Set in Belfast 1972, the bloodiest year of the Troubles, Andrea Harkin’s BAFTA nominated short The Party, sees man on the run Mickey welcomed home by his cousin and close friends for an evening of drinking and dancing in which the conflicts of the world outside are mostly forgot, until harsh reality comes crashing in. I spoke to Andrea about her award winning cinematic return to Northern Ireland’s troubled past, building authentic onscreen friendships with a minimum of rehearsal time and her forthcoming work on the much anticipated BBC original thriller Clique.
*Warning – The following interview contains spoilers, but you can watch The Party in full now at Curzon Home Cinema as part of their BAFTA Shorts 2017 package.
For all their varied focuses your films seem to largely unfold within domestic settings. What is it about ‘home’ as a location which is a consistent narrative draw for you?
I don’t think it’s a very conscious thing, but you’re right that it is a narrative draw for me. Largely because I have a lot of strong feelings relating to family, both in the present (duty, responsibility, guilt), as well as memories of the past and difficulties experienced at home when I was growing up. So I suppose on the one hand it is a purging or a catharsis, and on the other hand it’s a lament for the disintegration of family values and community togetherness (in the traditional sense), in this contemporary digital age.
How did you first become aware of and then involved with Conor MacNeill’s script for The Party?
I was approached by the Producer Farah Abushwesha who was putting a team together for a funding scheme (via the Irish Film Board). She was looking specifically for a female Irish or Northern Irish director so she found me through my agent and we met for coffee. She mentioned Conor’s name and I already knew Conor because he had been in touch with me previously, when he was looking for a director for his feature project. I had almost attached to that project as I loved the script, and although it didn’t work out on that occasion for various reasons, I loved Conor’s writing and knew I wanted to work with him in the future. I think he felt the same way as we’d met a couple of times to discuss ideas. So it was fate really when Farah brought Conor’s script to me – I think we were meant to work together and his writing really resonates with me on a personal level.
It wasn’t about historical accuracy or period authenticity as much as it was about a perspective that I felt hadn’t been seen before in such a particular way.
Having already done a Troubles film (Communion) I actually had no desire or inclination to do another one, but when I read The Party I changed my mind because it felt so different – so unique and vivid – and it was really focussing on the young people and their vibrancy – and the energy, power and vulnerability of youth. It felt simple and complex at the same time. And as well as Mickey’s deep belief in his cause, the other themes of home, belonging, family and friendship felt really strong and meaningful to me.
Despite the vast ground covered towards political harmony, tensions can still run high on all sides with regards to Northern Ireland. To what extent did the wider political climate, then and now, inform the way you realised the material?
I was conscious of the fact that so many great (and not so great) films have been made about the Troubles, but I didn’t really interpret the script as being ‘about’ the Troubles, per se, or about the hardship of those times – I think that ground has been extremely well covered in some fantastic feature films – So, while I felt an obligation to be as authentic as possible, I wanted to do this through the actors and their youthful energy and allow the material to breathe a bit. It wasn’t about historical accuracy or period authenticity as much as it was about a perspective that I felt hadn’t been seen before in such a particular way. So in some ways I didn’t allow the political climate to inform the realisation of the material too much, beyond knowing that I didn’t want it to be constrictive. But I am a politically-aware person and I have a perspective on it all, so this naturally shaped the outcome. Having experienced sectarianism, bigotry and violence in Northern Ireland, as well as having an understanding of both ‘the cause’ and ‘the defence’, my personal perspective probably shaped the ending in particular, as I wanted to be careful that we weren’t creating a sympathetic view of the IRA or otherwise – something that might be interpreted as propagandist. Likewise I didn’t want it to be unsympathetic. So it was a careful balance to find, and I think (and hope) that we hit the right note.
The feeling that these are a tight group of friends settles in very quickly and is essential in ensuring later events hit with a real emotional force. What methods did you use to root that feeling of camaraderie into the fabric of the film – from casting to shooting to the edit?
We put a fair bit of time into the casting process and saw a lot of young people. The first person we were certain of was Anthony Boyle, who has a striking energy and charisma, and we set about building an ensemble that would match and complement his energy, confidence and charisma. We did a lot of casting workshops, where we tried different pairings and thought carefully about the roles and the interactions between the actors. As I didn’t have any formal rehearsal time with the actors in advance of the shoot (I think a couple of hours on the day prior), I tried to use any time I did have with them to build trust and to help them get to know one another. So we brought them all together for the costume fittings and we did a read-through that day. After that, I sent the actors a shared online document – where they could write down their thoughts about their character’s relationship to each of the other characters. That was very fun to read and the actors really engaged their imaginations in creating the roles and the relationships – I’m not entirely sure how much it helped, but I don’t think it harmed! Even though most of the actors only had a few lines I think (hope) this encouraged them to think outside of the script and imagine the lives of these characters and their friendships.
