Fresh out of studying for his Masters at the National Film and Television School, Irish writer/director Phil Sheerin always had a passion for film as he has q
Fresh out of studying for his Masters at the National Film and Television School, Irish writer/director Phil Sheerin always had a passion for film as he has quickly amassed a few short films under his belt. His new film “North” shows quite a bit of promise and follows a family on a farm who ultimately has to come to terms with death and how the young son, Aaron, in particular handles it.
His very emotional film has earned him a Student Academy Award, three Royal Television Society Awards, won best UK short at Raindance Film Festival and the Best Dramatic Short at Galway Film Fleadh (an Academy qualifying festival). It’s a simple concept, but carries a heavy emotional weight that captures a specific mood and tone beautifully.
“North” stars Barry Keoghan (Trespass Against Us, alongside Michael Fassbender and ‘71) as Aaron, Emer McCourt (Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff) as Mary, Janie Booth (General Hospital) as Grace, Des McAleer (Hunger) as Richard and was produced by Jacob Thomas.
RVA Mag had the opportunity to talk to the wonderful new talent about the film, the inspiration behind it, film school and a few of his favorite filmmakers.
So what was the inspiration behind “North”?
The subject matter was based on literally my mother who was very sick. It was cancer. She didn’t die or anything like that but there were a lot of post operative complications during that time which I had moved to London to study for my masters in film, so I felt really guilty for leaving because she would need me more now than ever would in the past few years. She didn’t cause I have three other brothers and a partner and all that kind of stuff, but it’s just how you think about these things. So it was just this kind of guilt in my head and having this circular conversation with myself and this was the film that came out.
I never had a conversation with my mom about mercy killing or anything like that, she was never in that ball park, but we get to fictionalize things so that’s where it came out of. Now a lot of the characters in the film are either based directly on individuals I’m friends with, or family members, or amalgamations of others put together. But that’s it, that’s just where it came from.
I was actually surprised by the ending and didn’t see it going that way. I don’t know if it’s from consuming a lot of things and I’m expecting a different ending, but I found it interesting that I wasn’t expecting that.
Yeah? There was a kind of – I’m not a happy ending kind of guy anyway, everything I write or every idea I come up with tends to be bittersweet ending so that the more extreme version of it. There were two or three different drafts that had different endings that were always kind of floating around and the one that we made was one of them obviously. There was one version where she didn’t do it cause she couldn’t put her son through it so she decided to live on in pain for her son. There was a version where Barry, who plays the main character, the son stopped it and that’s where the film ended. Do you know Louis C.K.?
So Louis C.K., one of his “comedians talking to comedians” kind of show … well like Chris Rock and all are there, Louis C.K. just says what his inspiration for where anything will go is what would really happen. Like it sounds like such an obvious thing but if you actually went with what really would happen, like if somebody has made up their mind to do it, it would take an awful lot to not to do it. It takes a lot to actually get your mind there and I did some research and watched a lot of documentaries on things like that and spoke to people. My granddad recently died and the last few months were pretty shocking, so it was a point of view that if you’re mentally strong enough or weak enough, depending on your point of view, to actually put yourself in that position to do it. It would take like a proper force to convince you not to do it once you pass that threshold or point of no return. So in this story, once the mother and the family who are already behind her have already decided to do it, in a way the main character just had to come to terms with it and accept it in the same way that he will grow old and die.
It’s not a political film; I’m not making any kind of judgment on mercy killing or anything like that so.
I didn’t think of it like that but it certainly felt like an ending to a novel or maybe a final chapter of a book. I imagine that’s how you properly do short films. I’ve never been to school for film but you have. Could you describe what that’s like?
I did a bachelors degree in film in Ireland and got a master’s degree in England. I loved it. I think education really suits some people. I know there are some hardcore filmmakers like P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, or Fincher who just get out and do it and don’t go to film school and are like “…it’ll take away from your creativity”. I think that’s great, I think that’s right for somebody like P.T. Anderson who are absolute geniuses born and bred. But I think for the most part, we’re not all born to it and we’re not all Mozarts. There’re things I learned particularly in the first six months in the masters degree, where you spend the first six months of your first year just intensely learning, to do endless small films where you have two days to shoot them, a day to edit them, and you screen them and they get critiqued.
And you do that for like, and there’s a focus on each one, then we do that for six or seven months. Then over the course of thirteen months we make three films. That’s a really intensive course but literally everything I learned the first seven months have like flipped how I would normally approach film in terms of making you are confident in a little bit more secure on not only my perspective of films but to myself as to why want to make films so there is a introspection going on like finding a philosophy kind of thing. So I loved it and I recommend anyone to do it. Also you still get to make films. I was in that course for two years and I made three short films, that’s a lot of work for two years in terms of just getting some films behind you. I’d advise going to film school…but you can always just read the books (laughs). Just make stuff.
Yeah, everybody who I’ve talked to has spoken highly about his or her film programs. They seem to have positive experiences.
Yeah the lectures that were in NFTS, the school I just graduated from, were bar none so amazing, so encouraging, like no matter what idea you wanted to do they were so supportive. Even if you had a bonkers idea and you really believed in it, they’d get behind you. So I couldn’t be happier. Go to NFTS! (laughs)
Yes! How did you choose the cast for this?
