Sean Garland is a screenwriter and director, who cut his teeth in the entertainment industry working as a crew member on films like In The Name of The Father, White Squall and Interview with the Vampire.
His films have been screened around the world, and have been nominated for – and won – numerous awards.
Great to see you again Sean, and thanks for meeting with me.
So you started your career early on with In The Name Of The Father, how did that come about? And what was it like working around heavyweights like Daniel Day Lewis?
Well like you said I was young, 18 or 19, and very eager to somehow break into the industry in any capacity. Through sheer happenstance I managed to get hold of Jim Sheridan’s contact details. The poor (though in the end gracious) man. I hassled him for several months before he finally agreed to meet me. We met up, it was brief but I poured my heart out, told him I had no contacts or family connections to the industry but somehow convinced him I could be an asset. Looking back I genuinely think Jim though I was a little odd, off-beat but I reckon he decided the kid had balls and gave me a shot. I made up my mind there and then in that youthful spirit of cheekiness and naiveté that I’d hit the beaches running, grow a tough skin and just…well, dive in. Much of it was tough, mentally and physically exhausting, but I adored every second.
Daniel Day was a consummate professional but also, contrary to popular belief and the tabloids at the time, very easy going, approachable and talkative. He gave freely of his time and lent dialogue to just about everyone. I very fondly remember quizzing him about Michael Mann, one of my favourite directors and, as always, he was utterly unpretentious and insightful. It gave me hope.
That’s such a great story – and a real illustration of how hustling does work..!
A lot of your films are quite dark, but Nokota Heart is very different. What made you decide to film a documentary rather than another drama?
To be honest, I never envisaged myself ever making a movie like Nokota Heart, at least not attaining the kind of maturity and life experience I suspect is behind it. Not that I feel disconnected from it. It just sometimes feels like an idea above my station but the truth is that that film is probably the truest distillation of how I was, at that time, in that environment. I was living a very different kind of life then, in a marriage and a place and a headspace that seem very surreal to me. Sometimes everything around me, especially the people and the terrain felt cinematic and alien all at once… but I more than embraced it, something existentialist.
A chance meeting with an extraordinary personality, Leo Kuntz and a feeling of simpatico toward his beliefs. His story more than inspired me to want to embark on a documentary. Making Nokota Heart also simultaneously saved me from going into a bad head-spin out there. Life truly was stranger than fiction. Nokota was sobering, cathartic work for me… I’m very proud of that piece because it came from a place of grace and truth. These days you might be disappointed to know I just want to dig in the dirt of a kind of lusty pulp fiction again… but you just never know.
It definitely feels like a very personal, intimate film – and it sounds like that’s true of both Leo and yourself.
Turning to Banshee Blacktop, you did a lot of the sound work at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios in San Francisco. What was that experience like?
It was, for me, the most satisfying and creative stretch I’ve experienced in my career thus far. Perhaps because I was in an environment that enthralled and inspired me so much with it’s history and ambience, perhaps because Jim McKee, the Sound Designer on Banshee Blacktop was such a terrific craftsman and gentleman and was pretty much open to any idea I threw his way. The work was very focused and fun, but also brazen, envelope-pushing. I loved that. Even nabbing a quick coffee across the way and bringing lunch back to the studio to continue working was a kick for me.
I genuinely felt the ghosts of The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now and Bram Stoker’s Dracula were at every turn of that iconic building in San Francisco, and so they at least seemed to infuse my thoughts and the work on this very humble grassroots Irish movie in this very hallowed place.
I can imagine. Having those classic films in mind would be unavoidable – and also incredible.
Going back to your earlier work for a moment, how did your horror short The Wheelhouse come about?
I suppose for me personally The Wheelhouse is more of a thriller with a very mean streak. It actually originated from a feature script I wrote called Cordelia’s Stare, a supernatural thriller set almost entirely at sea on a fishing trawler, as is The Wheelhouse. I tried for several years to raise the finance to shoot Cordelia, we even had a cast in place, but between one thing or another, it never came to pass.
Such is the nature of the beast, right? Especially in this industry.
