Sunday, January 23, 2011

Interview with Irish Director, Jason Mehlhorn

I'm delighted to welcome Irish filmmaker, Jason Mehlhorn to this segment of the blog. The Dublin native's documentary, Ballybough Court took home the award for Best Documentary at The Underground Cinema Awards in September and Jason has recently completed work on his debut feature film, Ulterior. In this interview, Jason talks about a busy few years, his thoughts on a number of subjects, and what's up next for him.

Hi Jason. I guess the best way to start is to tell people a little bit about yourself, and I'm of the opinion that the best person to do that is your good self. So...
Hi Noel, thanks for having me. Regarding myself; I make films. I’m not sure if anything else is of interest to people, but if so, ask away.

You have a BSc. in Bioanalytical Science, correct?

How did the cross over from that to film-making come about. It doesn't seem like what one might term, 'a natural progression?'
People get the calling to make films while being involved in all kinds of other professions and fields. My case is far from unusual. I can’t remember the exact eureka moment unfortunately, but I got interested in film-watching at least towards the end of my degree I think, possibly through an interest in philosophy which I feel bridges the sciences and the arts. An interest in filmmaking would’ve come a number of years later when I realised people can actually make the things.

I've read somewhere that your award winning documentary, Ballybough Court, took 6 hours to shoot, but almost 3 years to complete. Can you talk about that a little?
Yes. I won’t go into the full story as it’s extremely convoluted and boring, but it started as a collaboration with effectively three co-directors. This system really slowed everything up. When I direct alone I can make creative decisions in seconds and move on, but with three people there needs to be meetings, discussions, arguments, compromises and more meetings for even the simplest decisions. The project was meant to be a feature film with lots of other sections, some of which were shot, but I took control of directing the 6 hour shoot at Ballybough Court where old women play bingo every Wednesday afternoon. Then during the long post-production period the two others left. I ultimately took control of the only bit that really interested me and finished it as a short. But between it's shooting and finishing, I made a feature film which was more important to me so the short took a back seat as I've difficulty dividing my focus. But having said all that, I'm notoriously fast when shooting films and notoriously slow in post-production. It is something that needs to change, I mean how many other filmmakers can claim to have contributors on their films literally die of old age before they’re completed.

[laughs] At some point you thought to yourself that a feature film was not only possible, but also a viable alternative to getting caught up in the competitive world of making short films and trying to break through that way. When did you reach that point?
Pretty much from the beginning of getting into filmmaking really, it was just a question of the right time. I researched how people become directors and in Ireland particularly I feel most people blindly keep making short films until someone, somehow, gives them the crack at a feature film. Yes, a very few succeed, but in my opinion it’s pointless after a certain point. Yes, directors can learn a lot from them in the early days, but it’s good to know when to move on and take control of your own destiny. Also, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve very little interest as a viewer or director in anything other than feature films, so that helped push the issue also.

Is that why Ulterior came about, it being feature length as opposed to a short?
Yes. I knew I knew nothing, so was very happy to work on as many low and no-budget projects to see how other people do things. I mainly do sound, which was an area I fell into, so I was always around the director, actors and cameraman and learnt a lot, if even how not to do things. Concurrent with that I started directing my own work, mostly documentary shorts, and after a time I felt I knew just enough to have a stab at a feature. So I had a look at my bank balance and had €5,000 or whatever spare, and then flicked through my writing notebooks to see what stories or ideas I had that could be made into a feature with that amount of money. I finally narrowed it down to a choice between Ulterior and another psychological thriller type film, and choose Ulterior. It interested me a bit more and I believe I had more of the story figured out.

I guess this is a good time to get you to talk about one of the many elements it takes to make a film,So... Jason Mehlhorn on Screenwriting...
What to say about it? I don’t engage in what I perceive as ‘script-worshiping’ where a director feels they've to realise as perfectly as possible what’s on a page. Obviously being the writer allows me to treat the script however I wish, but I would feel quite hyper-sensitive if someone else had written one for me as there’s an inherent obligation there I think. However, for the time being I try to use the script as quite a loose document, for something to almost fall back on if things can’t be bettered on the day. The exception is the dialogue, which once it’s locked down in rehearsals, I like it to stay the same. This is fueled by my belief that film should be a visual medium, so the dialogue should be as minimal as possible and this needs control. When actors improvise they tend to talk more. Also I’m rather particular about writing for the correct medium, there’s little I dislike more than a feature film script brick-walled with dialogue, set in one location and it unfolds in real time. To me that’s filming theatre which I see as totally pointless. There's also a lot of feature scripts that are more like sit-coms.

