Terry McMahon is the writer and director of CHARLIE CASANOVA (2011) and PATRICK'S DAY (2014), two films that share singular qualities: they're passionate, angry, humanistic and thought-provoking. They're also intelligent, rich and ambitious, and hold a mirror to the injustices and wrongs of modern society, asking the viewer what they are willing to do if they are empathetic to McMahon's concerns. An uncompromising, fascinating and exciting talent, his career is only just beginning. I spoke to Terry about the two films, and here in part one, we address CHARLIE CASANOVA, a polarising, unforgettable, angry look at what he feels is all that is wrong in his native country of Ireland. 

Terry on PATRICK'S DAY.  
Growing up, what movies left the deepest impressions on you?
My father, who I wasn't very close to at the time but am now, loved movies and he told me one Saturday afternoon to sit down and watch a movie with him on TV. The movie came on and I pissed and moaned that it was in black and white. He wanted to kill me. The movie was 12 ANGRY MEN (1957). I had never seen him respond to a film in that way and I had never seen him insist that I sit down and watch something with him. It was a wonderful film but what was going through my head was ''What if in fact Henry Fonda's character was The Devil and him trying to turn everyone against finding the guy guilty was an orchestration of The Devil rather than a noble, human celebration of innocence?'' I was only a single-digit kid but my unique perspective of the film fundamentally altered my experience of watching it. Years later when I became immersed in the idea of wanting to write material, that experience of watching the film came back to me, and I started asking myself questions. Who presumes that a certain reality of a situation is the reality? Who presumes to know that what you're being told is true versus what you have been told is false? Who presumes to create an illusion or a delusion to protect their worldview or to manipulate or alter your worldview? I think, thematically, that came from 12 ANGRY MEN, and has existed in everything I've ever written since.

What was the inspiration for CHARLIE CASANOVA? Was it dissatisfaction with the way society was going in Ireland at the time?
We still have pure scum deciding our destinies and they are the weakest-minded, most pathetic cowards imaginable. They're Machiavellian, manipulating scum. They're in power now and the consequences of their policies and austerity and dehumanisation is manifesting everywhere. CHARLIE CASANOVA was an attempt to take a character who is a complete lying piece of shit and explore how he can justify his position in the world, and how we allow him to behave with impunity. I thought it would be clear to the audience that that was what the intention of the film was. It was almost a Brechtian construct where you're going ''This guy is lying to you. Watch him lie to you. What are you going to do about the lie?'' But instead, it seemed to generate a profoundly extreme hostility that made it become a national story that was played out in the media. I was depicted as a psychopathic moron who needed to be stopped. Even though it was picked up for distribution by Studio Canal in the UK and Ireland, it was utterly destroyed on its release. It's a very interesting process to go through where you're trying to make a film that deals with how the controlling class destroy the working class, the underclass, and you end up having it manifested in your real life. You realise you are utterly powerless against the small coterie of people who controlled the narrative of what CHARLIE CASANOVA became in the national media, and destroyed you as an individual. Then when banking tapes that revealed the systemic corruption in Ireland were released, and we started to see the narrative of the lies unfolding, it was interesting to see the film going through a revisionism or a re-assessment. What was seen as cartoonish in its grotesquerie became almost banal compared to the reality of what these guys were capable of doing, and how they use language, and how they dehumanise, and the consequences of their behaviour. 
Why do you think it got the hostile reception it got?
There are certain people who simply didn't like it, and they are absolutely entitled to feel that way. We also had some remarkable champions. I was very happy to embrace conversation with the people that didn't like it. But there were other people who saw the film as coming from a guy who did not go through the necessary process, the evaluation process that allows your decision making to get rubber stamped. If the film had come from Neil Jordan or someone who was authorised to engage in these complex issues, then the film would have been treated in a very different manner but because CHARLIE CASANOVA was made for less than a thousand Euros and had been made outside any given system and suddenly plucked out of total obscurity to be in competition at South by Southwest, immediately it generated an odd reaction. Some people celebrated it in a way that was quite beautiful, and they embraced the whole journey from before it came out to the way it played out for the next year and a half. But there were others who thought I was just a mouthy prick who didn't have the right education or background and so no authority to talk about the topics I wanted to address in the film. From the outset, it became a conversation of Us vs Them.

