It’s been twenty years and nine feature films since his debut in 1997 and Graham Jones passion for filmmaking remains strong and infectious. Having already crafted a successful and impressive career as an independent filmmaker, when I meet him, I’m even more excited to hear that he feels like he’s only just beginning.
I discovered Graham’s work a year or so ago, on the sort of day you spend scrolling through the internet, one click leading to another, then another and so forth. Eventually I stumbled across a post entitled Nuascannán and all at once the word seemed familiar yet entirely alien. My interest piqued, I read on. What I learnt that day is that Nuascannán is a word formed from the Gaelic for new and cinema and it explains (or encompasses) Graham’s ethos of filmmaking. Undoubtedly the most interesting and eloquent description of Nuascannán is from the man himself, but to boil things down simply, the movement takes its lead from Italian Neorealism, French New Wave and Danish Dogme. It embraces the evolution of independent cinema and what is now possible outside the ‘traditional system’. In our digital world, technology has become increasingly more available, thus changing both the creation and consumption of the moving image. The time has never been riper for independent film to harness and build on this new wave of momentum.
With what felt like a call to arms, I was intrigued to meet Graham and find out more about his life as a filmmaker so far. When he agreed to chat with me, I thought we would have to rely on the world of technology (given our London to Dublin distance). However, serendipity stepped in (in the shape of a family celebration) and the next thing I knew, I was heading to Dublin to meet the man himself.
Arriving in to Dublin Heuston from Kilkenny on a slight rainy May morning, I just had to dash a few steps from the station to find a much needed cup of coffee and an incredibly punctual Graham waiting for me. We only had a few hours before I needed to catch my flight home and Graham would need to resume his day, so it was a relief to discover that he was immediately so open and talkative. The only subject that we had previously agreed was off the table (and respectfully so) was his latest feature, Rainy in Glenageary. A moving documentary about the 1999 unsolved murder of teenager Raonaid Murray, the case remains open and therefore not a topic for discussion. (You can read more about my thoughts on the film and watch it for yourself in my previous post Rainy in Glenageary).
With coffees ordered and introductions made, we wasted no time in travelling back to the mid-nineties. Starting somewhere near the beginning, Graham explained he was in London and despite being in his third year of Film School, he still felt there was a strong air of mysticism surrounding filmmaking. In order to address this issue, for his final year project he interviewed around thirty different producers across the board, to try and get under the skin of what making a film really entails. Already interested in low budget filmmaking and developing his Nuascannán philosophy, this experience propelled him forward and when he returned home to his native Ireland, he “immediately launched in to this odyssey of making a feature”.
That first film became the controversial ‘How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate’, (for those that don’t know, the Leaving Certificate is Ireland’s final exam of the Irish secondary school system). Essentially a heist movie, the film follows a group of teenagers led by Fionn as they hatch a plan to expose the flaws in the system by stealing the answers to the exam papers. Shot in black and white, on super 16mm, the film was condemned at the time by the Junior education minister Willie O’Dea (which, it’s fair to say, only made the film all the more appealing). Yes, it was controversial, but it was intentionally controversial. Graham and his creative colleagues wanted to provoke a reaction; to point out that they felt the system was both unfair and rigid. As a writer and Director then in his early twenties, he tells me that the entire production was fuelled by youth and passion. He admits with a laugh that the whole experience became “almost like a cult”. As it turns out, their determination and enthusiasm was well rewarded. With help from the Irish film board, the film went on general release in Ireland in 1998 and has since gone on to become a cult classic.
Over the intervening twenty years, Graham has made eight more films, his second (Fudge 44) was released on DVD and since his third (The Green Marker Scare) he has been releasing his films solely online. Not only that but currently you can watch all of Graham’s films for free, on YouTube.
This unusual decision feeds directly back in to his personal filmmaking philosophy. He is quick to explain to me that he feels the traditional distribution model is in flux. That filmmakers need to think about new ways in which to find their audience. It’s the golden question, surely? How to get your film out there for people to watch? Graham agrees, adding “There’s an illusion that once the film is made, that’s the hard part and then everything else will be easy”. He smiles and continues, “however, once it’s made, it’s a new battle”.
But why YouTube I ask, given that he could turn to a number of different platforms. He agrees, but feels that due to its 4k capabilities, worldwide reach and accessibility, YouTube seems to be the best option. For now. You sense that when or if this changes, Graham will be ready to move with the moment. He is matter of fact; “the future is liquid. Now everything is digital”.
