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Sunday 22 October 2017

Pushing the limits: Boomtime banker saves his soul

Alan Mulligan walked away from a high-paid banking job to try his luck as a filmmaker, along the way dealing with death and disillusionment. With his debut feature to be screened at Galway Film Fleadh this week, he spoke to our reporter about his odyssey

Alan Mulligan, director, writer and producer of film 'The Limit Of...' Photo: Steve Humphreys
Alan Mulligan, director, writer and producer of film 'The Limit Of...' Photo: Steve Humphreys
Sarah Carroll as Alison in 'The Limit Of...'
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

"Frankly Mister Shankly, this position I've held, it pays my way, but it corrodes my soul, I want to leave, you will not miss me, I want to go down in celluloid history" - The Smiths, Frankly, Mr Shankly

When the economic crash razed and cleansed Irish society it was widely presumed that the only people who had lost their shirts and their souls were the luckless borrowers who had overstretched themselves.

The bank workers were portrayed as the bogeymen, the debt collectors, the mercenaries of the crisis.

As stories of repossessions and hard cases attracted headlines, we wondered if they had forgotten their humanity. Some of them maybe wondered the same thing.

A decade ago Alan Mulligan had a big job with a bank in Dublin, a girlfriend, and an apartment in Blackrock. He drove a BMW Z4 and could lend millions to big-eyed investors with little more than a nod.

By the age of 25 he had three gold cards - all maxed out. He was convinced of his own financial wizardry and even toyed with the idea of becoming a professional gambler.

His hubris seemed justified: He had come from a large family in Mayo and was seen as "the successful one". Yet somehow it all seemed a little hollow.

"I do think I lost myself along the way a bit," he recalls. "My mum passed away and had been sick with cancer for a lot of years. That had happened when I was 24. Then I was doing this accountancy career but only doing it for the suits and the money, all the time kind of thinking it's what I wanted. I was the eldest boy. My family was working-class, my dad was a butcher, a very hard-working man who put five kids through college. Achievement and making a good life for yourself was very important."

Stepping off the carousel was never going to be easy because Mulligan was in debt to the hilt and had a fairly decadent lifestyle to maintain.

"The credit was so easy to get, particularly when you worked for the bank. I was gambling and going out drinking a lot and flying out of the country every third or fourth weekend. Putting €300-€400 on a horse would have been normal enough - I thought I was going to be a professional gambler. Looking back I realise I was looking for an outlet and a distraction."

The work itself bored him. "I'd go out and meet the bigger clients. There were clients who had millions out with the banks. We'd have credit in place for them, pre-approved. It was all about relationships, really. It felt like a big job but a lot of it was just filling in boxes."

When the crash came he saw the appalling double standards of the bank from the inside. "I said to one of the managers at one stage, the way we lent was a little reckless, and he got annoyed with me. They never accepted that the big loans they allowed people to take out were a joint risk, a joint investment.

"I remembered the moment this guy came in and I knew him and he was a hard-working man who had paid back a few hundred grand to the bank already and he was looking for a few thousand to go to his daughter's wedding in New York. He got so upset and told me "you have to give it to me, I need to go over". I had to tell him it wasn't possible. He said "at least give me half of it so my wife can see her child get married" and I had to say no, and it was awful. I found the whole thing so depressing. And even when I went home I thought, 'I'm in so much debt I can't leave'."

And yet he knew there was no other choice. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt any joy in his life. When he heard a rumour of redundancies at the bank he decided this was his moment. He began to ruthlessly strip back his life.

"I became almost monkish. I stopped going out, stopped throwing cash around. I decided I would just try to clear my debts and get out. I was at that stage in life where if I'd met someone and they asked me what I was doing I wouldn't have even been able to think of something to say. I had no pride in what I was doing, no passion. Then I discovered film, and everything changed."

He had been due to go to America with his now ex-girlfriend - but instead spent the €5,000 he'd set aside for the trip on film equipment. He put an ad online and found someone to tutor him in editing and began work on a couple of short films. He spent every spare moment learning new skills for filming and grooming contacts in the industry.

A boss in the bank got wind of this and tried to talk him out of it. "He was like 'you're on good money now but do you not want to earn more?' and I said 'not really, I'm happy with what I have', and that was a bizarre answer to him because the idea of not being motivated by money was alien. That is literally all they have to keep you going.

"He told me 'I feel like you sit in the meetings and look at us like we're robots' - and I hadn't thought about it like that, but he was probably right."

When redundancies finally came around he was ready to jump, but he feared how it would go down at home. "I hinted at it for a while but my dad never thought I'd do it. We were all around the table at Christmas dinner and everyone was saying to me 'Dad doesn't know' and I was saying 'nah, he knows, it's unspoken but he knows'. But I think when I actually told him it was still a bit of a shock. It was hard for him, but he became my biggest champion. He could see the weight had lifted off my shoulders."

