When you wish upon a star . . .
Dreams can come true for film industry hopefuls, but grit and determination are essential
Film director David Freyne and actor Ellen Page at the première of ‘The Cured’
It’s an exciting time to be working in the Irish film industry, a pioneering landscape of colourful careers and unbridled creative flair. Our home-grown actors like Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson are internationally acclaimed. Directors such as Dearbhla Murphy and Lenny Abrahamson are bagging awards while scriptwriters like Martin McDonagh, Sharon Horgan and Emmet Kirwan add literary passion into dramatic storylines.
The world of film unites a myriad of skills – sound engineers, lighting cameraman/woman, focus pullers, data wranglers, animators and producers – jobs rarely advocated by career guidance counsellors. For all its red-carpet glamour, success is elusive and a lot of talent ends up on the cutting-room floor.
Yet behind every major production lies a dedicated team that forms the fulcrum of the industry.
For Hugh Chaloner, one of Ireland’s most experienced film and documentary editors, the career pathway has been a voyage rich in knowledge and musical legends. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin in engineering, he found himself programming traffic lights for Dublin Corporation.
“Needless to say, it wasn’t the most riveting career start,” he says. So, when an opportunity came up to work in the exciting environment of Windmill Lane, he was off like a flash.
“Windmill was a fantastic place to start off as an editor. By working as an apprentice to more experienced film editors, I osmotically gathered the skills for the profession.”
Soon, Chaloner was making music videos for U2’s Until The End Of The World; Bruce Springsteen’s Leap of Faith; as well as Bob Dylan’s Series of Dreams.
Documentaries were also beautifully crafted on Elvis Costello, Garth Brooks and The Gloaming. He edited TV commercials for The Irish Times, Guinness Anticipation and more recently the comedy drama The Young Offenders.
“I’ve also added photography and videography to my skills in the last 10 years,” says Chaloner, who has travelled extensively in East Africa with NGO Self Help Africa. He filmed videos on sustainable agriculture and women’s enterprise groups. “I’ve been fortunate also to trek in the Himalayas photographing a charity expedition to Island Peak.”
In the early ’90s Chaloner’s reputation brought him over to LA, where he worked with Bruce Springsteen and other rock legends.
Shortly after that, he became friends with the composer Philip King and his partner Nuala O’Connor and together they worked on memorable series like Bringing it all Back Home.
Is it difficult to break into editing today? “There were hardly any courses when I started out but now they run really good ones at IADT, Ballyfermot and Griffith College so it is more a accessible skill,” Chaloner says.
What are the disadvantages?
“Editing can also entail long hours to meet tight deadlines and it’s easy to become isolated as you get so wrapped up in the project. So, it’s good to give yourself breaks and get exercise to stay healthy and motivated. Don’t undersell yourself as a young editor by lowering your rates. Remember the adage, if you work for free, you will work forever.”
One of the hardest careers to make a breakthrough in the film industry is that of film director. David Freyne has directed and written a number of film features that are getting him noticed internationally. He did a BA at UCD and then did a masters in film.
“The best way to get to know the industry after your education is to get your foot in the door of a film or production company, even if you go in as a runner or receptionist.”
Freyne started at The Element Post-Production in Dublin and absorbed how the industry worked by immersing himself in all aspects of the business. In his own time, he also started working on film shorts, both writing and directing them. His first feature was called The Man in 301 – about a prisoner with a musical in mind. His next idea was within the horror genre, a film called The Cured set in a dystopian society where the undead return to life to wreak revenge.
The film was screened at the Toronto Film Festival and received the all-important great reviews and featured actors like Ellen Page, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Sam Keeley.
“Screen Ireland has been very supportive in getting my ideas off the ground. You really need their assistance to receive funding to get your script into production.”
Freyne hopes to build on his reputation with his latest film – Beards – which explores the relationship between two gay men as they forge ahead, dodging the slings and arrows of society.
“I have been working on this for a year now and we are really enthusiastic about it. You can’t bring it to the market until it is perfect.”
