Whilst the purpose of our conversation was his BAFTA nomination, in speaking with Kieran I uncovered a compelling story of his journey towards his nomination for outstanding debut. Behind the BAFTA gold mask lies a story of a mother and her son’s love for cinema, their appreciation of cinematic magic, a filmmakers reverence for the craft of filmmaking, and the desire to create stories that have and will continue to take us out of our space.
A fitting way to begin proceedings would be to ask about the genesis of Kelly + Victor, which has culminated in a BAFTA nomination for you for Best British Debut?
It started about eight to nine years ago when I was working for the BBC and I pitched an idea to make a film about Niall Griffiths. It was from there that I met him and we got on like a house on fire. We share the same parentage; we are half Welsh, half Irish, and so we started working not on a feature film but on a short film, and from there he gave me a proof copy of his next novel Kelly and Victor.
At the same time I’d just made a film about London called Finisterre, with a soundtrack by Saint Etienne, and fortunately I met producer Janine Marmot who liked it and thought I should take the next step and start making feature films. So she encouraged me to look for a story that I thought could work or one I was interested in, and along came this novel by Niall Griffiths and I just put it together.
It is one of the most powerful books I have ever read with an incredible story to tell, and it has a structure which is an incredible way of telling a love story in a slightly different way. Half of the book is dedicated to Victor’s story and half of the book is dedicated to Kelly’s story. So that in itself was an amazing experience when reading it, but as a filmmaker you want a challenge, and that challenge was how are you going to tell this story? That ticked my other box: find a good story; find a challenge.
Glancing through your filmography you appear to have an interest in exploring the two sides of film, both narrative and documentary filmmaking?
I have always been fascinated with stories, whether they are documentary or narrative stories. A lot of the documentaries I have made are about people with fascinating stories. There is one about Vashti Bunyan, this famous pre-folk hero shall we say, and she had an incredible story to tell.
My mum used to make me go and sit in front of the television and watch Alfred Hitchcock and classic noir films. She was a massive cinema buff herself, and so I kind of got into it from that early stage. When I got to Art College I suppose I was just lucky to be exposed to different films that just spurred me on. I watched the films of Derek Jarman, as well as a lot of great documentaries which would include musical documentaries like The Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese and such people.
I was constantly searching for stories, and I actually had a VHS tape library. One of the things I would do in the good old days of Channel 4 when they used to show the bizarre documentaries was to always tape the late night films. But I was just constantly searching for stories.
Kelly + Victor has earned you the BAFTA nomination for Best British Debut, but in 2003 you directed, wrote and edited Finisterre, which is an equally important film personally and professionally.
Very much so, and because Paul and I had to make it with no money some of it was out of necessity. But the other side of it was that I had a very fixed idea about how I wanted to tell the story.
After college I came to London and started work as a runner for Steven Spielberg’s animation company, and ended up working as a trainee editor in film. One of the interesting things about animation is that whilst it is obviously a costly and time consuming way of making of films, at the beginning of the process there is a lot more emphasis placed on story than anything else. You don’t want animators to go and animate more than the scene requires, and so you get a very good education about how to tell a story. In editing that was something I was fascinated with – how to shave the story down and tell the story in as few words and as few images as you can. Sometimes that is what makes a brilliant film because one scene, one shot can tell you so much about a character.
With the documentary about Vashti, it was how to draw the character even though we are not shooting actors and buildings. The idea of drawing these juxtapositions between what was written and what you saw was important as well. It wasn’t just some random shooting; there was a very clear plan of how we wanted to shoot it and what we wanted to say in each shot. Then editing it together was as important in terms of how I wanted to pace it, and the moods we wanted to create.
You’re one of the first people to ever talk about that, but it’s one of my finest moments. It’s one of the most complete projects I’ve worked on; I shot it, I helped to write it and I edited it.
The BAFTA nomination comes at the end of your first decade in filmmaking; a fitting moment one might say. Talking with you it strikes me that you are interested in the actual craft of filmmaking, which you draw satisfaction from.
Yes! I love the craft of filmmaking. I’m as obsessed about the editing and lighting as I am about the writing, though of course writing is so important to the process.
