Behind the Scenes with... New York based Irish director Imelda O’Reilly
Behind the Scenes: We meet key Irish and Ireland-based talent working behind the scenes in the TV, film, radio, theatre, and music industries. This week we're chatting to Imelda O'Reilly, who has been shortlisted for the prestigious Cannes Cinefondation Atelier.
Making movies is an arduous business, particularly for independent filmmakers, so being selected for a program like the Cannes Cinefondation Atelier is a big deal.
Designed to introduce filmmakers whose projects show particular promise to producers who can provide finance, the Atelier has seen over 145 of 186 films selected since its inception in 2005 being made.
As one of just 15 filmmakers selected from all over the world, for her project We're the Kids in America, Imelda O'Reilly will head to the French home of flim for the Festival de Cannes next month.
"I’m shocked and thrilled and I just can’t believe it! It’s such an honour. I’m basically representing Ireland as part of the EU so it’s amazing," she tells Independent.ie.
Imelda has been working on her script for the past 18 months. It has a complex structure as a triptych, following three generations of Irish fathers and sons.
"It’s set in Ireland in the 1950s, 1980s and 2016 and that kind of structure is unique and hasn’t really been done before in one feature film," she says. "That’s been one of the challenges too, to get this structure to work. But I’m making progress!"
Imelda is originally from Kildare but is now based in New York and already has Barbara De Fina attached as her producer in the US. Barbara was married to Martin Scorsese and produced Goodfellas. Now Imelda needs a European co-producer. And that's where the Atelier comes in.
"When I get there it will be full-on networking. They set up meetings for you every morning with potential producers who can help you raise additional funding," she reveals. "It’s really difficult to get independent films financed. Even if you look at what’s coming out of Hollywood today, the more indie films struggle to get made. That’s why these kinds of programmes are really crucial."
In 2016 she released a critically lauded short film called Eggs & Soliders, which she managed to write, direct and produce while working her day job as a professor at James Madison University. In that role she divides her time between New York and Virginia teaching screenwriting, directing and film aesthetics. Working on her own projects in her spare time has been tough.
"It’s incredibly difficult," she admits. "I got a screenwriting fellowship with this script from the Moving Picture Institute. They pay you $1000 and once a week I would give feedback to other filmmakers and they give feedback to me. It’s a 12 week programme and it helps me move the script forward. So I do that every Wednesday because I don’t have classes on Wednesdays.
"It’s tough to keep your own work going. Right now I have a class of 20 students making 5 short films and another class of students who are writing short screenplays. So carrying all that and trying to do your own work is tough, but being busy is a good thing!"
Even so she says filmmakers have to "hustle".
"It's the rules of the game. You have to kind of fight the big fight to move forward. You have to remember that as many rejections as you get it only takes one yes. I always remind myself of that. Everybody gets rejections a mile long but if you get one yes, and here I got mine to Cannes, it’s worth it. It took a long time but if you are persistent and patient and believe in your work over the life of your work that’s key. Some days you’re stronger than others but you have to enjoy the process. I think that’s important. It’s hard to make a good film. You just have to keep perfecting your craft."
Imelda has been perfecting her craft since childhood. She started out as a poet, having her first poem published in Bunty comic when she was just seven years old.
"It was called ‘Have a Go Girl’ and I remember getting my cheque in the post from Britain. I really liked that feeling of writing something, sending it off, and getting money for it!" she laughs. "I can’t remember how much the cheque was for – maybe £5 or £7 at the time, but it was massive to a child. I thought, there’s something in this!"
As a writer Imelda had a book of poems published and a story in Shenanigans: An Anthology of Fresh Irish Fiction in the UK.
"I’ve always had a penchant towards the scribble," she says. "I think you just have to keep practicing to get better. It takes long time to become a good writer."
Imelda left Ireland after school to study theatre and film in New York. An uncle had brought her on a trip to Barbados when she was 11 and they stopped off in the Big Apple on the way home. She fell in love with the city then and knew she would come back.
When she graduated in theatre and film she pursued acting for a time before moving into writing and directing plays in downtown Manhattan. As a commissioned writer on Song For New York with Mabou Mines her writing was developed through the Sundance Theater Lab. However, she decided to move from theatre to film as plays have a short shelf life when produced on a low budget, whereas "you have your film forever," she says.
Imelda went back to do a Masters at Columbia University where she received a Fulbright Fellowship to Morocco to shoot her film Bricks, Beds and Sheep's Heads which was a regional finalist for the Student Academy Awards. While there she learned Arabic over the course of five months. And she hopes to return to the country to shoot another film.
During her early days in New York when she had been a poet Imelda teamed up with fellow Irish female writers and performers to tour their work downtown. They promoted each other and the group provided a platform for each of them to showcase their work. In light of the current focus on women in the industry and the obstacles they can encounter, they were ahead of their time in promoting themselves and each other. Today, Imelda, of course, welcomes the #MeToo and Time's Up movements.
"The whole MeToo generation is really important," she says. "I feel like it’s making people much more conscious about diversity. At the Oscars this year Greta Gerwig was nominated for Best Director and also the writer of Get Out was African American. I think this has been the most diverse Oscars. Then you have talented actresses like Saoirse Ronan, who is an amazing role model to young girls, and doing phenomenal work in the industry and that’s really inspiring for young girls and all women to see."
She adds, "As an educator I know that sometimes the male students are more active in volunteering to do things like directing and cinematography – the more difficult roles. The girls are a bit more passive so I try to encourage all the females in my classroom to me more active and volunteer, and to be inclusive."
Her advice to would-be filmmakers is to "keep fighting the good fight" and "keep believing in your work over the life of your work."
"Writing screenplays is really important because it teaches you the structure of cinema. So, I think even if you want to be a director, the process of writing screenplays teaches you the structure of cinema and that is really important."