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South By Southwest 2011 Interview - "Charlie Casanova" director Terry McMahon

Charlie Casanova - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

"A ruling class sociopath kills a working class girl in a hit-and-run and uses a deck of playing cards to determine his fate." Director Terry McMahon on "Charlie Casanova" which screens at this year's South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend the festival screenings?

Not just my first film in SXSW, Charlie Casanova is my first film anywhere. SXSW will be the world premiere and I will indeed be attending all three screenings.

Could you give me a little look into your background?

From a small town in Ireland and estranged from my family for some time, as a teenager I lived alone in a series of abandoned buildings for about a year. I had been young enough for words like ‘fear’ and ‘loneliness’ to be little more than abstractions, but, now, usually around four a.m. their meaning started to become less abstract. To drown out the tricks the night played I’d tune into the late night music of a small battery operated radio. That’s where I first heard the Andante from Mozart’s Concerto No.21. The transformative high of art hit and I was an instant addict. Fitting all I owned into a bag, I hitched a lift to the city and, too young to get welfare, I got a job working in a fish and chip takeaway, which was enough to pay the deposit on a single-room lodging. The hours were long and the pay was crap but those late night engagements with nocturnal creatures of Dublin gave a darker, more compelling drive to the four a.m. fears and I knew I was drawn to those outsider stories. Buying a hand-held tape recorder, I began secretly taping the conversations of a group of hobos I ended up hanging with. Not having completed secondary school, leaving three years before completion, I carried the chip on the shoulder that comes with an incomplete education and kept this new desire to write a secret but it was with these people that the hack seeds of aspiration were sown. Dangerous and sometimes mad, they were also occasionally noble beyond measure, incredibly protective of me, and, beyond their broken souls and bodies, they had more humanity than the dismissive multitudes could imagine. They’re all dead now but the shadow of their dark, comically twisted danger and insatiable drive to get to the extreme humanity of every endeavor would permeate throughout all my future writing.

No longer selling fish and chips and old enough to get welfare at eighteen, I signed on the dole the very day of my eighteenth birthday and spiraled fast down into a world of isolation rediscovering the loneliness that hangs around like cancer and the people who are so afraid of contagion they unconsciously smell it off you. I used to walk around Saint Stephens’s Green Park in Dublin from early in the morning, making sure never to sit down in case anyone spotted my shame at having nowhere to go. I’d collect butts of cigarettes at Connolly Train Station because people tended to light up for a final quick drag of a smoke before stamping on the butt and catching their train. Watching lovers embrace their hello or plant their farewell kisses I’d roll my own cigarettes from the collected butts and smoke away an empty stomach. Because they had heat and you could walk around for some time with apparent purpose without attracting the security guard, music stores and bookstores became cathedrals of sanctuary and the books originally picked up to evade the knowing eye of staff who were beginning to recognize the freeloader in me soon became more than mere evasions. On welfare day I’d buy food, deluding myself into believing there was enough until the next week then decide which cut-price books I could buy. Books were drugs, I was hooked and life became half fiction. I remember reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and relating so profoundly to Raskolnikov I feared I might murder my landlady. Thankfully that feeling went away but the loneliness didn’t. I remember trying to engage the woman who worked in the welfare office in polite conversation and, when she gave no response, realizing I literally hadn’t spoken to another person since her the previous week. I saw an advertisement for Dublin Youth Theatre, a free group of young actors and directors who met weekly. Barely capable of coherent speech, I feared I would vanish into nothingness if I didn’t somehow reach out to something, so I turned up for the audition; and, after standing in line, wailing in my head “you can’t walk away,” my turn came and, as I stumbled into that room, it may have been only two in the afternoon, but that old four a.m. fear ripped through me like an old lover who you know you shouldn’t see yet can’t help being excited by.

