The Monthly discusses film-making with writer, director and producer, Michael MacBroom – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

You produced and directed a new film, “Welcome to Northern Ireland”. Can you tell us about that?

This is the third feature film I have made. I made a ‘I Wanted to Talk to You Last Night’ back in 2007 and that was with a documentary film maker and now friend, Paul McParland who I met through a job, and I was working with Steven Agnew, the future Green Party leader, this was before he had a political career, Conor Shaw and my partner, now wife, Karen Kinghan and an old actor friend of Karen’s, Laura Thomson.

We sort of threw out the rule book when we made that film. I let the cast improvise a lot and stirred things up from behind the camera. I think at that time I had discovered John Cassavetes, and was working on a realist style of film-making.

After that, maybe three or four years later, we made another feature film called “Endless Lift”, that refined that very unrefined approach and that had a few local screenings. I was completely unaware of the mumblecore movement in America that was happening concurrently but those two films would fit in well with that sort of cinema.

About 4 years ago, Steven Agnew came to me and said that he would love to be involved in making another film with me. And he wanted to be in it. So essentially I wrote it for him. That started the ball rolling.

Welcome to Northern Ireland

How did the script come about?

I used to drive to a job on Airport Road and you can see the runway lights from the road, and I used to look at that image and think that it should be an opening shot of a film. It led me to wonder why people come here! I used to ask some European volunteers that I had met through my work what the appeal was to come here, I had noticed an awful lot more tourists as well. at that time there were a lot of new developments in Belfast.

I was delighted I could make a living as a filmmaker at that time, the video, film and TV industry seemed to be taking off but there was still the other side of Northern Ireland, not simply the sectarianism but archaic, tribal politics, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights etc. I wanted to explore that tension.

The film grabs hold of the contradictions of Northern Ireland generally, and Belfast specifically. How much thought went into that?

I was thinking that that contradictions would be a good premise for a film, something that I imagine a lot of people can relate to. I tried to nest that idea in the roles of the two main characters. Once I had the idea of the main character becoming a tour guide, the rest of the film, the script, just fell into place. The Andrea character typifies what is to me the worst of the ‘new Northern Ireland’, a nouveau riche, aspirational type who was integral to the film and the humour. I have to give me wife who plays Andrea most of the credit for that. We spent a lot of time at home discussing who the character would be and she really authored it. I then wrote the dialogue and it was the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything.

This place is so contradictory, and there is that tension, that ongoing identity crisis, so many of us have a love hate relationship with their homeland. Nothing exemplifies this like the reluctance we have in what we call it. Welcome to Northern Ireland was a deliberately provocative title because lots of people don’t accept it as a legitimate place, it’s such a terrible compromise that we can’t comfortably name it! It’s not part of Britain yet we are politically part of the UK, it’s Ireland but different from the south.

The other element of the film  was in trying to capture a moment in time. Politics and identity aside I could see other changes happening despite opposition from the general public.

Over the last few years there have been moves to redevelop this tiny city. And there really is only a few ways it can grow. And I was very conscious of the particular interests, the capitalist interests, which were going to destroy so much built heritage of the city and have already destroyed so much of it. I could see what was happening to the Cathedral Quarter and this is the way I know best to respond.

So there were a number of subtexts all through the film, and in some ways it was a reflection of my thoughts, I felt that I occupied both positions, an immense sense of optimism and excitement and then the pessimism about dealing with fundamentals, the underlying problems, like trying to agree on a shared history as just one example amongst many.

Do you think you were trying to create a political film?

No definitely not, at least not overtly. The political aspect is in there but it had to be true to the characters. I didn’t really concern myself that much with plots or typical story telling, what really drove me was character and behaviour.

In fact in many ways I have a very free form approach to filmmaking and while I don’t want to suggest I have an anti-intellectual approach, I do think the process I am using is much more intuitive.

I am not setting out to make specific points but in the process of telling the story, and there is much of the film where the city of Belfast is part of that story, you are trying to get across those tensions I mentioned earlier. As a Writer, Director it’s inevitable that my values or personal feelings will be part of it.

In fact in many ways telling a story or producing art of any kind in Belfast is quite difficult because there is no one thing that is generally agreed, so there must always be an element of that identity crisis built in. You have to try and capture that aspect of life here.

So, where to now?

I have to find a way to get the film out there, film festivals are normally the way to go. I have submitted the film to a few festivals and have had a couple of selections. rejection is a staple for all filmmakers but it’s much worse if you’ve made a feature without famous people in it! I completely understand that as there is a lot that a festival has to do when it agrees to take on a feature film in terms of promotion and finding an audience, especially if it’s a no budget film and so I am not holding out a lot of hope for the film in terms of festivals.

There may be other ways to allow people to see the film, a Sales Agent was interested but I’m waiting on some American Festivals coming back to me first.  I might look at online distribution at some point so if there is an audience for the film they can get access to it.

At the moment, though, I am making short films. I finished a funded short last year called The Wall Clock, then another DIY short in the summer called Camera Club and in fact last weekend I wrapped yet another short film called Sapling with funding from NI Screen All I want to do is keep making films and hopefully make better ones each time.

To find out more about Michael MacBroom’s work see the link below

artist forms link
New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.