Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Filmmakers In Focus - Jason Mehlhorn

Regular readers of the blog know I sometimes dabble in screenwriting and directing. It's been a slow year in many respects, but it's an area I will give a lot more attention to in the coming year. Over the course of the past number of years, I have met and engaged with many a colourful character, mainly in the Independent 'sector' here in Ireland. Fellow writers and directors, some wonderful crew, acting and musical talent, all striving to progress in areas of art long under funded here on The Emerald Eye.

Despite the lack of funding many artists working in Ireland today draw energy from somewhere to bring projects to the world. Their will and dedication to put all they have into something make them true practitioners in whatever area of artistic expression they serve.
Again, regular readers will be aware The Writing Life & Other Absurdities embraces and encourages all things Independent. Dedication to any art form means finding ways to express it, and often against the many odds placed before any artist. I hope this blog will serve to find and promote the outstanding work artists in this country produce, often through circumstances which mean long spells working in solitude for little or no monetary gain.
In the New Year I will announce how this blog intends to add a new voice to all things Indie here in Ireland.

In the first part of a three-part interview, Dublin based filmmaker, Jason Mehlhorn is the first filmmaker to take part in a new series on the blog. Indie Ireland - Filmmakers In Focus, will document the efforts undertaken without the aid of funding structures. I hope, in some small way, they serve to inspire artists to either begin work on projects, or supply the encouragement in some way to keep them going.


I'm delighted to welcome Irish filmmaker, Jason Mehlhorn to this new segment of the blog. The Dublin native's documentary,
Ballybough Court took home the award for Best Documentary at The Underground Cinema Awards in September and Jason has recently completed work on his debut feature film, Ulterior. In the first part of a three-part interview, Jason talks about a busy few years, his thoughts on a number of subjects, and what's up next for him.

Hi Jason. I guess the best way to start is to tell people a little bit about yourself, and I'm of the opinion that the best person to do that is your good self. So...
Hi Noel, thanks for having me. Regarding myself; I make films. I’m not sure if anything else is of interest to people, but if so, ask away.

You have a BSc. in Bioanalytical Science, correct?

How did the cross over from that to film-making come about. It doesn't seem like what one might term, 'a natural progression?
People get the calling to make films while being involved in all kinds of other professions and fields. My case is far from unusual. I can’t remember the exact eureka moment unfortunately, but I got interested in film-watching at least towards the end of my degree I think, possibly through an interest in philosophy which I feel bridges the sciences and the arts. An interest in filmmaking would’ve come a number of years later when I realised people can actually make the things.

I've read somewhere that your award winning documentary, Ballybough Court, took 6 hours to shoot, but almost 3 years to complete. Can you talk about that a little?
Yes. I won’t go into the full story as it’s extremely convoluted and boring, but it started as a collaboration with effectively three co-directors. This system really slowed everything up. When I direct alone I can make creative decisions in seconds and move on, but with three people there needs to be meetings, discussions, arguments, compromises and more meetings for even the simplest decisions. The project was meant to be a feature film with lots of other sections, some of which were shot, but I took control of directing the 6 hour shoot at Ballybough Court where old women play bingo every Wednesday afternoon. Then during the long post-production period the two others left. I ultimately took control of the only bit that really interested me and finished it as a short. But between it's shooting and finishing, I made a feature film which was more important to me so the short took a back seat as I've difficulty dividing my focus. But having said all that, I'm notoriously fast when shooting films and notoriously slow in post-production. It is something that needs to change, I mean how many other filmmakers can claim to have contributors on their films literally die of old age before they’re completed.

[laughs] At some point you thought to yourself that a feature film was not only possible, but also a viable alternative to getting caught up in the competitive world of making short films and trying to break through that way. When did you reach that point?
Pretty much from the beginning of getting into filmmaking really, it was just a question of the right time. I researched how people become directors and in Ireland particularly I feel most people blindly keep making short films until someone, somehow, gives them the crack at a feature film. Yes, a very few succeed, but in my opinion it’s pointless after a certain point. Yes, directors can learn a lot from them in the early days, but it’s good to know when to move on and take control of your own destiny. Also, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve very little interest as a viewer or director in anything other than feature films, so that helped push the issue also.

Is that why Ulterior came about, it being feature length as opposed to a short?
Yes. I knew I knew nothing, so was very happy to work on as many low and no-budget projects to see how other people do things. I mainly do sound, which was an area I fell into, so I was always around the director, actors and cameraman and learnt a lot, if even how not to do things. Concurrent with that I started directing my own work, mostly documentary shorts, and after a time I felt I knew just enough to have a stab at a feature. So I had a look at my bank balance and had €5,000 or whatever spare, and then flicked through my writing notebooks to see what stories or ideas I had that could be made into a feature with that amount of money. I finally narrowed it down to a choice between Ulterior and another psychological thriller type film, and choose Ulterior. It interested me a bit more and I believe I had more of the story figured out.

I guess this is a good time to get you to talk about one of the many elements it takes to make a film,
So, Jason Mehlhorn on Screenwriting...

What to say about it? I don’t engage in what I perceive as ‘script-worshiping’ were a director feels they've to realise as perfectly as possible what’s on a page. Obviously being the writer allows me to treat the script however I wish, but I would feel quite hyper-sensitive if someone else had written one for me as there’s an inherent obligation there I think. However, for the time being I try to use the script as quite a loose document, for something to almost fall back on if things can’t be bettered on the day. The exception is the dialogue, which once it’s locked down in rehearsals, I like it to stay the same. This is fueled by my belief that film should be a visual medium, so the dialogue should be as minimal as possible and this needs control. When actors improvise they tend to talk more. Also I’m rather particular about writing for the correct medium, there’s little I dislike more than a feature film script brick-walled with dialogue, set in one location and it unfolds in real time. To me that’s filming theatre which I see as totally pointless. There's also a lot of feature scripts that are more like sit-coms.

So, the script is completed. What next?
Finding locations, actors and crew really. The crew was just 5 people with the same number of principle actors. And the locations are very few as you’ve seen - a house for about 70% of the film and some city scenes around Dublin mostly to stop the film being too indoor based and claustrophobic. The whole of pre-production was rather stressful, as I’ve never needed to produce a film as formally as this before and even taking into consideration how simple everything was it still took a toll, especially with my time.

I'm of the opinion that a writer/director sometimes has no choice, but to produce their own work. So yes, you've guessed it,
Jason Mehlhorn on Producing...

Well yes, I produce solely out of necessity as I absolutely hate it. But if I don’t do it nobody else will, and for the time being my films don’t get made. In that sense it’s a necessary evil. At my level of film making [independent micro-budget films] finding good producers is very difficult, but I think there’s ways of easing the difficulty of it. I’ve done a number of one-day courses on the legal and technical tasks involved in producing properly. I’d recommend people do some as it’s the kind of stuff that if you don’t know you can’t be made aware of it casually - you either know it because someone informed you or you don’t know it. Directing is something where there’s a personal learning curve involved, so it’s the opposite in a way, I don't believe it can be taught. Anyway, if someone is forced to direct and produce simultaneous I’d recommend keeping the script and therefore task of producing as simple as possible because if things are too complex you’ll spend more time organising and the creative side will suffer.


Part II will follow in the coming days.

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