Eye on the Tiger

Ad­dicts, im­mi­grants, the rural poor, teenage moth­ers . . . Film di­rec­tor Lenny Abra­ham­son is mak­ing a name for him­self with his vivid por­trayal of the lives of the marginalised. He tells Michael Dwyer how he has moved from town ( Adam & Paul, Pros­per­ity)

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

PROS­PER­ITY, the gritty and af­fect­ing so­cial drama se­ries, comes to the end of its run on RTÉ next Mon­day, a week be­fore the Ir­ish cin­ema re­lease of Garage, which, like Pros­per­ity, is writ­ten by Mark O’Hal­lo­ran and di­rected by Lenny Abra­ham­son. Garage, a re­cent Cannes prize win­ner is the sec­ond fea­ture-film col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween O’Hal­lo­ran and Abra­ham­son af­ter Adam & Paul.

Made on a low bud­get of ¤400,000 in 2004, Adam & Paul is a mov­ing tragi­com­e­dyfea­tur­ing O’Hal­lo­ran and Tom Mur­phy as hap­less Dublin heroin ad­dicts. It was crit­i­cally ac­claimed on the in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val cir­cuit and be­came a sur­prise com­mer­cial suc­cess in Ire­land.

“I think it’s the only film that took more at the Ir­ish box of­fice than it cost to make,” Abra­ham­son says with a smile. “I was ex­pect­ing it to do a few weeks at the IFC and some peo­ple might go out of cu­rios­ity to see this strange Kau­ris­makian, Beck­et­tian, Lau­rel and Hardy film about junkies. It was ex­tra­or­di­nary that it did so well.”

Abra­ham­son, who is 41, grew up in “nice leafy sub­ur­bia” in south Co Dublin. “My par­ents are sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Jewish im- mi­grants. My mother’s fa­ther came from Poland in the 1930s and was a kosher butcher on Clan­bras­sil Street. My fa­ther’s side were from Odessa. His fa­ther be­came a doc­tor. When my par­ents were born, the em­pha­sis, par­tic­u­larly for my fa­ther, was to get a pro­fes­sion, so I don’t think there was an op­tion or a pos­si­bil­ity of do­ing any­thing other than that, such as the arts, al­though my fam­ily al­ways had a great love of mu­sic. My fa­ther’s a lawyer and lis­tens to mu­sic all the time.”

While study­ing phi­los­o­phy at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, where he grad­u­ated with first-class hon­ours, Abra­ham­son met fu­ture Garage pro­ducer Ed Guiney and they founded the col­lege video so­ci­ety.

“I’d al­ways been re­ally in­ter­ested in cin­ema,” he says. “I had all th­ese crazy, in­tense ado­les­cent am­bi­tions, and cin­ema kept crop­ping up in them, but back then there was no ob­vi­ous way of get­ting into film. It was like this big blank ed­i­fice with no door. Ed sug­gested set­ting up the video so­ci­ety, just around the time when it be­came pos­si­ble to get the ba­sic equip­ment. We man­aged to raise £2,000 and we made 3 Joes.”

A droll black-and-white com­edy, 3 Joes won the Best Euro­pean Short Film Award at the 1991 Cork Film Fes­ti­val, while Abra­ham­son was do­ing post-grad­u­ate stud­ies in phi­los­o­phy at Stan­ford Univer­sity. “I was liv­ing in a trailer in Cal­i­for­nia at the time and feel­ing down when they all called me from Cork with the news and I felt ex­hil­a­rated.” Still, the gap be­tween 3 Joes and Adam & Paul was 13 years. “By the time I came home from Cal­i­for­nia, I had de­cided I wanted to make films. I spent about five re­ally mis­er­able years when I just tried to write. I think I got my­self

into a heap by hav­ing such high ex­pec­ta­tions of what I would do next. One script I wrote was for a fea­ture, which was sup­ported by the Arts Coun­cil and peo­ple were very keen on it, but I just went off it. I’m glad now be­cause I don’t think I was ready for it. Af­ter that, I started mak­ing com­mer­cials.”

Re­turn­ing to movies with Adam & Paul, and go­ing on to di­rect Garage and Pros­per­ity, Abra­ham­son has be­come iden­ti­fied with so­cially-con­cerned themes far re­moved from his own sub­ur­ban back­ground.

