Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Director Lenny Abrahamson made a telling choice in casting the comedian Pat Shortt as misfit Josie, the central character in Garage. Although unknown to most in the UK, Shortt is famous in Ireland with a popular television show 'Killinaskully'. Abrahamson's choice admits to the recent international success of Irish films, and conveys much about the ideas that led him, and writer Mark O'Halloran to make this hushed and reserved film.
Spare and austere, Garage tells the heartbreaking story of a slow-minded garage attendant. Sidelined and humoured by his small country town, Josie has worked alone, innocently content, his whole adult life. Then his boss decides the garage will open later at weekends and hires a teenager to work with him. Josie becomes friends with David (Ryan), and so grows to understand his own loneliness.
The casting of Pat Shortt will elicit a different reaction in Irish audiences than elsewhere. The idea of the misfit is effectively revealed through this conflict between the character and the popular actor. "He's a kind of national comic institution," explains Abrahamson, "His stuff is broad and big and wildly popular. There were times I worried these associations with Pat would topple the film over."
Dostoyevsky's novel 'The Idiot' pits the positively good man, open, meek, unassuming, against a corrupt society. Garage does not portray such a Holy Fool. Abrahamson comments, "The point of the film is not to say, 'ah look, you thought he was an idiot but he's higher than all of you', because Josie really is an idiot! The point is that even this insignificant, absurd life has immeasurable value."
Prevalent fears of stranger danger means a middle-aged male loner is an object of suspicion. The vague unease of the gentle humour in the first two thirds of the film raises expectations of a violent conclusion. In fact, the denouement is hyperreal, almost dreamlike.
"At the beginning, the film encourages the viewer to see Josie the way the rest of the town sees him - as harmless, absurd, shallow," Abrahamson says, "but as the story develops that view of him becomes harder to hold on to. In the end there feels like there is something profound, unfathomable about him."
Abrahamson and O'Halloran call Garage a "testament to vaudeville." With the subtle slapstick of a large lumbering man going about his routines in earnest, moving the display of oils, feeding a horse, doing morning exercises, it is perhaps vaudevillian only in our voyeurism. Abrahamson wanted to use elements of vaudevillian clowning in Josie's character, "Josie is a kind of clown who's had most of his gags taken away from him and is left standing in the centre of the stage feeling dislocated and gormless."
In an era of enthusiastic jump cuts, Garage is a still film, moving calmly from beautifully framed shot to shot. It is as though something is being said in a very harsh whisper.
Completed in the same spare style as Adam & Paul, the second collaboration between between director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Mark O'Halloran withstands comparison to the best of the Dardenne brothers. Garage weaves tragedy with comedy to tell a beautifully-drawn tale from the margins of contemporary rural Irish life. Regarded by his neighbours as a harmless misfit, Josie (Pat Shortt) has spent all his adult life as the caretaker of a crumbling rural garage. But his world shifts when a shy teenager, David (Conor Ryan), comes to work with him. Initially performing their menial tasks in silence, they tentatively open up and suddenly Josie is drinking cans down at the railway tracks with the local kids. This awakens dormant needs, leading to Josie's awkward tilt at intimacy with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff).
Jason Wood: Garage is your second feature collaboration with writer Mark O'Halloran. Could you say a little about the working partnership and some of the sensibilities you share?
Lenny Abrahamson: Mark says that we plucked each other from obscurity and that's not far from the truth. There is a great connection between us artistically and a natural territory we inhabit when we work together. Looking at our films it's hard to disentangle his traces from mine. They are the result of real collaboration. Having said this, in terms of the way we work it's all quite traditional. We talk, he writes and I direct. Certainly this was true with Garage. On Adam & Paul everything was new and it took us a while to discover our method.
I think one of the big things which we share, which makes our collaboration possible, is that we don't like characters to be fully captured in a film. And we favour story over plot. What do I mean by this? Well, at the level of the characters, even though they are created by us, they are not reducible to a set of psychological traits or a list of motivations. And nor is it always easy for an audience to extract conventional plot points from the flow of events. Mark's writing is always open - the scenes feel true and are full of possible meanings; the voices are absolutely authentic.
That's the way life is: meaning is always there but there is no clearly given way of decoding it. Conventional cinema obscures this with an easy reduction of meaning to plot and schematic characters. Cinema at it's best can express something of the pure irreducible fact of things.
JW: What advances do you see between Adam & Paul and your second feature?
