When Terry McMahon’s “Charlie Casanova” screened last April at a festival in Krakow, Poland, it sparked a fistfight between two audience members who disagreed about the self-financed Irish feature.
And that suits McMahon just fine. A scabrous drama about an amoral yuppie, ferociously played by Emmett J. Scanlan, who kills a girl in a hit-and-run accident and then surrenders his fate to a pack of playing cards, the pic is designed to provoke divided reactions.
“I set out to raise as many questions as possible, and answer none of them” McMahon says. “When the audience ends up fighting over your film, that’s the kind of response you want.”
As McMahon tells it, making the film wasn’t so much a labor of love as a sick obsession.
A former actor and TV writer, McMahon poured into “Charlie Casanova” all his contempt for Ireland’s new moneyed class, along with his frustrations over years of working as a self-described hack on soaps while developing conventional screenplays that never got made.
“The Irish Film Board had been incredibly kind to three different scripts of mine, giving me a lot of money to develop them, but when those greenlit scripts turned into non-existent films, I thought, ‘I can’t keep doing this,'” he explains.
“I’m a huge fan of the Aristotelian concept and conventional narrative structures, but I decided to do something that deconstructed those,” he says of “Casanova.” “The Film Board hated the script. That meant nobody was ever going to make it, unless I did it myself.”
McMahon says the film became a two-year obsession for him, during which he pumped every dime he had into pushing the pic through each stage of development.
In December 2009, he generated a Facebook page inviting anyone interested in working the project to get in touch, and setting the start of principal photography just three-and-a-half weeks later.
“Ireland shuts down for three weeks at Christmas, so I reckoned it might be possible to get people to work for free in the first week of January when there was no other work around,” he says. “As soon as I created the Facebook page, I thought ‘you’ve really embarrassed yourself’ and I was reaching for the delete button … when the first response popped up.”
Over the next 24 hours, 130 people volunteered. “Some were very experienced, some had no experience whatsoever,” he says. When they gathered at the Clontarf Castle Hotel for the first of 11 shooting days (because the camera he had borrowed had to be returned at midnight on that 11th day), it was the first time McMahon had met many of his crew.
Shooting cost a total of €987 ($1,292) in cash — though McMahon acknowledges that doesn’t reflect the full cost to his own pocket, nor the money his father gave him to cover his family’s bills.
He had an editor, Tony Kearns, but no budget for post-production. Through personal contacts, Dublin’s leading post house, Windmill Lane, stepped in. “They showed staggering support, generosity beyond measure. It’s a private company, a capitalist organization, but they never looked for anything, neither the bosses who own it nor the staff, who worked eight-hour days for nothing. It felt to them like they were part of an anarchist punk-rock thing.”
A friend passed a copy to UTA agent David Flynn, who sent it to the SXSW festival, which invited the project into competition. That invitation alone was a triumph for a self-financed Irish no-budgeter by an unknown filmmaker made without the sanction of the Film Board, which backs virtually every project made in Ireland.
Though the SXSW honchos were enthused about the film, Variety’s review was extremely negative (though there were no fistfights). McMahon was unfazed by the love it/hate it reactions.
“Charlie Casanova” went to the Galway fest, the premier gathering of the Irish film industry, where it drew a standing ovation and the award for best first feature. Other fest screenings included that combative night at Krakow’s Off Plus Camera fest.
Then last month came the major surprise of five nominations from the Irish Film & TV Awards, including picture, director, script, editing and rising star for Scanlan.
A distribution deal with Studiocanal, which has a track record of nurturing raw new directors, has put “Charlie Casanova” among the small number of Irish movies to secure distribution across the U.K. and Ireland.
“As a company, we have a strong tradition of supporting debut features from filmmakers with a strong voice and vision such as Joe Cornish, Rowan Joffe, Ben Wheatley and Richard Ayoade, and Terry certainly fits that bill,” says Danny Perkins, CEO of Studiocanal U.K. “He’s an incredibly passionate writer and director, and has created an incendiary film.”
McMahon says he learned the hard way from serving as the pic’s producer as well as writer and director. “Afterwards I had to ask myself, was it really worth it to be this broken on every level?” he says. “Yet all I want to do is get back on set and do it again.”
McMahon is developing a broad comedy called “Oliver Twisted” with experienced producer Tim Palmer, who contacted him after seeing “Charlie Casanova.”
The multihyphenate acknowledges that “Charlie Casanova” is too much of an anomaly to provide any kind of template for his future career. “The production model can never been repeated,” he says. “I don’t want to make ‘Charlie Casanova’ again, and I don’t want to work that way again. No matter how anarchic your approach, you have to go back into the conventional fold.”