On the day before the shoot, when we had a few hours to rehearse, we went through the scenes a bit but mainly we did some improvising and workshopping, just as a bit of an ice-breaker/bonding session. I think there was some great advice from the casting director team, and hopefully some good decision making on our part – as well as a lot of luck because the actors just bonded really quickly and got on very well. By the end of these few short days they almost seemed like they’d been friends for life!
I love to work with actors, it’s something I put a lot of thought and energy into in advance, and I always try to give it time on the day, even when we are up against it. I like to prioritise the actors and their feeling of engagement, giving them a sense that there is time to play even when there is very little time. I take a collaborative approach as much as possible and always invite their intelligence, ideas and instincts, as well as trying to guide and steer in the right direction.
In terms of the editing, we wanted to keep the pace and energy that the actors brought to it, so we cut it very tightly and tried to create overlapping ‘moments’ rather than choreographed scenes.
Although the tragic results for the characters are all too clear, the moments of actual violence in the film occur off screen. How did you come to the decision of how much to show?
We intended show a little more than what ended up in the film. We did film the scene where Sean gets shot – we had prosthetics, and he got shot in the neck. I wasn’t very happy with the outcome as I didn’t feel the blood effects were quite believable or impactful enough, so that was a learning curve. When we took the decision to cut that out, the film felt stronger for it. On the other hand, other moments were always scripted to be offscreen, such as when the gunmen burst in and shoot people, and also when Laurence runs around the corner and sees what’s happened outside his home. It was scripted as being offscreen and I felt that was a good thing when I read it – because sometimes less is more, and things can feel more shocking when you don’t see them because the imagination can be more powerful. When I got into the edit though, I’ll admit that I wished I had filmed some of the offscreen violence, because it would have given me the option to perhaps build more suspense or at least to try it out. We may have ended up playing it offscreen anyway as we did with the gunshot, but there was a point when I wished I’d given myself the option. We used sound design and music to gel things together tonally and to suggest the unseen aspects.
I’m presuming the shoot took place on location as opposed to a set. What was your approach when devising the blocking for the character interactions, and the authentic feeling of the house party scenes?
Yes everything was filmed on location. I usually try not to lock actors into a rigid blocking pattern – unless there is a specific background or visual that’s needed, or a location that’s been picked specifically for a particular view. I came to set with a plan and an idea of how things might go and how I would cover the scenes (usually discussed with my DoP in advance), but I also wanted to give the actors as much freedom as these small spaces would allow! For example, in the scene in the bedroom when the cousins play-fight and one wrestles the other onto the bed – this was not scripted, it was something we arrived at on the day, and it felt right in solidifying their relationship as cousins and friends as well as bringing a playfulness into the more serious subject matter. It was also in keeping with the tone of script elsewhere.
By the end of these few short days they almost seemed like they’d been friends for life!
For the house party scenes, we did tiny bits of improv here and there, and when they were dancing and drinking, we turned the music up very loud and I encouraged them to just go for it and dance and sing and drink and jump around. I had a few specific shots in mind and the actors also had ideas (such as the opening of the party scene when they all shout “down it, down it, down it” – this also was improvised). The DoP lit it 360 so we could turn the camera anywhere and we tried to capture a variety of moments by playing the song several times. Choosing the song was very key for me as it had to carry and transmit a lot of playful energy.
The Party’s picked up a BAFTA nomination, however I’m curious what audience reception to the film was like following its RTE television screening?
I am not aware actually how it was received by the Irish public when it aired, I would like to know though!
Can you tell us anything about your work on BBC Three’s upcoming show Clique? Are there any other projects you’re working on?
I directed 3 episodes of Clique (episodes 4,5,6). You can read a little more about it here. It’s due to air on BBC3 from 5th March and will then possibly transfer over onto BBC2 (TBC). I loved working on this project, it was extremely rich in terms of themes and subject matter. It deals with ideas around feminism, aspiration, exploitation, loss, ambition, power and corruption, so there was no shortage of interesting themes. But the key heart of the story is the friendship between 18-year-olds Holly and Georgia, and the loss and desperation experienced by these girls as their relationship cracks and crumbles. It’s like a love story in some ways. It goes to some very dark places and is tonally very heightened – so it was different to anything I’d done before. There are some fantastic new talents on the show as well.
I am taking some time in the Spring to write the next draft of my feature script The Rain Days as well as aiming to develop some more feature projects this year and get the ball rolling on a few ideas.