I knew Barry (Barry Keoghan) the main kid, he plays Aaron and he was from Dublin. I used to work in a place which was really a collective…called “The Factory”, which was really a collective made up of a couple of directors, a couple writers, actors, and casting agents. About 35 actors and Barry was one of them actors brought in by the casting agents and they would workshop different scenes with different people and that’s how I met Barry. So I knew he was brilliant cause everything he did you just bought and he sold it.
For everyone else in the cast we were just really lucky. Like the guy like Des McAleer for example who plays Richard, or even McCourt (Emer McCourt) they’re quite well known and they can afford to be picky about what roles they do. So it was a straight up offer with the script and I sent them my other film that I made just hoping it might be good enough and that there might be something in it and they said yes. So it was quite straightforward but it was also nerve-wrecking cause we had very little options. Like if they had turned us down, it would be a back to the drawing board kind of scenario.
Yeah like Emer actually took some time off to have kids so “North” is her first project getting back into acting, so that was a bit surprising she came back in. She was in films by Ken Loach (Riff-Raff) and these kinds of guys, she was quite big. That was cool.
What would you say was your influence on this short if you had one?
In like a stylistic way? I’m big into 70s American cinema. For this film, because the kind of the approach we were taking with the main character who is always stuck in the middle of things that just made me think of people like Robert Altman and how he uses sound and stuff. It was kind of like an amalgamation of Robert Altman and Sydney Lumet for visuals. Even though we have a lot of zooms in north and Sydney Lumet doesn’t use zooms, but Robert Altman does, that kind of 70s organic feel, which we shot in 16mm, and we wanted it to look rich and colorful at the same time. So it was those two guys and 70s American cinema basically. So that was the approach.
Good answer. I love those guys. Watching the film over I noticed more that the actors had little quirks or little things they would do. Did you direct them to do that or was that something they brought?
Which little things?
Like little mannerisms or ticks. I might be reading way too much into this.
That’s not really the way I direct actors I guess. I … just expect them to be great. (laughs) I like to do very little with actors but I think if I talk enough about the scene without over talking it. But if the actors knows what to do in the scene and why the scene is in the film then whatever they do should be right as long as they’re sort of focused. So even something like a little tick or something with their hands, as long as they’re in the right headspace and know what the scene is about. As long as there is a clear path in the scene and a clear goal, I think they’ll generally make it way better than you can direct it in the moment to moment. Generally if you got a good actor, you don’t have to do much with them.
What is the next step after “North”?
Like there’s a few things that are my own projects that I’m trying to get going. A lot of it is just writing, writing, writing. Thing I like the most right now is a TV series called “King of Kings”, it’s this huge budget TV show, and it’s one of those things where if I can do anything this is what I would do, and so I wrote this show which is massive ten episode thing. Hopefully I’ll be talking to producers about that. It’s like Netflix territory kind of budget. I couldn’t see any broadcaster in England paying for it. It’s so expensive (laughs). Other than that I have two shorts I’d love to make. I’ve written them and just need to shoot them. I like to stay busy cause just sitting on your laurels and waiting for things to happen for you is just the wrong way around.
Awesome. As a filmmaker, who are your guys in terms of directors and what kind of movies would you like to eventually make?
God. My main guy is Stanley Kubrick. He’s everyone main guy. There are people that you love but not quite your influences, like I love David Fincher, but nothing I really do is Fincher style kind of thing. Lars Von Trier I love. There’s this Japanese New Wave director called Kobayashi that I love. He’s unbelievable. Also Kurosawa. P.T. Anderson is probably fanboy territory of guys still making stuff now. He’s amazing. I love how much fun his films are and the craft of it … how deep they are and I love how many levels there are, so intricate. Have you ever heard of Jacques Audiard? “Rust and Bone”?
Never seen any of this work but I have heard of him.
Yeah he made a remake of a film with Harvey Keitel in it. His version is called “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”, it’s about a gangster piano player. It’s really good. Never seen the Harvey Keitel version one but the French one is really good. He has this really amazing style of giving you a really indie film or art-house style film that’s very character driven and very low-key and subtle and emotional. But there’s always amazing climax to his films. It’s the kind of thing in that moment that I would like to be doing. Eventually I want to be making more important films like Stanley Kubrick and that kind of stuff but I still need to grow. (laughs) I’m not going to tackle Kubrick levels of stuff.
Whenever I feel like torturing myself I’ll remind myself that P.T. Anderson was making “Boogie Nights” at 26.
Man, don’t even start! (laughs) I swear to God. I think “Sydney” which is what I think they called “Hard Eight” over in Europe that was bloody brilliant. He was like 24 when he wrote it and 25 when he was making it. Like “Boogie Nights” is brilliant.
Yeah “Boogie Nights” is like my “Goodfellas”. I’ll put it on and just enjoy it thoroughly and never get sick of it. A lot of his films are just like that.
Last question: What is your favorite movie?
It would probably be “The Shining”. I have a lot of films that are in my top ten and then they shift depending on my mood or depending on what I’ve seen recently and all that kind of stuff. Or when I’m writing something, my top ten seems to change. A film that ever since I’ve seen it it’s never been out of my top five even is “The Shining”. It’s quite a standard answer I think but I’ve seen it so often, love it to bits.
I think my visual style, when I naturally see something is all that symmetry in the way they shot the hotel and they shot Jack Nicolson in center frame the whole time. It’s influenced the way I frame the main character and all this kind of stuff as well. So it’s influenced me an awful lot also I think it’s absolutely genius.