Are you sure you want to do this? The making of Barbaric Genius

by Paul Duane

I spent four years making Barbaric Genius, my first feature documentary. I’ve been a director for about twenty-five years, but I learned more about every aspect of filmmaking – and more about life – in those four years than in the first twenty put together.

The film is finally getting a cinema release this week, a year after its festival debut, and it felt like it might be a good time to try to figure out how to pass on some of the things I’ve learned, for what they’re worth.

(1)  Have a long memory.

I first read The Grass Arena, by John Healy, in 1988 or ’89, in a big old Faber hardback with a beautiful red, black and green cover. I’d spent time squatting in London (Stockwell, which was hellish then and I believe is quite chic now), and had come across the underclass of intierant Irish labourers who seemed happy to drink anything liquid, swallow any pill or fuck whatever came into their field of vision. They looked just like the big old men you saw hanging around outside pubs in the small Irish town where I grew up, but their moral compass, for want of a better phrase, was gone, they were adrift. Nothing mattered to them.

So when, in The Grass Arena, I read stories of vagrant Irish winos stealing, mugging, spiking each other’s drinks with sleeping pills, murdering each other with broken wine bottles – it didn’t seem exotic or surprising like the Bukowski and Burroughs memoirs I’d grown up reading. It just seemed horrifyingly real and unflinching, and it chronicled a world most people didn’t know existed, going on around the corner as they went about their business.

The circumstances under which John Healy came into dispute with Faber, bringing his nascent writing career to a grinding halt, were always foggy to me. I’d had a drink or two with Frank Deasy, whose adaptation of The Grass Arena for the BBC had won awards and launched Mark Rylance’s film career, and had heard vague stories of a violent, paranoid, bitter man who was dangerous to be around. Of course, this was fascinating to hear. I’d read his unsatisfying second book, Streets Above Us, but after that nothing more was heard of John Healy, and it was easy to presume that he’d died, or that the same abyss that had claimed so many of the London-Irish had also swallowed him up.

But in 2007, when I saw his name mentioned in an anonymous Observer literary gossip column – warning readers against attending a literary festival he was due to attend, all of this came flooding back, along with the feeling that here was definitely a documentary waiting to happen.

(2)  Be prepared for a long haul.

If I had known what I was in for when I first started filming – that the film wouldn’t reach an audience until 2012, and that in the interim the Irish economy would collapse, the most powerful political party in Ireland would be disembowelled, and the Euro would be on its last legs before my film was released – there is absolutely no way that I would have embarked on this.

I mean, why would I? It’s not earned me any money (quite the opposite, as I ended up sinking a pile of my own ill-gotten gains from the TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which I’d initiated, into it), there have been no job offers off the back of it (though I did get a call about directing a garden makeover series after the TV version aired in Ireland, and another offer to make radio (!) documentaries) and the film was turned down by every major film festival we submitted to.

No cash, no kudos, no glory is attached to making documentaries unless you make Man on Wire.

On the other hand, you can sometimes change somebody’s life. I’d had previous experience of this in the mid-’90s when I made a short piece for Irish TV on forgotten London-Irish author JM O’Neill, whose extraordinary novels fuse Beckett and Shane McGowan with George V Higgins. O’Neill’s books were out of print and he was living on a small pension on the west coast of Ireland, but the profile of him that I created brought his books back into print (in Ireland at least) and he subsequently won a literary award, before his untimely death.

So when, two years into the filming process, an initial 90-minute cut of this film was hated so much by my co-producers and by the film’s funders that the former pulled out and the latter almost did the same, it would have been very easy to just write the project off. Nobody wanted it. Even John Healy himself was unsure about it. He’d been used and manipulated by media people for their own ends before. For three or four months it looked as though the film would remain just a bundle of rushes on a hard drive. It was a desperate period in my life, one where I ended up close to giving up not only on making this film but on making anything at all.

But the Irish TV station, RTE, who had turned the film down twice, somehow or other changed their minds on the third try, and we had the go-ahead to make – not a film, but a fifty-minute one-off TV documentary. And just enough money to finish. But what I wanted to make was a film. So the money we’d been given had to be stretched to make two separate documentaries – one TV, one cinema.

In order to do that, for the rest of the production process I became a one-man band – flying back and forth to London with a camera and a borrowed microphone, doing camera and sound myself, despite the fact that I’d never done either job before. Which brings me to the next point:

(3)  Do it your fucking self.

Crews are great, I love crews. Some of the nicest, most talented, most hard-working people I know are cameramen, sound men, line producers. But if you want to get to the real truth about anything, leave them at home. Pick up the camera yourself and spend time – a lot of time – with the people you’re filming. Don’t worry if you end up filming with the lens cap on, the camera’s barn-doors in shot, over or under- exposing your image, having your microphone sticking up into shot or forgetting to record sound at all (none of which ever happened to me, you understand, I’m just, y’know, supposing).

