A UNIQUE SENSIBILITY
Writer and filmmaker Sean Breathnach has produced a number of short films and music videos in his native Ireland. In viewing a selection – both his and others – I can’t help but notice what I would call a unique sensibility. A knack for telling the small story with beauty, charm, warmth – and with self-awareness, even humor.
“If that comes across in my work,” says Breathnach, “then I am delighted – thank you! I suppose you could say that a story is heavily influenced by the society that helped create it. I don’t know if the sensibility you speak of is unique to Ireland, but most stories that come from Ireland are influenced in some way by the long history of storytelling on this island. We use it to escape from our weather, our politicians, and other things that might get us down if we weren’t able to resort to humour. The knack for warm and humourous storytelling is perhaps reflective of the outlook of most Irish people. That would be a fine compliment.”
Breathnach says, “I like to tell stories that are subtly self-aware. I think this is because I like to entertain rather than to lecture. Perhaps I’ll make a more serious film some day, but things are pretty serious here in Ireland these days and I’d prefer to help movie-watchers escape from that even for a few minutes.
“The beautiful Irish countryside is an influence on many Irish film makers. I know it’s been a big influence on me, particularly in my music videos. When you have such beauty on your doorstep it makes it easy to go out and be inspired. I think the Irish are a positive people, and this is reflected in much of our story telling.”
Where do his story ideas come from? “I find inspiration in many things. The countryside, the people I meet, the stories I hear, in books and films. Even a single sentence I might read in a newspaper can inspire me.
“But if you don’t pay attention to your inspiration it can disappear in a puff of smoke. So usually when I find myself inspired I jot down a few notes, or record some ideas onto a Dictaphone. I don’t use most ideas, but you need to go through a lot of them to find the good ones. Or at least I do.”
For Breathnach, writing morphed into visual storytelling early on. “The route I took to visual storytelling was a long one. I’ve been writing stories since I was a
child. I wrote my first novel when I was 14. No, it wasn’t published – it was rubbish! I used to mess around with my Dad’s old camcorder too. But even though I loved film and story, I never really knew that screenwriting or directing could be a career.
“Then one time when I was out of work I ended up writing a comedy script. My wife loved it, and some friends told me it was good. So I sent it to some production companies in the UK, and one of them took an option on it. This was when I realised that I could actually make it. Nothing came of the option in the end, but my confidence had been given a boost.
“So I made a short film with a few friends, then I made another one, and another one, and I’ve kept on going. I joined up with a film collective in Cork (egomotion) and ended up meeting actors, cinematographers and crew. All of us helped each other to learn and to get our films made. Now it feels like I’ve been making films forever, but I am always learning.
“Writing can be a solitary pursuit. Directing gives you the social outlet you need, as well as being extremely satisfying work. The combination of the two skills allows you to enjoy the best of both worlds.”
I wanted to know if there are a few key elements Breathnach always goes for in his directing work. “This is a hard question to answer,” he says, “because it depends on what I am working on. I spend a huge amount of time planning a film. The more films I make, the more time I spend planning. I know this drives the actors and crew nuts, but in the end it is worth it. I imagine the film in my head, over and over, from different angles and different perspectives. I try to shoot the scenes in my head in several different ways. Usually the best way to shoot it reveals itself eventually and that is a great moment.
“Of course, the whole thing is subjective. I am simply looking for the best way for me to shoot it. That’s all any of us can do. No point in imitating. You have to have your own style.
“I try to highlight elements of the story in inventive ways. I like to be subtle, and to gently push the audience’s attention in a particular direction. But the key to it all is working with a great team. If you surround yourself with hard working, talented people you can never go wrong.”
LITTLE FINANCIAL INCENTIVE
Being a filmmaker in Ireland today, especially working in small story, is financially unrewarding. Breathnach says, “The only way a filmmaker in Ireland could earn a living telling the small story is if the small story happened to be advertising a product!
“Though thanks to the Internet, doors are opening, and some short films can make a little money online. I don’t think you could make enough to earn a living though. Most people who make short films do so because they are compelled to do it. I haven’t met someone yet who thought they were going to make money on a short film.”
A final question: what themes or issues are trending in Irish filmmaking? “You know,” says Breathnach, “I think the interesting thing about Irish filmmaking at the moment is that nothing in particular is trending. There was a time where many Irish films followed similar themes, but today everything is fair game.”
A word of thanks to Irishfilmmakers.com, who posted a copy of this interview on their site as well.
Here’s a link to Sean Breathnach’s website.
And his Vimeo page.