Phil Sheerin has been whipping up a storm on the festival circuit with his new short film North, which has just won Best UK Short at the very recent Raindance Film Festival.
We caught up with the director and writer to chat about this very personal project, the success the film has enjoyed so far, and what lies ahead for him.
- North is you new short film, so can you tell me a bit about it?
Isolated on a farm and fighting against his family, Aaron struggles to be heard as he watches his mother willingly die. It was a university exercise as part of my Master's degree and we had to make three films as part of the NFTS, which is the National Film & Television School here in England.
- As well as being in the director's chair, you have also penned the screenplay, so where did the idea from the short film come from?
My mother was very sick when I left Ireland to come over to England to study. She had ovarian cancer but, at the time, she was better in terms of the cancer but there were massive post-operative complications. All this came close after her father dying - there was a lot of misery in the family at that time. When I left to come here, I felt incredibly guilty because she ran a coffee shop where I would help her out.
I felt to a huge degree like I was abandoning her so that side of the film... even though there was never any discussion about assisted suicide in the house, it was just a tough time. In terms of the central themes of wanting to hold onto your parents and not wanting to let go of someone that you love, that is where those came from. In terms of the fiction of the story, one you start writing it does become its own thing. After the first few drafts, which was different in terms of the end, it became a more complete story.
- Can you talk a bit about your writing process - do you start with character first then story?
It has been very different for every... I have only made a few shorts but they have all been very different in terms of how I approached them. With this one, I knew what I wanted it to be about, in terms of the themes, and I knew that the central character was going to be an amalgamation of myself and a couple of my brothers. I had a strong point to pose the problem or set up the question.
I did multiple drafts. In the original version, it was set in a housing estate in an urban area but through the development with my producer, we kept stripping it back and making it tougher for the central character; if you are living in a housing estate there are more people to confide in or more chances to run away and get into trouble. However, if he is stuck in the middle of nowhere, he has to keep being confronted by it. I do like writing a lot of drafts as I find that it is a way to figure things out for myself; I will write a scene a few times to figure out the cadence of it and figure out how to shoot it more efficiently.
- I was reading that you shot this movie while you were studying your Master's Degree in directing fiction, so what drew you into film in the first place?
That's a good question. I remember always being in love with film and I was a film buff, even as a kid. My eldest brother is really into his music, plays a lot of instruments, and has thousands of records. I think that these go hand in hand, at a certain level, with the visuals and music and when you are aware of what is going on with the mechanics, you realise that you need both. I remember watching Apocalypse Now when I was about nine and I thought that it was brilliant but didn't understand it one bit.
Anything I do tends to be personal and is based on either my life or something that directly affects me. That is usually the start of all of my projects but, so far, they have all been very different, in terms of the development process. With North, it was more about the character, the issue, and the problem. The film I made at the same time of this, was more about the ending: I came up with the ending first and then worked backwards.
About a week before my thirteenth birthday, I saw a film called High Plains Drifter by Clint Eastwood and it just changed... I understood that films were not just simply entertainment, but they were something else and they could talk about social issues or show you a side of life that needed to be explored and talked about. From that point on, I viewed films as something that were very important; they stopped being just something that entertains you and became a bigger part of my life. I remember when my friends were drinking in a field at sixteen, I would go home and watch a few films while they got drunk.
Many filmmakers do have a background of a broken home and I do fit that as my dad died when I was very young. Spielberg says that his parents getting divorced made him withdraw and he became more creative because he needed to express how he felt. I don't know if that what happened to me because my brothers and my father was very artistic and it probably was just in my blood, to a degree.
- North sees Barry Keoghan play the central role of Aaron, so what were you looking for when you were casting this role?
I was really scared when I was writing this character... I knew Barry from back in Dublin when I was working in a place called The Factory, which was collective of filmmakers, actors, and writers. I met Barry while I was there. Then I left to go to England and I forgot about him as an option as I thought he was still living in Dublin - the budget for the film was only £3,000 and we wouldn't have been able to fly anyone over or put them up.
I was writing the final scene of North and I was scared that I wouldn't be able to find an actor... this was just an insecurity as I'm sure that there are many great actors who could have done it, Barry being one of them. As I finished the fifteenth draft of the script, I remembered Barry because I had watched another short that he was in and thought 'holy crap.' So I tracked him down and he was actually in... there was a lot of serendipity going on as he was in England shooting a film called Norfolk. We managed to convince the Norfolk shoot to finish with Barry as soon as possible. I am sure that they were saying 'yeah, we will do it,' but they are not going to jeopardise their film for our film.