So, the script is completed. What next?
Finding locations, actors and crew really. The crew was just 5 people with the same number of principle actors. And the locations are very few as you’ve seen - a house for about 70% of the film and some city scenes around Dublin mostly to stop the film being too indoor based and claustrophobic. The whole of pre-production was rather stressful, as I’ve never needed to produce a film as formally as this before and even taking into consideration how simple everything was it still took a toll, especially with my time.

I'm of the opinion that a writer/director sometimes has no choice, but to produce their own work. So yes, you've guessed it, Jason Mehlhorn on Producing...
Well yes, I produce solely out of necessity as I absolutely hate it. But if I don’t do it nobody else will, and for the time being my films don’t get made. In that sense it’s a necessary evil. At my level of film making [independent micro-budget films] finding good producers is very difficult, but I think there’s ways of easing the difficulty of it. I’ve done a number of one-day courses on the legal and technical tasks involved in producing properly.I’d recommend people do some, as it’s the kind of stuff that if you don’t know you can’t be made aware of it casually - you either know it because someone informed you or you don’t know it. Directing is something where there’s a personal learning curve involved, so it’s the opposite in a way, I don't believe it can be taught. Anyway, if someone is forced to direct and produce simultaneous. I’d recommend keeping the script and therefore task of producing as simple as possible because if things are too complex you’ll spend more time organising and the creative side will suffer.

It's obvious from your Workbook and by the films you view that your passion lies in European Cinema. Who, if anyone, influences your work?
Well, my top three favourite directors would probably be Tarkovsky, Bresson and Kieslowski, but there’s none of their style in my work I don’t think. On the other hand, I am very influenced by Jacques Tati, but he probably wouldn’t even be in my top fifteen favourite directors. But I think I am influenced by the way he utilises the composition of his shots, very simple editing, much visual storytelling, slow pacing and his use of sound in films. Although having said that my first short film which was made before I ever heard of Tati has some of these traits too, so I’m not sure.

Here's a question I want to have a little fun with over the series, so please forgive me. As i sit here I imagine many a chin being stroked, which kind of amuses me given the scale of the question being asked. Describe yourself in one word?

Backfire - [laugh] Talk to us about Directing? What, in your opinion, does that particular role involve, and when do you suggest is a good time to take the plunge? If there is such a time.
I think a good time to take the plunge is when you feel it’s the right time, although sometimes ignorance is bliss too. If I knew how difficult I’d find Ulterior I’m not sure I would’ve embarked when I did. But having done it I’ve learnt so much that now a second feature doesn’t scare me. Regarding the role - I see a director as a creative coordinator trying to get many different areas of filmmaking to gel.

You collaborated with Starofash/Heidi Solberg Tveitan, a Norwegian singer/musician on the music for Ulterior. It's a fantastic score which I found perfectly matched Ulterior? How did that come about?
Thanks. I was listening to an album she wrote for and I had just bought and when a certain song came on, the feel and mood was what the film needed so I emailed her record company. She was the first person onboard as I wasn’t looking for anybody at that point; I was still writing the script actually. Heidi is very versatile but still has a lot of authorship or style and this was important to me. I wanted music with a bit of character. I really didn’t want a very conventional thriller score that you’d find in most very low budget films, you know that horrible cheap sounding stuff with violin sections - just really generic and tacky sounding. Neither did I want source music I think it’s called, you know CD or library music crowbarred into scenes. I was actually planning to go with no music in the film if I hadn’t picked up that album.

So, here's another chance for us to pick your mind. Jason Mehlhorn on Music ( We appreciate a controversial approach, so don't feel you should hold back)
I’m not a musician and it was my first time working with a composer, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer such a question in some philosophical way. I would recommend having the emotional level of any music along the same levels as the emotions of the scenes, it sounds obvious but I see it quite rarely in low budget films. I think it happens because filmmakers think their characters are more likable than an audience finds them.

You're sitting at home with your first feature in the hard drive. Did you launch into post-production immediately, or do filmmakers tend to take breaks between the three principal areas of production?
Yes, I’d imagine they would take breaks but I didn’t, maybe a day off or something. There were breaks away from the film both planned and forced along the way. It was a two year process so doing that full time would have caused madness.

Take us through your post-production process? How do you approach it? Is there a standard path to follow or are all filmmakers different in how they approach this area?
I personally hate post-production so don’t eagerly or willingly talk to other filmmakers about what they do. However, I’d imagine the process would be fairly similar. Edit a visual rough cut, get it locked [i.e. into a state were it stops changing], work on all the sound and do colour grading. In theory it’s quite simple. For me the locked visual cut came last, and I done most sound and some colour grading as I went along. Sometimes these things informed the edits see.

Jason Mehlhorn on Editing...
I think if a director is also editing it’s a good idea to get feedback as you proceed. The last thing a director can do is look at their own film with any kind of objectivity.