Sitting in a coffee shop afterwards, trembling with adrenaline, one of the others who had auditioned invited himself to join me and, as I blanched with social inadequacies, he effortlessly strut his stuff, with me in awe of him. He told me about a full time course he had just started which was free if you were on welfare and suggested I should get a couple of monologues together and see if I could get a late application. He knocked back his coffee, told me what a pleasure it was meeting me and left me with the bill. I don’t think I said more than a single sentence the entire time but he was so shit cool I didn’t care. Next day I went to the head of the course and, after the audition, he offered me a place, to begin the following afternoon. I didn’t sleep that night, picked up my welfare that next morning, and turned up at the school to be told the other students were at lunch in the local bar and I should join them. Paralyzed by shyness, I loitered outside the bar for ten minutes. Head down, I went to the end of the bar, ordered two drinks, and discreetly listened in on the confident conversations of my fellow students. I downed both drinks and bolted out of the bar. They were experts on every facet of acting, throwing about phrases on Stanislavsky and Chekov like inaccessible confetti. The full sum of my knowledge on acting was the certainty that Montgomery Clift and Lee Marvin pissed all over cinemas vacuous slew of new pretty boys but Chekov? And who the hell was Stanislavsky? It took me two weeks to learn how to make just pronouncing his name sound casual. I was in over my head and loving the drowning. Movies now joined books as co-addictions and, with the local video rental store doing a five-film deal, that same relentless junkie chasing every impossible high now gorged on everything cinematic. Guilty as charged then, worse than ever now, and long may it continue.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”

My only thought was, when I grow up I want to be anywhere other than here.

How did this whole project come together?

Frustrated by three green-lit projects collapsing during finance stage, I had the words, “The Art is in the Completion. Begin.” tattooed onto my body then typed into my Facebook status:

Intend shooting no budget feature, "Charlie Casanova" a provocatively dark satire, in the first couple of weeks of January. Need cast, equipment, locations, and a lot of balls. Any takers? Script at This is sincere so bullshitters fuck off in advance. Thank you.

I hesitated, stared at the screen, pressed send, and had no idea what was going to happen next. No idea if such a naive endeavor so full of ambition, full of impossibility, or full of shit was doomed to still birth failure before it began. I had seen people make ten-minute short films that cost a hundred grand and here was I blindly believing a bunch of strangers solicited on a social network site could make a feature film for free. Would people, with full justification, snigger at another muppet wanting to make another pointless movie? Another egoist wannabe with no idea of the reality of what it takes? Would they think this, and would they be right? It took less than a minute for someone to respond. Within twenty-four hours a hundred and thirty people made contact. Camera department, designers, production managers, assistant directors, continuity people, gaffers, actors... I got back to everyone insisting they had to read the script before going any further so they’d know what they were getting into. The script was a bit of a bastard you see, and, as we all know, bastards aren’t welcome in the land of legitimacy; but they read it and they ‘got it’ and, with the first day of principle photography only three weeks away, this renegade crew of strangers and actors, lead by me as writer and director, set a mass blind date, and Charlie Casanova was dragged kicking-and-screaming to life.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

The script for Charlie Casanova was unlike anything people had encountered in Ireland before so it was treated with initial suspicion then casual rejection. There was the patronizing possibility of it being engaged with by the national broadcaster if I acquiesced to substantial rewrites but I knew there was something important in there as it was and, though I was broke, I remained adamant that the script shouldn’t be emasculated by the limitations of conventional tautology. Even at that early stage Charlie Casanova was dividing audiences, with some astute and trusted readers rubbishing it and other equally astute and trusted readers passionately championing it. I had written many scripts in the past that divided readers but Charlie Casanova seemed to be evoking an unprecedented level of extremity either for or against and I knew that was precisely what it should be doing. It had to be subversive and provocative, yes, but it also had to be much more and I needed the reader to bring that final ten percent to it, which they did, with gloriously extreme responses. However, I also knew it was never going to be made within any conventional framework, and more and more I felt the only person who was going to drag it off the page onto the screen was the author, which is why I got the tattoo and uploaded the Facebook status. Filming was difficult, of course, and postproduction was its own exquisite madness, but once we kicked in there was nothing going to stop us.

