Artistic Licence column (Sunday Business Post, September 14, 2014)

We have to talk about U2, don’t we? That’s the funny thing about U2. Even when you’re tired of talking about them, when you’d rather talk about anything else but them, you still find yourself talking about them. The band who hyperactively need to be acclaimed as the biggest band in the world; who just won’t settle for being their already brilliant fiftysomething selves, are – like your granny in a miniskirt – back once again clamouring for your full and undivided attention. Sigh.
Before I complain, however, let’s at least applaud them for a stealth marketing plan that, to be fair, borders on genius. On Tuesday, all you had to do was click on your iTunes library to discover that – hey presto! – the new U2 album was magically there for your listening pleasure. The album itself will be released by Island Records on October 13, but since more than half a billion iTunes customers already possess it, that release date is effectively redundant. The album is out and you own it. How could you not talk about that fact? In homes, by office water-coolers, on blogs and in social media all over the world, people who couldn’t give a fig about U2 are talking about U2. Smart move, guys.
U2 have hobbled their musical critics, too, in what was probably Section 5, Paragraph 17 of their fiendish Pinky and the Brain-style world domination plan. Said plan has been orchestrated by Guy Oseary, their new manager, who has it all to prove after becoming the successor to the band’s unofficial fifth member Paul McGuinness. The thing about inserting an album into iTunes by stealth is that every major website and newspaper in the world instantly needs a review of it. Cue urgent calls to rock hacks and queries about how fast something could be cooked up. So what if the album has 11 tracks and is 49 minutes long? You only need to hear the record once, right?
The problem with this scenario is that reviewers barely have the time to listen to the new record, much less digest it. Without the appropriate examination time, all but the most naturally vituperative of critics will default to a positive analysis, hesitating to criticise without the time to properly formulate their feelings. In double-quick speed, the Daily Telegraph whipped up a four-star review by Neil McCormick, who – despite his status as Bono’s school chum – admitted he did not get access to the album any earlier than anyone else. His review was a feat of hesitant positivity, full of wavering lines like “on first impressions” and “on first contact”.
The truth is that albums need to be lived with. They need to be examined like you might inspect a horse: have their teeth checked, be weighed, get their hooves felt. By short-circuiting the usual advance promo copy listening format, U2 denied themselves the benefit of early reviews last week that were genuinely the product of serious consideration. Still, they’ve downloaded themselves into the homes of millions, and that’s self-evidently a good thing for them in terms of keeping their profile stratospheric and earning them a fortune on the touring circuit. More people will see U2 live because of this move, and that’s where the real money is.
But – and call me naive – I question why, at this point in their career, the marketing and the money are so important to them. Aren’t there greater imperatives for artists at this juncture? What is this confounded insistence on being the biggest and best? Would, say, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen or David Bowie so nakedly require or seek out such status?
I can’t say a bad word about U2’s plan. It’s bloody brilliant. But I wish that I didn’t feel so manipulated by them, so exposed to them, so forced to talk about them. I’d rather write about them because I thought their new music was great. That’s the best reason to write about any band. Bono, you might break into my iTunes, but my heart has sturdier firewalls against you.

