Irish film maker Robert Quinn grew up in the Cinema. That's not a clichéd way of saying that he liked movies, and spent all his pocket money going to the local cinema. No, Robert Quinn actually did grow up in the Cinema. His father, film maker Bob Quinn, in the 1970s set up the independent Cinegael, an Irish language cinema, showing Irish language films. It's a childhood, in part, that Quinn has brought to the screen as Cinegael Paradiso – Once upon a time in Connemara.
“Originally the film was going to be about the cinema that we lived in, and it wasn’t going to be anymore than that,” explains Quinn. “To be honest with you, it became more than that because of the interviews I started doing. Not just with him, my father, but with my mother. My mother was a huge part of it. There were all these mad revolutionaries out there making films in the west of Ireland. This was like the middle of Mexico in the ’50’s, and this group of them went out there with no tv, no electricty and started talking about creating a film industry. It was like pushing the cart without the horse, or some kind of cliché like that. There was just something about it that I found fascinating, and, in ways, I wish we could go back and do it all again.”
Quinn, then, is part of a second generation of Irish film makers. He grew into an existant industry, however patchwork. “I’d no specific interest in film,” he admits, laughing. “There was film activity around our house all the time, there were people coming with cameras, and stuff. There was an editing machine in the house, for example. It was one of those things, it wasn’t that I read the newspaper one day and decided ‘I’d like to do that’. Sometimes in fact, I wonder what I’d do outside the industry, because it’s so much a part of my own personal heritage.”
His first paid job was on the set of Oscar winning film My Left Foot, and over the next 15 years he worked his way up through the ranks, constantly learning. Whether it's the Oscar nominated The Crying Game, the atrocious Far and Away, or In the Name of the Father, if it's a major film made in Ireland, the chances are that Quinn has worked on it, from the lowly positions of 'assistant runner' through to 'assistant director'. “It's the best film school there is, to be honest with you. Nothing intimidates after that!” He's well positioned to comment, having himself gone back to college to complete an M.A. in film studies.
In truth, as Quinn demonstrates, it doesn't have to be an 'either/or' situation, and indeed formal film schooling can enhance a director's talent.” I did an MA in film making, and it did open my eyes to the sheer possibility of film making today. You can get slightly comfortable, thinking that everything is just masters and wide-shots and close ups etc. One thing that I’ve noticed about really good film makers coming out nowadays is that they have an audience aesthetic, they look for things that appeal to the eye. So I looked at film making differently then.”
Quinn's directorial debut, Dead Bodies, winner of the audience award at the Cinénygma Luxembourg International Film Festival, is a low-budget thriller that, at this stage has been sold in more than twenty different 'territories' (as film-people are prone to saying).
It was, as he puts it, one of those films that “punched above their weight”. While it received critical praise, and a healthy audience, it hasn't necessarily set the box office alight. But, pragmatically, it didn't need to. “It didn’t do massive box office business, – he agrees, – but it allowed me to be thought of as a director, and for the producer to be thought of as a producer – so, so what if it didn’t rake in the cash. You can’t sit on your laurels, especially when they’re not very big. We went out on a low budget, with a high definition camera – something untried in this Country – and we made something out of it.”
Resting on laurels is not something you'd associate with Quinn. Even as critical praise was pouring in for both Dead Bodies and Cinegael Paradiso, he had moved on to work on the upcoming Breakfast on Pluto, as first assistant director to veteran Irish director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with a Vampire, Michael Collins etc.).
“Jordan was so good,” enthuses Quinn. “Every time he did something, it was like ‘wow’, because they were things you wouldn’t have thought about. It was only four months later, when you start seeing the film coming together, that you start figuring out the way he was thinking, and you wonder ‘could I think like that? ”. He continues, “I asked Jordan one night, after shooting, while we were having a drink: ‘How do you do it’, and he replied ‘I believe wholeheartedly in every film I make. I put my absolute heart and soul into it’, and that’s what you have to do, as a film-maker. You have to go beyond just believing flaccidly that this is a job you’re doing. Even if it’s a low rent comedy, which is what I’m about to do, you have to put your heart and soul into it.“
Jordan is not only a celebrated director, but he's also a critically acclaimed writer. To what extent does that help? “Neil Jordan is a great writer,” he affirms. “Some directors have the talent to do both. Personally, I’ve given up, for the moment, on my writing. I’m more interested in what other people have to say. After Dead Bodies came out I did get a lot of scripts. Most of them weren’t great. Some of them were very good, and about three stuck with me and have a reasonably high chance of getting made. That’s the way it goes.”
With both Dead Bodies and Cinegael Paradiso, Quinn has experimented with low-budget film-making, while also having experience of big-budget productions. He's not so sure that the lower costs associated with digital film-making will revolutionise film-making, at least in the short term: “We should be allowed, with digital, now to go out and make these cheap, crazy films. The possibility exists, we should be making films, but we’re not. Because it’s still expensive – there’s still stock, there’s still a 35ml print that you have to get, which nobody on a standard living is going to be able to afford. So there’s still a certain point you have to get by. Maybe 100,000 is the lowest you can make a film for. I don’t know. At least with a minimum of production values. It’s useless to say that anyone can make a film, because in reality they can’t. You can’t just go out and shoot with your mates. Maybe Shane Meadows can – there’s a sort of brutality about it that he can master, but most people can’t. There is some craft.“