Tell me about the techincal side of the film, what it was shot on and your relation to the cinematographer.

The cinematographer, Eoin Macken, a twenty-six year old model-actor-filmmaker, contacted me as a result of the Facebook status. An old acting student of mine, Pauline Brennan from a community group called Bradog, had very kindly donated the use of two Sony X1 cameras for the eleven days of the shoot and I needed somebody who knew how to operate one of those cameras, so, when Eoin verified he could, the decision was made; it was a simple as that. Because everything was going to be determined by what was available at source, hence the name Source Productions, I had to trust that whatever and whomever was available would make its own kind of sense. We met to discuss the look of the film and poor Eoin left confounded because I explained to him there was no budget for lights and everything would be shot using source lighting. I could never understand why filmmakers, when using video would try to imitate film. My belief was that the limitations of video could become its strength if utilized properly. As the first day of principal photography drew closer, Eoin secured a magnificent deal on lights and called me to tell me he could get a few thousand euros worth for only seven hundred quid. It was such a proactive thing for him to have done and I really appreciated it but I explained to him that the issue wasn’t just monetary, it was also aesthetic. He rightly thought I was an imbecile and it was simply not possible to shoot a film they way I was describing. At this stage, I had been told by so many experts what was and was not possible I winced then explained to Eoin that if I was only one percent uncertain at the end of the first day of principle photography I would immediately get him the cash and he could have the lights the next day. Eoin, being a gentleman, agreed to this and we ended the conversation with him still thinking I was a fool and me thinking, shit, I need at least one or two lights, just in case. So I went to a cut-price hardware store and bought two simple brown lamps for five euro each. If you look closely at the film you will see them appearing everywhere, and they became our only other source of lighting, because, after we shot all the restaurant scenes on day one, twenty-three pages worth of material, and reviewed the dailies, our doubting cinematographer looked at me, quietly frowned and said, “I don’t know how or why, but somehow it worked.” Cocky with youth and good looks, there were a few times when he couldn’t make it for filming or had to leave early and I had to operate myself, but Eoin also had a precocious substance in him, and when he stepped up, he made magic.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

Obviously Robert Rodriguez remains the benchmark maverick in terms of having the balls to make a movie for next to nothing then progressing on to a remarkable career. Throw the amazing cinema of John Cassavetes into the mix and what Paul Haggis achieved with "Crash" and you got the triumvirate inspiration for "Charlie Casanova". The great directors are just as obvious, from the work of Scorsese and DeNiro on "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" on back to Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan, Louis Malle, John Huston and Frank Capra; and, of the current pool, Spike Lee and P.T. Anderson remain for me the most exciting filmmakers of their respective generations, both of them somehow having the ability to make the most complex themes incredibly compelling. As for actors, I know they’re not exactly firefighters or soldiers putting their lives on the line, but on a different level I find actors to be the most fearless people I have encountered. I know we have this notion of spoilt brat nonsense but I have found there exists in actors an astonishing bravery. Who knows if we have a soul or not but, whatever that raw tender thing is that hides within us, talented actors somehow take it out so that the rest of us might be transformed by it. Documentary filmmaking is a magnificent art form but, as a random example of how fiction and the actor’s alchemy can transcend the limitations of “reality,” I defy anybody to watch Monty Clift’s ten minute performance in "Judgement at Nuremburg" and not feel a sudden and profound insight into the horror of sterilization. There are so many we could be here all day but a few other random examples would be Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Liaisons", Christopher Walken in "The Deer Hunter", Al Pacino in "Scarecrow", Giovanni Ribisi in "Heaven", John Turturro in "The Big Lebowski", Maggie Smith in "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne", Daniel Day Lewis in "In The Name of the Father", Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence", Denzel Washington in "Training Day", Sean Penn in "Carlito’s Way"...the list is endless.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

At the risk of sounding naive, I just want to be involved in great cinema. If that takes the form of multi-million dollar films or no-budget films, if that comes in the form of NC17 films or kids films, I really don’t care, just as long as it is provocative, visceral and hopefully unforgettable cinema.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

