Paul Byrne talks to KIERON J. WALSH about Jump, his first feature in 13 years.
In many ways, Kieron J. Walsh is one of Ireland’s most successful, and prolific, filmmakers.
Not only has been working steadily in a notoriously difficult industry for the last 25 years (with recent additions to his directing duties including TV hits Raw and Vexed), but Walsh is also one of the main forces behind Blinder Films. The Dublin-based production house has its fingers in just about every filmmaking pie, from features to commercials, and all points in between.
Arguably, beyond the gongs and glory, their finest moment is The Savage Eye, the searing TV series that sees comedian Dave McSavage and friends rip-roar their way through Ireland’s DNA. The finest home-produced satirical TV series Ireland has produced since Hall’s Pictorial Weekly four decades ago, those with a keen eye will have spotted Walsh himself, popping up again and again as the unfortunate father whose young son is snatched by a runaway priest in ever-more elaborate stings.
But, more of that later. For now, Walsh has a new £1.3m feature film to sell, Jump, set over one eventful New Year’s Eve night in Derry, with a pretty teenage girl (Nichola Burley) aiming to end it all on the Peace Bridge whilst her gangster father sets the dogs loose after his safe has been cleaned out. Having debuted at the Galway Film Fleadh last year, Jump has toured festivals around the globe, to generally glowing responses. Then again, can you ever truly trust a festival audience?
Finally getting a big-screen release almost a year since its Fleadh debut, Jump is a film Walsh is clearly proud of. We’re Irish though, so, let’s ramble a little first…
We spoke to you for your under-appreciated first big-screen feature, When Brendan Met Trudy, back in 2000. Back when we were young and full of hope…
KIERON J. WALSH: Yeah, I remember that. Back before I was the cynical old bastard that I am now. I dreamed of one day making a living from film back then…
Got to say, huge, huge fan of The Savage Eye too…
KJ.W: It’s a tough show to make, but it’s rewarding in so far as it’s really hit a chord with people. It’s sort of inspiring a few other things, one of them being Irish Pictorial Weekly, which we produce as well. Which is an RTE version of The Savage Eye really, but it’s fabulous too.
It does seem to be a time when we can once again not only question authority in Ireland but hold it up to ridicule…
KJ.W: Yeah, I think people delight in that kind of stuff now. I’ve donated my son to be snatched by Dave The Priest every week, so, I’ve done my part for the revolution.
Your son will be scarred for life, of course. There’ll be a sense memory there that the little red-haired tyke might never lose.
KJ.W: He’s definitely afraid of priests, believe me.
The new line from parents to their young today is, ‘If a priest or garda approaches you, go and find a stranger quick’.
KJ.W: Do you remember that sketch in The Savage Eye, where a young mother comes running out into the streets, looking for someone to look after her baby – another son of mine – as she’s got to rush her elderly mother to hospital? A priest offers to look after the baby, and Dave, doing his Dublin junkie routine, offers too, and, naturally, the woman hands the baby over to the junkie.
It’s an old mantra, but Irish films are an incredibly hard sell to Irish cinema-goers. Did you feel the need to make a film to combat that?
KJ.W: I suppose if you look at the work I’ve done, it’s not typically Irish. I don’t tend to make films about alcoholics, or gun-runners, or depressed young men in flat caps. Not only do the Irish public not want to see that stuff, I don’t know if it’s that reflective anymore. There was a time and place for that kind of film, but most people going to the cinema today just want escapism. To see a new world that you don’t know much about, a new experience. I think that’s what endured me to Jump. The main thing was, it was definitely set in Northern Ireland, but it had nothing to do with the Troubles. It just celebrated the lives of young people there, who lead normal lives…
When it comes to pretty girls about to throw themselves off a bridge, you don’t usually get the rescue-rejection response of “Get the f*** away from me!”. Very Irish, and undeniably Derry in the film. Important to establish the setting here…?