Artistic Licence column: Battle of the budgets

Artistic Licence: Battle of the film budgets
02:53, 5 May 2013 by Nadine O’Regan

Some months back, I had a rather doleful conversation with a young Irish film-maker who really should have been jubilant. His new film Earthbound had just been released. A sci-fi comedy, Earthbound was the product of several years’ hard work and had received a number of strong reviews. But still, Alan Brennan was despondent. The problem, he said, was that few of his mortgage-strapped, 30-something friends would go to see the film, and he didn’t feel it was something he could reasonably expect of them either.
“They get to see one film every three months,” he said. “That’s their big night out for them, when they hire a babysitter. They want to see something big-budget, something Hollywood – not a micro-budget film. And how could I ask that of them?”
In the current Irish cinematic climate, his concerns are valid. Several fine Irish films have been released in the last few months – Good Vibrations, Pilgrim Hill and Earthbound among them – but when we’re talking about home-produced fare, there’s always a silent caveat: even with the more lavish productions, there is little chance of big-budget-style glamour: Scarlett Johansson is not going to walk through the door in a catsuit. Robert Downey Jr will not be on hand to crack a joke. There will be no David Bowie cameo.
So, how much do good reviews even matter for Irish film-makers, when Irish audiences are horrified by the prospect of spending an hour or two watching cows in a field (Pilgrim Hill) or observing a shop owner complain about Belfast (Good Vibrations)? “Sure, if I wanted that I could have stayed at home,” goes the patter as you leave the cinema.
The problem isn’t limited to Irish cinema. Last week, renowned US director Steven Soderbergh took the opportunity of a speech at the San Francisco Film Festival to complain about the industry machine. He explained the juggernaut effect; the phenomenon whereby the likes of Iron Man 3 would command huge audiences, while, say, a small film like Earthbound would snatch just €374 during its second weekend on release.
“Unfortunately the most profitable movies for the studios are going to be the big movies, the home runs,” Soderbergh said. “How many $10 million movies make $140 million? Not many. How many $100 million movies make $320 million? A pretty good number. There’s this domino effect that happens. Bigger home video sales, bigger TV sales. You can see the forces that are draining in one direction in the business.”
It comes back to the idea of those two struggling parents in suburban Dublin, who have a mortgage, young children and who haven’t been to the cinema in months. No matter how good the reviews are, no matter how much they want to support their friends, the fact is: they shelled out 60 quid for a babysitter and they need to have a good night out guaranteed.
What can be done about this? In the parallel world of Irish theatre, interesting initiatives have been taken to encourage bums on seats. At the Abbey Theatre, Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly has opened itself up to wider audiences – selling tickets for a tenner a head from Mondays to Wednesdays. At the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, if you’re under 30, you can buy tickets to Digging For Fire for just ten quid.
Irish cinema may never win those mortgage-riddled parents. But Irish film distributors might attract students if they play their cards right – and for the sake of our Irish film-makers they have to try. Imagination, after all, shouldn’t be limited to simply what’s on the screen.
Nadine O’Regan is The Sunday Business Post’s Books and Arts editor.

John Michael McDonagh interview (Sunday Business Post, April 6, 2014)

