Friday 23 August 2019

From Casanova to supernova: Terry McMahon's day has finally come

Former Fair City villain Terry McMahon is the toast of the US film festival circuit, but he's had to put the hard yards in first.

Success: Moe Dunford in the Terry McMahon feature Patrick’s Day
Success: Moe Dunford in the Terry McMahon feature Patrick’s Day
Former Fair City actor Terry McMahon as villain Terrence Cooney in the RTE soap opera
Terry McMahon pictured at the gala screening of the new irish film Charlie Casanova in Light House Cinema, Smithfield

Tanya Sweeney

Everyone loves a tale about the little films that could. Heartfelt, handmade gems that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with cinematic Goliaths and command as much attention, praise and acclaim.

At this month's Palm Springs festival - opened by Brad Pitt and featuring a slew of Oscar frontrunners - a scrappy Irish film turned many heads. From sold-out audiences to rave reviews in the US press, Terry McMahon's feature Patrick's Day has gained traction and, in some cases, outshone its starrier bedfellows.

It's the latest episode in which the film has effortlessly charmed festival audiences. After premiering at the SXSW festival in March, Patrick's Day went on to win Best Irish Feature Film at the Galway Film Fleadh, as well as three awards at New York's Woodstock Film Festival (including Best Narrative Feature). Elsewhere, the superlatives have been heaped on ever since.

A charmed experience, certainly… but it hasn't always been this way for McMahon. Patrick's Day's predecessor, 2011's low-budget Charlie Casanova, a political commentary on Celtic Tiger-era greed with the odious sociopath Charlie at the story's black heart, was what he calls his 'punk-rock provocation'. By turns confrontational and innovative, Charlie Casanova polarised audiences and critics before, according to McMahon, 'getting executed very publicly'. Regardless, the uneasy moment announced McMahon as a balls-out gunslinger to be reckoned with.

"Charlie Casanova was designed to be divisive, but there was a misunderstanding that I was that character," recalls McMahon. "Sure, I was a mouthy provocateur, but it was the only way I could put the film on the map. It's not something I was aspiring to. Thankfully with Patrick's Day, I don't have to be."

But that was then, and this is now. Today, McMahon is battling jetlag after his Palm Springs adventure but, strapped as he is to the front of a proverbial runaway train, he's in shimmering spirits.

"To be in that company - I mean Brad Pitt for God's sake - and for this film to catch fire amid these multi-million-dollar projects, that's extraordinarily exciting," he says. "It's great to see a genuine appetite for original, sometimes provocative cinema."

Patrick's Day - a film about an overly protective mother willing to go to extreme lengths to protect her shizophrenic son from falling in love - is certainly both of those things. Yet this isn't a film with compellingly malevolent characters, gut-churning violence, eye-watering visual innovation or intense sex scenes. Rather, it's seismic, compelling and fiery in its own, often quiet way. At the heart of the tale, says McMahon, is a person's right to intimacy.

"I used to work as a trainee carer in a psychiatric hospital, and I'd watch how parents or guardians would visit residents," he recalls.

"They were warm and loving and all those things, but the moment anyone aspired towards intimacy or sexuality, there was this moral, reductionist shutting down of their aspirations."

Getting the feature into production happened rather quickly, thanks to producer Tim Palmer and a stellar cast and crew. Financiers, both in Ireland and the UK, responded to the screenplay and funding the film was in place before McMahon knew it.

"The shoot was intense beyond measure, but there was a genuine sense of doing something special and of collective determination," he recalls. "We had a moment where it finally clicked; we really believed we were doing something special."

Getting Kerry Fox - the Kiwi actress whose credits include Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table and Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave - on board as Patrick's mother Maura was a thrilling coup.

"That someone of her stature is willing to do this film puts it in a different category," he says. "It's the stuff of boyhood fansties. She was generous, open and creative beyond measure."

Playing opposite her is newcomer Moe Dunford in the title role. As simple, idealistic and overly-coddled Patrick, his is a brilliantly unabashed performance.

"I was looking for a man-child, and some famous actors wanted to do it, but I didn't feel they were 'broken' enough," recalls McMahon. "Moe was the one person I called to audition again; it's a testament to his generosity that he had booked a holiday to Malta six months previously, but drove to our audition room instead of the airport."

It was a gilded and thrilling experience, but make no mistake: while McMahon has been lauded as an overnight success, he's had to put the hard yards in first.

As a teenager, the Mullingar native hitched a lift to Dublin city. He got a job working in a takeaway, and on the day of his 18th birthday, he signed on the dole and slept rough across the city.

"I used to walk around St Stephen's Green in Dublin from early in the morning, making sure never to sit down in case anyone spotted my shame at having nowhere to go," he says. "I'd collect butts of cigarettes at Connolly station because people tended to light up for a final quick drag of a smoke before catching their train." All the while, a desire to write was bubbling under the surface. He joined the Dublin Youth Theatre, where he ended up 'in over his head and loving the drowning'. Finally on his way, he played criminal mastermind Terence in Fair City, appearing first in 1998. He later moved onto a screenwriting gig at the soap, where he was taught 'the discipline of delivery.'

Nearing 40, McMahon lost his Fair City screenwriting gig, and he found himself in genuine financial difficulty with a young family to raise. The final straw came when Charlie Casanova and two other scripts got a 'vociferous' thumbs down from both RTE and the Irish Film Board.

"I poured myself a glass of whisky in front of Facebook one night and typed 'Intend shooting no-budget feature, Charlie Casanova, a provocatively dark satire. Need cast, equipment, locations, and a lot of balls. sincere, so bullshitters f**k off in advance'," he recalls. "I sat looking at the status update, embarrassed by my public display, and was about to delete it when a message popped up. Within three weeks, we were shooting the film on borrowed cameras."

Starring Leigh Arnold and Emmett Scanlan, Charlie Casanova's total production budget was €937, most of which was spent on food and 'miscellany'. "We were lucky insofar as Windmill Lane gave us hundreds of thousands of euro worth of post-production."

These days, McMahon is finally in favour with financiers and has proved himself to the Film Board. He already has two scripts 'raring to go'.

"The first, Dancehall Bitch, is a deeply provocative prison drama, while the other is a black-dark romantic comedy called Oliver Twisted," he explains. "They've been there for years, but now there's a real interest in it."

Still, the path doesn't run smoothly for McMahon; not yet. Chief among his concerns is that his family home in Dublin is under real threat of reposession. Scratch the surface, and you'll find that McMahon's fervent political views are rarely far from frame.

"This film is definitely a political metaphor," he explains. "It's a deconstruction of our 'Mammy state' and importing policies that people believe are to other people's benefit.

''Members of the govenrment still believe they're doing the right thing in Ireland, even if it is decimating our culture."

Career-wise, McMahon would like financial security for his family, but storytelling and affecting audiences is something that he cares about 'to the point of embarrassment'.

"To find a person battling their own loneliness and to be able reach out to them to tell them they're not alone - well, that's just so massively exciting."

Patrick's Day opens in Irish cinemas on February 6

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