“I’m very aware of that,” he says, “and of the dan­ger of be­com­ing type­cast, al­though Garage is very dif­fer­ent from Adam & Paul and Pros­per­ity, and not just be­cause it’s in a rural set­ting. My in­ter­est is in ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of film-mak­ing. It’s not cam­paign­ing po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism.

“In terms of con­tent, those three projects have had a lot to do with the in­ter­est Mark and I have in mar­ginal char­ac­ters, whether in an ur­ban or rural con­text. When I turn to films about other so­cial strata, I will prob­a­bly grav­i­tate to­wards marginalised char­ac­ters again. But it is very in­ter­est­ing how much vit­riol can

come from some quar­ters of the press about what we do. There have been a few pieces about Pros­per­ity as mid­dle-class self-flag­el­la­tion and how it’s sup­posed to make us all feel guilty, but that tells you more about the jour­nal­ists than about us. I don’t feel re­motely guilty.”

Was he dis­ap­pointed that RTÉ sched­uled the first episode of Pros­per­ity op­po­site the con­tro­ver­sial doc­u­men­tary on Fr Michael Cleary?

“I’m amazed by the sched­ul­ing. There are lots of re­ally good peo­ple in RTÉ and there are plenty of them who are re­ally an­noyed about the sched­ul­ing. I think only the sched­ulers are not an­noyed about the sched­ul­ing. I think their rea­son­ing was to get ev­ery­body talk­ing about RTÉ af­ter the first night of the au­tumn sched­ule.

“The Cleary pro­gramme was go­ing to wipe any­thing else out, and more than half a mil­lion peo­ple watched it. We got 187,000 view­ers, which was very good against that kind of com­pe­ti­tion be­cause 220,000 is about the av­er­age for drama on RTÉ2. The other prob­lem, though, was that a lot of peo­ple thought that Pros­per­ity was a se­rial and that they had missed the first episode, so we lost those peo­ple for the rest of the se­ries.”

Garage, which was shown in Cannes be­fore Pros­per­ity be­gan shoot­ing in May, was writ­ten with the co­me­dian Pat Shortt specif­i­cally in mind for the cen­tral char­ac­ter. Josie is a lonely, good-na­tured, small­town mis­fit, and Shortt’s sub­tly ex­pres­sive per­for­mance is rev­e­la­tory.

“I had worked with Pat on com­mer­cials for Eir­com and Peo­ple in Need, and I re­ally liked him,” Abra­ham­son says. “When Pat’s face is at rest, there is a cer­tain vul­ner­a­bil­ity to it, and he’s also an amaz­ing phys­i­cal per­former. I was wor­ried he wouldn’t do Garage. For him, it’s a very big risk. But as long as his fans don’t go in think­ing it’s Kil­li­naskully, I think they will get a lot out of it.”

The di­a­logue, which con­sis­tently rings true, is used spar­ingly in Garage, a film where si­lence speaks vol­umes. “In what I have done so far, my im­pulse has been to­wards the very min­i­mal, pure approach. I wanted to film it in an in­tensely un­self­con­scious way, so that the au­di­ence only ever feels that they are watch­ing the scenes un­fold, as though they are a chron­i­cle of this char­ac­ter’s life.

“For the first two-thirds or so of the film, you are al­lowed to view Josie through the eyes of the town, as the harm­less id­iot, and not only does the cut to the events that fol­low sig­nal a change, but also the style of film-mak­ing very sub­tly changes so that it be­comes in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to ob­jec­tify him like that and you start to par­tic­i­pate in his life with him.”

Look­ing ahead, Abra­ham­son is dis­cussing projects with Mark O’Hal­lo­ran and work­ing on screen­play ideas of his own. One draws on his ex­pe­ri­ence in com­mer­cials. “It’s called Adsville. It’s about the shoot in Colom­bia for a men’s fa­cial prod­uct com­mer­cial. It deals with the midlife cri­sis of a guy whose re­la­tion­ship has just bro­ken up and he’s got to go away and shoot this ridicu­lous thing for peo­ple he hates.”

So is Abra­ham­son go­ing to bite the hand that has fed him? “I may be. It bet­ter be suc­cess­ful, or I’m re­ally dead. The great thing about the ad­ver­tis­ing peo­ple is that they’ll see all th­ese hate­ful peo­ple and they’ll say: ‘Well, it’s ob­vi­ously not me’.”

Garage opens on Oc­to­ber 5th

Lenny Abra­ham­son, di­rec­tor of Garage, Pros­per­ity and Adam & Paul. Pho­to­graph (and cover): Matt Ka­vanagh

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