KJ.W: Although the writer of the original play, Lisa McGee, is from Derry, the play isn’t set anywhere in particular. And I asked Lisa about that, and I’m guessing she was worried that it might limit the appeal of the story if it’s set somewhere so specific. And there’s a relevance here too – that’s the biggest bridge in Ireland, and it is a big suicide bridge. Something like 80 people a year throw themselves off that bridge. They don’t all die, thankfully, but the Foyle Search & Rescue team are kept busy all the time. As recently as a month ago a young Dublin couple threw themselves off the bridge, and they died, unfortunately.
When we were shooting, a kid turned up. We were very lucky in that Derry City Council gave us the bridge to make the film. They stopped traffic coming onto it, putting up High Wind signs – and this was all for free. They were incredibly helpful. And this kid turns up in a vest, and it was minus 5, and it took us forever to persuade him to head home. He was high, and he was determined, but eventually, we got a car to drive him home.
We’re far from schmaltz on this New Year’s Eve – was all that there in Lisa McGee’s play?
KJ.W: If you can imagine the play, it’s largely the two people on the bridge, talking – which is something you can get away with on a stage. In a film, they would never put up with that. Each scene has to move the story forward, and the one thing I had to eradicate was any sense of theatricality about the piece. And we had to cut it so that each time we came to the bridge, it was a different scene, a different set-up.
When you and Steve Brookes sat down to write the screenplay, were you thinking about your plan of attack here? Go for the Quentin McDonagh ‘everything’s-in-quotations’ approach, or the Altman whose-story-is-it-anyway? workshop workout, the Dardenne flies-on-a-shitty-wall naturalism…?
KJ.W: The important thing was the emotional thrust for Greta, and her plight. Other films that I watched were things like Crash, where you’ve got a bunch of characters whose lives end up linked – if you can get away with such coincidences in a huge city like Los Angeles made me feel that such coincidences in Derry would be utterly believable.
I also looked at Magnolia… I tried to find films with lots of storylines interweaving. Short Cuts is another…
How come it’s taken 13 years for your second big-screen outing? Hadn’t found the right script? It’s a cruel and unusual world out there?
KJ.W: A combination of both. It actually took eight years to get Jump finally made. Brendan J. Byrne bought the rights to the play eight years ago, and I got involved with it five years ago. So, it’ took a long time. Financing, trying to find somebody to cast who might help the financing, etc, etc. Also, I shoot commercials, I shoot television. You have to make a living. If you think about spending five years making a film, and what you get paid for those five years, it doesn’t pay.
What’s the draw then? A childhood dream of being a filmmaker?
KJ.W: It’s like that, yeah. You get bitten, and you won’t be satisfied until you can truly scratch that itch. There’s nothing more thrilling than sitting in an audience and witnessing the audience reacting the way you’d intended. Or better than you’d intended. It’s about moving people, it’s about thrilling people, and it’s about making people think differently. And with regard to this film, when I read the project first, what I really liked about it was, I was confiused for a short while, but then you start putting the pieces together – the time jump, the different characters – and that makes you feel good, when you work it all out.
You’ve recently directed a few episodes of Vexed – what’s the plan now?
KJ.W: Well, Jump has opened quite a few doors. I now have an agent in LA, who’s sending me scripts of varying quality. I’m in London right now, about to shoot a pilot for Sky, called The Psychopath Next Door, a very black comedy series with the lovely Anna Friel. Apparently, one-in-four people are psychopathic – seems like more in the film world.
So, that will hopefully be an eight-part series, and then growing from there. Sky have really been throwing money into daring new shows. They’re making 104 hours of drama this year. To put that into context, RTE are making 12 hours of drama this year. Six hours of Raw, and six hours of Love/Hate. And that’s it. They’d like to include Fair City in there too, but I think that’s more comedy than drama.
Finally, and far more importantly, are we going to get another Savage Eye? Or maybe that well is dry?
KJ.W: We’re going to shoot Series 4 later this year. I was at a screening of two episodes at a festival in Moscow, and there’s no satire in Russia because Putin is such a thug, and they couldn’t believe that we’d gotten away with this. They were laughing their asses off, in shock. Great when we get that kind of response…
Words: Paul Byrne
JUMP is Irish cinemas from April 26th