Wednesday 18 July 2018

We made a sci-fi film for just €4k -- and it's big in Arizona

Mark Hilliard reports on the small Irish movie that won a top award

Home-made movies: Alex Fegan and Helen Sheridan on the set of Man Made Men. Photo by Martin Maher

It must be the cheapest Irish film ever produced -- at a cost of just €4,000 its makers had to beg and borrow to bring it to life.

But the super-low-budget Man Made Men has won acclaim in the US, scooping Best Foreign Feature award at the Arizona International Film Festival.

Not bad for a production with one handheld camera and two crew.

They blagged their way into the Four Courts for a crucial shot, painted toy guns to pass off as the real thing and used willing former teachers for some shots.

Arizona is not quite the Oscars but it is a major event for aspiring film-makers and attracts significant attention (Frederick Marx, writer of the cult 1994 film Hoop Dreams, was in attendance this year).

Prizes here can open doors; the winner of the main award, Janet Grillo's Fly Away, secured a US distribution deal in the process.

Man Made Men, a science-fiction fantasy, was slowly completed thanks to a cunning and creative approach to getting things done on the cheap.

In the aftermath of their unexpected glory, Dubliners Alex Fegan and Helen Sheridan this week reflected on the multitude of cut corners and improvisations that made it all possible. Culture Ireland even provided a grant to allow Alex to attend the Arizona awards.

This truly was an A-to-Z of frugal film making.

The Dublin-based story is about a young arrogant scientist, Benjamin Ezekiel (Rory Doherty) who becomes the first person in history to evolve a "synthetic genome" into living creatures created in the image of man.

They are the most unlikely filmmakers. Alex (31), a married father-of-one living in Castleknock, north Dublin, completed a degree in economics and finance at Maynooth and later qualified as a solicitor in 2005.

He entered the legal profession and worked for a corporate firm in Dublin and Cork. "I really loved my job so it was a conflict but I said to Helen, this won't be finished (otherwise)," says Alex.

Helen (33), who is also married with one child, lives in Swords from where she runs her Sheridan Media company, currently developing animation Apps for smartphones.

She studied at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and has spent years lecturing in design at Colaiste Dhulaigh in north Dublin.

She was convinced by Alex's story from the beginning and says they were determined not to fail despite the scale of the challenge.

"A lot of people say they have a great idea for a film but 99% of people never do it and we didn't want to be those people," she says.

On the face of it, Man Made Men has all the hallmarks of a big-budget blockbuster but in reality its producers painstakingly patched it together using every favour, shortcut and ingenious scheme they could muster.

"Had we thought it all through at the beginning, we probably wouldn't have started," says Alex.

"We didn't really know what we were getting ourselves into."

Most of the €4,000 budget was spent on tapes, basic set construction, costumes, rudimentary special effects and the odd sandwich.

Two of Alex's former teachers were hired to act because they had beards. He also coaxed a cleaning lady at his former place of work to take a small role.

There were of course real actors, who offered their services for free.

"We had to give commitments to people who gave us their houses. They were all people who really like the movies so it was about getting their houses into the movies. We also gave them beer or wine."

For other location shoots they talked their way into the Four Courts, wangled the use of a science lab and exploited to the full the leafy backdrops of Dublin city centre.

In one scene a gunman fires a shot killing an innocent woman. Alex recalls: "It was just a toy gun that Helen's nephew had. It was blue so we had to paint it black."

In order to capture an aerial shot of the round hall in the Four Courts, Alex had to climb a winding staircase to the top of the dome where he leant out over the tiles, held tightly by a friend.

The sound-recording headphones came from a British Airways plane, tracking shots were filmed from a moving car and there was no 'wrap party'.

"The music was a big thing because we wanted to have an original soundtrack and I wanted a choir," Alex explains.

"We asked around but you would be talking about 10 grand to record a choir. My wife said that her aunt was in one so why don't I just ask her? I asked for 10 singers and ended up getting 50."

As yet, Man Made Men has no distribution deal. Its producers are now determined to get it into more festivals and attract interest.

In the meantime, they are already in pre-production on their next digital feature -- a political thriller set in Cambridge University. Alex adds: "We always said aim high and don't not do something because you think you can't. You never know."

The pair are in talks with a US studio over a possible deal to have their film remade with a proper budget. Alex is also travelling to the Cannes Film Festival in France this month, determined to find interest amongst distributors.

Irish Independent

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