Because after you make all those mistakes, and once you start to get something usable, you will find that the barriers between your camera and reality are getting thinner.

I learned a lot from watching one film – Leo Regan’s masterful 100% White, where the director caught up with former members of the neo-Nazi skinhead group Combat 18 a decade after he’d spent a summer photographing them. Regan’s camera was handheld, his voice and presence were clearly audible in the film, his aesthetic was raw and rough, and he captured something extraordinary in his film – the complexity of people, the way they constantly surprise you.

I needed a similar approach if I was going to get lightning in a bottle and capture John Healy’s elusive presence in my film. Men swinging boom mikes and putting up big lights tended to get in the way. I completed the film with no lighting, no extraneous elements, just me and John in a room with a camera and (hopefully) usable sound. It was all I could think of to do and thankfully it worked, because if it hadn’t there wouldn’t be a film.

(4)  Finishing your film is only the beginning.

The TV version of this story was broadcast in Ireland early in 2011. It created a bit of a sensation, sent The Grass Arena back into the bestseller lists for the first time since publication and made John Healy a household name. But the film was never really made for an Irish audience – I knew they’d be sympathetic anyway, seeing the story as an old one, with its delineation of Britain’s all-but-invisible class barriers against which so many immigrants had thrown themselves. For it to have any real impact it needed to be shown in the UK. But every avenue was shut. Festivals said no, broadcasters averred it ‘lacked balance’.

Once the opportunity came up to screen at an Odeon in London, I knew this was it – I had to figure out how to be a distributor now. For arcane reasons, the only way I could make it work financially was to have the film on release in Ireland as well, at the same time – so I had a very steep learning curve ahead of me.

I didn’t even know how to check what else was coming out in the week of release – I picked our release date on a whim, then discovered Barbaric Genius would be up against only five other films that week as opposed to the usual twenty (hurrah!) but that’s because it was the week of Cannes so all the film critics would be abroad (boo!).

With some financial help from the Irish Film Board to strike digital prints, pay for posters and trailers, I started to ask people for help, and found that among the online communities of which I’m a part – the Mostly Film talkboards, Twitter, etc – there was a huge amount of expertise.

A film critic friend explained to me how to get the film press-screened for all the national newspapers. A bit of trawling unearthed email addresses for some of the major critics so that I could get directly to the ones who would be in Cannes around the time of release and make sure they saw it on DVD at least.

Another few days of research disclosed the fact that I could save myself the massive amount of money that a BBFC certification would cost by simply getting Westminster Council to certify the film instead (price difference: about a thousand euros).

Without a marketing budget to put John’s face on the sides of buses or even to create a website for the film, we needed to be creative. Setting up a Twitter account, @TheGrassArena, I started to put out brief excerpts from John’s book online, interspersed with updates about the film. Under my own account I blitzed likely journalists with info and requests for help (with mixed results). I overcame my visceral dislike of Facebook to set up a page related to the film  and used it to link to trailers, reviews and anything remotely connected to the release.

Now it’s exactly one week before that release as I write, and I’m completely burned out. I have nothing more to offer. I just want a holiday. But it’s only the beginning. There’s quite a lot of radio and live appearance stuff yet to do, and the film I finished after Barbaric Genius – an even more punishing experience called Very Extremely Dangerous – is about to launch soon. And I’m in the middle of making a new film with the excellent David Cairns.

Looking back on what I’ve written, it’s mostly variations on one insight – never give up – but I would hesitate to offer that as a panacea for aspiring filmmakers without the corollary, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Because you really shouldn’t, unless there’s absolutely nothing else you can do.

I am (as I discovered during a particularly low period) unqualified even for call-centre work. I am otherwise unemployable. I have no choice, at this stage in my life, but to do this. So I do it. And sometimes it’s great. But I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you, like me, are prepared to give your life over to it.

Because, you know, until you’ve finished it and spent all your money and driven away your family and friends and turned your hair white, you don’t know what you’ve got. You might have ended up making a piece of shit. Or something that you dearly love but the world has no place for. But in the end the decision is up to you.

And there’s always the chance you’ll change someone’s life for the better.

Barbaric Genius opens at the Odeon Panton Street tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Are you sure you want to do this? The making of Barbaric Genius

  1. Good piece, Paul, on the struggles of feature doc making. I went through many of the same stuff trying to make my film, Knuckle. I’m looking forward to seeing BG. All the best with the London premiere. Good luck, Ian Palmer

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