So, what I did in the end was instead of wallowing in my angst over the dissipation of the project (as I had started to) I simply decided to pick myself up, write a short distillation of the story and characters, strip away the supernatural entirely and just go for it. The shoot itself was insane (we actually shot on the edge of passing ocean gales) but a huge mental and aesthetic rush. I’ll never forget it. My cast were fearless and intrepid. But we pulled it off collectively I feel. There’s a rare energy and raw sincerity in that movie we feel is inimitable looking back.
It’s great that you didn’t let it discourage you, and instead wrote a shorter version and made it happen yourself. Do you think that kind of adaptability is important for film-making – and creative projects in general?
I think adaptability is absolutely vital… because you learn very quickly indeed that that in itself is your creativity, or rather the bedrock on which you lay your ideas, your inspiration, the actual work itself. You must feel yourself that it’s an intrinsic part of any creative venture… it may even be the lifeblood of it i.e. your willingness to alter and change your original mould. Otherwise it dies a death very early on in the process.
I hope that wasn’t too long winded for you?
Not too long winded at all, in fact it’s quite concise…
I agree that adaptability is very important, although I think a lot can be said for single-mindedness too, especially when you face opposition to creative goals and have to stay focused. Given the general busy-ness of everyday life and juggling different projects at the same time, how do you stay focused enough to see each project through?
That’s a great question, because the primary question of maintaining that ‘focus’ can be a struggle sometimes, particularly on a personal level. Probably like yourself I’ve elected to make a lot of sacrifices in life for that drive and that focus but I’m learning only now, the hard way, that some of those sacrifices have been unnecessary. You cannot blame circumstances or other people when that focus feels, if you like, hamstrung or imperfect. Everyday life and simple mundanity is indeed a pressure on any artist hoping to maintain his or her vision but one just has to juggle the aspects I guess and finesse the focus out of it somehow. It’s bloody difficult at times of course… but possible.
It’s interesting because I was talking to someone the other day about how the mundane can actually be useful for creativity, in that it gives something to push against. Having limited time might even be a bonus in some way, in that it forces focus. I might of course be wrong, but it’s a theory…
So what are you working on at the moment?
Maybe that’s it, the consistent push and pull, the daily scrapping and wrestling just salts and imbues the creativity? In truth if it were handed to us on a plate it may come off as bland… sometimes when something is hard won you somehow feel and sense the worth of it, don’t you think? Limited time, yes, I’m with you on this… it’s intrinsic for great art, music, film, writing et al to emerge. I’ve always loved a quote by film director Michael Mann. He said, “Every deficit is a flourish of style.” I love this. There’s something special in that.
Yes, I definitely think the harder the struggle, the more rewarding the, well, reward. And you nearly got away with not answering my question about what you’re working on at the moment… Is it top secret?
Oh no, not at all… I’m writing an almost throwaway pulpy thriller called How To Kill A Bad Thing. Everything’s very amorphous right now, much work to do, but yep, I just feel like diving into something irreverent, fun and, dare I say it, mainstream enough to lasso bums on seats for this one. I suppose if I were to pitch it to some degree I’d say it’s a bizarre butting of influences, the paperback novels of John D McDonald meets WDF newspaper headlines from today?
Also in the maze of rusty piping that has become my much maligned head, is Owl, another thriller, far more grown up, with actor Wes Studi attached to play the lead. It’s been gestating for years so I’m trying not to be too precious about it. Securing help and finance to get this one out the gate continues as we speak… so we’ll see.
I saw the trailer for OWL and thought it looked great. I love Wes Studi too, such an expressive actor.
So what is How To Kill A Bad Thing about? It sounds like a complete departure from your other work.
Yes, it’s a departure in many ways. As I say, something irreverent, character driven, perhaps a little black humour. I was inspired by how well my actors played with my dialogue in the interrogation scenes in Banshee Blacktop and how audiences reacted so strongly to this so it kind of tapped off a lightbulb in my head and in turn gave me something fresh to work toward. HTKABT will be sheer lusty pulp.
Ok, so what advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into writing or directing?
Well, if you want it badly enough, if you desire this instinctively in your heart and bones, you will do it. And succeed.
I guess just be prepared for some personal sacrifices and soul numbing disappointments along the way but, so long as you appreciate the positives and that all-consuming rush you just know to feel right and true and free, then you’ll be ok. It will feel worth it, even on your darker days.
Thanks Sean, it’s been really interesting to talk with you.