LA: I probably wouldn't use the word "advances". Adam & Paul is true to itself and complete and so for me is a fully realized piece of work. Garage is probably a deeper film - quieter, sparer, more resonant. But that emerged through dealing with its content, not because we sat down after Adam & Paul and consciously decided to move in that direction.
Shooting Adam & Paul was very tough. There was barely enough time and the budget was tiny. On top of that we shot in dangerous locations where we had little or no control or security. I was aware on Garage of defending a schedule that would give me space to work with more freedom. We also shot the film in a very beautiful, quiet place in the middle of the countryside. So the experience of making the two films was very different. Shooting Garage I felt relaxed, but at the same time intensely concentrated. I don't think I achieved the same purity of focus on the first film.
JW: You have described Garage as "slapstick tragedy" in that it mixes two genres that shouldn't necessarily match. What is it about this that interests you as a filmmaker? Were there specific pitfalls that you wished to avoid?
LA: Probably this description better applies to the first film. Adam & Paul is more obviously vaudevillian - it has lots of physical comedy as well some out-and-out slapstick routines in the Laurel and Hardy tradition. But there is still something of this in Garage in the way that elements of clowning are used. Josie is a kind of clown who's had most of his gags taken away from him and is left standing in the centre of the stage feeling dislocated and gormless. I find something moving about that style, without it ever being crudely emotive.
JW: The perception of Josie changes as the film progresses. We begin with how he is perceived by others and journey towards a more internal and retrospective portrait. Apart from the performance of Pat Shorrt, what tactics did you deliberately use to achieve this?
LA: The film is always with Josie - it's a chronicle of his life over a number of months - and Pat's performance is so subtle and deep, and the film is open and quiet enough to let you watch him closely, that after a time it becomes impossible to sustain your first impression of the character. The beginning, which is deliberately straightforward and unremarkable in presentation, encourages the viewer to see Josie as harmless, idiotic, absurd and, above all, slight - but as the story develops this view of him becomes harder to hold on to. There are scenes of him in nature, on his own at home, scenes with the horse, which open the film out and give it a denser texture and it becomes harder to think of Josie in easy social categories. Eventually as the film approaches the end sequence there is, I hope, a feeling that there is something unfathomable about him.
The important thing for me was to achieve this development without marking the changes in any obvious way. Josie could never describe his feelings - perhaps he is not even conscious that he has them. Actually, in a real sense, there is no change in Josie; no "character development". The change is in us as we watch him. All his depth, all his capacity is there from the beginning - we just don't see it. The film works by becoming quieter, more concentrated as it moves forward, which draws the audience in and intensifies its awareness. In a way, everything points towards the few seconds of silent black screen after the last image and before the credits.
JW: One of the things I most enjoyed about Garage is its willingness to communicate as much through what is left unsaid and suggested at as that which is made explicit. For example, the scene where Josie makes tea for Mr. Gallagher and we are left in no doubt that Josie is about to lose his home and his livelihood. Was this approach a major decision for you?
LA: We knew the scene you describe would end where it does, before anything significant is said. As shot it was longer, though - with all the dialogue you would expect - so that the actors could play the complete encounter and would not be anticipating the cut. Generally, there is an attempt in Garage not to load the dialogue with explicit meaning. I'm interested in the spaces between the significant moments in life, the parts that are usually discarded in memory and also - almost as a matter of principle - in conventional cinematic storytelling.
JW: You employ a minimalist visual style. Is this partly informed by the natural beauty of your locations and what other factors came into play when deciding the tact that you take?
LA: The process of shooting - of choosing shots - is intuitive for me and I just feel my way towards what seems right. In fact, though the filmmaking is always quiet, there are places where the images are expressive as well as places where the shots are deliberately functional. It's hard for me to define a single visual style that describes the film. Garage is minimal, I suppose, in the sense of being as simple as I could possibly make it. When there really is something authentic in a scene, and when you remove everything which feels inflected in the storytelling, anything unnecessary, then the scene can get an extraordinary intensity. Lots of this business of taking things away happens in the edit. I try to take bricks out of the building, and as long as it doesn't fall down they stay out. The danger in making something like Garage where the events are mostly "ordinary" - at least on the surface - in this very simple way is that if there is any kind of false note, then the powerfully prosaic becomes just prosaic. There is none of the bluster and effect of conventional drama to hide behind.
JW: The minimalism is also reflected in the sparing use of music. Why did you decide to use so little?
