An Interview With – Writer/Director Tom Hall
Tom Hall is a Dublin born writer and director who, in 1995, co-founded High Hat Productions with fellow filmmmaker, Johhn Carney. He was the writer, director and co-creator of Bachelors Walk, the IFTA award winning comedy/drama series. In 2010 he wrote and directed Sensation, a film inspired by reports of a farmer’s home-run brothel, and spoke to Film Ireland about how he developed and funded the film, and his advice for aspiring filmmakers.
What advice would you have for directors starting out?
I would suggest they be careful. I know a lot of people who think of a career in the arts as a kind of singular destiny. Unless it’s accompanied by some rat-like cunning and a lot of good fortune it can make one very unhappy. Once you commit though, don’t hedge your bets. If you have a plan B to fall back on, you’ll probably end up using it.
How did you originally get into directing?
My family were fairly cine-literate. My older brother in particular is an artist and was very influential in my development at a formative age. I started making little videos in my teens and I went to Dún Laoghaire immediately after school. The really decisive meeting though, was with John Carney when I was in my late teens and he was in his early twenties. We were both frustrated with what we were doing in life and were very impatient and ambitious. We joined forces at an opportune moment when the Film Board had been re-established but the field was still comparatively un-crowded. Out of that initial relationship we started to gather other sympathetic types till eventually we had a little gang. What we lacked in talent we made up for in chutzpah. We simply didn’t ask anyone’s permission to make films and cultivated an enormous blind spot about our abilities. At that time if you did anything that showed even the slightest glimmer of potential everyone knew about it. I remember Hugh Linehan in The Irish Times was our first champion in the press.
How did Sensation come about?
The idea originated from a local news story I heard on the radio. It concerned a farmer who had been busted for running a brothel out of the remote farmhouse he’d lived in all his life. His defence – which was believed – is that he was just a sad-sack bachelor who used sex workers occasionally and that one had moved in and basically taken over his life. I laughed out loud and changed the station. A few days later, however, I woke up thinking about this man. If that was the end of a story I wondered what the beginning looked like. Instantly I knew this was a film. I even knew what kind. It was an authentic ‘Eureka’ moment I’ve never had before or since. The themes suggested by the story dovetailed so perfectly with many moral and dramatic concerns that seemed urgent and contemporary. I wilfully didn’t research the real case beyond that point but I did start to stockpile impressions of the foreign (to me) worlds of farming and sex work. I interviewed an escort and spent some time in chat rooms researching the topic. I’d never approached a writing project in this journalistic kind of way but I found it very satisfying.
By coincidence I was summoned for jury duty in the summer of 2008 and I happily accepted knowing there would be a courtroom drama aspect to the film. The ambition was to make a comedy, a backwards love story, a drama of self-discovery and a contemplation of a society in which sexuality has displaced everything – community, religion and politics from the heart of the culture. The difficulty was to distil all these elements in a way that would be both satisfying and troubling, and to continually wrong-foot an audience unused to having their assumptions tested in this way.
I wrote the first draft on my own without a producer involved as I wanted the film to have its own identity free from the usual editorial or commercial considerations. By turns it made me laugh out loud or caused my eyes to water. I was thinking a lot about Michel Houellebecq and Fassbender’s phrase about making ‘a thermometer for the asshole of the culture.’
How did you go about funding the project?
I was fortunate to have two big champions for this project in Andrew Meehan and Emma Scott at the Irish Film Board. As soon as I turned in the script their enthusiasm for it turned it from a frankly kind of far-fetched idea to one that might actually be made. The Board backed it wholeheartedly through every stage. I had lately met Katie Holly and had a hunch that she would be a good candidate to develop the film. I liked the idea of a female producer offering a corrective to what otherwise might have been a very male gaze. Her partner in Blinder Films, Kieron J. Walsh, was similarly enthused and came on board as well. Though very experienced they had yet to produce a feature and consequently were hungry to do something a bit special and prepared to forgo the usual upfront fees. That said, it took a couple of years to close the finance. I kept referencing Happiness in meetings with financiers until Katie finally suggested that even Todd Solondz struggles to raise the money to make Todd Solondz films.
This project was the very definition of what is called ‘execution dependent’ – that is to say in the wrong hands it might just be grubby, exploitative and worthless – and I had no track record outside of TV that inspired confidence. While we were still fundraising Katie had the opportunity to make One Hundred Mornings while I earned some money doing Wide Open Spaces for Grand Pictures. In hindsight I imagine it was enormously helpful being in Conor Horgan’s slipstream. The decisive last bit of funding was secured through the Rotterdam Film Fund with the result that we had to hire a Dutch camera crew. No hardship as the DOP Benito Strangio turned out to be a terrific collaborator.
Tell us a little bit about the cast and crew?
Domhnall [Gleeson] came into my head early in the writing stage. He and I had worked together on a TV show many years ago and become friends. To make a film without a sympathetic protagonist is tricky. My feeling is that so much of cinema is about cool guys doing cool things or, in the case of romantic comedy, adorable people being adorable, in a way that interests me less and less. That said, it occurred to me that he was possessed of a charm and innocence that might offset some of the less savoury aspects of the character on the page. I also made the mistake of telling him about it so I was stuck with him but it meant I could continually solicit his views on rewrites and rough cuts. As well as being a tremendous young actor, Domhnall is a director in his own right so his insights about more than just his own part were never less than thoughtful. Similarly, I wrote roles for many of my favourite actors with whom I had already worked in TV. Finally we trawled lap-dancing clubs to find women to play the other escorts. I took a similar approach to crewing the film. I knew we wouldn’t have much time so I chose to rely on old friends in most departments and supplemented them with a few who, though new to me, were vastly experienced.
How did the shoot go?
For the reasons outlined above it was as happy a directing experience as I’ve ever had. It was charmed in a way I hadn’t experienced since shooting Bachelors Walk. Everyone was there for the right reasons. The farmer renting us the main location couldn’t have been more hospitable. My wife Kelly, Domhnall and I were staying in a beautiful cabin nearby. When I had to direct them in a sex scene the joke went round – ‘sure why not, they share everything else’. There’s a childish, transgressive thrill to dealing with this kind of incendiary material. We made filth while the sun shone. It was exhausting and challenging but we had done our work and were well prepared. On the production side Katie, Kieron and Cathleen Dore (line producer) were on top of everything. Consequently, we were able to just play.
This interview first appeared in Issue 139 of Film Ireland Magazine.