Meet Ciaran. Graphic designer by day, short filmmaker by night. His latest film Pianist in a Brothel is a rich, visual delight, painting the story of a lonely musician whose talent and work seems to go unappreciated by those around him. It’s an impressive follow up to his debut short The Butter Border, so I grabbed Ciaran (figuratively speaking) to chat with him about his filmmaking experience so far.
Picture the story with me if you will. A young boy in County Fermanagh dreams of growing up, knowing that he wants to work in some artistic / creative manner. What begins as a love of drawing, evolves in his teen years to a passion for graphic design. This then sets him off on his grown up path to a successful and enjoyable career as a Graphic Designer.
Now, fast forward a little (to fully fledged adulthood and a move to London) and after a bout of ‘January guilt’ which involved sitting on the sofa just after Christmas and watching daytime television (sound familiar), Ciaran realised he was hungry for more. He wanted more satisfaction. He wanted to push himself. He wanted to create beyond his day job. Peeling himself away from the body shaped indentation he’d carved in to the sofa, he went to a cafe with a pen and a notebook. Having always had a love and passion for film and filmmaking, he decided then and there to write and direct a film. True to his thoughts, by that summer, Ciaran had shot his first short, The Butter Border, a tale of two sisters smuggling butter over the Irish border in the 1940’s.
Having grown up in a small rural area in Northern Ireland, Ciaran tells me that as a young person, filmmaking just didn’t feel like a “tangible thing”, which is an emotion I think many of us can relate to. With no formal film training, Ciaran is largely self taught (he has had some experience with corporate films and storyboarding through his graphic design career) but it is his love of film and learning about the craft that have propelled him forwards.
For his first film, he began with the classic piece of advice ‘write what you know’. Starting close to home, Ciaran heard a story about women smuggling butter over the Irish border back in the 1940’s and it resonated with him. Coming from a small community close to the border and with Brexit dominating the news, the seed of an idea was planted which was too good to let go. Having written the script for The Butter Border, researched finding crew and with a self funded budget, he was now tasked with shooting a film in Ireland whilst he was based in London. Ciaran admits this was a huge challenge and incredibly hard to manage. Travelling back and forth, he found crew, cast and secured the location (the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum which retains the period look he needed).
A few days before the shoot began, some crew members became unavailable and everything had to be postponed. With flights still booked, Ciaran went home anyway and wandered around, feeling melancholy at things not having gone to plan. However, a few months later, the shoot was back on and filming started. Yet things never go smoothly on set and on the first day it became apparent that the central character would not be able to ride the bicycle she needed to. At that point, Ciaran admitted it “feels like your whole world is caving in”, yet the reality is, you just need to improvise and move on. Which is exactly what they did. At the end of shooting, they had around 70% of the footage they needed but had run out of both time and money.
Six months passed, giving Ciaran time to raise more funds but it proved impossible to gather everyone back together to complete the film. Unwilling to give up, Ciaran decided to finish the film with animation, bringing an animator on board and blending the gentle nature of the live action with the visual painted feel of the animation. Whilst Ciaran honestly says that the film “is not how I imagined it would be”, it proves that films evolve and that determination, patience and the ability to adapt can produce a great piece of work.
It may have taken him longer than expected and cost him more than he anticipated but like many of us, Ciaran became addicted and was soon moving on to his second film. Taking the lessons learned from his first experience, he wanted to create something more “stripped back in essence”. Inspiration came from a colleague at work who told Ciaran (during a particular frustrating afternoon when he was facing numerous challenges) that he was like a Pianist in a brothel. Finding it “such a beautiful phrase”, it sparked an image that Ciaran knew he could flesh out into a story. Jotting the plot quickly on a post it note, he wrote the script the following day and again began to find collaborators to work with.
Pianist in a Brothel is a simple story, told with no dialogue and anchored by a striking central performance from Jeremy Swift (Downton Abbey). (The succinct answer for filmmakers trying to find experienced actors for their short - just have the courage to ask.) Shot in one day in the striking Rivoli Ballroom in East Brockley, the biggest challenge of the shoot was choreographing the action to the music. It was clearly a challenge that Ciaran thrived with, as he tells me that when music and image match on screen, to him “that’s just perfection”. Although he initially thought there may be a few lines of dialogue in the film, in the edit he realised the film was “more powerful without”. It was definitely the right decision and the emotion of just the music and image carry the viewer to the crescendo of the pianist’s week. So how did Ciaran find his initial composer? Via a facebook video, obviously! It just goes to show, in the modern digital world, it has become easier in many ways to find collaborators and opportunities.
With both films currently working their way around the festival circuit (the time taken to complete The Butter Border meant that editor Alex Kyrou was working on one directly after the other), I asked Ciaran how he feels about chasing festival plaudits. He honestly admits that initially he felt incredibly daunted at the thought of festivals and the amount of competition, but he now feels “we’re all in the same boat. I have a massive amount of respect for anyone who makes film…the stress involved…physically it's a hard thing to do. I’m just happy enough telling stories”.
To be completely honest with you, I needed to hear that from Ciaran that afternoon. Sometimes we need to be told that we shouldn't worry about the competition and be given a gentle reminder that we create for the love of it.
In that case, what’s next for Ciaran and Crude Studios? Currently focused on writing and building his catalogue of shorts, he is also inspired by the story of Zak Moradi, a Kurdish-Iranian refugee who was relocated to Ireland and has become a sporting sensation as a Leitrim hurler (If you’re not sure what a hurler is, just google GAA Hurling). Whilst Ciaran doesn’t see himself as a documentary filmmaker, he can recognise a great story when he sees one, so perhaps this could be something new on the horizon? Who knows, but for now he seems pragmatic, “I’d die a happy man if I can make a feature film…but at the moment one or two shorts a year would be great”.
Before we part, Ciaran sums up the madness and the desire to put yourself and your money on the line to create a film you believe in. He didn’t want to dream about it and be the guy that took no action. When push comes to shove, he smiles and tells me, “It’s just something you need to do”.