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 two, we address PATRICK'S DAY, a moving, thought-provoking and quite beautiful drama that raises questions about our right to deny those who we deem as mentally ill the right to intimacy. 


How much did the entire CHARLIE CASANOVA experience leak into PATRICK'S DAY?
I presumed I would never make another fucking movie. I had a missus, a bunch of kids, a bank trying to repossess my home, and the idea of making another movie seemed stupid, especially after what happened with CHARLIE CASANOVA. Tim Palmer is a producer who had done some wonderful Irish films, and we were at this tiny festival and got drunk together. He thought CHARLIE CASANOVA was the antithesis of what other Irish filmmakers had done before. He asked me if I had any other scripts, and I sent him six screenplays. He read all of them in a weekend, which producers never do, and he got back to me and said he wanted to make PATRICK'S DAY. I told him that if everything wasn't in place in six months I was going to shoot it on my phone. That's one of the benefits of making something like CHARLIE CASANOVA. You threaten someone with making it on your phone and they believe you! Less than six months later he got the money together and we were on set shooting it. It's a miracle that it happened and we thought it might be a potential breakthrough movie. It became the darling of some of the festivals and all that, but in the end I put two years of my life into a film that had a seven week release in my own country and was deemed to be a huge success. Yet in actuality I was poorer than I was when I finished CHARLIE CASANOVA.

Is it easy to export Irish films? 
There are 'Oirish' films that present Ireland as a Utopian paradise, but in terms of the international market there are no reasons for buyers to engage with an Irish film on any level when there are infinite numbers of American and European films that satisfy those notions. Increasingly, the distribution model has changed so profoundly that nowadays if it's not a cartoon superhero movie it's an arthouse movie. Real arthouse movies have gone to television. Television is going through such a staggering renaissance at the moment. We used to get up off our couch and leave our sitting room to go to the cinema to find the stuff that we couldn't find on television. Instead the opposite has happened now. Television is so brilliantly constructed and dense that commercial cinema often seems shallow and pointless. A film like PATRICK'S DAY is caught in the middle of those two and as a result, despite all the awards and the extraordinary reviews, it's a film that could very easily vanish.

I myself had not heard of the film until it was recommended to me. 
It's one of those things. You try to make a film that connects with people. CHARLIE CASANOVA is about a complete piece of shit, a vacuous, empty asshole. Whereas PATRICK'S DAY is the antithesis of that. You hope that it's about something far more complex and rich. You hope that the human viscerality of it, in relation to a love story and in relation to having the courage to fight for your right to intimacy, will be seen as heroic. You would think that all those elements would in the reductionist sense have a much greater commercial viability. And yet I made more money out of CHARLIE CASANOVA than PATRICK'S DAY, which was still very little. I don't say this to be greedy, I just want to give your readers an indication of the financial realities of filmmaking.  

Has Facebook been a good source to promote your films? 
Facebook is like any form of social media. You can't take it too seriously but you can also recognise that for next to nothing you can really communicate one on one with people. I have had incredible experiences from people who only encountered me or my films through Facebook and they would talk to me like we had had an intimate relationship together. And you realise that over a number of years they have engaged from a distance but in a deeply personal way. That's where stuff like Facebook and social media become something quite beautiful. I think a lot of people who went to see PATRICK'S DAY went to see it because of Facebook and because of that social engagement. You have to see it as a community and not a manipulated, orchestrated community. It has to remain a community of people who want to engage on a level that is not orchestrated by marketeers.

How do you feel about people downloading your work illegally? 
I remember when we were kids we used to have tapes and we would tape music off the radio. And for us the highest compliment you could pay a song was to tape it off the radio. We never saw it as stealing. We saw it as a particular embrace of that particular piece of art. People stealing your movie or downloading your movie is simply people complimenting your film. They're not trying to be malicious. They're not trying to steal anything. They are in fact embracing the thing that you created. The irony is that you end up being celebrated by the very people who are supposedly robbing you.

How do you feel about modern cinema audiences and their receptivity for challenging material? 
They say all art aspires to the state of music. You can listen to an album five hundred times and it just gets richer for you each time. It becomes a deeply ingrained experience. Whereas with even your favourite movies, the likelihood of you watching it five times is incredibly rare. Music is magnificent in that sense. Cinema becomes such a deeply personal experience. You hope that people can experience it collectively because emotion is contagious, but in reality I think cinema has become more disposable than ever and it's become one of those scenarios where there's so much choice that if you don't respond to the film in the first two or three minutes, you just switch it off and turn on something else. It's become a kind of pornography. You're always looking for that next kick or that next high. Its sad because my most remarkable experiences with films were often difficult, complex engagements. I wasn't quite sure what was happening at any stage. If I had had a distraction through my phone or whatever, I may have switched them off and lost out on magnificent movie experiences.