Do you think your own pronouncements in the press contributd to any of the controversy? I exacerbated the Us vs Them stance deliberately after we were decimated at South by Southwest. We were the first non-American film to be selected in competition in six years, and the first Irish film to ever be selected. We were expected to win the Grand Jury Prize but a reporter from Variety came and saw the film and gave it one of the most savage reviews Variety has ever given. So we went from the heights of our film being plucked from obscurity and put on the world stage to the absolute depths of public evisceration. We had no idea what to do, so we went back to the hotel, got drunk and at 4 in the morning, I decided it was time for a simple epiphany – it was time to become John Lydon from The Sex Pistols. It was time to drag this movie out of the fucking grave. I became a mouthy frontman because no-one else would do it. I presumed that people would understand I was presenting a persona to push and provoke and divide an audience. The film ended up having an extraordinary festival life, it caused fist-fights and all that kind of stuff, and it had such extreme reactions that those who embraced it were so protectively in love with it that it was almost embarassing, and those who despised it were equally as embarassing in how determined they were to be destructive towards it. I realised that what I had created was destined to be a punk rock film, and if you create something like that in a society that has been anaesthetised by boy bands and can't hear you, it's like listening to Mozart and then listening to The Sex Pistols. Your ears become so abrasively reactive to it that your reaction is either ''Wow! This is something new'' or ''Fuck that shit''. The ones who thought the latter were in power and it was very easy for them to destroy the movie. 
Was the impetus of writing the film to get your anger off your chest or to provoke a debate?
The whole point of writing it was to explore a central character that I had personally encountered too often. It was the arrogant swagger of a Viagra cock, a cocaine induced machismo and the facility to behave with impunity towards those lesser than them with a lack of consequences. That was a thematic exploration on a political level that I was very interested in on a human level. I am interested in the illusions we generate for ourselves to convince ourselves that we are not the person we know are, which is a complete coward. In terms of making the film, I was sitting in a flat with the missus and kids and it was 3 in the morning and coming close to Christmas. They were asleep and I was suffering from insomnia, sitting there with a glass of whisky and a sense of desperation that drove me to do something so stupid that it embarassed me the moment I did it – I typed on Facebook ''Intend making no-budget feature, CHARLIE CASANOVA. Need cast, crew, equipment, lot of balls. Any takers? This is sincere.'' Social media was something that was strange to me at the time. As I read what I had posted, I cringed with sheer exposed embarassment. When I reached across to delete it, someone responded. Within 24 hours, 170 people had gotten back to me. My only stipulation was that they had to read the screenplay. They seemed to have a profound reaction to it. In Ireland, everything shuts down at Christmas so I thought ''Let's try and make it in January.'' It was one of those notions of ''If you will build it, he will come.'' I ended up getting cameras for eleven days from Bradog Youth Organisation. They said the cameras had to be back by midnight on the eleventh day, so our production schedule was eleven days. When I turned up three weeks after my Facebook post, I met many people for the first time that day. We had a tiny crew and a tiny cast and we put everything we had into it. I had no idea what would ever become of it. I certainly had no idea it would become the international fiasco it became. Also, I had no idea it would take me to places all over the world, and that occasionally it would hit people with such a visceral force that the very political agenda you set out to engage with in the first place ends up manifesting itself in an immensely exciting and provocative way.