Ok, let's get off films for a moment and refer back to an earlier remark about your interest in Philosophy. If you had to condense down your philosophy on life into 3 sentences based on where your current believes are, what would you write? It's ok if the last sentence has the words 'shoot Noel' in it.
My only philosophy on life is not to have a philosophy on life. Yes, another cop-out answer I’m afraid - I really don’t like talking about myself!

What has been the most difficult area thus far for you in film production? You've taken something from an idea to a physical state of being, if there was one thing you'd like to avoid next time around, what would it be?
I would like to avoid funding the next film myself! But that mightn’t be possible. More seriously, I guess needing to produce the film, as I said earlier it takes a toll on the creative side of things. I will look into trying to find someone though. Regarding the most difficult, I’d probably still say post-production.

Ballybough Court, your short documentary premiered at the Underground Cinema before picking up the award in the best documentary category in September. That must have been a proud moment to get acknowledged by others working in areas of filmmaking in Ireland?
It was the first award I’ve won so yes, it was quite thrilling. Although I think the award was more to do with the subjects in the film than anything I necessarily done as a filmmaker. It’s directing was simply a case of pointing the camera in the right direction really. I did see most of the other films in that category [best documentary] and was quite surprised as they were all very good and at least two were funded.On Ireland for a moment.

How do you think the current economic shambles here will impact on filmmaking in this country over the coming years?
Well on the one hand there’s less spare money floating around, so this makes filmmaking harder, but on the other everything is cheaper and more people are free to work on them! It’s a double-edged sword, but I think for any filmmaker making stuff on an extremely low budget it’s a good thing. I suspect the people who’ll suffer the most are filmmakers higher up the chain, you know the ones used to the many luxuries on their healthier budgets. To my eyes there seems to be more independent features being made in the last two years than I’ve ever noticed before that.

I was lucky enough to have seen Ulterior a few weeks back. It was only after a few viewings I could truly appreciate the effort involved, but not only that, what you achieved with the budget you had. Has this type of filmmaking, meaning micro-budget, a broader place in filmmaking practice than what it has currently in Ireland?
Well to be honest I find low-budget independent features far better and at least more interesting than the funded ones from the Irish Film Board. I think by and large lower budgets force filmmakers to think more creatively to tell a story and I also sense more passion about them. I’ve seen some amazing low-budget independent films in the last year from Ivan Kavanagh, Colin Downey, Donnacha Coffey, Rouzbeh Rashidi and Michael Higgins to name just a few.

What now for Ulterior? Are copies of Ulterior available to the general public yet?
I’ll be entering it into film festivals for about a year and we’ll see what happens. I’m still in talks, but outside of film festivals I’m hoping there’ll be at least two public screenings in Dublin in 2011. After the year I may either approach distributors to see what they make of it or I’ll distribute the film myself on some cottage-industry style if not bigger. So regardless of what happens people will be able to see it in 12 months if they don’t catch it anywhere else.

I know you've done work in this area Jason, both on shoots and in post production and it's an area you yourself pay particular attention to. Would you expand a little on the area of sound...
As I think I said earlier it was something I kinda fell into and will be moving away from to concentrate on writing and directing as it’s mostly served it’s purpose. However, I’ll continue doing it on my own projects and I’ll always have a particular interest in the possibilities of sound in film. I also prioritise the sound recording with the same level of importance and consideration as the camerawork, which is almost unheard of. Usually the sound department needs to work around everyone else and are sometimes treated quite disrespectfully, but I place it on a much higher level. It’s great for creating subtly and emotionally affecting the audience in ways that I don’t think can be achieved with a camera.

What's up next project wise?
The only definite thing is writing the feature script for the other thriller which would’ve been selected had I not choose to go with Ulterior. It’s just a writing exercise mostly, but if something really grabs me during the process I may wish to make it myself. Other than that I’ve two ideas for two features that I can make for a very low budget, a thousand euros or so. Both are quite experimental but they’re really exciting me at present. I’d work with a much looser script than with Ulterior and go with the flow more, however it won’t be some improvisational or haphazard thing. After I finished Ulterior I noticed that many of my favourite things in the film were happy accidents or incidents, or ideas that came from others. I’d like to see if I can set up an environment to utilise these things more.

Finally Jason, I've seen in the UK that Film Study enters the curriculum at an early stage. It's seeping into the system slowly here in Ireland. Do you have any advice for filmmakers who would be considering shooting shorts, or indeed, crazy enough to attempt a feature?
I think to always follow your instincts, it’s one of the only tools a director has in my opinion.

Sound advice. Jason, it's been a pleasure. I hope the coming year provides both Ballybough Court and Ulterior with the attention they deserve.
Well, many thanks Noel and thanks for taking the time to interview me.


Keep updated with all the current information on Jason's work and some exclusive content here.

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