LA: I work with the same composer, Stephen Rennicks, on everything I do. I have a similarly tight relationship with him as I do with Mark. He's extremely talented and absolutely concentrated on his music as part of the film - never for its own sake. He composed beautiful, interesting music for many parts of the film and we would try pieces out, often keeping them in the cut for quite a while. But nearly always we came to feel that the sequence was stronger, purer, without the music. In the end there are three music cues left in the film; the titles and credits and one piece over picture. The music over titles is very dense, orchestrated and dramatic. It creates a kind of expectation which is undercut by the first, prosaic images of the film, but by the time a version of it recurs over the credits I think the expectation is met. The middle piece occurs at a very particular point in the film. It marks the end of something. Neither myself nor Stephen has ever worked as hard, or thought as much about film music as we did on Garage. There is so little of it but it is a hugely important part of the film.
JW: There is a sense of timelessness in regards to the environment where the film is set. How difficult was it to find your location and what key elements - a garage, presumably - were high on your list of priorities?
LA: With the garage itself we were very lucky. The building that we ended up using - and using with almost no alteration - was due to be knocked down to make way for new apartments, just like in the story of the film. Generally though, and all breathless news reports about the Celtic Tiger notwithstanding, most of Ireland looks a lot like it always has. There were many, many towns we could have used. Strangely, one or two Irish critics have said that places like this no longer exist. I think they're watching too much TV.
JW: Were there also certain images you were keen to avoid in regards to the depiction of rural Ireland and small town life? In many ways you are not afraid to reveal that despite the beauty, these is a sense of frustration, boredom and even cruelty associated with this way of living.
LA: I was concerned that while the film definitely had to show the insularity and occasional cruelty of small town life, it couldn't become about those things. There is a history of stage and film drama in Ireland - some of it wonderful - about the psychology of the depressed place, and for me there is not much to be said that's new. Garage is really a film about the significance of a small, unremarkable life and I wanted it to be a celebration of that life. It was often a difficult balance - to show it truthfully in all its sadness and at the same time to make about something deeper than that sadness.
JW: The relationship between Josie and David is beautifully realised. How natural was the camaraderie we see between Pat and Conor?
LA: Pat and Conor are easy-going, open people and they liked each other from the beginning of rehearsals. Like David, Conor is self-possessed, gentle, and has a very developed, dry sense of humour. And he is as natural in front of the camera as any actor I've ever seen.
JW: In a film of quietly remarkable performances - and I found Anne-Marie Duff to be especially striking - it is impossible not to mention again Pat Shorrt as Josie. I know that in Ireland he is a very popular comedian so did you have any reservations about casting him and how did you work together to achieve Josie's physical and mental appearance?
LA: Once I thought about Pat in the role of Josie it was impossible for me to imagine anyone else playing the part. We'd worked together briefly before and I knew that underneath his broad comedic style there was a great sensitivity as well as a profound understanding and familiarity with the kind of place Josie is from. If he had turned the part down - and I thought he probably would - I really don't know what we would have done. Pat is a performer, a character comedian, who is used to working from the outside in and that's a way that I like to work too. We didn't start with long conversations about Josie's feelings, or his history or his psychology. We started with how he walked, spoke, his bearing around other people, and we built him up that way, always with the script as our touchstone. Certainly casting Pat in a straight role caused quite a stir in Ireland and at one point I remember I did worry the Irish audience would see only Pat and not Josie. But his performance is so extraordinary people very quickly forget they are watching Pat Shortt and become absorbed in the character.
Pat's performance still amazes me when I watch the film. I shaped the performance with him and I've seen it hundreds of times through the edit and at many screenings but I am still struck by how Pat, without any obvious 'acting' is able to give glimpses of Josie's deeper inner life. It is also striking how he can move seamlessly between almost high farce and a very dark, truthful, realistic performance.
JW: The film, like Adam & Paul, was very warmly received and was relatively successful on its theatrical outing. Are you emboldened by its reception and has this in any way affected the scope with which you view your next project?
LA: Yes, I am happy with how Garage has been received. It was by far the most successful Irish film of the year, which is saying something given the kind of piece it is. Its reception critically in other countries, particularly France and the UK has also been extremely warm. This helps in getting the next projects funded and probably does open up possibilities for me to make bigger films. Having said that, I don't have any particular urge to make a bigger film for the sake of it. I like working on small films over which I have complete control. I'd hate to give up that freedom. There is one project I've been thinking about, though, which would have to be funded at a significantly higher level. Maybe it's now a real possibility that I could make that on my own terms. We'll see how it goes
Posted by Edward Hugh at 1:15 PM