How did the Irish Film Board respond to the project?
The Irish Film Board have been very generous to several of my scripts. It's not as if there is any malice on their part in rejecting it. But they read it and said ''What the hell is this?'' You can't really blame them, because there was no precedent for that kind of movie in Ireland. Mike Leigh can make a movie like NAKED (1993) in England, and you can understand it, and you extrapolate further what his agenda is. But a moron like me makes a movie like CHARLIE CASANOVA and the reaction is ''This is a mouthy scream from an incoherent asshole. Let's switch it off. '' The Film Board ended up being very kind to it in the end after it was selected for South by Southwest and then for the Edinburgh Film Festival and multiple other festivals. Then they actually came on board and put forward the funds for what they call a 'Cinevator' print, which is a form of 35mm print. They don't exist anymore. We had a bunch of reels in a box with this movie on it, and unfortunately we had to physically cut out parts of scenes because we couldn't get the rights to particular songs. We played the film at some festivals and we got standing ovations at some places and won a slew of awards. And then we got the opposite. The same social media that generated the capacity to get the film made was also used to eviscerate it. It was very interesting to find yourself on both sides of its value and potential engagement, and then see how it devalues and then how it destroys.

What kind of an audience did you have in mind when writing the script?
I used to live in a bedsit, and I used to watch five movies a night because if you rented them after midnight and brought them back by 8am, you could get them for next to nothing. These movies would become the greatest school imaginable. You would walk down the steps the next day with a sense of empowerment and potential that you didn't think you had the right to have beforehand. I wanted to make CHARLIE CASANOVA for people living in bedsits - some guy or girl stumbling across the movie and thinking ''What the fuck is this?'' and it ends up becoming their own personal discovery. It's these kinds of people who seem to have discovered the film again and again. As recent as last night I got an email from someone who lives across the world who saw athe film and had a profound reaction.

How did you put together the cast and crew?
The title character is played by Emmett Scanlan, who before the film had had very little acting experience. I had originally written the role for another wonderful actor called Declan Conlon, but he wasn't ready. Scanlon had all the arrogant swagger of inexperience, and the belief that anything was possible. I told him ''I might regret this, but I think you're Charlie Casanova.'' He said ''I'm all over that shit.'' Then he read the script and he nearly shit himself! I went to his house and we took one small block of one of the monologues and I beat the living hell out of him with it. I explained to him the structure of the form and how to do it. I told him that that was the model for everything else. Because of his pure tenacity and pragmatic application and extraordinary generosity he locked himself in a room over Christmas to learn the dialogue over and over again. When he turned up on set we had a tiny rehearsal period in order to help the other actors understand the rhythm and the form and the beat. He just went for it in a way that I thought was extraordinary. One of my only disappointments about the whole aftermath of the film is that I had no problem being attacked personally by the media in the end because I had put myself front row centre for a real face kicking, but it saddened me that some people started to attack Scanlan. His performance is completely fearless and extraordinary. It's been proven subsequently. He's a very successful actor in America now, and has been appearing on television there. He's on the road to a great career.

Given the budget, was it a rough and ready shoot?
The money really went into the food, which my missus made. It wasn't just rough and ready, it was also the worst Christmas that we had had in recorded history. On the other hand though, there was a powerful sense of community, and a warm, humorous, loving engagement. We felt that we were making something that was unprecedented, no matter how it was going to be embraced. Even though a lot of nonsense happened when it was released, it's amazing how many people still come up to me and say ''Because of your film I made my first film.'' It's great to know that it created a precedent that empowered people who had previously felt disenfranchised to suddenly think ''If he can do it, I can do it.''

Was the film influenced by any other particular films? I sensed Cassavetes, AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000), BRONSON (2008) and others.
I adore Cassavetes, particularly A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), although I would never claim to have the capacity to make as great a film as that. I remember seeing AMERICAN PSYCHO when it was released and thinking it was a truly extraordinary film. Mary Harron got under the male psyche far more effectively than any other male thought was possible. At the time, the film was seen as almost pornographic or indulgently psychopathic or whatever. The film went through its own revisionism as well. Now it is seen justifiably as an absolute modern classic. I love the way it has a central character that is so utterly repugnant and is still able to be engaging to an audience. One of the most remarkable things about the movie is the sheer tenacity and courage of Christian Bale's performance. The scene where he is screwing the two prostitutes and flexing his muscles and looking at himself in the mirror is one of the iconic images of modern cinema, something that gives you an indication of the time you are in. The themes of the film would have fit CHARLIE CASANOVA across the board.

