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An Interview with – Director Ciaran Donnelly

Resources_Dir_128 - Ciaran DonnellyCiaran Donnelly is an Irish film and television director. He has directed TV seris such as The Tudors, The Vikings, Titanic: Blood and Steel, Robin Hood, George Gentley, Spooks and Cold Feet. He has also directed the features Big Dippers and The Split. He spoke to Film Ireland about comunication, working with actors and what it means to be an Irish director.

How do you communicate your vision?

I worry about the word ‘vision’. If it’s a story pitch situation, it’s tricky because it may all be in your head but the very choice of words, manner of delivery, mood – yours and the listener’s – the type of day everyone’s having and other variables are all factors. So how you do it and get it right is probably down to practice and confidence in the idea in the first place. There’s nothing worse than realizing your idea sucks while pitching it. A well-worked story will have a logic of some sort that leads you through it, like a good song. It must be wholly formed. Actors learn well-written dialogue easier than bad dialogue because it will have a story, a character logic and a flow.

If the question relates to describing a ‘vision’ for something you’re directing, then I write it down and describe it using analogy and experiences. I’ll decide on a tonal palette. I find visual references, photography by others, some of my own. I have images and ideas drawn up by visual artists or the production designer. This relationship is vital. I’ve often run into Tom Conroy’s office (The Tudors’ production designer), blurted out an idea with a couple of books/images tucked under my arm and then rabbited for a bit. He always gets it. And we’ve just done our best work on the third series of The Tudors.

How do you approach development, rehearsals, production, post-production, storyboards, script, actors, etc.?

This is a huge question! I’ll try and keep this simple and describe an overall approach. I have to understand the context for and DNA of the story, the characters, who they are, their motivations, reasoning, what they would and wouldn’t do. Great actors can do a page of script in a look. You’ve got to know their craft and try and understand their process, along with all the other pressures they’ll be under. ‘Get on with it and say the lines’ doesn’t work. I don’t agree with Mamet on that. Trust is crucial, they depend on you for their understanding of the process and the character they are playing.

In terms of the rest of the process: it’s generally a mammoth quest of ruling out other things and keeping the right bits all the way to the very end. I think in film and television, cliché is always dangerously close.

Is there a pattern to the way you approach subjects?

If the question relates to how I direct, no, there is no pattern. Each piece has its own feel, atmosphere and story. It’s very different each time.

What are the real challenges in communicating your vision?

Usually the cost.

Do you usually get what you set out to achieve?

I don’t think anyone gets 100%. Once money is in play, or other people, tiredness, bad weather; there’s any amount of variables. But you have to persist and insist, and if it’s right and makes sense you’ll get close.

Is there a pattern to the way you break down scripts?

I don’t know, I react to different things in each script.

Is there a different story that you want to tell being an Irish director?

No. A good story is a good story. But we have a rich history that we rarely visit in film and television – other countries don’t seem to have that problem. A good story always sells.

What makes an Irish director different creatively from other directors?

I think the only difference is we are held back by the size of our industry. Talent needs opportunity in order to work and develop and learn. You have to go and get that, the number of opportunities to do that here are limited. The incentives are great and improving, (new budget depending) but anything I really learned about story, particularly editing, I learned in England from people who’d been doing it for twenty years already. I always felt that a director should work all the time. If you master a musical instrument you are in charge of it and you can control it, emotionally and technically. Good film, television drama, documentary and animation are the same in my view. If you are in command of the medium and have a good story, you’ll certainly get close to that 100%.

What films and documentaries have a creative impact on your work?

I always try and react to each scene for its own purpose. The story beats motivate everything in my view. I don’t try to emulate anything I see, but occasionally I remember a certain Spielberg blocking or camera move and might adapt. Contrary to what I described in the previous answer some of the world’s greatest musicians can’t read a note, it’s a ‘hear feel’ method, which is very instinctive but still hugely informed by experience and understanding of things, but there is still mastery of the instrument.

Directors and films that  inspired me… John T. Davis, Paul Greengrass, My Left Foot, Brokeback Mountain, Lives of Others…

Is an audience in your mind when you are at work?

Absolutely. Do you want to go the cinema and be ignored?

What or who has helped you the most in realising your vision as a director?

My Leaving Cert English teacher in school said, ‘lads if we really get down to it we can do the curriculum in about four months and it’ll get you through the exam, because there’s some other great stuff I can tell you’. He sat down at his piano and started playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. …

What would you like to be remembered for?

I’m too young for that kind of question.


This interview first appeared in Issue 128 of Film Ireland Magazine.