Freyne has moved to Epping in the UK. “The cost of finding an apartment in Dublin is prohibitive for a lot of young people. I am glad to see that Screen Ireland are focusing on diversity and getting more young female directors into directing and writing positions. My producer, Rachael O’Kane, is passionate about selling our concepts and getting the funding together.”
But is this the “no-pension”?job the Irish Mammy warned about?
“It’s a very insecure profession – but whether you are a journalist or a TV presenter – you have to be brave and believe in yourself to succeed.”
Rebecca Grimes, 30, is a graduate of the Gaiety School of Acting and a familiar face on Fair City, where she plays the role of Hayley Collins, the feisty go-getter woman. She recently completed filming on Melmoth with the renowned Olwen Fouéré, one of our greatest stage names. Grimes’ movie role as Kelly in Damo & Ivor: The Movie had its countrywide cinematic release earlier this year, where she proved her talent for comedy too.
“It’s been a busy year, thank God. There has been a tangible lift in the acting industry and we are lucky to have beacons like Irish actors Saoirse Ronan and Ruth Negga, who have found international renown.”
How does she cope with the downtimes?
“Well you have to be prepared for disappointments. In fact, I just heard today that I didn’t get a part I auditioned for, but I don’t get disheartened. Rejection is part and parcel of the profession.
“It’s important to have a supportive group of friends in this industry and I am lucky to have pals who cheer me on in the good times and commiserate when things don’t work out.”
So what advice would she pass on to younger actors trying to get a foot in the door?
“Stick with it. Fortune favours the bold,” she counsels.
Zena Donnelly, 16, is one of those young aspiring actors who hopes to make it in the world of film and acting after she completes her Leaving Certificate.
“I joined ITW [Irish Theatre Workshop] as a kid and was originally cast in adverts like Actimel and Dulux,” she recalls. “I have always concentrated on my singing career as well and that helped me to get parts in musicals and certain films.” Donnelly played the lead singing role in the stage version of Annie.
A key moment in her life was when she went to a Whitney Houston concert in the 3Arena when she was nine and Houston picked her out of the audience to sing The Greatest Love of All with her on stage. “It was such a special moment that I will never forget.”
Donnelly was also cast in a film called A Christmas Star that included Pierce Brosnan in a cameo role and Liam Neeson as narrator and sang the soundtrack to the movie, which added another string to her bow. She also worked on the set of The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry and plans to persevere with her acting ambitions.
“I really hope to make it as a career actor in the future,” she says, “but I know it’s a really competitive business and there is a queue for every part, no matter how big or small. You have to be passionate to last the course. Right now though, my main focus is on academics and achieving good results in my Leaving Cert.”
Lorraine Pilkington, 43, started her career at Donnelly’s age when she was cast in Neil Jordan’s movie The Miracle. Her performance paved the way to a number of successful film roles including a clubbing-mad diva called Lulu in Human Traffic. Then she took on the role of the wilful, lippy schoolteacher in Monarch of the Glen.
“Things have changed for the better since I started out as a young actress. The film world has crossed over to TV and there are lots of great dramas on Netflix. Female actors know they have a strong chance of getting a big part since Saoirse Ronan and Charlene McKenna hit the big time.”
Is there more competition now?
“I think every second actor, male or female, feels they’d better invest in Botox, expensive dental work and face fillers, especially in Hollywood – from that point of view you can feel at a disadvantage if you have any facial flaws. I hope women don’t become too airbrushed in this environment. You have to watch your confidence levels as it’s easy to let it get knocked when you are passed over by casting agents.”
Pilkington took a step back in her career to spend time with her four children in Richmond, England. “However, they are getting to a manageable age where I can get back into the thick of things again. It’s an exciting time out there and I am delighted to see a tangible lift in the economy as I dive back into the fray.”
Any role models? “I love the work Sharon Horgan is doing. She is so witty and funny – a brilliant worker.”
Despite all the insecurity, working in the film industry is full of drama and interesting twists and turns. Once the director shouts “Roll camera!”, the adrenaline starts to pump, the butterflies flutter and another dream starts to materialise.