Christine Molloy and Joe Lawler direct films under the name Desperate Optimists. They started out devising theatre and moved into film, and their experience of working with actors on stage comes through in their films. Their recent film Further Beyond (2016) is a thought-provoking, playful and genre-bending work that, among other things, tells the story of Ambrose O’Higgins from Ballynary in Ireland, who travelled via Cadiz to Chile, and eventually became the Governor General of the colony, and whose son became the first leader of independent Chile. Further Beyond is concerned with the path he trod before he became famous. O’Higgins’ story is interspersed with another story of travel and searching for identities, about the early life of Joe Lawler’s mother Helen, who first crossed the Atlantic from New York to Ireland on her own at the age of eleven months.
I met with Christine Molloy to discuss how the film came to be made.
Ruth: What was the impetus for making the film Further Beyond?
Christine: We had a real interest in Ambrose O’Higgins since we first encountered him when making a theatre show many years ago. There’s something about his story that stuck with us for many years. We talked about making a biopic about his life or some aspect of his life story, but never in a very serious way because we know we would never make such a film. A couple of years ago we applied for a residency, which we didn’t get, but we had decided that if we did get it we were going to seriously think about the character of Ambrose O’Higgins. Although we didn’t get the residency, we couldn’t let it go, and we were aware of the Real Art funding scheme in Ireland and thought it might be a good match, because it is specifically designed to encourage experimental film on an art theme. It offered us a way of thinking about making a film about him. A straight biopic or a straight documentary would never feel right to us. We had to come up with a treatment, which was fun. It drew on what’s in the historical record; we’d done a lot of reading, and we focused on particular moments in his life.
We got shortlisted and were invited for an interview in Ireland. We realised that they seemed to think we were going to make a feature film about Ambrose O’Higgins, which was not what we were going to do, so we had to issue a statement that this was going to be a documentary not a feature. So we’ve had quite a fraught time trying to articulate our feelings about how we wanted to articulate the story.
We got the money, and we had less than eleven months to complete the film. This was the reality check after the grandiose application form including an extravagant budget with lots of costumes and make-up and set work, which we knew then was totally not feasible. At this point you go back to basics and start all over again.
RM: It’s interesting what you’re saying about the need to pitch a genre, and your work is in between genres. It’s not documentary or fiction features in a classic sense. It’s so important to find those sources of funding that will allow you to take risks, allow you to have that kind of imagination.
CM: That’s the journey. We don’t really know how it’s going to unfold. What we have in our favour are the details of this man’s life that are interesting. That’s what’s going to get people interested. So we perhaps approached the application in a slightly more conventional way that usual. It sounds a bit cynical but it isn’t, it’s strategic: up the steps, and what’s required along the way, to progress to the next step. There’s no point in falling at the first hurdle, you need to know what people might be looking for.
RM: A charismatic character can draw you into a subject. Although the film is ostensibly about Ambrose O’Higgins, and also about Helen, it is also about making a film, and the different elements of filmmaking. Perhaps you could tell me something about this, about how the film reflects on the different processes involved in making a film: for example, how the voice-over characters are stand-ins for the directors, or that’s one aspect, and how certain locations stand in for others. This way of winking at the viewer saying, ‘look what we’re doing together’ is very captivating.
CM: That was a strand of our thinking: an enquiry into the making of the film that we weren’t going to make but if we were going to make it, the steps we’d take. At the beginning you need to find a way in, to set up a grammar structure for the film. We didn’t want to make a meta-film that was alienating and off-putting. We wanted a genuine engagement with the thinking behind making a film and also to convey the thoughts that occupy our mind no matter what kind of film we’re making. There are certain things that we always come back to, and we wanted to explore them further. We hope it’s playful. Documentary is the form where it’s very possible to go into this territory, especially when it veers into the film essay, which is about questioning.
I don’t think we have a grand thesis. It’s about navigating a process and hoping you can articulate something about how you think as a filmmaker. It was a great opportunity for us.
