Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Michael Gilroy and 'Dance For Eternity'

As I have said previously, I’d like to use this blog to draw your attention to filmmakers that I both respect and believe deserve more praise for their work and one of those filmmakers is Michael Gilroy. I had the privilege of working with Michael on my short film ‘Safe Zone’ a few years ago where he proved to be a passionate, dedicated and very talented actor. He also directed his first film a short while ago called ‘Dance For Eternity’ which I want to talk about. It’s a poetic film, confidently and elegantly directed and beautifully acted where all the elements combine perfectly to present a thoughtful and moving piece of work that explores our own mortality. I recently had a chat with Michael about the film.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
I am an actor by trade. I graduated from the Drama Centre, London in 1997 so I’ve been working as an actor for 13 years. ‘Dance For Eternity’ was my first film as a writer/director. Technically, I didn’t know a great deal so I had to educate myself very quickly but I knew how to work with actors so it was this that gave me the confidence to direct the project myself.

So what is 'Dance For Eternity' about?
It is about two lovers who make a special promise to each other on a beautiful day by the sea, a promise that will change their lives forever. Between them they try to muster the greatest courage they have ever shown and embark on a journey that they will never forget.

What themes does it explore?
The film is an exploration of love and suicide. I wanted to explore those last few minutes before a person chooses to end their life. Their condition, their dreams and fears of the future, but most importantly why? I think for a lot of people (myself included) life can be very frightening. The older we become the more we realise that ultimately we are on our own in this world and there is nowhere to hide if our problems become too painful. Adulthood is something forced upon us and I think that is when the bubble bursts for many people. I know I would love to be a child again and the same is true for my two characters in the film. My story is not intended to sadden but to find the empathy and understanding for them as they have once again rekindled that childlike innocence which we as ‘grown ups’ have lost and also because they firmly believe they are on a journey to the paradise that they have dreamt of.

How did the idea come about?
Strangely I was on my way to an audition one morning on the train and the idea just came. I started writing in an old church diary over all the entries on each page as I didn’t have any paper, I was writing right up to when I was called in to the casting, I did the audition and was pretty appalling as all I could think about was finishing the film, I came out of the room, carried on writing and it was all finished that afternoon. Consequently I didn’t get the acting job but I had my first script which then consumed me for the following two years as I set about saving the money to get it made.

Describe your writing process?
I’ve written a further two short films and a feature film and I’m not sure that I have a specific process other than I will write everything out by hand and then type it up at a later time. I suppose I do this as I feel more connected to the piece and I adopt a natural flow as opposed to being held up by my inadequacies with typing. I don’t set out a specific time, if I am inspired by certain ideas I will find the first available opportunity to write it all down.

How do you prepare to direct a film?
I was very meticulous with my preparations as we were on a very tight schedule so I couldn’t afford to encounter any problems on set. Plus we were filming on a very isolated coastal location so we weren’t close to any immediate assistance. I made sure that I had a very competent team who were all without exception fantastic. I think due to the frantic nature of pre-production on low budget films it is easy to over look the actual story of the film and why you are making it so I was very adamant that I spent a great deal of time talking, researching and rehearsing with Anna-the actress in the film. I’ve been on countless films as an actor where this vital work with the actors has been overlooked and it has sadly been at the detriment to the performances in the film. I think ones work with the actors before filming is as essential as any other aspect of pre-production.

What format was the film shot on and was this a creative or financial choice?
The film was shot on Fuji 35mm film and it was a purely creative choice. My DP Ciro Candia was very keen being as the film was set on a beautiful hill top location in North Cornwall and looking at the end result I’m pleased we made this choice. I think it also helped to attract a certain caliber of crew who wanted to be involved in a 35mm film. 

What was its budget and how did you raise the finance?
The budget including post production was £14,500. I couldn’t find any outside finance so I saved for two years in order to raise the required funds.

Describe the casting process?
I didn’t have to hold auditions as the main actress (Anna Bolt) who I had in mind when I wrote the film agreed to play the part upon reading the script. She flew over from the USA where she was living to do the film and her work for me was just fantastic. I was very lucky to have her.  

