‘Balancing Act ’ – Cecily Brennan Discusses the Making of ‘The Devil’s Pool: Madness, Melancholia and the Artist’, which was Supported by The Arts Council’s Reel Art Award 2012 and premiered at The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in February 2014
Jason Oakley: What was your starting point? Thematically and visually ‘The Devil’s Pool: Madness, Melancholia and the Artist’ relates to aspects of previous works, but the documentary format is a new departure – the commentator’s interjections interrupt the flow of a powerfully dramatised performance work.
Cecily Brennan: The starting point was simple. I wanted to make a documentary with two elements. The first: a description of an artist, a young man in his 30s, losing his mind. The second: an examination of the long-held public belief in a connection between madness and artistic creativity.
In the final film, the contrasting worlds of the artist and the interviewees grind against each other – we’re made aware of the distance between the two worlds by their lack of contact.
The role of the artist is played by Marty Rea. The interviewees are Dr Simon Kyaga from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Patricia Waugh from Durham University, playwright Frank McGuinness and poet Paul Muldoon. In the edit we didn’t overlap the voices of the artist and the interviewees. They were kept separate so that the audience, hopefully, would be shifted from emotion to reason and reason to emotion – a deliberate disturbance to prevent them from getting locked down to one view or another.
JO: The performance sections are very powerful; was there a mix or tension between scripted direction and improvisation in the process?
CB: There was no improvisation in the delivery of the script. I really knew what I wanted there and I had rehearsed with Marty intensively for five days. So there was no mix there, but there was a tension. I guess there always is on film shoots. You have to organise everything in advance, including spontaneity. The actor and all the crew must be assembled, the location set up and all technical aspects ready to go.
We only had the location for four days and we were working on a limited budget, so I was very conscious that we only had one chance in our white set to splash the black pigment around. I’d had experience of that in the past with Unstrung (2007), so I knew that once we started we couldn’t go back and start again. There just wasn’t the time or the money. So I think there was a tension between the stability of the structure, rehearsal and so on and the complete instability of the elements: the paint, his body and the special FX.
JO: How did you approach writing a script and editing the audio and visual elements?
CB: When I had finished the script I brought it to a great script editor, Lauren MacKenzie, who helped me enormously. She understood the piece and in particular taught me about not having to say everything – to let the audience see what’s happening. She’d say to me – your protagonist doesn’t need to say “Oh the pain”. We can see he’s in pain. Though now that I think about it, we did argue about those words and I kept them in. But having to argue and defend my position was really useful.
And this was also the first time I’d really had a chance to work with a film editor. After a pretty extensive search, I asked Nick Emerson, who edited Good Vibrations, a great movie, to edit The Devil’s Pool with me.
In terms of the person you need to get on best with, I think the editor comes very far up the list. You are working side-by-side for weeks. It took Nick and myself five weeks, five full days a week, to edit The Devil’s Pool. This was pretty good going as the film has a complex structure. He was great to work with.
The Digital FX for the ‘storm’ sequence – a whirlwind of black debris that occurs in the artist’s studio / mind – was done by a company called BAIT based in Wales. I’d worked with BAIT’s director Jon Rennie before. He did the work turning the tears black in Black Tears (2011). Rennie’s team at BAIT built the tornado / storm digitally. Jon Stevenson, a sound designer at Ardmore Sound, created the sound.
Nick and myself talked through some of the conventions of the documentary format – what would and wouldn’t work. That’s why the film starts off with an introductory section using an existing work by Gerald Barry, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit. It’s wonderful, with long drawn out textures and an intentional instability that seemed to mirror the work that I wanted to make; it also signalled that perhaps something was amiss. I always planned to use Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.* I chose a recording by Bryn Terfel, the Welsh bass-baritone.
JO: Was the collaborative nature of film production of interest?
CB: Well I don’t actually think it is collaborative – you certainly work with a lot of people but you have to be the one making the decisions; you have to take that on. It is an intense process and there were some hairy moments. But I really like working with other people, like the cinematographer Seamus Deasy, and it gets you out of the solitary studio.
JO: Could you give an overview of the timeline for the project?
CB: Prior to putting in an application for the Reel Art Award, you need to get a producer on board. A friend of mine suggested Cormac Fox from Vico Films and we met up and got on fine right from the start.
With Cormac in place we were ready to pitch to the funders, ie the Arts Council, Jameson Dublin Film Festival (JDIFF) and a panel member who was from Curzon Cinemas in London. I’d never done this before. It essentially requires that while you’re sitting in front of them, you have to convince them to give you the money. Working with Cormac as producer was really helpful though. As an artist, to have someone to look after the organisation and financial side of things – getting things together – gave me the freedom to mostly concentrate on the creative aspects, which was a real privilege.
In terms of making the film, the whole process took a year. We got the Arts Council Reel Art Award in February 2013 and from then on there was a lot of organisation involved, especially in terms of finding the interviewees, contacting them, seeing if they would be available, all that stuff. Location work and auditioning for an actor, that was difficult, along with getting the crew together, writing the script, storyboarding, script editing, organising the shoot, editing the footage. The film was then outputted as a file Digital Cinema Package (DCP) file.
JO: What are your plans for distribution?
CB: We’ve had a really good start as the Reel Art award includes a screening for The Devil’s Pool in the programme of the 2014 Jameson Dublin Film Festival. That went very well, selling out Screen 1 at the IFI – it was really exciting. Future plans include further screenings in festivals with a documentary focus. Grainne Humphries of JDIFF and Fionnuala Sweeney from the Arts Council were so supportive throughout the whole process, which was really important to me. It was such as positive experience.
JO: You’ve been making moving image for over 10 years now and I get the sense that you’re motivated by the possibilities the medium, and that you are never daunted by the prospect of moving into unfamiliar territory …
CB: Well, I don’t think medium or media matter at all, as long as there is clarity about you want to say. The choice of medium has to make sense in terms of the work and you do have to search for that.
As for being daunted, no, not at all – what’s the worst that can happen? It wouldn’t be a disaster, once a good process is in train. I’ve never felt I had to have technical expertise in all the aspects of filmmaking: editing or operating a camera. Why should I? I just have to really know what I want and be able to communicate that. An artist filmmaker friend of mine is always nagging me to get my own camera, but I’m just not that kind of person. I think it’s more important to work with the best creative people – who have perfected skills in their own area – that you can.
Just before we started talking, I was thinking about what’s really important for me in making a piece of work. To be as clear as possible about what I am trying to make and what I’ll need to make it; to research everything and seek out the best people that I can find and afford. And I really try to find people that I like personally and would like work with – this process can get stressful and you need to be able to have a laugh.
*Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder / Songs on the Death of Children (1901 – 1904) are orchestral settings of five poems by Friedrich Rückert, written in response to the death of two of his children from scarlet fever. Poignantly, Mahler lost his daughter, Maria, aged four, four years after writing these works.