- 22 Oct 13
A musical comedy set in the west, Songs For Amy is shaping up to be the feelgood Irish hit of the year.
It’s a bright and clear midsummer’s evening in the City of the Tribes, the Film Fleadh is in full swing, and a large crowd has gathered at the Town Hall Theatre for the European premiere of hotly-tipped indie movie Songs For Amy. It’s an appropriate location for the first screening of a charming, offbeat and darkly comedic love story inspired by the city’s vibrant music scene and set against the breathtaking backdrop of the West of Ireland.
Fitting as it may be, it’s only happening in Galway by default. Originally the Songs For Amy premiere was to have been held in the south of France.
“Cannes was an absolute nightmare,” laughs the film’s writer and producer Fiona Graham. “We had brought everyone out there and we had put a lot of effort into building up momentum for the film for the week. It was quite hard in that scale of an environment just to make an impact. We had musicians with us and were playing music everywhere, and we really tried to generate interest. Anyway, we’d completely sold out, and then we had to turn everybody away because they had a technical problem with the cinema.”
Needless to say, finding another available screen in the middle of the most hectic film festival on the planet proved impossible. The disappointed filmmakers had no option other than to mutter “merde!”, shrug off their bad luck and return home.
“It was just one of those moments where you know there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it,” Graham recalls. “We were all really gutted, but we just said, ‘We haven’t got time to focus on this so let’s keep going to the next thing’. And that was the Galway Film Fleadh. Cannes would have been our European premiere, but I think it’s nice that it turned out to be Galway.”
The first full-length feature from director Konrad Begg, starring Sean Maguire, Kevin Ryan and Lorna Anderson, Songs For Amy tells the story of a jobbing Galway musician attempting to win back the heart of the fiancée he jilted at the altar by writing and recording a series of love songs for her (a strategy which makes sense when you realise that the Amy character is a Hot Press journalist).
As its title suggests, Songs For Amy is driven by music. While the songs are central to the plot, the movie couldn’t be classed a musical. Nor is it another Once. Despite some moments of genuine pathos, it’s often incredibly funny. At the Film Fleadh premiere, there are cheers and chuckles aplenty.
It’s also beautifully shot. Made on a relative shoestring budget of just over €1 million, it manages to make Galway city look more romantic than Paris, and also effortlessly captures the ethereal beauty and wildness of the west coast. The Town Hall audience might be somewhat biased, but the film is rapturously received.
Graham looks relieved after the screening. “I’m really pleased with the reaction we got,” she says, speaking at the aftershow party in the Festival Club. “It’s always nerve-wracking when you do something in front of your home territory. We filmed it here and everybody had so much anticipation for it that there’s an element of nerves that it’s going to meet expectation. And I was really pleased with the reaction of the audience. It was really good.”
Although born and raised in Scotland, Graham moved to Galway when she was 21 and is currently based in Kinvara (where some of the film was shot). “At this stage I consider both places home,” she says.
While her background is in IT and marketing, she’s been writing film scripts for as long as she can remember. When she completed the original script of Songs For Amy, she brought it to her old friend Konrad Begg, a commercial director who was looking to make his first feature film. “Konrad and I have known each other for about 15 years so we totally trust one another,” she explains. “When I showed him the script, he immediately saw the potential. He put a lot of his own ideas and own input into the script.”
Given her business and marketing background, she decided it made sense to produce the film herself. Over almost three years of development, the script was rewritten constantly – even during the actual shoot. “I did a lot of rewriting, partly because we had such a tight shooting schedule in terms of what we were trying to do with a very large cast. So there’d be times where we’d say, ‘Okay, we’re obviously just not gonna get that done today’ so we’d be rewriting almost every day. But it was one of those things. You have the characters and the actors in front of you, and sometimes when you write on the hoof like that you end up with something better. So I’m quite glad we did it that way.”
From the director’s perspective, a lot of the difficulties during the shoot were related to the ever-changing light. “I guess the time that we had to shoot each individual scene often led to pressure,” Begg explains. “There were a lot of light problems because the light in the west of Ireland changes so quickly. That caused us a lot of problems. One moment the light was fine, and ten minutes later it’s changed completely. So that was a bit of a challenge.”
Although it seemed like a disaster at the time, Begg can now laugh about the Cannes debacle. “It was a real pain, but now I’m actually much happier to be here with it and bring it home, as it were. It went down really well tonight, which was a big relief.”
Former Grange Hill and EastEnders star Sean Maguire plays the lead (and even learnt guitar for the role). “It’s a difficult film to put in a box because it’s not an out-and-out love story and it’s not an out-an-out comedy,” he says. “It’s a bit of an amalgam of a lot of different things. It’s sort of like The Hangover meets The Commitments meets a love story, you know. But I think Konrad and Fiona and the whole cast did a really terrific job. I’ve made a lot of films, and when they’re finished you kind of go, ‘Okay (sighs)... on to the next one!’ But with this one, the first time I saw it, I felt that it was something we could all be proud of.”