It seems like Hollywood has started to pander to this kind of lack of attention in moviegoers.
Every trailer tells you the entire movie. Its a marketing maxim – tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them. Cinema as art has an alchemical capacity to alter your sense of self and your place in the world. It is that powerful. When that power is not treated with the respect and the kindness and protection that it deserves it ends up becoming nothing more than emotional pornography.

Was there a particular moment you remember where the seeds of PATRICK'S DAY began?
I was working as a carer and there was a beautiful man who was obsessed with the idea of sex. He would never do anything or be inappropriate but he would giggle at the prospect of discussing sex. I was very young, I was only 17, but I was thinking ''Why is this guy treated like a degenerate?'' And you realise that people have given themselves permission, through the authority that has been granted to them by their position, to decide a moral position and that morality is going to be imposed on him because he is deemed to be mentally ill. I remember at the time fundamentally thinking ''I don't know what the hell that means to me now but in some context in my life down the line that will have resonance and meaning.'' The second thing was that my own mother was very young when she became pregnant and she was not happy with her life. It led to a kind of controlled capacity for administering punishments on her kids that she believed were morally beneficial to us when it actually did damage. It was the combination of those and then obviously the loneliness of being homeless. The challenge was to combine all those things into something that in the end is a celebration of the aspiration towards love, but is exploring the profound difficulty of that basic human right to intimacy.

Kerry Fox's character makes you realise the damage parents can do even when they only think they are doing the right thing by their children. 
She believes that everything she is doing is absolutely motivated by love. There's not a single act of malice in her behaviour. But just like anybody else, once you construct the fallacy, you've got to construct multiple other fallacies to protect the original lie. The deeper she gets into the construct she has put in motion, the more she has got to realise ''Now I have to do something to protect that, because if this gets exposed, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.'' We do this every day. We construct love affairs based on fallacies. We construct fantasies based on fallacies. We construct notions of togetherness and domestic love that are in fact a complete controlled mechanism that is a lie.

How did you come to cast Moe Dunford as Patrick? 
For the role of Patrick, the great casting director, Rebecca Roper, brought in a series of people and a lot of them were good and some of them weren't, but a lot of them felt like they had been working out in gyms all their life and knew nothing about loneliness or a sense of disenfranchisement. In fact I got such a sense of privilege off them that I thought ''I won't know how to empathise with these people onscreen if I don't even know how to empathise with them in the room. '' I went through a series of callbacks with about four people. I was essentially going through the motions because I thought in the back of my mind that I'd cast Aaron Monaghan, who is one of the most brilliant actors in the world. But eventually Tim Palmer sat me down and told me ''I can't get the film financed with this guy.'' My first response was to reiterate that I would shoot the film on my phone, but then I remembered  ''Tim has put his hand in his pocket and carried us for three months at this stage. And I'm gonna fuck him because I'm not getting my way? What I'm doing here is wrong.'' So I told him that if we found a person 50% as good as Aaron Monaghan, I'd do the film. He said ''Who do you want?'' I told him I wanted a guy that had come in to audition called Moe Dunford. He rightly said ''Who the fuck is Moe Dunford?''

Rebecca Roper brought Moe back in again. What we didn't know at the time was that Moe had booked a holiday to Malta six months earlier. Instead of driving to the airport he drove to the audition room. What he didn't know was that he was the only callback that I made. What the producer and the casting director didn't know was that I'd been privately communicating with Moe. I had gone through the whole process of how he needed to play it, what he needed to do in the rehearsal and the whole lot. So he came in and he auditioned quite brilliantly but everyone was still worried. Tim and I had already had a fight, and Rebecca was worried too. I looked at the cameraman and the sound recordist and asked, ''What do you think?'' They were panicking and looked to Tim and Rebecca but I said, ''Don't look at them. Tell me what you think.'' They hesitated and stammered and said ''He's brilliant. ''I turned to Tim and Rebecca and said, ''I think we have our Patrick.''

