Recently a group of emerging Irish filmmakers completed production of a modern re-telling of the classic Dubliners story ‘Two Gallants’. The short film features the unreleased song ‘Where Are We Here?’ composed, produced and performed by Brian Fast Leiser of the ‘Fun Lovin’ Criminals’. The film’s completion also coincided with the centenary of the Dubliners and is now being released to film festivals internationally.
Although primarily the story of two con men, the film is also relationship-focused, drawing on the fear Lenehan has that his friend Corley may desert him for his new female companion. Recession era Dublin is portrayed as a city where everyone feels the need to get ahead, and this is further developed in the characters’ interactions. The film addresses themes and issues related to capitalism, emigration and homelessness – which are currently very apt to Irish culture – while still fulfilling its heist story origins.
We spoke to Carl Finnegan, who plays Corley in the film but also directed and executive produced it, about his experience taking on Joyce’s work through this new medium.
What has your own experience of reading Joyce and what drew you to Dubliners in particular for the film?
Dubliners, Finnegans Wake and Ulysses were a staple of the family library and I had stumbled across them in my youth. I loved Dubliners in particular and I revisited the book many years later. I was always impressed by the characters and the varying stories told. It’s certainly interesting to look back now and connect the dots as to how our film came to be. In 2011 I saw ‘The Company’ perform an abstract play loosely based on Ulysses at the Abbey. I hadn’t considered up to this point updating James Joyce’s work.
Another influence was Michael Colgan at the Gate Theatre and how he championed Samuel Beckett both on stage and through ‘Beckett on Film’. The latter inspiring me to bring Joyce to film. I had finished my first play with my theatre company (Pack A Punch Theatre) and I was looking for my next personal project and decided it would be a short film and I was looking for the story from Dubliners I would most like to tell. Two Gallants and Counterparts were the two stories I really wanted to do.
How did you find adapting ‘Two Gallants’ from Joyce’s original prose, how much did you feel carried over to the modern world?
The decision I made immediately was to work with a writing partner, Darren McGrath. We knew each other from our theatre work and Darren had studied Joyce as part of his masters at DCU. This was our first screenplay and we made a very conscious decision to spend sufficient time learning the screenwriting process as well as looking at every possible way we could adapt the story. We had drafts that were very different to the original. We were researching modern con men and their practices. We always found ourselves returning to the structure of the original and we’re confident that it is true to these classic characters. We do not explicitly state they are con men, in keeping with the original, but there is a sense that they’re up to something. We focus on a now tenuous relationship between the two men, with Lenehan fearing Corley may leave him for the maid. Whether an old fan or a new one we’re trying to keep the audience guessing about how the story will unfold and that was the biggest challenge. With ‘Two Gallants’ a lot of the language required updating for our purposes. For a short film, dialogue needs to be shorter by its nature and we focus much more on what is not said. We updated the symbolism as Lenehan walks through the streets of Dublin which is now put to a montage. I think the themes and issues carry over to modern Dublin. Recession era Ireland gave us the backdrop we needed.
What made you decide to take on the role of Corley and how did you find getting into character?
With projects I’m producing I’m often looking for the opportunity to play against type. I’m typically cast as the nice guy or the more heroic type. I was attracted to the ambiguity of the Corley character. There is a subtle, menacing quality to him in our film and it gave me the opportunity to stretch as an actor. At certain times in my life I’ve had some of the character’s negative traits and I generally draw from my own experiences. I see Corley as very much the puppet master in ‘Two Gallants’ and it’s certainly interesting playing the character holding all the cards.
Can you tell us a bit about the filming process itself and the cast you took on to complete the project?
After the screenwriting stage, I worked with our project manager on raising funds as well as organising the logistics of the shoot. Many Joyce fans as well as family, friends and film enthusiasts donated to this project. We received support from Donal Thurlow who came on board as an associate producer. Donal runs the ‘Bloomsday in Bruff’ festival and has a great passion for all things Joycean. Mary Wogan, another James Joyce fan, came on board as an associate producer. We had a huge response from Twitter, in particular from Julie Drew & Kathleen Hunt, who were strong supporters. It was then a case of assembling the production team: Stuart Duff was the DOP and Simon Murphy was our sound recordist. The cast was led by John Carey as Lenehan who delivers an amazing performance. Alicja Ayres plays the maid who is now of Polish origin and excels in a much expanded role. We have a strong supporting cast of emerging Irish talent. We filmed for 4 days and 1 pick-up day later on. Post production was then overseen by myself and our editor James Halford who was a key person on this film. The editing is fantastic in the film. Emma Butt worked on sound design, Matt Branton was our colourist. We had use of the best post production facilities possible. We took our time with the project and did not let it out of our hands until it was just right. It’s very much project management overseeing the whole process. Each day you are working on some element but it’s absolutely worth it and I’m now officially a filmmaker which was a goal I had set out.
What do you think about the potential of Dubliners as a book to be recreated in more films such as this?
I think it can bring more interest to the source material. It would be interesting to see many different interpretations of the book. We have completed the script for ‘Counterparts’ and we’re going to be looking for financing to complete that. Alcoholism is a subject I’d like to address on film. We’ve found an interesting way to update the arm wrestling piece. We would like to continue to make stories from Dubliners and engage with Joyceans for input. I could see us potentially tying a number of the short stories together as a feature film in the style of ‘Sin City’. Another possibility would be a web series. John Huston did a classic version of ‘The Dead’ so it is unlikely we would adapt that story. But we’re reviewing all the stories and looking for interesting ways to present them.
What’s coming up next for yourself?
We will promote and submit ‘Two Gallants’ to film festivals for the next year and potentially longer, depending on how it is received. If it is received favourably and finds an audience, we will look to ‘Counterparts’ as the follow up and would move quickly into scoping it as a larger feature film project of the stories or as a web series. I really want to engage with Joyceans going forward and see what they would like to see. We have completed a feature film script which is a semi-autobiographical story based on my own life. We will be moving into pre-production on that shortly. I’ve found that the best thing is to move forward with a vision of where you want to go, assemble a great team and take on something more challenging that will make you stretch. I’m very confident that if we continue to do that we will establish a new voice in Irish cinema.