- 16 May 14
Camera, lights, sex action! That’s what Larry Love of Alabama 3 wanted to hear. But would Olaf Tyaransen be able provide his lead man with a nude scene during the short movie he scripted, Don’t You Know Who I Am? Now read on…
It all started with a sarcastic Nick Cave comment in Hot Press. The legendarily sharp-tongued Australian rocker was headlining the Liss Ard festival way back in the Nineties. Interviewed down in West Cork, Cave said something along the lines of, “Irish people couldn’t care less about celebrity. It doesn’t matter how famous you are, they just treat everybody the same. Now, I only know this because I sat in a bar for a couple of hours last night and somebody came over to tell me that every five fuckin’ minutes!”
It was funny because it was true. Through my journalistic work I spend a certain amount of time in the company of celebrities (A and Z-list alike), and I’m sometimes present when members of the public approach in search of photos, autographs, handshakes or hugs. More often than not, the first thing they’ll say is “I’d never normally do this, but…” When it happens, I always think of Cave’s comment and smile wryly.
The germ was there, somewhere in my subconscious, when Lisa Frank of Connemara indie publishers Doire Press approached me in autumn 2012 and asked if I’d be interested in contributing a piece to an anthology entitled Galway Stories – a collection of short fiction by writers either from, or who had lived, in the City of the Tribes. Like many journalists I aspire to writing fiction, but never seem to find the time. However, this was a (modestly) paid commission with a fairly strict deadline. I decided to write something about a grieving celebrity failing to find some peace and quiet in the west of Ireland. I wrote the story over Christmas. I invented an American rock star named Rick Rossi, lead guitarist with successful band Fragrance Free (the name filched from a packet of my daughter’s baby wipes).
Following the death of his lead singer and best friend, Pete Chastain, he flees to the west of Ireland in an attempt to escape his fame and grieve alone. The finished story was about 6,500 words. Featuring the likes of Kevin Barry, Mary Costello, Julian Gough, Mike McCormack, Conor Montague and Nuala Ni Chonchuir, Galway Stories was officially launched at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in April 2013. Hot Press also published the story as an exclusive extract from the book.
I sent it out to a few friends and fellow scribes. Irvine Welsh replied with an email from Chicago. He described it as “a very cool, stylised and poignant rock and roll tale of alienation, loss and grieving.” The best bit was in the coda. “It would make a lovely short in the right hands,” he added. The same thought had occurred to me.
I met Paul Duane of Dublin film production company Screenworks through our mutual friend Sebastian Horsley, the late English artist, writer and dandy. An award-winning film and documentary maker (Barbaric Genius, Very Extremely Dangerous, Natan), Paul had been in the early stages of making a film about him when Sebastian inconveniently died of a heroin overdose in 2010. Paul read the story and agreed that it had potential. “Write the script and we’ll see what can be done,” he said. My first run at the script took a couple of days. I left in almost every scene from the short story and most of the dialogue. Simple!
I sent it off to Paul and waited smugly for him to get back and declare me a screenwriting genius. The following day, Paul sent me a lengthy email. He explained that there was a massive difference between telling a story on the page and telling one on the screen. He also offered the opinion that “almost every short film that’s ever been made is far too long.” He may really have wanted me to drop it, but I took his words of wisdom on board and went back to work.
I found the screenwriting process exhilarating. For the first time in years, I felt I was stretching myself artistically and actually learning something new. I also came up with a lot more jokes. Working between Hot Press assignments, it took several months and five more drafts before the script was finally completed to Paul’s satisfaction. The first three drafts suffered from stylistic problems. The final two were more about the cost.
Originally, the film opened with a plane landing and Rick Rossi drunkenly struggling with the overhead bin while his starstruck fellow passengers looked on aghast at the state of him. Paul liked the scene, but it wasn’t practical. “Do you realise how much it’ll cost to hire a plane and fill it with extras? Even the insurance will be a fortune!” He had a far cheaper compromise. “A man staggers out of an airport with a bag of Duty Free liquor. Says it all.”
Only two more obstacles: we had no star and no money. Paul assured me that once we had the right lead actor, all the rest would fall into place. We agreed it would be better if a real rock star played Rick Rossi. “You must know someone through Hot Press,” he insisted. Some headscratching weeks passed. I’d call Paul late at night. “What about Pete Doherty?” “Nah, we probably couldn’t get him and, even if we could, he’d be a pain in the ass to work with.” “What about Jared Leto?” “Are you on drugs?” Etc., etc. I was browsing YouTube when I happened upon the Alabama 3 doing their most famous number, ‘Woke Up This Morning’ (the theme song to The Sopranos). It was a light-bulb moment. I know the lead singer, Rob Spragg, who trades under the moniker Larry Love. Rick Rossi is 28 years old and American. Larry is in his late forties and Welsh. At first it seemed like a problem – but the more I thought about it the clearer it became that it didn’t matter a damn. The story would still work, whatever the age or nationality of the main character. He just needed the right look and the right attitude.