Arts Interview: Calvary charge
6 April 2014 by Nadine O’Regan

John Michael McDonagh has waited a long time for his moment in the sun, and you can tell. As he settles himself contentedly into his suite in a luxurious Dublin hotel, the London-Irish film-maker – whose break-out success came with The Guard in 2011 – doesn’t mince his words telling of how hard his early struggles in the film world were.
Unlike most writer-directors, McDonagh wasn’t just fighting to make his voice heard in film. He also had to contend with living in the shadow of his ultra-talented, keen-eyed and successful sibling Martin, the so-called enfant terrible of British theatre, responsible for the Leenane Trilogy, and later, in film, the successful dark comedy In Bruges.
Was there sibling rivalry at play? McDonagh gives me the wry look of one who has lived with this answer for many years.
”To begin with, Martin was very successful in theatre, and I’m not a big fan of theatre,” he says, leaning forward, his eyes resolute, his tone of voice pragmatic. ”I think people pay too much for plays, and they’re usually not very good. So I didn’t mind when he was a playwright. But when he got In Bruges set up, and it became a critical success, then I got jealous.”
At the time, John Michael was living in London, labouring to craft commissioned screenplays that were earning him a crust but rarely making it the whole way to the big screen. At parties, he would be embarrassed when people asked what he did; hating their awkward expressions as they realised he had never written a screenplay they had heard of. But he used the feelings to good effect.
”A lot of the bad experiences in your life form you just as much as the good experiences,” he says. ”Those years of frustration, of rage against the film industry, rage against my brother, led to the making of The Guard. That frustration became the character of Gerry Boyle. So you can’t take it back. If you took it back, I would never have made The Guard.”
When The Guard, a dark buddy-buddy action comedy starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle and written and directed by McDonagh, emerged in 2011, it surprised everyone by becoming the most successful Irish indie film of all time, overtaking In Bruges at the box office. John Michael’s response was as jubilant and crowing as you might expect.
”He rang me up with the news, and slammed down the phone laughing,” Martin McDonagh told this reporter. ”There was a lot of violence and drinking [that Christmas], and that was just my mother.”
Fortunately, while the McDonagh brothers might sound like the warring Gallaghers of Oasis, they’re actually pretty supportive of each other. To some extent, their film material echoes each other – they specialise in dark, acerbic work, with frequent lurches in tone and a tendency to offer up intriguing philosophical truths alongside gruesome jokes and self-conscious commentary.
In person, they share a confident, charismatic, self-made-man attitude. McDonagh left school at 16, which, for him, makes his subsequent stories about flying business class on planes all the sweeter. A stockier, balder version of his playwright brother, McDonagh wears a perpetually determined look on his face and talks a fantastic game – if Michael O’Leary made films, this is how he’d sound in interviews.
Certainly, confidence was needed for his latest film project – Calvary, the story of a good priest being threatened with murder, which again stars the magnificent Gleeson in the lead role, flanked by a cavalcade of Irish talent including Aidan Gillen (as a doctor), Pat Shortt (a barman), Dylan Moran (the local rich man) and Chris O’Dowd (the town butcher), playing small but memorable roles. How did McDonagh get such a great cast together?
”You write a good script,” he laughs, while also being entirely serious. ”A lot of the actors have only three or four scenes, but they’re intense, heightened scenes, so they can come in and kind of chew the scenery.
”They’re going up against Brendan Gleeson, which is a challenge. They’re seeing an actor who is very prepared, a De Niro-type actor, who is very method. So he gets very intensely involved in the role. He’s playing a character who is continually battered – he was exhausted emotionally – so when actors come in, they have to go up against him. So it’s a series of one-on-one fights in the movie. I think it’s one of the best casts ever assembled for an Irish movie.”
Earlier, downstairs in the Merrion Hotel, the perpetually ruffled-looking Dylan Moran has backed up McDonagh’s claims about the script. Moran plays an eccentric toff in the film who appears to need for nothing, but actually despairs of his own existence.
”I loved the script, so I knew straight away that I wanted to do it,” says Moran. ”It’s a very powerful piece of work, not patronising or prescriptive. It’s got elements of comedy and drama in it, but it’s not easily categorised. You could probably call it an epic.”
The film begins with an intriguing manifesto – Gleeson is told in the confession box that his life will end in seven days – so it’s time to get his affairs in order. One of his parishioners means to do away with him – ”I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent,” the man in confession says – but which one? Almost everyone in the town of swishing curtains and raised eyebrows is suspicious.
The film is a profound meditation on life and loneliness; a contemplation of the iniquities of the Catholic Church; and also an arthouse drama – the story of a man who has fought his demons and become a priest. It’s about pain, and about finding ways to fill the void.
”It’s all those things, and it’s funny as well which is quite odd, because it veers back and forth between really dark stuff and stuff that makes you laugh,” adds McDonagh. ”It keeps audiences on their toes. It’s a strange beast. The Guard had melancholic moments, but this goes into deeper and darker moments. It’s a strange hybrid of a movie.”
Although there are longueurs, Calvary is a better and more thoughtful, if less accessible, movie than The Guard – a one-man meditation (albeit played out through multiple characters) of what it means to exist in post-religious, small-town Ireland. It’s also beautifully shot – Sligo has never looked so well. But does McDonagh agree that he’s made a better film than The Guard?
”I think it’s trying to be more ambitious and deal with deeper themes,” he says. ”I think The Guard is a good film, but it can be dismissed as a buddy-buddy black comedy.
”But with Calvary, hopefully it makes you think. It’s a more international, expansive film, dealing with things that we think about in life, but never put in a movie.”
Speaking of Irish film-making, McDonagh is openly dismissive of some of the choices his fellow film-makers have made in terms of the screenplays they have brought to life for low-budget movies. ”A lot of the movies that are made – their initial ideas just aren’t good enough. You see synopses for these movies, and you think: No one is going to go and watch that.’
”As Brendan always says, what’s the point of making a film for an empty cinema? You might as well not have made it. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of impetus to it, other than that someone wanted to make a movie.
”But you’re being really arrogant if you’re expecting people to pay a lot of money for a film that isn’t that well-made, well-cast or well-written. It leads to a despair in the Irish audience. Then, when someone eventually makes a good Irish film, there’s an in-built resistance to it. I don’t want to sound like one of those US studio heads, but the film does have to play to the people.”
Already, the reviews for Calvary have been stellar, which means McDonagh can relax and look forward to taking a well-earned rest after he finishes the promotional work around the film.
”I’m a very lazy person,” he laughs. ”There were three years between The Guard and Calvary, and I spent a lot of that time on the beach. My wife is Australian so we go to Australia for a couple of months every year, which is very nice. Once I’ve made a movie, I just want to take a year off, lie around reading and watch movies.”
When he does return to the fray, however, it’s unlikely that it’ll be in collaboration with his brother Martin. Despite their obvious synchronicity, John Michael thinks that it’d simply be too painful for those around them.
”We played five-a-side on Wednesday night, and the game ground to a halt where we had an argument about a penalty. If we’re doing that in a football match, it wouldn’t be wise to work on a movie, he laughs. ”It’d be a good behind-the-scenes documentary, but it probably wouldn’t be a good movie.”

My review of Ballyturk by Enda Walsh, from its opening night in the Black Box Theatre, Galway

By Enda Walsh
Black Box Theatre, Galway
Rating: 4/5

How do you describe a play like Ballyturk? In interviews ahead of the play’s premiere on Monday night in Galway’s Black Box theatre, playwright Enda Walsh refused to try. ”I don’t want to even talk about the situation on stage,” he said with a grin. ”Three people are definitely in the play. It’s about how we exist as people.”
After 90 minutes spent in the hermetic world of Ballyturk, you understand his reticence. Designed by Jamie Vartan, the set catapults us into a strange enclosed space where red balloons scatter the floor, a shower juts from one corner and a cuckoo clock is stuck on a wall. A neon sign says Ballyturk. Sketches of residents embroider the walls.
This space is inhabited by two nameless characters (Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi), who are trapped but not thinking about it. In fact they are frantically busy, giddily gabbling, exercising, showering, waltzing to the 1980s synths of ABC’s The Look of Love.
They are hilarious, surreal, chattering about yellow jumpers, throwing talcum powder on each other, and enacting fictionalised sketches of small-town Ballyturk residents with amphetamine-charged finesse.
Their comic timing is virtuoso and marvellous to behold. Walsh’s language (daft, full of brilliant metaphors) is another joy.
Of the two, Murfi is the senior figure: stronger, commanding, an advisory leader committed to their routine. Murphy – needy, helmet-clad and sweating, his voice moving in the sketches from a gruff male to a whining high female – is an almost Gollum-like presence, crouching his body in the foetal position.
But it’s Murphy who provides more honesty. ”Sleep is freedom,” he cries. ”It feels like we might be less than we were in a place we don’t know now.”
Music – from 1980s synth songs to compositions by Teho Teardo – works brilliantly to snap tension or contribute to it.
But what’s actually going on? Gradually – as with a crime scene investigation – things become (slightly) clearer. Voices beyond the walls remind them of things they haven’t seen, lives they haven’t lived. (Walsh himself provides a cameo voice.) A buzzing fly is a small marvel.
Just when you think they could continue, Godot-like, in this fashion forever, their world – and ours – falls away, as an entire wall of the play is lowered, revealing the dark figure of Stephen Rea, a terrifying figure for a few minutes until – in a typical Walsh reversal – Rea chats absent-mindedly about his left and right hands, before saying he’d like tea with biscuits.
For all that Rea does his gloomy best in the role, Walsh has already done so much to build up a deeply specific and particular idea of a world that Rea’s arrival is jarring; his explanations have the feel of training wheels that Walsh should kick away.
Equally, some of the later speechifying from all the characters is intended to be profound but fails to connect: you can’t help but feel that when Walsh is explaining, he’s losing.
Still, the profound sense of menace and despair left by the final scene of the play, a clear sibling of Misterman and The Walworth Farce, is undeniable. When the lights dim for the final time, the applause is delayed by a shocked audience simply sitting in the darkness, taking in what has come before them.
That silence – rather than the standing ovation that followed it – was Walsh’s real reward on the night.

Song in the Key of Life Listen Backs

Songs in the Key of Life

Songs in the Key of Life is my newish show on Dublin station TXFM, where every week one guest pops in to talk about their lives and play some of the songs that have been meaningful to them. Below is a list of all the artists and well-known types who have been on to date, and there are links included, where available, to bring you straight to the programme, so you can listen back to interviews with the likes of Tori Amos, Damien Dempsey, Joseph O’Connor, Elbow, Paddy Casey, John Carney, Steve Wall, Liam O’Maonlai, Colm Mac Con Iomaire and many more.

Hope you enjoy!

August 9th — Damien Dempsey

Donaghmede’s renowned son Damien Dempsey arrived into studio for a candid discussion about music, his single status (his mother is still at him about it) and his feelings about performing alongside his heroes, including Bruce Springsteen. He also sang a bit of Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing, which was deadly!

August 2nd — Paddy Casey

Paddy Casey has been famous for his music since he was barely out of his teens. Spotted by Sony rep Hugh Murray, Casey was once managed by Paul McGuinness (U2, PJ Harvey), but quit his major label to do things his way. Casey talked new directions and suggested great, great tunes by Parliament, Stevie Wonder and New Order.

July 26th — Liam O’Maonlai

Frontman of the The Hot House Flowers, Liam O’Maonlai opened up about his Dublin origins, learning how to kiss (and wanting to do it again) and his career in music, from performing at the Eurovision to ploughing a solo path. Brill tunes by Aretha Franklin, Prince and the Bothy Band featured. ..

July 19th — Stuart Clark

He might be best known as the deputy editor of Irish music bible Hot Press, but Stuart Clark was once a pirate DJ on the high seas, and has the stories (and the, ahem, unusual piercings, as he reveals) to prove it. Fantastic tunes from The Clash, Manic Street Preachers and The Lightning Seeds were all part of the programme. . .

July 12th — John Carney

One of our favourite guests on the series so far, Irish director John Carney (Once, Begin Again) gave out to me roundly for forgetting the song Mary’s Prayer, and vividly described telling terrible fibs to Billy Corgan, getting ditched by Scarlett Johansson and even sang a little bit of Mary’s Prayer himself. . .

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Meeting Sinead O’Connor (as published in The Sunday Business Post, 030814)

Everyone has an opinion on Sinéad O’Connor. From the taxi driver to the teacher, the name Sinéad O’Connor elicits a slew of standpoints, ranging from the bewildered to the condemnatory. There’s the Miley Cyrus spat to ponder, the online dating, the brief fourth marriage, the breakdowns and the infamous 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance, in which O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope. Drama seems to follow O’Connor around or – if you prefer another interpretation – she often courts it herself.
And so it’s a surprise to walk into a tiny recording studio on Westland Row in Dublin, (picked because a musical environment is comfortable for her, her publicist explains), and see O’Connor looking placid and serene, a veritable sea of calm in the storm. The 47-year-old is here today to talk about the music. She is about to release a new, vivid and strong album called I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, the name inspired by a high-profile Sheryl Sandberg campaign, and she looks every inch the title.
O’Connor is tiny these days. Clad in a black-fronted waistcoat, with a leopard-print back, black trousers and pumps, the first thing you notice are those beautiful woodland doe eyes, still as striking as they were in the video for her star-making Prince cover, Nothing Compares to You. But O’Connor herself is uncomfortable. “I went for a facial,” she explains regretfully. “And my face reacted to the fruit acids, right before these interviews.”
I reassure her that she looks great. Her face is a little red, true, but hardly a big deal and – as always with O’Connor – far more prominent are the tattoos that sprawl all over her body, her chest, her arms, present even via tiny red-inked lettering on her cheeks. But she doesn’t seem totally convinced.

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Caitlin Moran interview (Sunday Business Post, Ireland)

Caitlin Moran has a new book out — a funny and thoroughly enjoyable novel called How to Build A Girl, so in honour of that, here’s my interview with her from 2012, when we chatted in a limo on the way to The Late, Late Show. . .

Special type of woman
14 October 2012 by Nadine O’Regan

Caitlin Moran has a dress in her bag that she’s thinking of wearing when she appears on The Late Late Show later, but time is ticking away. It’s already 8pm. The limo is due to arrive shortly, and Moran is still clad in her everyday gear of denim shorts, opaque tights and a multi-coloured bomber jacket with yellow deer on the front.
Her hair is an Amy Winehouse-channelling barnet of black with a large daub of silver-blonde through it. Her eyeliner is in a cartoonish Cleopatra curve. It’s a cute, alternative look, but not very Late Late Show.
Her Irish publicists look anxiously at their watches. The queue at Eason on O’Connell Street, Dublin, where Moran has been doing a public appearance and book signing, is showing no signs of fading.
Partly that’s because of the enthusiasm of the 130-strong audience. Partly it’s because Moran devotes so much time to each fan. She signs personalised notes on the books, offers compliments, doles out advice and even clasps her hands around one fan’s boobs for a photograph – much to the laughing delight of the fan in question.
Later on the Late Late Show, the non-appearance of the dress – Moran zipped onto the show still clad in her denim shorts and bomber jacket “‘with a soup stain down the front” – will become a talking point on the programme itself.
Moran has been brought on beside glamourpuss and Playboy model Rosanna Davison, and presenter Ryan Tubridy (whether for showbiz schtick or not) can’t seem to let go of the fact that Moran has rocked up to the programme in the same outfit she might wear to Topshop of a Saturday.
In a way, though, Moran’s Doc Marten-clad appearance is part of the point. An award-winning feminist author and columnist, Moran has won the love and respect of millions of women, not just for being honest about her life, but for being hilariously funny with it.
In her 2011 book How To Be A Woman, she laments her cystitis, refuses to depilate, contemplates weight gain and talks in a down-to-earth tone about big subjects including feminism, childbirth and abortion – the last of which is movingly narrated through the prism of her own experience.
The audience on the shop floor today is largely composed of young women, many of whom stare at Moran with a mixture of awe and adoration.
“I hate to disagree with you on anything,” says one girl in a mortified tone, prefacing a question.
Moran does few interviews, but has endless time for her fans. As she says goodbye to the final autograph-hunter, she doesn’t mention the crumpled dress, but muses as to whether the deodorant she’s put in her hair to replace the dry shampoo she left at home in north London is working. Then up comes the limo and the four of us – Moran with her two Irish publicists – leap in.
If giving an interview to The Sunday Busines Post in the back of a car fazes Moran, she doesn’t show it. If anything, she’s more worried about how I’m going to cope.
“Can you see your notes?” she asks. “Do you want me to switch the light on?”

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