They managed to wrap him two days before we started shooting and so we collected him and he stayed in my house. He doesn't say a lot but you are sucked into his thinking, you want to know what he's thinking and, regardless of where he is in the frame, you are just watching him. The last scene doesn't feel like it's our film, it feels like it is Barry's film because he you are watching a real person instead of a character. Barry was invaluable.
- How collaborative a process was it between director and actor?
It was a four days shoot and we didn't have any rehearsal time. I'm not precious about the script and if something isn't working for them I am open to suggestions on how to fix it. Once we are one set, I am always open to everyone's ideas. The thing with this one, is Barry had come straight from the set of Norfolk, where he had very little dialogue as well and was the central character, so he came ready.
If anything, Barry wanted to talk less, even though I never gave him a lot of dialogue. He was just pulling things away and, as long as the camera was in the right place, we would know what he was thinking.
With the next thing that I made, there was no script, I would be handing out a treatment and everything was up to me and the actors on the day. North was not quite as loose as that but I had no problem if they needed to change a lot, I would change it.
- The movie has just won Best UK short at the Raindance Film Festival, so how was your experience at the festival?
The festival was great, it was really good. I was exhausted because I wanted to see as much as I could, but I had to work as well. There were lots of late nights and early mornings - but not in the fun way - as I was watching films and then going home to bed.
The Raindance Film Festival is an important festival because I feel that the focus is on new people and indie films and it is not about the industry. It is not about the money side of the business, which is what a lot of the other festivals - as good as they are - are about; they are a marketplace and everyone is trying to sell something. I would love a career, which is why I am doing this, but the film should be first and that is the feeling that I got from Raindance. It was good.
- How have you been finding the response to the film - it really does seem to be touching people?
Getting to see the film in the cinema is one of the reasons that I love festivals. You can send people a link or a DVD of the film and they do respond to it and like it, but, as a collective experience at a festival with an audience, you can really feel the whole audience shifting their emotions. I can feel people genuinely being moved and it is something that is far more intense in the cinema. At festivals, that is something that you really do get to experience, even with a short film.
It has been amazing that people have connected with it, partly because it is a personal story and I wanted to tell it, but also because it is such a universal story and I tried to my life as much as I could to make it real. I am delighted that it is doing so well. It took a while for it to do well on the festival circuit and it just needed a couple of festivals to latch on to it and champion it. It is doing well.
- You have kicked off your career in short films so how great a grounding do you think shorts are as you are starting out on a directing career?
I love shorts. I am not one of these filmmakers who comes to the table with a ready-made style. If you look at people like David Fincher or Paul Thomas Anderson, who just knew what they wanted to do from the beginning. I know that Anderson changes all the time but he is an absolute genius.
I still don't really know what kind of stories that I want to tell or how I want to tell them and so short films are like a training ground. You can try anything with short film; even if you get the short wrong or it doesn't work, you haven't damaged anything, and you haven't damaged your career. The most important part is to push, not only your own boundaries, but try and see holes in the narrative in general and see where you can push it to.
I think I am going to continue to make shorts. I look at someone like David Lynch, who does a lot of features but still makes a lot of shorts in between. It is a way of staying sharp and I think it is important. If you want to do something that is a bit bonkers in a feature and it fails, that could be your last feature; I would try it in a short first and then try it in a feature. It may sound like the cowards way out but you don't want to mess with other people's money and features do cost a lot of money. Shorts are amazing.
- Finally, what's next for you? How close do you think your first feature film is?
The very next thing I am doing is a music video in Morocco; this will be the first music video I have ever done and I am really excited about it. After that, I have a good few film ideas that I have been working on but none of them are... from the point of view of me being a personal filmmaker, I am waiting for something that really feels like this is something only I could do. So I am still waiting for that.
In the meantime, I am writing a television series, which we will be pitching very soon, that is based on Napoleon. It is quite a modern take on him. Hopefully someone will be interested in that and then I can negotiate to direct it. Besides that, I have a super high-concept short film that we are going to need a crazy amount of money to make; my producer is pretty confident that we can. It is about an accident where a person loses both of the hands and it is about what happens next. So it is body horror meets family kind of thing. It is going to be very expensive and it won't be easy to make.
At the moment, apart from the music video, I am just... I am not going to rush into anything. I was offered a feature film last year that was someone else's script and as much as I liked it and there was a lot of good stuff in it, it wasn't for me. I am holding on to what I want to do very tightly. I am going to be doing lots of writing.