Mulligan's film is called The Limit of... and stars Laurence O'Fuarain. It has clear biographical overtones; the plot deals with a young financier who loses his soul during the boom. Mulligan says he was influenced by movies like Shame, Secretary and Drive in the making of it.

"It's a psychological drama. It's about an isolated guy who struggles with himself. Like Drive it's very much a music driven film (acclaimed singer Mick Flannery wrote and performed much of the score) - the character drives around Dublin listening to music looking for emotional release.

"I only met Mick for a few minutes but from his music I get that he's a little bit of a tortured soul and in some ways I am quite tortured myself. His voice is the voice of the character, sung. This is not about the sexy glamour of banking. You might go into the meeting in a glamorous room with a view, but you're told how to sell. There's a point in the film where one of the managers says 'one in five people will get sick before the age of 45, it's important that we tell this to our customers'. I was told that stuff in the bank because we sold life assurance. We'd be quizzed on the stats on who gets cancer, they would check we knew the script."

If the ideas came easy the practicalities of filming were overwhelming at times. Mulligan became "the Don Juan of coffee meetings", using all the charm he had learnt in his banking days to persuade professionals in the film industry to work for free or nearly free. But even then there were crises. Ten days before filming was due to begin he ran out of money and it was only the miraculous intervention of the film's fairy godmother - actress Deirdre O'Meara - which righted the ship.

"We met her in Sligo. We made our pitch and after a few minutes she said 'what do you want?' I said '10 grand - and I can't guarantee I will be able to pay you back'. She said 'I believe in this and I like the two of you. I'll give you the money and if the film makes it back you can pay me back'. My brother, Anthony, who was with me, started crying and I felt like doing the same. Her generosity was huge. She has her own family and responsibilities, it was just incredible what she did."

Anthony Mulligan was a champion footballer - he had been Mayo footballer of the year in 2013, was written up adoringly in the local press, and seemed set to be part of that generation of county footballers who have challenged for All Ireland titles in recent years. He had helped and collaborated with Alan through the pre-production for the film but during that time another major crisis struck and Alan's voice wavers with emotion when he looks back on it.

"We were due to shoot the film in November 2014. We had been joint best men for another brother's wedding and we made a video for it that went viral (garnering 50,000 views on YouTube).

"Two weeks later Anthony was dizzy and went to visit a consultant and when he came out of the meeting he was crying on the phone. He told me they weren't giving him a life sentence but they had said it was very serious. Two weeks later he had brain surgery and there were a lot of complications afterwards. He had epilepsy, which they couldn't control and the ambulance was at the house a few times. We ended up working on the film in the hospital room together. I think it was a good distraction for both of us. He rang me during filming to say that he would have to go in for surgery. And I had to turn around and go back to a crowd of people who were ready to work. It was very hard."

The film was made over 17 days in Meath, Wicklow and Dublin with Alan sleeping only 2-3 hours each night as he coped with the daunting shooting schedule.

"I don't really know how I worked through it when everything was happening. I was at home minding my brother for some of the time. My sister came home from London as well - she is kind of like the mother of the family now. I borrowed her car for a few hours and four weeks later she still didn't have it back. I didn't have a spare minute, ever. I had long hair and a long beard then - there was no time for any normal stuff."

Despite having no big name actors involved, the story of the film, interwoven as it seemed with Alan's personal narrative, was an alluring prospect for the organisers of the Galway Film Fleadh. They decided to take a punt on him.

"I sent them three minutes of the film and I got a call one Sunday and they said they loved it and they would put it on in the big hall with the big films, which had been made for a couple of million. I don't get excited externally, I don't do the shouting, but inside I was so happy, I couldn't believe it was all coming together.

"The Young Offenders was in the same slot last year and look what that went on and did. Pilgrim Hill was another low-budget film that started in Galway, and Gerard Barrett (its Kerry-born director) is working in Hollywood now."

The Limit of... will be screened this Thursday night at the Galway Fleadh, and Alan says he won't really feel the release of tension until the screening is over.

His father is very sick with cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy and radium treatment. "I would say if there is one person's opinion which matters more to me than anyone else's, it's his," Alan says, his voice wavering. "I'm dying for him to see it. We all hope he is well enough to attend and that would make me so happy.

"I know the front row is not the best seat in the house but that's where I'll sit because I don't want to see anyone's reactions during the screening itself. It's going to be a big moment. I hope all the hard work will be worth it."

Celluloid history awaits.

The Limit of… will be screened this Thursday, July 13, at Galway Town Hall Theatre. For tickets call (091 569777) or go online to www.tht.ie

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