Interview with director Nick Kelly for ‘The Drummer & The Keeper’, a new film which tells the story of an unlikely friendship formed between Gabriel, a reckless young drummer who revels in rejecting society’s rules and Christopher, a 17 year old with Asperger’s Syndrome, who yearns to fit in.
Can you tell us about the background of the film?
I’d been looking for a first feature project ever since my third short film “Shoe” got Oscar-shortlisted at the 2011 Academy Awards. In retrospect I think I was naïve about how big a jump there is between getting funded to make short films – even award-winning ones – and getting funded to make features.
I spent several years writing and pitching drafts or treatments for at least four different feature film projects, plus a couple of TV ideas. But though funders were often very kind about those ideas, and at various times awarded me development funding, nobody actually gave me the money to make one.
When the Irish Film Board announced the second Catalyst Project initiative in late 2013 – the first one had been seven years previously – I just felt I couldn’t not go for it, as it represented a clear unequivocal chance to get full feature film funding.
Because part of the criteria for funding was that writer-directors would team up with producers on the scheme, I also researched all of the producers attending, and met with around seven who seemed to me to have the most interesting and impressive credentials – that was how I met Kate McColgan who produced “The Drummer And The Keeper”, and has obviously been the key partner for me throughout the project.
How long did the film take to research, develop and write?
“The Drummer & The Keeper” was actually surprisingly quick in its essence. I had the bones of the idea in early 2013 – I pitched it at Story Campus in the Dublin Film Festival that February and got a great reaction to that single paragraph.
It was one of several ideas that I went to the Catalyst seminars in October 2013 with, but I deliberately held off writing a script until after attending those because I really wanted to understand what kinds of projects the IFB might be open to funding under the scheme and make sure that I chose the right concept.
I wrote a first draft, got readers’ notes, and rewrote it between January and March 2014, which was the deadline for submissions. We got the news that we’d won one of the three pieces of funding in October 2014 – and between then and the first day of principal photography 15 months later, I actually rewrote the screenplay 24 times – a lot of which was down to trying to find a way of telling the story that I could shoot in 20 days.
What was it about this subject that inspired you to make the movie?
The key inspiration behind the film is actually nothing particularly to do with either mental illness or autism, but rather a phenomenon I’ve often noticed and thought about throughout my life: in moments of personal crisis the people we naturally think of as likely to be most helpful to us (our family, our oldest friends) often turn out, through no great fault of their own, to be perfectly useless. And the weirdest, most unlikely people just happen to (a) appear and (b) somehow say or do the thing you actually most need. I think your truest friends in practise are often those you would never have chosen in theory.
I just felt that the clash between the extreme ups and downs of Bipolar disorder and the singular focus often symptomatic of Autism provided an interesting dramatic premise to explore the concept of unlikely but true friendship.
One of the strongest parts of the film are the leading roles played by Dermot Murphy and Jacob McCarthy, were they difficult roles to cast? How long was the process? What were you looking for when casting these roles?
We took 6 months to cast those two roles, and saw many actors for each of them. It was very much towards the end of the process – we were scheduled to start shooting in early 2016 – that somebody drew Dermot to our attention. It was just before Christmas 2015, and Jacob, who had been living in Los Angeles, happened to be home for the holidays, so our casting director Maureen Hughes suggested that he come in to read with Dermot. So the first time we met them both, and they met each other, was at that 11th hour audition.
I tend to cast quite instinctively – obviously I’m interested in people’s skills and experience, but I also really respond to their innate energy. Seeing the two of them, individually and working together, was a Eureka moment for me
The film has been praised for its realistic depiction of both Bipolar disorder and Asperger’s. How much research did you do on this and could you tell us a little bit about it?
I did start the project with a lot of personal experience of the two extremely different worlds that collide in the movie, and the kinds of personalities who tend to inhabit them.
Having spent many joyful but chaotic years as a singer and songwriter, I’ve witnessed how rock’n’roll’s tolerance and even glorification of extreme behaviours can both allow many musicians with genuine mental health problems to “pass” as functional, but also act as a massive trigger for those people’s symptoms.
And as the parent of a child on the Autism Spectrum, I feel I have a good insight into how hard people with ASD have to work to understand and apply the rules and conventions of social behaviour that come to neurotypicals naturally.
But I also did do a great deal of personal research specifically for the film, over many conversations with both experts and people living with both of the conditions – and probably even more importantly, we facilitated our key cast, especially Jacob and Dermot, to do the same.
Many, many people were extremely generous with their time and expertise, and very open about their own personal experiences, and I think that what we learned during our pre-production process really paid off in both script and performances.
It’s important that the relationship between Gabriel and Christopher is believable, did they spend much time developing that relationship and chemistry?
One of the great gifts that my producer Kate managed to wrangle on my behalf – and to which the actors and their various agents very generously acceded – was several weeks intensive rehearsal and research time before shooting. Jacob and Dermot (and almost all the rest of the cast) spent a lot of time in my house running scenes and discussing character in those weeks. I also organised to run some of the music scenes in Temple Lane rehearsal studios (in Dublin), just to capture the vibe of that world.