Larry would be perfect. I sent him over the script. He came back within 24 hours: he was interested. By now a Scottish film producer, John Burns had also come on board. Paul, John and I met Larry at a bar in Dublin Airport a couple of weeks later. Larry was drinking mineral water. He’d recently given up the booze and was anxious to keep himself busy with other projects. Thirty minutes later, he was signed up to play Rick Rossi in return for a share of any profits. He also agreed to provide the soundtrack and to write the title song.
Alabama 3 tour constantly and so we were going to have to work around their schedule. There was a week in late November: we decided to go for it … Filmmaking isn’t as expensive as it used to be. Paul estimated that, if we called in a lot of favours, we could make it for a few grand. That was sorted with a phone call. A friend, Cyril O’Connor, readily put up the cash in return for points and an executive producer credit. We needed actors, extras, locations, accommodation and various other things besides. It made sense that I would help John Burns get things organised. I grew up in Galway and know a lot of people. Much of the film’s action takes place in bars. Fortunately, I also know a lot of bar owners. It’s a testament to his powers of persuasion that John Burns managed to get Galway Airport reopened so we could film Rick Rossi’s arrival (there the airport’s been closed for over a year). Our other locations included The G Hotel, Hotel Meyrick, Neachtain’s, The Crane, Massimo, The Róisín Dubh, and Bell, Book & Candle bookshop. Not only did they all grant us permission to film, but Hotel Meyrick gave us free accommodation and the Róisín Dubh offered us the apartment they use to house their acts. Sheridan’s Wine Bar fed the cast and crew every lunchtime, and Kevin Healy of Massimo agreed to provide grub in the evenings. All gratis. I was overwhelmed by the support. Thank you, Galway.
We held auditions in the Galway Arts Centre a few weeks before the shoot. We cast John O’Dowd (equally talented brother of Chris) and a Northern Irish actor named Danny McCafferty that day. I wanted Paraic Breathnach, director of the Arts Centre and occasional film and TV actor (Michael Collins, Killinaskully) to play a taxi driver.
When he dropped down to the auditions from his upstairs office, I asked him if he’d read for the part. He glared menacingly. “You want me to audition? Would you ever fuck off!!” He got the part. Larry flew into Shannon the day before the shoot. We met in Neachtain’s, where he did an iPhone photo shoot with John O’Dowd. The following morning, Declan Varley of the Galway Advertiser mocked up a front page cover for us using the images. The three-day shoot was a blur. Paul opted to shoot documentary style. We only used one camera, and our cameraman Paul Noble was skilled and chilled. Most of the cast and crew were local, but cartoonist Tom Mathews, journalist Amanda Brunker and actress Mirjana Rendulic all travelled from Dublin to film cameos. Mathews completely stole his scene as a passive-aggressive barman. Larry was an absolute dream to work with. He’d always been drinking whenever I’d hung out with him before, but his ongoing sobriety really helped things go smoothly.
He was an anti-diva – funny, charming and always open to directorial suggestion. On the first day, we called him Rob. On the second, we called him Larry. By the third, he was Rick. He called me aside early on. “Why isn’t there a sex scene?” he demanded. “You’re paying me fucking peanuts so the least you can do is put me in a bed with a couple of naked chicks!” “Rick Rossi is grieving,” I explained. “Sex is the last thing on his mind.” “Nah, he’d want to be having sex just to take his mind off things,” he insisted. “Well, okay then, I’ll write in a sex scene,” I said. “But you do realise that Rick is gay – with a predilection for older bears?”
That was the last time he mentioned it. Late one night in the Róisín Dubh, after we’d finished shooting, a punter came over to him and started saying, “Do I know you from somewhere? You’re famous, aren’t you?” He was convinced we’d set him up and were secretly filming the encounter. We had a few hours break on the last day. We organised a recording studio and Larry laid down a rough demo of the title song with blues guitarist Eoin McCann and Paul Butler, Susan O’Neill and Jamie O’Halloran of up and coming Waterford band Propeller Palms. He finished the song in London a couple of weeks later. The plan had been to release the film at the end of January.
Unfortunately, we were cruelly scuppered by Variety magazine. In December the Bible of the movie industry named Paul Duane as one of the world’s Top 10 ‘Up and Coming Directors To Watch for 2014’. So instead of cutting the film with editor Eoin McDonagh, he was swanning around Palm Springs with Colin Farrell and the Coen brothers being lauded by Variety. When Paul finally returned to Ireland, his controversial TV series Amber – which he co-created with his Screenworks colleague Rob Cawley – was making headlines and attracting an audience share upwards of 750,000., so he was busy. Still, we got there in the end, and wound up with a shiny, sparkly 16-minute movie.
On the last night of this year’s Cuirt Festival, almost a year to the day on from the launch of Galway Stories, I gave an audience in the Róisín Dubh a sneak preview of Don’t You Know Who I Am? They laughed in all the right places and it received a standing ovation. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to make another film but, if I do, there’s little chance it’ll be such a smooth, pleasurable and hassle-free experience. So bless you, Nick Cave, and your sarcastic Australian tongue.
See it here.