Phil Sheerin’s film North, a harrowing short about a mother and son about to be separated by the mother’s death shook me to say the least. When watching emotional films with people I’ll turn around and see a lone tear building in the corner of their eye while mine is dry. I often wonder if I’d enjoy films more if I wasn’t so emotionally detached from them and then I wonder why I am so emotionally detached from the films I watch.
North, however, had me invested and immersed immediately in the story. This is an incredible feat considering it’s just under twenty minutes. Perhaps it’s the inherent and instinctual worry we have for our mothers. Perhaps it’s the inherent and instinctual worry we have for our mothers. It’s a tough watch and the prospect of talking to the man behind it excited me. I wanted to know how he did it. How he had me attached to something so fast.
I get home from work early, boot up Skype and call him. We chat for a few moments and make small talk before we start talking about him and his journey into filmmaking.
So, Phil, you were an aircraft engineer before moving into filmmaking. How has the move from one industry to the other been?
Well, I never wanted to do engineering directly. When I finished school I got offered the [engineering] course and my mother wanted me to do it. At that point doing film was more of a sort of, pipe dream because I was passionate about doing film but I didn’t actually think that I’d have a career in it or that I’d even go for it. So when I got aircraft engineering, I was like, “well, I wanted to be a pilot when I was younger so there’s some kind of connection.”
But even when I finished with the aircraft engineering we were meant to go into full-time employment, but I didn’t and I started contracting and travelling around other countries instead. It wasn’t always aircraft engineering as well, I was working on trains and everything. So engineering was never a passion. I’ve always been writing scripts and writing ideas and I was 25 when I decided not to do engineering anymore and I took 2 years to transition. So I took small engineering contracts and then get jobs on film sets. The older you get the more real-world responsibilities you have, so it’s tough to just up and leave. So it was that kind of aspect of having to pay loans and bills. I felt that I needed to jump back to zero, in a way, like have no debt and no sort of- I have no kids or anything. I probably wouldn’t have done it if I had kids. Anyway, so I just went back to being a student again. I found it quite easy to get jobs on films sets so initially I was working with camera crews and lighting crews, so I was a camera assistant or a focus puller or a gaffer. I think having that engineering background as well as having that interest in film and photography went a long way. I wasn’t like I decided not to do engineering one day and move into doing film, it was a long transition. Then I got a BA in film in Ireland, because I felt I wasn’t learning what I wanted to be learning on set.
Would you then say that, for those trying to get into the industry, getting an education in film is essential?
It’s different for everyone. I don’t read a lot, I’m quite dyslexic so I glean everything I can from watching films. You can learn everything you need to learn if you read a lot and apply it. So if you’re motivated enough to do that then you should probably go to film school, but I felt I needed it because I wanted a lecturer to show me the way specifically. I felt that when I was in Ireland and it really paid off. I felt I learnt more in university than I did in the three, four years I was on set. Obviously, it was a different kind of education. When I came to the NFTS, because it’s more of a mentor programme than an actual school. So there Ian Sellar’s and Brian Gilbert, who were my two head lecturers and they’re just absolutely amazing. It’s just so personal. I loved it personally.
Like you say, you spent a few years doing work in the industry. Now people think of filmmaking as a glamorous job, but in reality you’re spending 14 to 20 hours on set at times. So what’s a reality you had to wrestle with?
It was my very first job that destroyed all illusions of filmmaking being glamourous. It was working for an Irish TV series called Blood And Ink in Irish. It was a series of dramatised documentaries, but we literally shot- oh man. It was a six-week job and in that six weeks we shot six episodes. It was relentless. But it was so much fun. It was a lot longer hours than I expected and much more intense than I was expecting. But that was TV and, of course, TV and film are very different. But I don’t know if I ever thought the job was glamorous, it’s definitely not. Even the bits you expect to be glamourous like festivals, it’s still work. You’re still networking and talking to the right people, oh and not getting drunk or you’ll just make a show of yourself. So you’re still always switched on. I was given advice once which was not to fall in love with the chaos, but I sort of do. I love being up against it and the amount of stuff that’s unpredictable on set. I quite like how rough and dirty it is and how you genuinely have to suck it up. even financially, because you’re on set for 14 to 20 hours a day, but you’re not being paid for 14 to 20 hours a day. When you’re lucky you’re getting paid a decent daily rate but otherwise you’re lucky to get a few hundred every week.
Absolutely, it’s difficult and even then you spend the first few years barely getting paid at all. It’s only after one or two years you can get paid a steady amount in the industry. Do you think that’s a normal experience?
It’s unfortunately normal. I hate it. I hate it for a number of smaller reasons and they may sound a bit over political. I think it can alienate some of the incredibly talented but financially troubled people who just cannot survive without pay. With me, I had a background in engineering, so I had a bit of savings, but my family which is made up of my three brothers and my mother who are very supportive in every way. They would cover rent for me and give me money when I really needed it, whereas a lot of people wouldn’t have that. Not everyone is as lucky as me.It’s a real barrier to entry for so many.
Also, there’s not enough women in the industry. That’s half the world’s population whose stories we need to explore. So we need to honestly look at different financial strata and groups in society.
Of course, it’s very important and a very good point.
With North, which is very emotionally heavy and tense. As a writer are you emotionally immersed in it or do you have to detach yourself?
