Scannain caught up with writer/director Maria Doyle Kennedy to talk about her IFB-backed Short Stories short film A Different Kind of Day, ahead of its world premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh.

The film is a story of a teenage couple who have special needs. When they are attacked by a gang, their response to the incident changes the day for everyone

Audiences will be more familiar with Maria Doyle Kennedy from her acting roles, which include some of Ireland’s most cherished and well-known films and TV series like The Commitments, The Tudors, Father Ted, The General, and Sing Street. Sing StreetA Different Kind of Day marks her debut as a director I just had this particular idea. I’ve always been interested in making things from the beginning to the end. We’ve been running a record label for quite a long time and making our own records and so that ‘s one way to tell a story. And then obviously visually is another way. And I just knew how I wanted to see. And I didn’t want to be in for any reason. So I said I’ve really got to make it myself, I don’t need to tell the story to someone else and let them make it. I really should just do it”.

Maria’s son Daniel stars in the film so it had a personal appeal “I have some experience of being around and growing with a person who has special needs. And one of the things that I noticed, and where the story came from is that if somebody has a disability of some kind, be that intellectual or physical, other people tend to define the person in that way. For example, the two young adults in my film, the two leads, both have Down Syndrome, and I’ve heard people say before, many, many times, that they are Down Syndrome. Like Daniel is Down Syndrome. And he isn’t Down Syndrome. He has Down Syndrome. There’s a subtle but enormous difference between the ‘is’ and the ‘has’ there. Down Syndrome is just one facet of a whole person. That’s what I wanted in a small way to make people think about. And I didn’t want to do it in a preachy way. I want people just to enjoy the film and maybe come away with thinking that. Or just question some of their own perceptions or judgement. One of the other things about the film is that I would often hear people make the generalisation that people who have Down Syndrome are really kind or really loving and in my experience, a group of people that have Down Syndrome are just like any other group of people. Some people are loving, some people are not, some people are kinder than others. Every single person is different and I wanted to challenge that perception in the film”. 

The Irish Film Board’s funding scheme Short Stories was a way to get the story to the screen “I knew these two people for a while and I knew that I really just didn’t want to do it on an iPhone. I wanted to try and get some funding because I really wanted to surround myself with people who did know what they were doing, as I was figuring out myself how I could achieve what I hoped to. So that was really important to me, the visual aspect of the film. I was lucky enough to work with James Mather just over a year ago and see the incredible work that he does. And I told him about this, and as soon as I told him the story he just laughed at me and said ‘I’m in’. From him, all the way through, Hugh Fox did the sound and Vanessa Gildea was our line producer I had incredibly experienced people around me, which is a great thing if you’re doing it for the first time yourself. I’ve been on the other side of the camera a lot, and I guess I thought I knew a lot of the things that I would face. But there’s just so many bits of the tapestry to weave together and things that I hadn’t actually thought about before. So as they arise it is really good to have non-flappable people around you who know very clearly what their job is and how to achieve it”.

Then filling in the cast around Daniel and Orla became the thing “So once I knew that it was going to be Daniel and Orla as the two leads I went over to Bow Street, to Maureen Hughes theatre school, and did a workshop there with a whole load of her young actors. And found incredible people there. I would have given them all a job if I could, but I had more people than I had parts for. That was an interesting part of the process for me. I’d never been in that position before. I found that very difficult. I really just wanted to cast everybody, but for logistical reasons, we couldn’t. They were really open to the whole experience. They were just great”. 

Another personal aspect of the production was the location “It was kind of a homage to Rathmines. I’ve lived sort of near there for a really long time, for 30 years or something, and I just wanted to show all of the different little bits of that. All of my favourite bits. The library and the bookshop and just walking by the auction rooms and all of those little pieces. I had thought that I was writing something very simple, and it is a simple story, but suddenly the week before we were due to film it I hung my head and questioned why I didn’t just write two people in a room talking. I’d written something that’s entirely based outdoors, and where we move every ten feet. So it was a logistical nightmare. Constant setup and strip, setup and strip. And we had two very short filming days, but the gods were with us. It was early April but we got beautiful weather. It would have been an entirely different film if it had have been raining”. 

Making a film with her two leads imposed some restrictions “I had to think about before I began…because of my two leads I know that the working day needed to be structured to suit them. To hold their attention and interest and to match their stamina. When I started off thinking about that it seemed like a limitation, but then there are always limitations in doing something, like the availability of days or of people, or budgetry. There’s always stuff that you have to figure out. I found afterwards that having to be really strict about that was a really positive thing in the end. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do any take any more than a maximum of 3 times because my two leads wouldn’t have stayed with me any longer than that. I had to have a really clear plan beforehand of what I wanted to shoot, in what size, and in what order. And I did quite a lot of dummy runs with Daniel and Orla where we just went out, the three of us, and walked around a few times. Just to familarise them with the idea of somebody walking 10 feet in front of them with a camera. That they’d have the idea of not looking at it or forgetting about it. They were so natural, so relaxed on camera. Having to make that really strict plan beforehand was really a present in the end and made the editing so more simple. If I hadn’t have been in that position, and because I was doing my very first thing, I would have shot the hell out of everything. I would have been afraid that I’d miss something or of what I was going to get. And I would have ended up with an enormous amount of material that I just would have had to sort through afterwards”.

Her experience in the industry meant that she was able to reach out for help when needed “Who was really fantastic to me was Lenny Abrahamson, who was my mentor. He was great. I asked him as I hadn’t done this before and I knew that things would arise that I hadn’t thought of or planned for. I sent him the story and he said ‘I can see that. I can understand that’. He was great, available to me to call or email. I remember the day before we started filming I had a small wobble. I was like ‘What am I going to do?’ I called him and he said “I know why you are calling. I know what you want to ask me, but that you don’t quite have the words for”. He said “The thing that you have to remember is that people want you to make decisions. That’s your job”. There was something incredibly clear about it when he said it that way. It made me feel solid enough to decide things. Because ultimately I did know what it was that I wanted to do and I did know what I wanted it to look like. And even though I didn’t have the official language or directorial attributes, I had these incredibly experienced and talented people around me who did know. It was compelling, entirely absorbing and a very steep learning curve. But it was very exciting because of that”.

A Different Kind of Day plays as part of the New Irish Shorts 7 programme, which will world premiere the shorts backed by the Irish Film Board on Saturday, July 15th in the Town Hall Theatre at 12pm.

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