‘Staccato’ is a period drama about a young pianist (Craig Grainger) rehearsing for his debut recital. His attention however, is drawn elsewhere, to the young gardener in the grounds of his estate (Kevin O’Malley) who has become the object of his desire, and whom he desperately wants to keep. Meanwhile the Lady of the House (Pauline O’Driscoll) is not impressed with Thomas’ form, musically or otherwise, in the lead-up to the event, while maid Moire (Sophie Merry) and the young pianist’s sister (Marian Rose) both have a vital part to play in the unraveling drama.
When I get an idea for a film, it usually comes from a couple of practical sources. I think of the locations I could use, local places that could evoke an emotion on screen. I think of actors I know who intrigue me, and how I might tell a story with them in those settings. The reasons I do this is to come up with something that may actually be within my grasp, and not a just distant pipe dream. However, I also try to emulate the sorts of films that appeal to me. This complicates things. However, I believe if you make the film that you yourself would want to watch, then other people will want to watch it too…in theory!
I’ve always been drawn to period dramas, but a big factor for me in deciding to make ‘Staccato’ was the idea of classical music. There is rule saying that rights for written music enter the public domain after a composer has been deceased for more than 70 years, and for someone making a film on a very limited budget, this is a big help! As such, I decided to make piano an integral device in the story. I’d also not seen too many stories portraying gay relationships in a period context, and I wanted to use that subject to explore themes of repression, delusion, social expectation, and exploitation of the working class. Rather lofty aspirations for a short film you might say.
It took a long time working on the script before it was fit to show someone. My first draft was probably 30 pages, with much of the plot plainly spelled-out in flowery dialogue and farfetched contrivances. I’d described a full auditorium of costumed extras for the climactic piano recital scene, quite sure in my mind that the tiny budget I’d set aside would stretch to fulfill such grandiose visions.
Getting feedback from people who I could trust to be honest was very important in cutting down the script to its essential components, while also making the narrative more effective. I had to try to convey the intensity of feeling between these two men in order to drive the story; very much framing it through Sean’s perspective of this world and the ambivalence that has overcome him. He is concerned for the welfare of his sick mother, and the moral implications of his sexuality, yet also seduced by the power of the love affair and the access he’s been granted to a realm of privilege. Meanwhile I wanted to convey the weight of expectation placed upon Thomas by his mother and the wider social circle, but also his thinly-veiled insecurity and arrogance that drives him to enact a desperate scheme intended to keep possession of his lover.
There are huge shifts in character’s motivation that happen in the span of the story that I had to justify but not spell out. There are exchanges which must occur off screen and can only be hinted at, so as not to take all the air out of the story. Eventually I felt I’d got the dynamics of the plot working and started sending out to potential producers, cinematographers and actors. People responded to the emotion of the story and the potential for arresting imagery in pastoral and stately settings – particularly cinematographer Miguel Angel Viñas.
I met Miguel after he had read a synopsis I’d put out on FilmmakersNetwork.ie and had got in touch. After sending him the script it seemed we shared much of the same reference points and ideas for the vision of the film, and soon we were meeting and doing location recces on a regular basis. It was Miguel who pushed to shoot on the Arri Alexa with an extensive lighting kit – to give the film a grand and timeless look that would evoke the era we aimed to depict. I really appreciated his striving for the highest possible standard. For the kind of locations and look we were going for, only the best possible equipment would do. Since making the film Miguel himself wrote an article about his methods and techniques in making the film.
I also met with several potential producers who expressed an interest, and in January 2014 came to Caroline Kealy, who really understood what I was aiming for with the project, and the many components that would need to be coordinated to pull it off. She was also someone who I felt was capable of pulling together several strands of a relatively complicated production working with a restricted budget, so I felt very fortunate to get her on board. We set our shoot dates in April, and from that point on it was a race against time.