With our coffees drunk and half our time already gone, I was aware that there was so much more to talk about. It turns out it’s not easy to condense a twenty year career in to the space of just a few short hours. In the spirit of a scripted biopic, we jump back and forth between years, picking out highlights and moments that have delivered Graham to where he stands today.
Having worked with low budgets on so many productions, he now feels the time has come to move on. To work on a different scale and embrace more substantial budgets. It’s a shift but one that he is entirely ready to embrace. Although he laughs lightly as he adds a caveat that it’s “never good to think you know what you’re doing”. This down to earth attitude coupled with a clear belief in his abilities is what I think has driven Graham to this point of his career. He believes “if you have an interesting perspective you can create with the tools around you”. Although he doesn’t ever say it, it is clear that he doesn’t believe in excuses and I have to tend to agree. It might not be easy but the chances are, that you have something within your grasp that you can use to tell your story. But this then begs the question; what story do you want to tell?
Across his body of work, Graham has embraced a range of different stories that have explored a number of issues such as the education system, homelessness, grief, prostitution. On some level you could argue that there is a thread of social consciousness running throughout his filmmaking. I was keen to know if this is a conscious driver for his creativity?
He ponders the question for a moment before explaining that “I get worked up about certain things and have to express the anger that I feel. It’s like an act of aggression making the film, in order to make things right.” Pausing, he continues, “I think I’m someone that does have a social conscience. I would have come from a family background that was socially consciousness, but as a filmmaker I would find it problematic making films about various social issues. That’s certainly not how I would approach it. My driver would be character. There’s definitely an outsider quality to me and my experiences and characters.”
Character. This is what it all comes down to. The importance of giving an audience a character they can connect with, they can relate to, they can root for, or at times even hate. Yes, Graham’s work may embrace issues but it is true to say that characters are at the heart of his stories. From the very beginning with Fionn and friends in ‘How to cheat’, all the way through to (the very real) Raonaid Murray, Graham has put character front and centre of his storytelling. Quite often we will hear people refer to characters rather than the films they’re in and Graham sums this up quite simply, “the only thing an audience can relate to is people.”
Whilst on the subject of characters, I have to ask about the central character in his 2016 film, Nola and the Clones. Nola is a strong, yet vulnerable young woman, living on the streets, prostituting herself to survive. The performance by Caoimhe Cassidy is nothing short of stunning. Raw and heartbreaking, Graham can’t praise her performance enough and it’s incredibly justified. However, it can’t have been easy for a man to climb inside the character of a young woman in this way. Graham is sensitive to this issue and explains that (rather unorthodoxly) he actually wrote the final script once Caoimhe was on board. Almost tailoring it to her as an actress, he confides that the film probably wouldn’t have gone ahead if he hadn’t found her for the role. Quick to champion women and female voices, he is well aware of the irony of such a female film being written and directed by a man and it is not a topic he shies away from.
As we begin discussing the work of women within the film industry, Graham decisively shares his belief that female filmmaking is just at the tip of the iceberg. His excitement for female driven storytelling and creativity is unquestionable and he believes women will push the boundaries of filming to the next level. We could have spent the rest of the morning chatting about female empowerment and our gradual take over of the world - Graham is also incredibly knowledgeable about the women trying to turn the tide in American politics - but before our time runs out, I’m curious to know what he thinks about himself as a filmmaker, specifically reflecting back on his work of the past twenty years.
Looking at his films with a critical eye, he is able to see their strengths and weaknesses and feels he has learnt and grown from each experience. In his own self deprecating words and with a grin, he admits that “over time you become just a little bit less shit”. That’s what we all hope for right? To just get a little better? The importance of learning from what you’ve created and moving on to the next thing can’t be overstated. “One of the greatest gifts humans have is the ability to forget” says Graham as we chat, but “sometimes you become so obsessed with something you lose the privilege of being able to forget”.
Having overshot our two hour window, the time finally came for me to catch my plane and for Graham to resume the rest of his day. It seems apt to conclude with a positive and passionate statement from a filmmaker who believes in the future of film. “I think it’s a good century for female filmmakers and the matriarchy.” Listening girls? Obviously you don’t need permission but remember, there are no excuses.
Find Graham Jones:
How to Cheat on the Leaving Certificate (80 mins, 1997)
Fudge 44 (71 mins, 2006)
The Green Marker Scare (70 mins, 2012)
The Randomers (71 mins, 2013)
Davin (93 mins, 2014)
The History Student (70 mins, 2015)
Nola and the Clones (82 mins, 2016)
Sunshine Ukelele (72 mins, 2017)
Rainy in Glenageary (95 mins, 2019)