Did you give the actors any reference points/movies to watch for research?
I didn’t suggest any movies – I’m not sure it’s necessarily helpful for actors to show them other actors’ choices, they need to find their own route into their characters. But I did lend them both reading material, and introduced them to various people with first-hand experience of their respective characters’ conditions. I also organised for Jacob to attend a special drama group for teenagers with autism for several weeks, which I think he found hugely helpful.
Did your years being in a rock band help shape the story or the character of Gabriel (the drummer).
Undoubtedly! Many of the things that happen in the film are based on real incidents that I’ve witnessed over my years in bands.
All of the extras featuring in scenes at Christopher’s institute are actually people with autism, was this important for you? Was it difficult to organise?
I didn’t set out to make an “issue” film, but I certainly have felt a responsibility to be accurate and truthful about the nature of both of the conditions portrayed.
The extras we worked with in St Cosmas were all drawn from the autism drama group that Jacob and some of the other actors had attended during rehearsal, so there was a genuine bond between them and our core cast which I think was hugely helpful on set.
Using people who actually had autism to play background characters made the filming process easier, not harder. Autism is a complex condition, which no two people experience in the same way – so even if I’d had the budget and time to hire ten trained actors to play background characters with autism and had them all research the condition, I don’t think we’d have got the same realism. Some of my favourite moments in the film are those extras’ unscripted but very honest responses to the foreground action.
There was also an unexpected meta-benefit, because those scenes were all in the first week of shooting, and having so many people on set with first-hand experience of one of the conditions we were portraying had a massive effect in terms of understanding and positivity among the whole crew, which carried through the whole shoot.
Plus, because the extras we chose had all been studying drama, they were all well used to taking direction. They were stars, and a pleasure to work with.
Do you think films like this are important to help educate about mental health issues?
I’d be very nervous to claim that for my own work at this stage – we’ve certainly worked very hard to be truthful and positive in our own representations, I’ll await the judgement of others to see to what extent we’ve succeeded.
But I do believe, more generally, that mental illness and neurodiversity is the new closet, in that our culture still feels free to denigrate, discriminate against and dismiss people with these conditions in the same way that previous eras caricatured and ostracised black people, women and the LGBT community.
This means that very large numbers of people in our society not only have to struggle with the challenges of either mental illness or autism, but also the public and official ignorance, apathy and even cruelty – intentional and unintentional – that surrounds those conditions, which hugely compounds and exacerbates the problems they face.
If our film manages to contribute anything towards combating those attitudes, I would certainly be incredibly happy and proud.
Your short movie SHOE was shortlisted for an Academy Award, was that a surprise?
It was a massive surprise, and a huge affirmation for me personally, given that I was a relatively inexperienced and formally untrained film-maker.
Did that accolade help in making future projects?
I know that it did increase people’s awareness of and respect for me in the film world, so in the grand scheme of things it’s obviously been a big stepping stone in my career. But I was surprised how hard it was to parlay that success into funding a feature. I’ve realised that no matter how much people liked your last thing, you still have to toil hard to get the next one made.
The film has won rave reviews and won awards at the Galway Film Fleadh and previewed at this years Electric Picnic – how important are festivals like this for promoting the movie?
Film festivals are huge for a film-maker like me – not just for the awards, but because you get to meet and interact with both other film-makers and the earliest most discerning corner of the film-going public. Every time you screen in a full room you learn something new about your own movie that you never will in an edit suite. Plus it feels pretty great to get the instant head-swell of people coming up to you on the Town Hall steps telling you they loved your work.
I’m really looking forward to doing my SEE:HEAR show at the Electric Picnic. I do think that film-makers and distributors should be looking more at music festivals to showcase and promote their movies – where else can you find massive crowds of mainly young people with disposable income, hungry for new experiences and possibly craving somewhere dark and quiet to recover from the previous night’s excesses or shelter from the weather? I thought the new Cinemaggedon area at Glastonbury this year was an amazing space and concept, so hopefully more music festivals will follow suit.
You have quite an impressive CV, ranging from playing in The Fat Lady Sings to having your work featured by New York’s MoMA. What drives the different strands of your creativity and what would you like to do next?
I honestly feel that it’s all the same muscle – as I argue (in film and song) in SEE:HEAR, many of the same instincts and skills I’ve learned in rock’n’roll have really helped me as a film-maker.
I think I’ll always make music. But I do find that film is taking up an increasingly large proportion of my time and headspace, so for me the next thing is definitely another movie. I’m currently developing a new feature project “Incognita”, again with Kate. Wish me luck!
There’s been a huge excitement about Irish film in the past few years, what advice would you give to upcoming Irish directors hoping to make their first feature?
Make films about being human rather than about being Irish.
THE DRUMMER & THE KEEPER is at Irish cinemas from Sept 8th