A Voice in the Wilderness – Interview with Irish indie film producer/director Gerard Lough

Gerard Lough is an award winning writer / director from Ireland. He got his start when he directed a music video while doing an internship at an American advertising agency. Since then he has directed several music videos as well as critically acclaimed short films such as Deviant and The Stolen Wings. His most high profile work to date was The Boogeyman, an ambitious 27 minute film adaptation of a short story by Stephen King. In 2012 he was awarded ‘Most Exciting Breakthrough’ in the directing category by British film website Horror Cult Films. His futuristic short film ‘Ninety Seconds’ will be released this summer.

Tell me a little-known fact about Gerard Lough.

To my slight embarrassment I am in the same hallowed company as Nicholas Winding Refn and Nick Rhodes as despite turning 34 I still don’t have a driving licence and have never driven a car for more than 10 feet. My excuses are travel sickness, a (not serious) phobia and a (quite serious) lack of interest in vehicles of any kind. Operating a camera – no problem, operating a moving vehicle… not a chance.

Tell me about the music videos – how the first one came about – any bands we’d know on your CV?

“No stars, just talent” as the guys says in The Player. My first music video (Rachel Hates The Sun) is still my favourite as it was a case of film-maker and musicians having respect for what each other does, being on the same page as to what direction the video should go in and then just do it without more meetings, ego or bullshit. Sadly I’ve learned over the years that this is more the exception than the rule.

On the fame side of things, Moby has very kindly provided a beautiful piece of instrumental music that will play out on the end credits of Ninety Seconds. While MOTOR’s new single Man Made Machine which features Depeche Mode’s Martin L. Gore will he heard during one of the film’s most visually striking scenes – a dance performance in a futuristic night club. I”ll be sending both parties a copy of the movie when I get around to it and I’d love to direct a video for either of them. If they like the movie, who knows.

Tell me about your previous work in films.

From 2008 on I’ve been proud of all of my short films as director starting with Deviant which was a stylish psychological thriller about a serial prowler. I dipped my first toe into Sci-Fi with The Scanner which had all of its visual effects created in camera, then moved to fantasy with The Stolen Wings, followed by horror with Stephen King adaptation The Boogeyman and now back to sci-fi (specifically cyberpunk) with Ninety Seconds. I think short films are looked down by some as the poor relation of the film world the same way short stories are sniffed at in literary circles and at times they almost feel like the artistic equivalent of an endangered species. But I believe they are a far more valuable experience to a director who wants to move into features than commercials or music videos. The most frequently asked question I heard from customers when I worked in a video shop was ‘Is is a good story?’. They didn’t give damn if it had slick editing techniques or stunning visuals. God willing, Deviant may well be developed into my debut feature film.

How did you get the rights to the story,The Boogeyman, by Stephen King?

I got permission to adapt King’s short story because of what is known as the “Dollar Baby Deal”. Basically there are a list of his short stories that are legally available to adapt into a short films. If approved, you cough up one dollar and providing you promise not to commercially exploit the film you end up making, shazam! You’ve got a Stephen King adaptation on your C.V. The great man has being doing this since 1982.

I got permission to adapt King’s short story because of what is known as the “Dollar Baby Deal”. Basically there are a list of his short stories that are legally available to adapt into a short films. If approved, you cough up one dollar and providing you promise not to commercially exploit the film you end up making, shazam! You’ve got a Stephen King adaptation on your C.V. The great man has being doing this since 1982.

Did you get any feedback from him on the film?

As a policy, King does watch the films but will not provide feedback and keeps his views to himself. If I ever meet him I’ll try and corner him though!

How do you raise funding for your films?

I moonlight as a gigolo! No seriously, they are funded out of my own pocket and because I have my own equipment, nobody is taking a fee, and I know how to make something look good for very little, they are produced for a figure that is so low that people reading this interview will find it hard to believe when I reveal the figures. So here it is from the horses mouth, The Boogeyman cost 1,000 euros, Ninety Seconds around the same. On Ninety Seconds, even the bloody camera it was shot on was borrowed. If the Irish Film Board had given the green light to Ninety Seconds, it would have been half as short as it is now (27 mins) and would cost at least 27,000 euros. Confusing math… but absolutely true.

I’ve heard a lot of bad stories about arts funding in Ireland. Have you tried the Arts Council and the Film board? With What result? Try and keep the number of fucks to a minimum.

