After success in the nonfiction realm, Irish director embraces TV as gateway to narrative cinema
Paul Duane has only made three feature-length documentaries so far, yet considering the subject matter of each, he’s been through enough as a filmmaker to qualify for grizzled veteran status.
His first film, “Barbaric Genius,” centered on John Healy, a writer and former competitive chess player who fell into a life of homelessness and petty crime. His second, “Very Extremely Dangerous,” got uncomfortably close and personal with to notorious Memphis session musician and criminal Jerry McGill, who once toured with Waylon Jennings while on the run from the law, sometimes dressing in drag to avoid detection.
And for his latest, “Natan,” Duane and co-director David Cairns attempted to unearth the real story of early French cinema pioneer Bernard Natan, whose reputation was destroyed by allegations of pornography, and who later died in Auschwitz.
How has he managed to unearth such intriguingly unsavory characters? “They find me,” he says. “It’s difficult to explain, but I have an affinity for people with unusual lives and stories, and they seem to find their way to my door.”
Yet even with this oddball affinity, Duane’s experiences with McGill on “Dangerous” pushed his limits as a documentarian, especially when the musician began choking his long-suffering partner, Joyce, while she was driving down the highway, with the director filming from the backseat.
“I was well aware that Jerry was volatile, but I also thought, well, he’s seventysomething, he’s a senior citizen,” Duane recalls of his subject, who died this summer. “I certainly didn’t expect to be in personal danger while filming, but it happened, and it kept escalating.
“Anyone will tell you, whether war photographers or whomever, that with a camera you feel protected and insulated. You point a camera at something that’s going on that’s scary or violent, and it transforms it into drama. You put the camera down, and suddenly you’re just witnessing an awful fight. I’m glad I made the right choice and continued to film.”
Duane took an unusual path to the documentary realm, spending years as a television writer and showrunner for such series as Showtime’s “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” and this year’s RTE series “Amber.” “I don’t think anyone else really does TV drama in order to get to make documentaries,” he says. “It’s usually the other way around.”
› Age: 44
› Home base: Dublin, Ireland
› Reps: Unrepresented