Maguire managed to bag the lead role without actually meeting Begg first. “I got sent the script by Fiona quite early last year and she asked if I was interested. I told her, ‘Yeah, very much’. So she and her sister Marie, who’s another one of the producers, came over to meet me in London. We talked for a good few hours and just got on straight away. I guess we felt we were after the same thing.
“We had a bit of difficulty trying to get myself and Konrad in the same country. We kept missing each other, which was a bit difficult because Konrad then had to sign off on me without having met me. It’s very difficult for a director to sign off on a lead actor, but he took a leap of faith because Fiona and Marie said that they thought I was the guy. I was very flattered by that and just delighted that I got to make the movie.”
His co-star, beautiful Glasgow-born actress Lorna Anderson, has just finished a four-year stint in BBC Scotland soap opera River City. She’s visibly thrilled to have played the title role in her very first movie. “I’ve seen the finished film four times now and I’m still not bored with it,” she laughs. “It’s not a spoon-fed movie, which is what’s great about it. It’s realistic to life. The audience warm to the characters, because it’s love and heartbreak. Everyone’s been through it. Everyone’s been in that situation.”
Ballinteer-born actor Kevin Ryan plays the love rival – an egotistical American pop star. Fortunately, having been based in LA for the last eight years, the accent wasn’t a problem. While he’s incredibly happy with Songs For Amy, he’s also really excited about a more recently completed project – a major new TV series called Copper, which is being launched on August 19.
“I just finished shooting it with Barry Levinson in Toronto,” he says. “It’s the first ever scripted drama series for BBC America. It’s the largest release they’ve ever had worldwide, it’s also the biggest campaign they’ve ever had for a show. It’s based in 1864. I play Detective Francis McGuire and it’s about three cops solving crime within the Five Points neighbourhood – which is the most dilapidated, disease-and-poverty-stricken area of the world at that point. There are billboards all over the place in the US. It’s a huge campaign.”
The Songs For Amy soundtrack duties were taken care of by local musician Ultan Conlon, with some help from Jim McKee (who has a brief cameo as a busker) and ex-Charis guitarist Eoin McCann.
“I was doing a gig in Galway and Fiona Graham was there, and we got chatting afterwards,” Conlon recalls. “She was just writing the script at the time. I gave her a copy of my debut album (entitled Bless Your Heart) and she came back to me a few weeks later and said she had this film in the pipeline and some of the songs might fit. She gave me the script, which was very, very different to what it is now. So she used two of my songs first, and then she gradually used others.
“Jim McKee was on board first, but as it went on we wrote more and more. Eoin McCann wrote the instrumental parts. I worked for six months on it, between the shoot and post-production. During the edit they’d send me on rushes and I’d put the music to it. It was a great experience. After tonight, I’ve seen it three times now. That’s enough for me! I enjoyed it, though, and it’s great to see it finished. It’s lovely to see my songs up there, but in a different context where I’m removed from the whole thing. So that’s kind of nice.”
McCann’s contribution related mostly to the score. “Ultan originally asked me to come in at the very start, but I was injured and had health problems so I couldn’t,” he explains. “So I came in towards the end to do a lot of the score. I wrote a lot of the instrumental stuff and I co-wrote some songs with Ultan as well.”
What does he make of the finished movie?
“I thought it was great. I only saw the full thing tonight and it was a lot funnier than I thought it was going to be. A lot of the music I was writing was actually for fairly sombre or quieter bits of the movie, so I wasn’t focusing on the comedic aspects. I’m really surprised how funny it was.”
Although they don’t play a note onscreen, some of the best moments come courtesy of Alabama 3. The famously hedonistic Brixton band play themselves in the movie. Indeed, their hard-partying antics are the reason for Amy being jilted at the altar in the first place.
Shortly before they take to the Festival Club stage to play a short celebratory set, affable frontman Larry Love tells Hot Press, “We really enjoyed being involved in the movie. But it was really tough for us playing shallow, narcissistic, coked-up musicians, do you know what I mean?”
Harmonica player Nick Reynolds has one of the funniest, if not most original, lines in the movie – a perfectly delivered “fuck off” to a TV reporter as the band are being arrested for trashing a hotel room.
“That wasn’t even scripted!” he laughs. “The girl just put a microphone in my face and said, ‘Do you have anything you want to say?’ What I actually wanted to say – I don’t know why, it just sprung out of my mind – was, ‘You haven’t lived until you’ve fucked death in the gall bladder!’ but I thought it mightn’t go down too well.”
Check hotpress.com for forthcoming announcements on Songs For Amy.
release details later in the year.