TheArts council only fund “non narrative” films, which is fine for the guy who wants to be the next Andy Warhol but not much help to people like me who’s first priority is to tell a good story. Thankfully the Film Board have a couple of schemes for providing finance for short films but out of hundreds of applications they might only pick five at a time – tough odds. Both The Scanner and Ninety Seconds were turned down by them. I went ahead and made them anyway, on schedule, on budget, and with the finished films exactly the way I’d imagined they would be.

I think science fiction as a genre makes people on the funding side of things very nervous as red flag immediately shoot up in their mind such as extensive visual effects, high tech props, and lavish productiondesign – all factors that could send the budget through the roof. But at the same time advances in technology now mean that a gifted kid just out of college can now do nifty CGI at a knockdown price. Granted it won’t be anything to give James Cameron sleepless nights but its still a major leap forward. I hope the resistance to Sc-Fi films in this country changes as low budget films such as Moon and Another Earth have proved you can make a very worthy addition to the genre without having to spend anything more than $5million.

Is it possible to make your money back or even make a profit on short films?

It is extremely unlikely that anyone will ever make their money back on a short film as it is very rare that the commercial avenues that are available to a feature (theatrical distribution, video, TV broadcast etc.) will ever be there for a short. The exception to the rule is if the film is nominated for an Oscar, stars someone famous, or was produced by Pixar. They usually put a short on before a feature but even then a little known fact is that it’s the cinema mangers’ discretion if he wants to screen it – the same rule that applies to trailers. So making a short film is usually a real passion project or a way of a director cutting his teeth and demonstrating that he has something to back up the talk.

Is there a way forward for indie film in Ireland that doesn’t involve penury for the director/producer?

There is if you happen to be in “the club”. Which is a short list of certain film-makers who receive funding for their projects every single time from certain organizations despite the fact they have produced a string of flops so dismal they would make John Carter look like a good investment. Being in “the club” also seems to allow some of these people to walk away with 100,000 euros for a film that will never get made or to get creative with their budgets so you can sneak off and buy new camera equipment and editing software for your production company. Or you can even be a member of the board that decides whether to finance your own film and then claim with a straight face, “There was no conflict of interest.” What’s sad is that none of what I have just said is any secret in the Irish film-making community. Sadder still is that as a country, I think we can do so much better. There is no reason why we can’t make a Sex, Lies and Videotape or Shallow Grave, which is to say independent films that have artistic merit but also commercial appeal that extends far beyond our borders.

If you are not in the club? Think seriously about renewing your passport.

NOTE: (Most of what I have just stated has been reported in the national press… and the rest is stuff that has happened time and time again.)

So how would you solve this problem and ensure that funding gets to deserving projects?

We need to stop thinking that ‘commercial’ is some kind of a dirty word and come to terms with the fact that films are an art but they are also a business and to deny that is irresponsible and delusional. We need to stop making films that are primarily intended for an Irish audience and inaccessible to everyone else. Even if the film does well at the Irish box office, that is still rarely enough for it to break even. We need to stop regurgitating national cliches and stereotypes. Do we really need another movie about the troubles in Northern Ireland or a rose tinted story about a kindly Priest? No, I really think we’re ready for something different. So in answer to your question, I think the powers that be should start sharing the funding with new directors who already have developed a distinctive style and voice of their own and have a track record (shorts, music videos or commercials) to prove it. The mavericks, the auteurs, whatever you want to call them. Yes I’m sure it would be a big change, and change is frightening when its your job on the line but we could kick off a new wave of Irish films that could compete on a world stage because there is absolutely no excuse now why we cant produce a film as daring as We Need To Talk About Kevin or as commercial as Hellraiser (budget – 1.5 million).

I wave my magic wand and you’ve got funding for your next project – not unlimited, but plenty. Have you got something in mind? You’ve got funds for top line male and female leads and support. Who are they?

There is a screenplay called The Tourist which regularly end up on the lists of the best Sci-Fi films never made. I got a hold of a draft of the script from 1981 and although there is no doubt it would need work it is still something that is so different it’s hard to shake out of your head once you have read it, not to mention the stunning creature designs by H.R. Giger that never made it off his sketch book. What that project represents is intelligent, provocative science fiction for an adult audience and I don’t think there is anything more exciting than that. I think Clive Barker’s The Damnation Game would make a bloody good film, God knows why it hasn’t happened already. And since Hollywood has gone remake crazy I am gonna risk getting kicked from pillar to post by suggesting that they should remake The Keep which had a great premise yet something went wrong with the execution.