BRONSON is another extraordinary film. You watch that film and you realise that is making you so uneasy that you don't know where you stand on any level. Sometimes you have to watch a movie a second or a third time before you can actually relax enough to have exhalation and be able to say ''I'm actually really enjoying this film.'' What's interesting about CHARLIE CASANOVA is that many people who did see it two or three times seemed to have a profoundly different experience of the film and suddenly perceived it differently. People have articulated brilliantly to me how it affected them and it is very exciting that a film can still affect people in that way.

How much of your own darker experiences influenced the film?
I was homeless for a while, and when you're homeless, you don't exist. You're a ghost. I was never frightened of violence or any of those scenarios, and I had been in multiple scenarios that I survived. But the thing that nearly fucking killed me was loneliness. It descended like a cancer. A contagious cancer because you felt that people saw it and sensed it off you and got away from you as fast as possible. I had a stammer as well and dodgy legs. It was like a comedy in its own right, a FORREST GUMP (1994) scenario. I was a teenager at that time so I didn't even know who I was. I wasn't eating properly so my body wasn't developing. Everything that should be about the ebullient sense of self and discovery was the opposite. Eventually I withdrew so far into myself that the only responses I had were an incoherent mumble or a private silent cry. You have to invent a version of yourself before you can take the first step in discovering who you are, but you end up creating an imitation of who you are. You hope that that created self becomes some kind of humanistic, noble, decent, warm, embracing individual. But the idea of an orchestrated created self that comes with an ugly, destructive force is so much easier to create and so much easier to get away with and to exploit. That to me is where Charlie Casanova would have manifested in terms of a constructed self and it's going to have the capacity to destroy. Charlie's objective is to be a member of the Ruling Class but he has to destroy every residue of his humanity and his history to get there. He has to prove his newly constructed self is capable of the sickening dehumanisation deemed necessary to control others.

Do you think such experiences created the artist in you?
For the longest time, even the use of the word artist would have been something I blanched at for being ridiculous. Because to me an artist is a painter, someone like Egon Schiele. I felt I had no birthright and no sense of self, and there was no precedent to be given permission to engage in that kind of language. I had allowed my own doubts and own prejudices to censor an aspiration that's quite beautiful. I don't know that I am an artist but I do know that I adore art and it always makes me feel almost like a teenage boy who has fallen in love again and again and again. It blows my mind. It invades my soul, and haunts my life. If within that construct I'm occasionally allowed to feel capable of being an artist, then what a privilege.

Do you still run into people like Charlie Casanova in your daily life?
Some of my friends who worked on the film talk about a Charlie Casanova type. One of them is a very good friend of mine, Johnny Elliott, who plays the guy Charlie kills at the end. He's a taxi driver, and he talks about a Charlie type all the time. He'll say ''Charlie got into the car again last night.'' He talks about these guys who get in his taxi who are hopped up on drugs, talk about themselves like they are Masters of the Universe, and as if you should consider yourself lucky to be in their presence, to be graced with their articulation as they breathe all over you and sweat on your back seat. These guys are the manifestation of greed in its ugliest form but also the dehumanised notion that people are nothing more than products to be exploited and discarded. Some suggest that we exist in a culture that is only ugly. We don't. Most of the people that I encounter are generous, warm, human, shy people, but unfortunately scum like Charlie see that vulnerability and see how easy it is to exploit it. The moment they start exploiting it, our reaction to it is to acquiesce because of our decency and our natural shyness. But at what stage do we individually or collectively decide that it has to stop? We don't seem to have arrived at that stage as a culture yet.

I spoke to Terry by telephone on 5th November 2015,  and would like to thank him for his time.

CHARLIE CASANOVA is available in the US from Brinkvision and in the UK from Studio Canal

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

No comments: