My Lenny Abrahamson and Pat Shortt interview (published in the Business Post, 07/10/07)

Lenny Abrahamson is flustered. In the suite of a Dublin hotel, the director is trying to describe Garage, his new film starring veteran comedian Pat Shortt, in terms that sound attractive, but the words keep coming out wrong. “The film has positive aspirations, but it’s certainly not an easy watch,” Abrahamson begins. “Actually, no, let me not, don’t say that.” He tries again. “It’s not a chick flick, a romantic comedy or a thriller. But I believe people will really enjoy it.” Beside him on the sofa, Pat Shortt explodes with laughter. “It’s riveting!” the pair finally agree, chuckling. “Riveting, powerful and very emotional.”

It’s probably a hard habit to kick, but these days Abrahamson, who also recently directed the gritty television series Prosperity for RTE, doesn’t need to try to sell his film to the masses: the media and the Cannes film festival have already done that for him. When Garage was screened at the Cannes film earlier this year, it took home the Cicae Art and Essai Cinema Prize. Plaudits from the media, meanwhile, have rolled in for the film, which has just opened in Ireland.

The movie centres on Josie (Shortt), a man who has spent all his adult life as the caretaker of a dilapidated, little-visited garage in the mid-west of Ireland. With the exception of his occasional forays to the village pub and shop, Josie lives a solitary, somewhat blinkered life, full of repetition and rituals. When the garage’s owner tells Josie he’ll be getting an assistant, Josie assumes the role of mentor with nervousness but enthusiasm. Through spare, effective scenes, a situation builds up that leads to the film’s shocking conclusion.

Although there are problems with Garage – the storyline is stretched too thin over the canvas of the movie and the shots feel too lingering – the film has a huge amount to recommend it. Crucially, the film feels completely authentic as a document of the experience of living near an Irish rural town: the dialogue, from Ennis-born Mark O’Halloran, is pitch-perfect and beautifully judged.

That the film should ring so true is an achievement all the more significant considering Abrahamson’s background – “I’m a middle-class, south Dublin boy,” Abrahamson nods, with the resigned smile of one who has been asked about this many times before. “I think that one almost always makes films that aren’t autobiographical. Whether you’re in town or country,  you still have to imagine yourself into someone’s life as a film-maker. Also, once you start working on a film, you’re prepping it for a year. By the time you get to do it, if you don’t own it, then you never would. And by the time I made Garage, I felt I really did.”

Pat Shortt‘s portrayal of Josie in the film, meanwhile, is little
short of astonishing. Watching him onscreen, a master of subtlety, his
face flickering from vulnerable to hopeful to witless, it’s almost
impossible to believe that this is the same man who gurned through
D’unbelievables and hammed it up in his many roles on his RTE show
Killinaskully. In Garage, Shortt offers a restrained, devastatingly
effective performance; he commands every frame of the film he’s in,
and he is in almost every frame.

At Cannes, Shortt‘s performance made him one of the most talked-about
actors at the festival. In France, his reputation has been carved out,
not as a comic actor, but as a brilliant character actor. “The
reaction from the media was huge. It spread throughout the festival,”
says Shortt. “In France now, you’ve got Alain Delon and Pat Shortt,”
Abrahamson adds, with a grin. At one point at the festival, Shortt
shared a lift in a car with Anton Corbijn, the renowned U2
photographer and director of the soon-to-be released Ian Curtis biopic
Control. “He asked me in the car what we were doing over in Cannes. I
told him I was involved with Garage. He said, ‘I believe there’s a
really good actor in that movie.'” Shortt smiles.

With so much praise being laid at their doorsteps, it’s easy to forget
now how much of a risk Shortt took when he signed on the dotted line
to star in the film. While Abrahamson, 41, and Garage’s writer Mark
O’Halloran had already carved out strong reputations for their first
award-winning feature film, Adam & Paul, a story of two junkies, for
Garage they were working with a small budget of €1-2 million, and in
an art house genre that had the potential to alienate Shortt‘s
fanbase. Shortt admits that he did have fears about the project. “I
have a massive, solid fanbase,” he says. “I did wonder, to step
outside of that, ‘Would it damage my career?’ But my own personal
background comes from like, being to art college and having an art
background. I had in the past worked with Druid and done serious
stuff. It’s about following good work. It’s more about what you’re
happy with than what your career is about.”

Growing up in Thurles in Tipperary, Shortt never actually planned to
become either an actor or a comedian. His dreams lay in being in a
band. “Not in a rock band, a cool, trendy band,” he grins. “But in the
background, in the brass section.” In the early 1990s, Shortt joined
Jon Kenny in D’Unbelievables as a sax player initially, and then,
under Kenny’s tutelage, moved on to co-writing scripts and taking part
in sketches.

The duo were extremely successful – at one point in Ireland,
D’Unbelievables videos and DVDs were tripling sales of Father Ted
videos and DVDs. When D’Unbelievables wound down after Kenny was
diagnosed with cancer (he has since recovered), Shortt toured around
the world playing saxophone with the Saw Doctors. He then struck out
on his own as a comedian, quickly proving himself as a solo act, and
finding himself more in demand than D’Unbelievables had been.

Abrahamson and Shortt first met when Shortt was voicing advertisements
for Eircom and People in Need. At the time, Abrahamson was making his
living from shooting commercials (the Carlsberg advertisement about
flatmates is one of his). The pair hit it off instantly. When
O’Halloran and Abrahamson sat down to discuss who had the acting chops
to play Josie in the film, Shortt felt like a natural choice.

“As soon as Pat came into my mind, he seemed like the right person to
do it. He knows those characters and that part of the country well. He
is a very physical performer which is the kind of performer I like to
work with,” Abrahamson says. The director met Shortt in the Gresham
Hotel, at the premiere of Boy Eats Girl, and pitched him the plot of
the film. “Pat was really positive, he said ‘God, that sounds great.’
But I felt 50/50 as to whether he would do it.” Abrahamson didn’t have
a fall-back plan, however. Asked what he would have done if Shortt had
refused, the director grins. “If Pat had said no, I would have tried
to persuade him.”

Talking to the two of them, it’s easy to see the camaraderie between
Abrahamson and Shortt: Shortt is content to let Abrahamson carry the
interview, interjecting from time to time to good-naturedly slag
Abrahamson. Abrahamson, meanwhile, is full of praise for the Thurles
actor. Both are warm and friendly, but Abrahamson comes across as the
more earnest and – understandably enough, since it’s his film –
obviously ambitious of the two.

Speaking of Garage, the former Trinity philosophy student talks
number-crunching details as easily as he does character portrayals.
The budget for Garage came together relatively quickly due to the
success of Abrahamson’s previous film, Adam & Paul, (which Abrahamson
had managed to make for an “unbelievably tight” €400,000) and the
faith people had in him as a result. “From the point that we decided
to make it, we made it within a year. It was funded very quickly
thanks to the Irish Film Board, Film Four in the UK, RTE and the BCI.
With Garage, we had enough money to make the film we wanted to make.”

Garage was filmed around Birr, Co Offaly, Portumna and Woodford, Co
Galway and Co Tipperary. “We were looking for several things,”
Abrahamson says. “A garage as the key location, then a town as
outskirts, a railway line, a lake: particular things that are part of
the vocabulary of a small town – specific locations where teenagers
gather.” The film was cut radically in the editing process – it
started out at 150 minutes; it ended up at 85 minutes long. The scenes
that were cut were, generally speaking, the scenes Pat Shortt hadn’t
been in. “I was shocked when I saw it first to see that certain scenes
that I wasn’t as involved in had been taken out,” Shortt says. “It was
condensed more about Josie, which was the right decision to make.”

Now that Garage has won an award at the Cannes Film Festival,
commercial prospects for the film have massively improved. “It’s
great,” Abrahamson says. “It helps somebody to sell it in their
territory if they can say that it won a prize. We made a number of
sales in Cannes. So, for example, it’s been sold in France, it’ll be
in the cinemas in France. It has also been sold in the UK.” Is there
any hope of a worldwide distribution deal? “Those deals are very rare.
This is still a serious bit of drama, so it’s never going to be
something that people snap up as, ‘Let’s open this on a thousand
screens across the U.S.'”

Still, you get the impression that Abrahamson will campaign
vociferously for his film nonetheless. He feels very positive about
the current prospects for Irish film-makers. “In terms of Irish
cinema, I think this is the healthiest it’s ever been. It is
definitely possible in Ireland now to make really good Irish-written
and directed films that audiences want to see. And they’re getting a
profile on the international stage. It’s a healthy time.”

No surprise, then, that neither Abrahamson nor Shortt plan to rest on
their laurels. Shortt has just returned to the small screen with the
fourth series of Killinaskully. He’s also considering another Irish
film project and he has agents from abroad interested in his work.
Abrahamson, meanwhile, plans to work again with Mark O’Halloran next
year. “I also get scripts through an agent,” he says. “But my primary
focus is to make another film with Mark.”

For both, the ultimate plan is to continue to challenge themselves.
“There is always a chance of spectacular failure,” says Abrahamson.
“If you’re making films or acting it could be going fine and then you
could be out in the cold one project later, if you make a big mistake.
But I think that’s what makes it exciting. Because there’s always the
chance of something like Garage – of something going well. And then
you can look back and think ‘I’m very proud of that.'”

Garage was released in Ireland on October 5.

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