As regards material of my own, I have the first draft of a feature length version of a short film I made called Deviant which I think would make for a very original, left-field psychological horror film.

In terms of casting I don’t know but it should always be a case of who is right for the part but I will say I like actors like Michael Fassbender and Ciaran Hinds who have a chameleon quality that allows them to be good in all kinds of different films.

Remakes is always a touchy subject. Name your five worst remakes (The Haunting starring Liam Neeson is pretty hard to beat for me) and five films that should never be re-made (hubris).

Well I just love the way the word being used is “re-boot” instead of calling it what it is – a remake. It is a sad state of affairs when we are more inundated with remakes now than any other time in history but the movies being rehashed are not old chestnuts from the 60’s but titles as recent as Total Recall or Point Break.

Sadly the list is endless regarding worst remakes, the worst of which I have had the good sense to stay away from. But I will happily nominate The Amazing Spider-Man which was unforgivably lame and idiotic by opting to tell the exact same story as the Sam Rami film but this time without any semblance of humor, style or imagination. A film only the lead character of Memento could enjoy.

For me an ideal candidate for a remake is a film that has a strong premise but a dodgy execution or something that is so dated now it could benefit from being updated in a new version. The movies that should be left alone are the ones that were perfect as they were, were of their time and could never be improved upon. So here is my list.

1. BLADE RUNNER: Not only a unique combination of style, genres and ideas but a real rarity in that this is basically a science fiction film for an art house audience. So an art film in other words but one that just so happened to have a budget of $28 million. Try replicating that. A sequel is in the works.

2. THE FLY : The shining example of a remake being a good idea as Cronenberg took a B movie premise and gave it a radical make over with stunning make up effects and queasy metaphors on everything from disease to ageing. No remake will ever match the uncompromising and shocking vision of this film but a remake was in the works recently before getting stuck in the web of development hell… for now.

3. ROBOCOP: A classic mix of satire and ultra violence, Robocop in retrospect was a marriage of the perfect material with the perfect director at a time when his career was at a crossroads. With  his back to the wall and with something to prove, Verhoeven made his best film, one that arguably was just as symbolic of the 80’s as Wall Street. A remake is out next summer.

4. E.T.: If this had not being made by someone as powerful as Speilberg, who resisted suggestions to do a sequel, rest assured the remake would have been out long ago. E.T. would have been CGI, Elliot would have a facebook page and the John Williams theme would get a trendy hip hop cover version. But the magic would never have been recaptured.

5. AMADEUS: For better or for worse, nobody in Hollywood will probably bother remaking this as it’s  doubtful a complex study of the corrupting power of artistic envy and the beauty of music would seem like a safe bet for a box office hit nowadays. However, the good news is that remakes of Gremlins and Ghostbusters (released the same year) are in development.

We’re getting near the end so now come a couple of even more frivolous questions:

You have been convicted of murder (wrongly) and tomorrow you hang. What is your last meal?

My mum’s Irish stew.

If you were an artist (musician, painter, actor, film directoretc.) in a discipline other than you currently operate, and you were going to be remembered for only one piece of work (a one-hit wonder), what would that piece (song, painting, movie) be? One single piece of existing ‘art’ by someone else. 

If I had any musical talent (which I don’t) I would aspire to create something as beautiful as The Sun & The Rainfall, which is one of Depeche Mode’s most overlooked songs. Arty but accessible, beautifully produced but emotional. I’d happily request that it gets played at my funeral.

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About Bob Neilson

Bob Neilson lives in Dublin with his wife, two daughters, son, two dogs, one cat and a growing feeling of claustrophobia. In partnership with his wife he runs a successful retail business in Dublin city. His short fiction has appeared extensively in professional and small press markets and he has had two plays performed on RTE and one on Anna Livia FM. He also presented a radio show on Anna Livia for a year. He has had two short story collections published, Without Honour (1997, Aeon Press) and That’s Entertainment (2007, Elastic Press) as well as several comics and a graphic novel. His non-fiction book on the properties of crystals is a best-seller in the UK and Ireland.
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