No, I can only do it if it’s personal. That kind of thing. I’ve never worked with another writer and I’m desperate to do so because when I write anything, the amount of introspection that’s going on gets quite crippling. I become very introverted and it takes too long because I’m the one asking and answering the questions in a sense. So I can keep digging on one bloody part of a scene for days until I really get down to what I really feel about it. So I feel it’s inefficient, but I feel I’ll always do it because for me it’s the reason why I make films. For me, it’s sort of that thing of trying to figure things out about myself and just in general. Like a general theme I have running around my head is how far you’d go for your family and I’ve yet to come up with a scenario where you won’t go that far. It’s based around my family because my mother worked incredibly hard and for her four children. We weren’t an easy bunch because we all got in trouble at school and with the authorities and she was this rock who would be the carer and punisher at the same time. So it’s kind of a theme I have going over again and again. Tension is a big thing in my films. Even when I’m writing scenes which are meant to be funny they end up being tense and I’m thinking, “bloody hell, what’s going on?”
So have you considered moving into comedy or any different genre?
I quite like high genre like sci-fi and I love horror. I’ve never really dabbled with comedy, I don’t think that way. My friends crack themselves up walking down the street because they have funny thought processes, I’m not like that. My daydreams are always way more lofty like taking off into space or winning the lotto, like, “what’s that feel like?” Things like that. Yeah, but I love westerns so I’d love to do one because I know they’re back in fashion at the moment. But with a western there’s very well defined rules for the genre and you have to be smart in playing with them, so I may give that a shot. For that I think I need to be working with a writer because, I don’t know about you, but anytime I write plot it feels very fake. So I can’t get past it and I get rid of it and just stick to drama and character because it’s the only thing I believe when I’m writing or directing.
Where did the idea of North come from, where was it born?
My mother was sick, she had cancer. It was quite a long thing because from the time of diagnosis to the end it was nearly two and a half years. It was in the last six, seven months of that I got the place in the NFTS and moved to England from Ireland. So I felt really guilty, even though she was out of the woods. There was no threat on her life anymore, the cancer was gone. But it’s like if you have that many operations and have bits of organs taken out- she needed support that’s all. So I felt guilty for leaving in my first year of NFTS and it was the only thing I was thinking of. There was no direct correlation [with North] though, in terms of assisted suicide or anything while she was ill. There was no talk of that. Just the sense of my mother’s mortality and my guilt are some of the main themes of the film.
While it’s not the focus of the film, you comment on assisted suicide. How is it writing about and around such a sensitive topic?
It wasn’t that bad. I’m a bit of a libertine in the way that it’s illegal. At the same time though I don’t want the government to step in and legalize it because then it’ll become a kind of something other than it should be with all the rules and legislation. In North it’s very isolated and it’s the family that make the decision and it’s the family that are going to bear the brunt of it and that’s my, kind of, stance on it.
I thought it was very well handled, especially setting it on a farm in isolation because that stopped it from becoming political.
I didn’t want it to be a political thing. The more we set it in amongst people and modern life, the more the assisted suicide angle of the film became bigger. Whereas if we kept it small and in just one location and quite isolated, to me anyway, it stayed about the emotion of the family and the process of letting go. It became about the emotions more than the politics or the issue.
One of the things I really loved about North was the cinematography. When you and the DOP were building the shots, what were you going for?
The DOP, Steven Cameron Ferguson, he’s amazing. We settled on two references in terms of directors. They were Sidney Lumet and Robert Altman and we were talking about the way they represent and show family and conflict. So when we were talking about Lumet and Altman we realized that there was a sense of nostalgia. Like when you watch Jaws and stuff like that, the cinematography feels very familiar. We were going for all that. There’s a lot of style in the way the camera moved and zooms, but we felt it wasn’t stylish if you know what I mean. It’s supposed to sit there in the room and investigate what’s happening and at the same time not be intrusive. I wanted it to be, in a sense, friendly. With this and the nostalgia, we felt that we didn’t want the cinematography to feel modern. It should feel dated.
Another key element which is very easy to be entranced by is performances. It was very difficult to watch these people suffer. So how did the cast work with the characters and how did you direct them?
Mainly they were just brilliant actors. I don’t really do rehearsals unless it’s a complicated scene with a lot of blocking and movement. Usually I just kind of talk with them about the character but not like I’m directing them. Like, I’ll meet them in a coffee shop or something and then on the day we’ll just run it. I tend to let them control it. As long as their performance supports the scene and I believe it, then I’ll let them do it any way they want. So I don’t really intrude too much. At most, when they say a word or something in an odd cadence, I’ll quiz them on it. Normally, though, if you cast right and have enough time to talk about what each scene is about, a great actor will make it better than a director can. Barry, who plays Aaron, his career’s going amazing. I don’t think I had to direct him at all. Just random things like getting him to say things louder or quieter and that was about it. He why he was there and how he should feel. When they’re that good you don’t want to step on their toes. That’s my job, really. Don’t step on their toes.
What are your tips or philosophies you can share for new filmmakers?
I think it’s a good word to use, ‘philosophy.’ Before you make something you have to have your philosophy on it. If the theme of the film is, like mine, how far will you go for your family you have to have your own philosophy on it. Once I’ve figured out that philosophy everything else becomes easy because you can always use that philosophy to check what you’re doing. If you can distill your film down to a philosophy that you believe in, that’s all you have to do to make others believe in it. It might sound a bit arty or whatever, but it really helps me. So I just take a theme and form a philosophy around it.
What are your plans moving forward?
Now I’m editing a music video, shot in Morocco. Mainly just writing and pitching, that’s my job really. Until you get paid for something the job is working for nothing and writing things. There’re two shorts that I really like, but they’re super high concept and the money would be outrageous. I have a TV series that I’m writing, it’s a single season thing. People like it, but it may be too expensive. Aside from that I have five features which I’m slowly working on. I’m waiting for one of them to become the one I have to make. At the moment are screaming at me, “Phil, this is your film, you have to make this because no one else can.” I’m only 8 months out of uni, so I have time. If I’m still doing the same thing in ten years time, I’ll shoot myself.
Wow, I’m sure you’ll get those off the ground. It’s been great talking to you.