Getting Started – Writer/Director Robert Quinn
Robert Quinn is a writer / director of feature films, television programmes and documentaries. Projects include his feature directorial debut Dead Bodies (2003) and the award winning documentary Cinegael Paradiso (2004)
I came through the route of assistant director. So I did the whole gamut of third, second, first. At the start, it was very difficult. Nobody knows who you are. I think it took a year for me to really get working. I would get a day here and there on a commercial. It was often very discouraging. I think any advice I’ve ever given to people who have gone into assistant directing is don’t give up. You have to keep ringing, keep hoping that you’ll get a break. And if you stick with it you will.
I started with my father Bob Quinn on his film Budawannay. Then I got a job as trainee assistant director on My Left Foot. I got lucky because My Left Foot was a break. That was at a time when there wasn’t as many crew people as there are now and My Left Foot was seen as a success so people who worked on that were given the option to go forward. The big break I got was to work abroad on the Young Indiana Jones Series. They did an episode in Dublin and after that I got asked to go to Kenya and so on around different countries in Europe, and Africa. That was the biggest break I ever got and that opened up a lot of things for me. Then I came back and worked on Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father. For close on ten years I was working my way through the ranks of third, second first assistant director.
When I started working in film, my dad said to me learn what everybody else does in every department if you can. That was the best advice I got. Crews can be brilliant in discovering new and innovative ways to do things and it’s how to tap into that, that’s part of the director’s job I believe. I would hate to be ignorant of what they’re doing because if I were I wouldn’t know what their potential were. It’s not just turning up and saying this is what I want. You also have to try and figure out with them how to get what you want.
I always found that being an assistant director was a huge eye opener to how films work. When you’re assistant directing you can pay attention to what the director is doing or you can worry about just what you’re doing and not learn anything about what the craft of directing is. I tried as much as possible to keep an eye on both.
A lot of directors come on set having no set experience whatsoever and so they’re intimidated by the set so never mind concentrating on the actors or the story they’re worried about do they know what they’re doing technically so they’re severely disadvantaged.
I also did a MA in screenwriting in Dun Laoghaire Iadt when I was 30. I took a year’s sabbatical to do that. That was the natural breaking point where I stopped being an AD and started being a director. It was a good course to do. It gave me an insight into theory that I hadn’t had before.
Advantages of Formal Education
I don’t know if it made me a better writer but it gave me a better understanding of structure and narrative. It was about honing things I think. For me, at that point I knew a lot about the set structure and what a director has to do but not so much about the story side of things. Whereas other people would learn that first, I kind of learnt it last.
I have a problem with the fact that there are so many film courses cropping up around the country. I think there are probably only three or four that are worth they’re salt. I think you have to be very careful of ‘fix it quick’ doctors that say they’ll make you a great scriptwriter over night. Go to an established school or go to an established teacher, or ask an established filmmaker.
If you want to become a director I think you should learn as much about story and writing first really. If that is ultimately what you want to be and you’ve your total sight set on it. I think you should learn the craft of that as soon as you can. There’s no substitute for working through story and narrative and getting an understanding of that. That’s why script courses are a very good start.
Unfortunately with the assistant director route you’ll spend the guts of 5or 6 years without getting within one foot of a camera. You’ll spend a lot of time in the background or backstage or down the road holding traffic and making tea. But if you have patience, that is one that works for people. I was always told it was a rarity for an assistant director to make a jump to directing. I don’t think that’s totally true. It’s not like its mutually exclusive. I suspect that if you want to do it a little bit faster the advertising route is quicker. If you’re successful in advertising you get to direct more often You get to roll cameras a lot more often than if you do feature films for instance. The shooting is more regular. You can be developing a film for 2 years and then you’re shooting it for 6-8 weeks whereas on a commercial you can be rolling ten times a year. I don’t know whether that’ll make you a better filmmaker but it might help technically.
Get your face about. Get yourself seen around. Get people to know who you are. If they can put a face to a name then someday they might just think of you for a position on a film. That includes ringing around and going to union meetings and going to film festivals or whatever. The great thing about this country is that everyone is very accessible. Go down to the Galway Film Fleadh and you’ll bump into people. I was there one year I wasn’t a writer or director but I was having a cup of coffee and this guy sat down in front of me and it was Anthony Minghella , and we got talking. So go to these events where you can sit down and socialise with people with like that. Don’t expect them to be very nice to you often but you can meet people and they can be quite interesting. That’s what’s good about Ireland and the advantage that it’s very small. If you go to America you haven’t a hope of meeting these guys – they’re behind steel fortresses.
There’s no straight formula for the thing. It’s a lot of luck. The more you arm yourself with good stories and good ideas and stay out of the pub and stop talking about it the better. You know that saying: Hi what are you doing? I’m making a film. Oh really neither am I. Stay out of the pub. Stop talking about it. Just get out and do it. With the new digital formats that are available now, there is almost no excuse now not to make films if you really really want to. You should be able to hire a camera from Filmbase, you should be able to get some friends together you should able to go out and if you’re any good and if you’ve got good ideas then you may be able to pull something off. Having said that I go back to the point that if you don’t have an understanding of story and narrative from the beginning you can forget it. I’ve seen so many short films from film students that are quite flashy but they’ve no story. Or they have a good story but no technical knowledge. So it’s boring. You need to find a happy medium where you understand as much as you can .If you have a good story and a good idea, digital formats are blowing it wide open for younger filmmakers to have a go.
I’m planning to do another feature film later this year. Then possibly,next year I’m also hoping to do the Walter Macken book ‘Rain on the Wind’. So I’ve got a few things on the go. You have to have a lot of things on the go. If you don’t you’ll be waiting for one thing to happen and it won’t. It’s always good advice to have a few pots on the boil.
This originally appeared in an article in Issue 105 of Film Ireland Magazine.