I’m probably going to come off as some beauty pageant nonce but I worked with the mentally handicapped years ago and it was the only other job I’ve done that came anywhere close to the transformative power of filmmaking.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

It’s imperative. When something is without precedent like "Charlie Casanova" people are often understandably wary of it but when someone like Janet Pierson at SXSW puts her reputation on the line for an unknown film the critical/media response kicks into gear in a way it never would have if Janet hadn’t stepped up. Sometimes we need to be given permission to see things differently and critical celebration and media examination of that celebration facilitates bravery in an otherwise hesitant audience.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

When I was eighteen or nineteen there was an old run down cinema on Abbey Street in Dublin, I think it was called The Curzon. This was during the recession in the eighties and they couldn’t compete against the bigger cinemas so they charged a small fee to see repeat double bills of films whose shelf-life had long passed. You got a large container of popcorn on entry and smoking wasn’t illegal in cinemas at the time so I often spent the last of my cash on a ticket and a pack of cigarettes. Arriving early in the day and leaving late at night, sustained only by cigarettes, popcorn and an addiction to cinema, that cinema was my church. The clientele were mostly lonely people too scared to face the outside world but every so often an horny couple would slip in and all the lonely ones would pretend we weren’t discretely watching the exhibition. Years later I was in a similarly squalid cinema on the corner of Hollywood and Vine and the ghosts of that old cinema in Dublin were everywhere. If I could go back in time I would love to screen "Charlie Casanova" to my eighteen-year old self in that broke down but beautiful place.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

I’m attracted to the noisy manipulations of huge movies as much as anybody but sometimes the only way we can hear the real human truths is in the smaller whispers.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie?

Why would I say or do anything? What right do I have? I believe that people, during a movie, should have the right to speak as loudly as they want or text their entire damned autobiography if they feel like it; in precisely the same way as I should have the right to take a baseball bat to their jabbering jowls and tip-tapping Philistine fingers.

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

From my limited experience filmmaking is an addictive poison that does almost as much damage as it does good. Akin to chemotherapy, when it works, despite all the pain, it elevates life, but when it doesn’t, you wonder what the hell was all that for? There is madness in it. It becomes its own very real and very dangerous obsession, dangerous in the sense that the truth of reality becomes less important than capturing the generated truths of your own fictions, and, as you struggle to capture the created life in front of the camera, your own life becomes the distracted dream. Filmmaking is a sickness that takes over you, destroys all elements of character and ego, and renders you its humbled servant. What’s not to love?

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

You think you need someone to give you permission to make your film? You think you need rubber stamped approval from anybody? You think you need screenwriting classes or acting classes or directing classes? All you need is two actors, a camera and a taboo. Fight for your truth. But fight harder to make that truth compelling to an audience. Pose a life question that’s important to you, a question you yearn to have answered or at least substantially explored. Ask it clearly and boldly but find the silences for the audience to bring their own answers because they are smarter than you. Get ready to be emotionally, psychologically and physically consumed for at least the next two years of your life. There’s nothing wrong with light-hearted films or entertainment, most people rightly adore them, but, if you’re going to get to make one film in your entire life, at least be brave with it. Make a film you can watch in fifty years time with your grown up grandkids that you can still stand by as a testament to your generation and a legacy for theirs. Finally, ask yourself is this going to be worth living and dying by, because, if it’s not, do something else. It’s too fucking hard.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

That’s a terrible question to force someone to answer. If I could only choose one desert island movie it would have to be "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest". It just slays me on every level. I’ve watched it multiple times on DVD and recently got the chance to see it projected from an original print and it’s probably the most perfect synthesis of all the elements I have seen. A brave, humane, anarchic testament to the power of cinema, we should all genuflect in front of this enduring masterpiece.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2011 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 11-19. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte Facebook: jasonwhyte

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originally posted: 03/10/11 17:08:14
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