We sent the tape off and one of the financiers asked ''Can he be soft?'' I had no idea what that meant. But I knew we had to do something. So after the audition, I brought Moe home with me. A bunch of friends were coming around that night to watch the football game, so I got Moe drunk. We had this beautiful border collie called Willow. I rubbed ham on the side of Moe's face and the dog jumped on the couch and was licking the side of his face. I got him to do small bits of dialogue from the film as she was licking his face. She was going crazy for him. I filmed it all on my phone. I uploaded it, sent it to the financiers and they said yes. It's one of those bizarre scenarios where a dog cast him in the end. The dog we used in the movie was paid more than me. The mutt's only job was to not look at the camera and every time the first AD shouted 'Action!' he would look into the camera.

How did Kerry Fox get on your radar? 
AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (1990) is a masterpiece, just stunning. I had never seen anything like it. It went straight to my sense of isolation. I was watching it in those bedsits. Kerry Fox as Janet Frame is one of the great performances in the history of cinema. I wouldn't say that lightly. So I said to Rebecca ''What are the chances of getting a Kerry Fox type?'' because I knew there was no way in hell we would actually get Kerry. She said ''I can get a letter to Kerry Fox's agent.'' So I wrote a completely personal and honest letter and Rebecca sent it with the script to her agent. Less than 24 hours later, Kerry came back and said she was in. I was in a state of shock. The only stipulation was that she wanted to meet, so I borrowed cash and flew over to London the next day and we spent the day together going over the script line by line. I fell totally in love with her. I got back on the plane to Ireland and she was in. The next time I saw her she was on set ready to rock and roll. She's an amazing woman. She's smart on multiple levels. She made a staggering contribution, not just in terms of her performance but in all other elements, like on the set.

How did you assemble the rest of the cast? 
I love Philip Jackson, who played the cop. I saw him in SCUM (1979) well over 25 years ago. A brilliant actor, and he was also someone I thought we would never get. His was a similar scenario to Kerry's – I wanted him, I sent the script, and within 24 hours he had said yes. Before he came on set we had one brief phone call and that phone call was a joy. The specificity of his questions was fantastic just like with Kerry. He turned up and gave what I thought was an amazing performance. Catherine Walker, who plays Patrick's girlfriend, Karen, is a very good friend of mine. I loved the idea of nobody knowing who she was when she came onscreen. I also loved the idea that she talks like a movie star from the 50s because as an airline hostess all she's learned is a small coterie of phrases that she repeats again and again. Her life is a vacuum. We slowly get to know her and she becomes this complex human being. I thought she'd be perfect for it. Karen is a complex, multi-faceted, flawed and very human woman who like most of us in the situation she finds herself in with Patrick, didn't know what to do. Karen's life is a construct, and we get to watch that construct unravel. Catherine gave an incredibly brave performance, and she and Kerry were particularly brilliant in the scene where they sit down and have an incredibly honest conversation with each other. That scene was shot with only 50 minutes to go, and we put the two of them in a corner and then reversed it, simple as. They took what I wrote and turned it into something that is a living, breathing reality for them. By the way, Aaron Monaghan ended up playing Moe's best friend, Freddie, in the hospital.

How are you able to get such great performances from your actors in your films? 
One of the imperative things to realise is that you're not "getting" these performances from these people. You are facilitating them. Too many directors take credit for getting performances out of actors. It's so arrogant. What you do is you orchestrate an environment where you provoke and inspire to such a degree that those people can transcend what even they thought themselves were capable of. It's your job across the board. I think the thing that actors need to know is that they can trust that the environment they're in if you allow them to jump and if they fall, it's okay. If they fuck up, it's okay. But if they're allowed to jump, they might learn to fly and you need to capture that discoverable moment on camera. That's all you have to do as a director – make sure that you give them permission to fail or fly.

Did your experiences as an actor yourself come in useful when directing actors?
One of the reasons I became an actor was to find out what actors go through, so I can direct more generously and more effectively. When you actually do a bit of acting it's the most terrifying thing imaginable. These people put their souls on the line. The bit of acting I did, I ended up getting cast in some stuff and I didn't want to do it anymore. It was nonsense. Mostly I got cast in rubbish, playing stupid, one-dimensional bad guys.

Was working on the TV series Fair City as a writer and an actor a big learning curve for you?
I wrote over a hundred episodes of it. When you're at the Pearly Gates with St. Peter looking at the list of shit things you've done in your life, the things where you sold your soul, writing a soap might be near the top. I would never really denigrate it because there are so many wonderful people that work on it, and many people love to watch it, but in the end it really wasn't what I wanted to do. The money was great and the people were great, but I want my grandkids to look back at my life and see something else. Two movies down the line you hope they'll have some sense of who you were and what it was you wanted to contribute.