Getting the locations was an interesting challenge. There were certain stately homes around North County Dublin which I had been hoping to use, and there was a lot of back and forth before they plainly said that they could not facilitate us. This was due to the amount of antique furniture and expensive carpeting in the rooms we wanted to use and the existing conflicts of interest between the family and the local council. It was also a challenge to get a Victorian hotel, with a four poster bed, to agree to have potentially graphic scenes filmed on their premises. Luckily we did find three locations willing to open their doors to us, Ardgillan Castle in North Dublin (interiors), and Killruddery House (exteriors) and Tinakilly Hotel in Co. Wicklow. They were all more than accommodating for what they knew was a small independent film that would benefit hugely from their beautiful locations. A woman who worked at Ardgillan in particular was very encouraging when I pitched the story to her, having done theatre studies at college and having an interest in the arts.
Wardrobe was obviously another key component of this production and finding costumes that were both visually appealing and accurate for the period was a big hurdle. Looking around the major costume houses in Dublin proved a fruitless endeavour, with a very limited selection of overpriced garments. We then found out about a place called Nomac Productions in Co. Waterford, headed down on the train and lucked out. In one afternoon we managed to dress the entire cast of characters (some with several costume changes) with beautiful intricate gowns and waistcoats that really took the audience into the world we were trying to evoke.
For a film centred around a young pianist, the actual piano he plays was a pretty vital prop. There were small box and upright pianos already in Ardgillan, but in order to bring the sense of status and occasion to the film it was very important to get a Grand. Caroline had the unenviable task of sourcing a Grand Piano on a budget of zero, with only weeks to go until the shoot. Miraculously she managed to wrangle a broken Bechstein from a school which could not afford to repair it. We simply had to pay the movers and find a new home for it. Having this as the centre-piece for the recital scene was absolutely essential, and I’m so grateful we managed to nab one against the odds.
I auditioned probably 40 actors for the various roles in the film, but the eventual cast stood out quite clearly from most of the actors I saw. During the last few weeks of preproduction, in which we were blocking scenes on locations and booking equipment, insurance, locations and so on, I also held regular rehearsals with the actors. It was very important to me to have the cast as prepared as possible for their scenes – working with accents and getting the rhythm and timing of the scenes right, while also exploring the chemistry between Craig and Kevin – working hard to build up an intimacy and rapport between them. If I couldn’t sell the intensity of feeling between the two young men, the drama of the film would be non-existent. Luckily everyone was so professional and committed themselves to really putting in the time to collaborate and elevate what was on the page.
At last April was upon us. The shoot was tough. Caroline, Miguel and I were all very nervous on Day 1. We had some crucial scenes to get through from different points in the narrative – including a picnic scene, taking place in supposedly idyllic weather. Shooting in April (or any month of the year in Ireland really) is a big gamble for exteriors. Luckily we were blessed with sunshine for that scene and managed get beautiful shots on the lawn with Killruddery House in the background looking pretty magnificent. The second day was not so lucky weather wise. A massive downpour meant some incidental exterior scenes had to be scrapped. In the evening, we filmed a scene featuring a horse-drawn carriage we’d hired, for the guest of honour to arrive before the recital, with dozens of lanterns dotted on the ground and a dry-ice machine, which was an exciting sequence to capture.
Unfortunately, half way through the shoot we were forced to drop a day due to unforeseen circumstances. This was a major blow to the production as there were several crucial scenes now missing from the narrative, and it would not be possible to reshoot any time soon. Still, we soldiered on to the next location, and completed what we could of the scheduled scenes. It is an enormous challenge to keep going after something like that happens, especially when you know that the loss cannot be rectified in the immediate future. We did our best in those final days but the knowledge of the uphill battle to raise the money and get all the cast, crew and equipment back on location for pick-ups was daunting.