Are you a director who likes to rehearse a lot before shooting?
Yes definitely. Everyone remembers a bad performance and no matter how well the film is shot or lit the audience will remember little else. They are the main storytellers; they need to feel confident in you as a director and in the performances they are going to give. Without them you have no story so it makes sense to do as much work with them as time will allow. Even if for whatever reason you don’t rehearse the script I feel it is vital to collaborate with the actors on the world of the piece and the characters within that world.
What approaches do you employ when working with actors?
Although they won’t show it, I think most actors are nervous. They desperately want to be good in the role, they want to be the very best that they can be because everybody is watching them and so first and foremost they need to feel safe. Safe enough to be able to relax and do the best work they can. I think the way to achieve this is to ensure they have confidence in you as the director, infect them with a white hot passion for your story and to NEVER result direct them. Coming from an actor’s background I can guarantee that all actors would agree with this last point. I’ve had directors say to me “Michael, we’re not quite getting there, can you crank it up a notch”. An actor just can’t play that. What exactly does that mean and how are they supposed to react to that in a room full of crew? If you say this to an actor they’ll just retreat and step outside the character. People may say “well you’re the actor, you should know what to do” and yes to an extent they’re right but the truth of the scene is now lost because the only thing the actor will be thinking about on the next take is “is this what the director wants?” as opposed to being that character, in that moment and telling the truth. It all depends on how authentic you want your actors to be. With this film and the teaching I do with actors I will talk to the character and not the actor, that way they are always in the world of the piece, the actors’ inner critic will dissipate, they will be present with the other characters but most importantly they are doing it from the heart.

Did you storyboard/shot list every shot in pre-production?
Yes I was very thorough in my planning for each shot. I had a very specific vision which I wanted to translate. Also, shooting on 35mm on a restricted budget leaves very little room for error or improvisation.

How and why did you decide on the visual style you employed for your film?
My piece is very dialogue based and mostly takes place inside a small car so I wanted the audience to feel like they were sitting on the back seat. Ciro the DP and I strongly agreed that we should resist the temptation to do anything too dramatic despite the placid nature of the story as it wouldn’t have suited this style. We were watching the last 10 minutes in these two people’s lives so I needed to respect that. We started outside to take in characters view and give the audience a sense of where we are and then I wanted to create a continuous slow movement right up until he tells her his first story to give the impression we are creeping in on their world and entering their bubble.

How long was the shoot?
Two very long shoot days! We were all London based so there was also a day’s traveling to and from Cornwall either side of that.

Which part of the production did you find most enjoyable?
I actually started to relax and enjoy it when there were only a few hours left, we’d filmed most of the difficult dialogue scenes and we were just filming pick ups etc. I could see the rain coming in from the sea and it was quite a rush to get it finished but I knew we’d finally achieved it and I’d made my first film. It was also my birthday and as soon as we’d filmed the last shot-it rained!

What lessons, if any, did you learn?
Don’t assume something has been done with out double checking first. The film nearly didn’t happen on the strength of one stupid detail. I was also producing so this was entirely my fault but the night before we left for Cornwall I had a phone call from the camera hire company to say that my insurance wasn’t valid and they wouldn’t be releasing what we’d requested as the equipment was worth half a million pounds and I was only insured for a quarter of a million. I couldn’t believe that they were telling me this at 6.30pm when the insurance company had closed for the day. So the next day at 7am I had to sit in a mini bus full of my crew (whom I was also driving) outside the camera hire depot franticly pressing redial on my phone until someone from the insurance company answered so that I could upgrade. I never want to go through that again. Ever. 

Where has the film been screened so far?
I sold the film to Channel 4 last year and so far it has been transmitted three times. It has also been Officially Selected at various film festivals in the UK. USA, Ireland, Turkey, Romania and Jordan.

Future plans for the film?
Channel 4 will be showing it a further seven times and I will also be using it to promote myself and the crew for our next project.

What’s next for you?
Another short film about two young sisters who run away from a children’s home. I have most of the crew in place plus the locations. I now just need the money !

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