Did your experience working on BATMAN BEGINS (2005) influence the way you approached your own filmmaking? 
I'm essentially an extra in that movie but I still get cheques, and I got more money from that film than anything I have ever done in my life. Christopher Nolan, his wife and producer Emma Thomas and cinematographer Wally Pfister were only interested in what was captured in front of the lens. That chemical notion of capturing lightning in front of the lens. That's all that matters. In spite of the fact it's a multi-million dollar film, in the end it was these three people trying to ensure that whatever happens in the frame was powerful enough to sustain through production, post-production and then be projected in a dark room and hit someone in a visceral way. That to me is very exciting because it is not budget based at all. It's about human to human, moment to moment engagement that transcends the limitations of everything around you. Those limitations could be a hundred million dollars or a hundred quid. The same limitations apply. How do we get someone empowered to such a degree where we can transcend those limitations? Nolan is measured, he's smart and even if you don't like some of his films, there's real ambition behind them. He wants to make cinema that's remarkable.

Where did you shoot your scenes? 
I worked in Bradford and in London. I blew up Arkham Asylum, and then later released the Scarecrow. Those two things were shot in two different places. They built Gotham City in these huge airplane hangars from the War. The scale of it was amazing, but when we shot in there it was just a small group of people fighting to capture the moment. The thing filmmakers respond to is the look in someone's eye, the sense of breath and on a heart level it's someone's heart responding to another human being. That scale is the most epic you can get. When we talk about John Cassavetes, him doing a Batman movie is not interesting to me at all, but Cassavetes doing a movie about Batman's best friend who everyone forgot, that's a movie I'd love to see.

How far are you into your next film? 
I have a script called The Dancehall Bitch. It's part of a trilogy. CHARLIE CASANOVA addressed the issue of the controlling class destruction of the working class and the vulnerable. PATRICK'S DAY addressed the issue of the dehumanisation of the mentally ill and the control mechanisms put in place to rob them of the right to express themselves. The Dancehall Bitch is about the consequences of protecting rape culture, which is what we have done for centuries in Ireland. It's also about the progeny of that rape culture. What kind of men are created by this culture? What kind of things do men do to other men to convince themselves they're men? What do they do to women to convince themselves they're men? It's set in a prison and it's about a stronger Alpha male who takes a weaker prisoner and deconstructs him as a man and reconstructs him as a woman in order to create a fantasy life for himself and to explore his own very destructive notion of love. Its a massively exciting project. The Irish Film Board read it and said ''Are you out of your fucking mind?' You've just had a huge success with PATRICK'S DAY, and you want to make this shit? What is wrong with you?'' It's going to be a long journey ahead.

Can you talk about Oliver Twisted? 
Oliver Twisted is a dark but enjoyable exploration of what a gigolo is willing to do to create an other world for himself so he can avoid the actuality that he's a lonely, broken, fucked-up man. It's a higher concept movie on a bigger budget and would be for a wider audience.

Would you be interested in writing novels? I see a literary quality in your movies. 
The magnificence of a novel is that you're allowed the inner monologue, but the first thing that I would want to explore is the unreliable narrator. I'd love to be able to write novels but I've no education whatsoever. I never finished school. When I was homeless I would see students going to college and I'd feel such an overwhelming desire to be in their shoes. I thought students went to school and discussed Dostoevsky. I ended up discovering Crime and Punishment because I bought it for 5 pence in a second hand book store and I was so lonely that I read Raskolnikov's character as my own. I thought ''Wow, how does some guy from all those aeons ago reach across time and hit me right in the chest?'' I presumed that was what students were encountering every day in the mythical, magnificent world of college. Then I met some of the students and they were some of the dumbest people I'd ever met. I teach in colleges now so have had the privilege of  encountering many magnificent students since but at the time it was all about, ''What makes a writer?'' I read Bukowski and this guy talks to me on a level that I don't fully understand but is magnificent. To be a novelist is something I would love to be, but the act of sitting down and writing and the discipline required is something difficult for me, as is grammar. But I do have a desire and a curiosity and a love for writing that still leaves me breathless. And I feel the same way about movies. Long may the two way love affair continue. 

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

You can see the film on VOD in the US at Amazon and through Our Alchemy, or on DVD from April 10th through Brinkvision. The film can be purchased on DVD in the UK and Ireland from Wild Card Distribution.

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

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