That summer, starting to tackle the first assembly of the edit was very slow. Luckily I then got a job working as the social producer, capturing BTS content on the set of Vikings – which was a great opportunity to observe a large scale production in action. The result of this was that I was able to funnel some of that big network money into completing my own little project. We also had great help from contributors on an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign during this time. We shot again in September and managed to nail down those crucial scenes, including the bedroom scenes between Sean and Thomas, and a climactic moment, intercut with the big recital at the end. We also went back to Ardgillan and did some inserts for scenes we’d shot before but for which we hadn’t done enough coverage.
At that point we’d essentially wrapped and could integrate those new scenes into the edit. There was also a shot of a steam engine train that we wanted to capture, and it took a good while making contact with the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland and going off to remote locations to chase locomotives before we got that particular shot in the can. While I was delighted to have finally done our pick ups and completed the film, unfortunately the footage did open a whole new can of worms.
A word to the wise – never ever, ever…EVER, say you’ll “fix it in post”. I know this is Filmmaking 101, but on the pick-ups for Staccato I was all too willing to ignore this basic concept – and allowed equipment in the background of some shots. This was due to the dimensions of the room, the position of the furniture and the way we wanted to light the scene. There seemed be no other option but to have a C-stand holding a light up in the background of a shot. I learned the hard way that remedying these issues afterwards is easier said than done. After a long time trying to work with After Effects artists, I eventually had to work through the scenes myself, painstakingly, one frame at a time, using Photoshop, for 2 weeks solid. I’ll not reveal exactly which were the shots in question (now it should be seamless!), but suffice it to say there was no way around this particular problem and it was the greatest lesson I could have had in learning to get everything you want, as you want it, in-camera.
The edit itself was very long and drawn out. Eventually I emancipated our all-too amenable editor Dylan Knapp, when I felt the cut was exactly where it needed to be. Of course, in the months after that there have been endless tweaks and slight re-workings, which in my mind have improved the film immeasurably or made it worse, depending on what day you ask me. In that time I have gone through periods of being almost unable to look at it anymore, and then other times of being very eager to make new changes. I’ve come to realise that editing, and indeed filmmaking as a whole, is a form of insanity. Putting this much time, energy and money into something is a huge gamble and you wouldn’t do it unless you were totally giddy with the possibilities of cinema. A group of people coming together to become this obsessed with one final product isn’t always rational
The duration of ‘Staccato’ started at around 25 minutes. We have now reduced to 22:32, but as it stands that is still a challenge in getting the film programmed. We are currently in consideration for numerous international festivals, many with an LGBT theme, but it is a tough sell due to its length. The fact that it’s a film with a 3-act structure (almost a short that thinks it’s a feature!) makes it hard to make room for amongst other short films. Also, while the film may be themed for a niche market it is quite doom-and-gloom in its portrayal, rather than the more uplifting or titillating films that often screen at these festivals. Nevertheless I am confident that there is an audience for this film. It is something the whole cast and crew worked very hard on, and we believe that it deserves to be seen.
I am currently developing another shorter drama called ‘Tidings’ this time a contemporary story (phew!) with a small cast (double phew!) The film is about a mother and daughter, spending an afternoon celebrating the daughter’s 30th birthday. They stroll along the pier and have a chat over coffee in the park, but as the hour grows late and the shadows lengthen, the truth of their connection begins to unravel. Miguel, Caroline and I were lucky enough to do some camera tests early this year to experiment with locations and lighting, and also to get our two stars, Elga Fox and Mary McNamara, in front of the lens together. You can watch the teaser trailer below; which gives a sense of the mood we’re aiming for. I am still working on the script and seeking funding for this project.
Staccato is a self-financed short film written and directed by Eoghan McQuinn and produced by Caroline Kealy of Khaotic Pictures. Principal photography was completed in 2014 with cinematographer Miguel Ángel Viñas on the Arri Alexa, provided by Panavision Ireland and lights by Cine Electric and Con Dempsey. The film was shot on location in stately homes in North Co. Dublin and Co. Wicklow. Production & Costume Design by Sorcha Dianamh. The film features classical piano performed by pianist David O’Shea. The film was edited by Dylan Knapp.