the 2011 Quinzaine at Cannes. Paddy Breathnach is the director of Viva, shot in Cuba and set among Havana's gay community. Ed Guiney has produced such films as Room, Adam & Paul and Omagh, and is a director of Element Pictures, a company at the forefront of the new wave.

Paddy Breathnach: "I am slightly surprised by the success that's there now. There isn't an end user in the sense of a broadcaster who is particularly involved in the industry. And that can be very valuable. The fact we've had that success without that involvement is remarkable. Having said that, [RTÉ]was involved in the early stages of my career and in Lenny's career. We benefited from that. But it's not that involved any more. Given that, we've done remarkably well."

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Ed Guiney: "We have to talk about 1993 and the re-establishment of the Irish Film Board. Paddy and I had, with Ailsa, one of the first films the film board funded. Look at Lenny. Look at John Crowley. Rebecca is obviously a lot younger. But all these people have support from the film board and they have got better and better. It's only in the last six months we've seen this growth of recognition. But look over the last 10 years and you will see more and more Irish films figuring at the big international festivals: more at Toronto, more at Sundance, more at Cannes. It's a gradual thing.

“That’s very important to bear in mind. The fact that the tap had been turned off a bit will have an impact.”

Good point. The Irish Film Board has pointed out that funding is down 40 per cent to €11.2 million from its 2008 peak of €20 million. Let’s play devil’s advocate. Cynics will say: if Irish film can achieve this with €11.2 million, why would it need more?

James Hickey: "It goes back to the point Ed is making. It takes years to develop the creative talent that is now there. It is 20 years since the film board was re-established, and it has taken that time to develop the learning process. And it's an enormous learning process: the skills of creative producing, film directing, screenplay writing. It needs that consistency of support."

Did Daly find the world of Irish film a welcoming environment? Her first feature arrived nearly two decades after Breathnach and Guiney began.

Rebecca Daly: "I came into it green. I wasn't asking was it friendly or was it not. The Other Side of Sleep was financed just before the recession happened and that was very fortunate for a film that was experimental in form. There was a willingness in the film board to see what I and my screenwriter, Glenn Montgomery,would do. The development of film-makers is so important."

What could have been done better?

“Well, more money. I think we could look at how we market films to the Irish audience. That’s a big area. A film really profits from a foreign endorsement. But if we could find a way to reach audiences without that, it would be great.”

Have we managed to change that perception of Irish films? There was a time when Irish audiences expected to see little else but priests falling into puddles.

EG "I think so. Irish films are actually very often embraced by Irish audiences. Brooklyn has been huge. Room also – though it's set in the US, it's an Irish film – has been embraced by audiences. There is a challenge: how do you create the reputation for a film that doesn't have big stars? That's a very hard thing." Ed Guiney feels the need to clarify that Room is an Irish film. How do we define that term? Last weekend, Brooklyn, developed in co-operation with the British Film Institute and BBC Films, won best British film at the Baftas. Room is up for the Canadian Film Awards. Viva was filmed in Cuba. And so on.

JH "The Irish Film Board works from the definition that an Irish film originates with an Irish producer, is written by an Irish writer, is directed by an Irish director. They are the basic underlying principles behind trying to define an Irish film. If it's driven by Irish talent, then as far we are concerned it's an Irish film. But, of necessity, as a small country, we need the support, in funding terms, of organisations in other countries."

Mammal has Luxembourgian and Dutch interests?

RD "Yes. This Dublin-set film was half-shot in Luxembourg, where the contribution is very high. So to satisfy their points system, you have to shoot 50 per cent of the film there. I was nervous. You look at the architecture in Luxembourg and it doesn't look like Ireland, but we were able to manage it with interiors and certain specialised locations."

So, with all this coproduction going on, can we get any sense of an Irish identity coming through the new cinema? We certainly aren’t witnessing a formalised movement such as the Danish Dogme 95.

PB "No, I don't think that's the case yet. But there is a sort of emotional forthrightness to films like Room that is interesting in the landscape of international cinema. There's a forthrightness that Irish films haven't had and that other international films don't. That may be something that marks them out. But that hasn't become crystallised in any way."

EG "Also, there's a problem in that people think Room is an American movie. People ask me where I live and, when I say Dublin, they say 'why?' "

There might be variety in terms of theme, but Irish cinema still feels disproportionately male. In November Annie Doona, acting chairwoman of the Irish Film Board, reacting to the Waking the Feminists controversy, issued a statement suggesting ways to improve female representation. I am aware that Rebecca is the only woman in this room. Is that still a common occurrence?

RD "It is. I have always worked with male producers. My cowriter is a man. Most of the key roles have been taken by men. But I think the objectives the Film Board have laid out are exciting. They are addressing this in the Irish industry. Look at Sweden, where they introduced quotas and it really hasn't affected quality. That's a positive thing."

What has held women back from directing?

"Unconscious bias does exist, and that's something people need to look at. Girls were maybe raised so that they had to please people. I say that's how they were raised; I can't really comment on how it is nowadays. Generally speaking, I think mixed schools are the way forward and introducing female heroes and protagonists to both boys and girls would help with girls putting themselves forward."

Let’s look to the Oscars. As a producer of Room, Guiney is up for best picture. Has he got his resigned “good sport” face ready for the camera in case he loses?

EG "I have been working on that face all my life, Donald. All my life."

We hope he won’t have to use it.

PRECEDENTS: SOME IRISH WINNERS AT THE OSCARS

  • George Bernard Shaw: Top trivia question: who is the only person to have won an Oscar and a Nobel Prize? GBS won best adapted screenplay for Pygmalion in 1939.
  • Barry Fitzgerald: Another top trivia question: who is the only actor to be nominated in the best actor and best supporting actor categories for the same role? The Dubliner won supporting for Going My Way in 1944.
  • Josie MacAvin: Won best art direction for Out of Africa and later presented her Oscar to the Irish Film Institute. You can still peruse it today while waiting for the next Irish smash to begin.
  • Richard Baneham: Baneham was born in Tallaght. Although largely unknown to the public, he is among the most successful Irish film professionals. He won an Oscar for best visual effects for his work on Avatar.
  • Glen Hansard: An amazing Cinderella story. He shared the Oscar for best original song (Falling Slowly) with Markéta Irglová from John Carney's micro-budgeted Once.