I was doing a masterclass the other day and I was trying to explain that nobody can just turn up and direct, even though people would like to believe you can be Robert Rodriguez. You have to have an understanding of everything as a director. You can’t say “Oh well that’s the editor’s job or that’s the lighting guy’s job.”
In this day and age, and especially with digital filmmaking, you need to know as much about this craft as you can. If you want to be an editor learn to edit. If you want to be a director you have to appreciate the whole package of how things are put together. Luckily for me I’ve always been obsessed. My mum constantly reminds me of how back in the day I used to watch this programme called Screen Test, a children’s television show that ran in the late seventies/early eighties which was all about film. Every week they used to have little episodes about how a film was made. There was one about editing and the trick the editor was teaching the kids was to click your fingers when you think there should be a cut. My mom says I was clicking my fingers, and every time I clicked my fingers the cut was changing. I’m not sure if that is my mom gilding the lily shall we say, but that is how I started learning the craft by watching Screen Test. Every time I speak to a student I say just watch films. If you want to learn about dialogue put the subtitles on; watch a film with subtitles and watch a film without subtitles, and appreciate the language. Do that and educate yourself.
One of the things I could do is ask you about your reaction to your BAFTA nomination, but it feels fitting to talk about your mother who has been such an instrumental part of your journey.
Well my mum grew up in Dublin. There were cinemas everywhere, and she was obsessed with film. When she married my father she moved to Saint David which is the smallest city in Britain. Living in the smallest town in Wales was not the easiest place to live and so she lost that ability to escape. She needed an escape from reality, but sometimes she just needed to take away the humdrum of life, and that’s what films did for her.
If it’s anything that she’s given me it’s that the ability to dream, to imagine and to take people away from reality and to allow them to escape. One of the things I have always learned from her is that film should transport you somewhere, whether it’s 12 Years a Slave or its Transformers. It should take you out of your space because when the lights go down something magic happens. I think that’s the one quality my mother has given me; that appreciation of when magic happens.
The first time I went to the cinema was in Dublin when I was six years old. My aunt and my mom took me to see Lady and the Tramp. There is a weird affinity with Ireland even though I’m Welsh, which I think came from my mom and Dublin as cinema goers. I have to thank my mom for that and I’d like to thank her for everything else as well.
The stories you have told, and the places you are going to transport us to in the future are born of a mother’s love for cinema. I think that in itself is a compelling story behind your career and BAFTA nomination.
What this reminds me of, and now that I’m working with The Manic Street Preachers is that real sense of the working class. There is a kind of a work ethic that you are given when you come from the working class. What I also learned from my father and my mother is that you have to keep working hard. The whole thing about coming from that kind of background is that life is full of ups and downs. But making films is even harder because ninety per cent of the time you’re not going to make your film or you’re going to get knocked back a few times. You’re going to have to learn that and my working class background helped me.
What does the Best British Debut BAFTA nomination mean to you, and looking ahead what does the future hold?
The BAFTA is not just for me. It’s about all the people who have believed in the project, from Janine Marmot at the very early stages, to the people at the Film Agency for Wales and the Irish Film Board, as well as all my friends and family who encouraged me. Even in those darker days when the money fell through again, and people kept up the encouragement to keep going. So the BAFTA is a reward for everyone who has helped me get here.
I haven’t really taken it on board, but for people where I grew up it’s incredible. My dad’s just being stopped all the time; they are so proud of it. For a lot of people it means so much having recognition for one of our own. When I step foot on the red carpet next Sunday that’s when it will finally sink in, but for a lot of other people it’s been amazing. The responses from people who have sent me texts, posts on Facebook – I didn’t realise how much it meant to other people. For me the number of people who have supported me along the way has been a real grounding.
I have been lucky to have the opportunity to develop two new film projects. Rather than just knocking on the door people are now opening the door. It gives us an opportunity to talk about the films I want to make next. As a filmmaker that’s what you want to do; you just want to keep making the films that you want to make. If that’s what the BAFTA nomination allows me to do, then thank God for the BAFTAS.