In a year of strong Irish films, ‘The Belly Of The Whale’ stands out as one of the most interesting. Pat Shortt & Lewis McDougall star as a strange pair who find themselves bonded together in misfortune. In an effort to change their crummy existence they concoct a slapdash plan to rob a local amusement arcade.
You wore three hats on this film; writer, director, and producer. On the writing front, where did the idea for the story come from? When I first wrote this story, it was at the time of the initial fall out with the banks, and in particular the bondholders. They got away with it. There is a famous book called A Hero with A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, he wrote about mythology and storytelling. He talks about one particular moment when the hero goes through the belly of the whale. I wanted to write a modern-day parable of what was going on in Ireland at that time, to relief some of the frustration that we were feeling, to capture that sense of powerlessness. People couldn’t understand what was happening and I felt like the whole of Ireland was trapped in this belly of the whale moment. For the character of Joey (Lewis MacDougal), he goes through a turning point, one that separates him from his old life. Coming back to his old life he has to do deal with things that he hadn’t before. He has to go through the belly of the whale, and he does that through his friendship with Ronald (Pat Shortt). It lets him emerge from the whale and to get on with his life. They both get something from each other, it’s a classic buddy movie in a sense. Their unlikely friendship gives them the gumption to go out and try to overcome their obstacles. I want their friendship to resonant with audiences. Gits (Michael Smiley) represents the politicians, who I felt were corrupt at that time. The tough guys (Peter Coonan) who take Gits’ money are the IMF. Joey and Ronald, are the everyman on the street who can’t really do anything about the situation but they have been pushed and snap into action.
You have directed shorts before but was daunting to make the leap to a full feature? It was massively daunting but I had a really good team behind me. I did a lot of prep beforehand. We rented a room at Bow Street and essentially shot the movie with some props and some young actors. It allowed me to get a sense of the shots and how I wanted to block the scenes. I knew we only had four weeks to shoot it so I had to be really prepared. It gives you very little time to try different things or go off in a tangent. Often with first-time directors its Laurence of Arabia in the morning and Benny Hill in the evening but I was really conscious of time and knew we had to hit the ground running. The more prepared you are the less daunting it is but it is physically draining. You have to be smart and find like-minded cast and crew so you gel well, we were lucky in that regard.
Your young lead is Scottish, was that intentional? Joey was originally Irish but we interviewed about 600 kids and I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. When Lewis auditioned I knew he was Joey. He had the spirit I was looking for. At the time I didn’t realise how much experience he had, I didn’t know he had been in Pan or A Monster’s Call so it was great to have someone who had that knowledge of filmmaking already. We also had an issue in that Joey couldn’t be too old. I wanted him to be on a threshold between a child and a young man. If he was older you lose the innocence that we needed Joey to have. Lewis was the right age to carry that innocence.
Pat Shortt is so good at playing tragicomedy, did you write with him in mind? I always write a character with an actor in mind and it was Pat I wanted for the role. When he came on board it was a huge boost both for the project and for getting the project off the ground. He is a national treasure at this stage. He was great to work with. He was involved from early on, from around the third draft of the script. He was there for all of the rehearsals and really got to grips with who the character is. The great thing about Pat is that he is willing to try anything if he believes it fits the character and is right for the movie. There’s no airs and graces about him, from a director’s point of view you couldn’t ask for more. Michael Smiley was another great person to have onset. We were always racing against the clock and we had some really big set pieces to film – like the shootout, things could be tough but the actors and the crew had a great sense of humour. It made everything that much easier.
The film has a sense of timelessness like the dated car models and Ronald’s old flip phone, was that done to make it eternally relatable? We had a big discussion around that, I grew up in the 90s, that was my era, and we did talk about specifically setting it in a particular time but decided we did want it to be timeless. It is a heightened world but I wanted it to be grounded in a certain reality. I wanted it to feel like a parable. Without a set time you are looking at the themes more so than the settings.
Similarly, each of your characters have different accents, was that to create a placelessness? That was exactly it. With the parable idea, I wanted people to feel this could be anywhere. I wanted to paint a picture of a bigger world in their world. A parable can be told anywhere and it will be relevant. The different accents add to that sense.
The film opened this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, what was that like? It was a great honour. I have always loved the Fleadh. My shorts, and the films, I have produced have all played there so it’s a special place for me. One of my early shorts won a commendation at the festival years ago and I had to hitchhike to get there. I slept in a tent in Salthill. It felt lovely to come back with my first movie. It felt like I had come full circle. Everyone had worked so hard on this so it was great to be able to sell it on such a big platform.
Now that you have directed a feature have you caught the feature directing bug? I really loved it. I really enjoy working with cast, I love the whole process of it so it’s definitely something that I want to pursue.
THE BELLY OF THE WHALE is at Irish cinemas from Dec 7th Words – Cara O’Doherty