RM: There are lots of interesting and layered symmetries in the film, but done with a light touch. Location seems to be a very important theme; maybe you could talk about how you use it. At one point, there is a line about how travelling changes you, and also acting changes you. I like the way in the film the ‘stand-in’ and the ‘original’ have equal status. The actual house that Ambrose lived in, that was burned down by the IRA, the house that stands in for it, and the farm where his house used to be, all have equal status in the film and the viewer engages with all three. It’s the same with characters, with the Irish actor playing the voice-over asking why you have to have an obviously South American actor playing Ambrose when there are perfectly good Irish actors around – meaning himself. It’s a nice moment of humour. So the voice-over actors stand in for the directors, for the characters, and their own desires and needs seep in too, and they are also very aware of the apparatuses that place them in the film.
CM: I think that was probably the biggest challenge for us, to find how to place the actors in the film, for ourselves and for the film. So their questions were, ‘Am I being you?’ ‘Am I aware of what’s going on?’ ‘How am I meant to pitch it? Am I doing a proper voice-over job?’ Both of the actors have done voice-overs in the past as a lot of actors do to make ends meet. Although on the one hand they are stand-ins, on the other hand we also wanted them to use their own voices, to be presences in the film. Although it’s completely scripted – the jokes are scripted, all the asides are scripted. Most of the time they didn’t know what was going to happen because we recorded over short periods of time what was effectively their read-through or rehearsal and used that. So they didn’t begin to interpret or imbue it with anything extra. What is the straight read? But we’re also aware that it has to be seductive. The object of the narration is to seduce and engage the viewer. This is often the role of the narrator in documentaries.
RM: And essay films. It’s become quite a hackneyed trope: the often male voice telling you the way to view the world that is depicted.
CM: It’s true, and often because you don’t see the person, it’s a disembodied voice, it carries a certain seriousness, a weight. We were pushing against that, by making the voice-over actors present, and the act of recording something that you see. Of course that is totally contrived, because you wouldn’t record a voice-over like that, you’d use a recording booth. It’s a performance, and yet, there is a real-time quality to it because we went through the script over a day and they are mostly reading for the first time.
The decision to have two voices was very important. You take away from the idea of the important narrator.
RM: For me it also emphasises the subjectivity of experience, the importance of the point of view on an experience. There is no central commanding view. There are moments when you refer to the panopticon, on the mountain and on the top of the Empire State Building, and the voice-over sometimes sees from that perspective. But you show it as ‘a view’ rather than ‘the view’. The film also seems to question the idea that you can pare away to an original self. There are real feelings but they are not knowable because they are other people’s feelings. Both Ambrose and Helen are dealing with, not masks, but potential selves it seemed to me.
CM: This is what we were really curious about: the journey that leads you to a place, to a particular point. Especially with Ambrose we were most curious about was the journey he went on to become ‘the man’ of the historical records. There was something that led him to that point, to that location. So we knew it was going to be a film about locations because it’s through the actual locations that we felt we could begin to understand something about both people. There are lots of things about Helen’s life we know about. The main thing that Joe’s family have to go on are addresses and places. So there’s a similar kind of journey to go on for both of them. For both, we tried to understand who they were by going back to the places where they’d been. We carried ideas about these places, especially for Ambrose with Ballynary, from what we’d read, so it was a real shock when we saw it. It wasn’t what we’d thought it would be at all, but so much more, because it’s an absolutely stunning location in the West of Ireland. That was part of the journey for us. It was important to be open to this. The idea of the palimpsest was something else we felt: the innocence of the place is not always what it appears to be.
The conversation could have carried on all day, as we discussed the importance of collaboration in filmmaking and that it is never a solo endeavor. I asked about writing together, and Christine said that she and Joe write, direct, and edit together. Joe is the cinematographer. She said they send their scripts to friends and colleagues and actively seek feedback at all stages of making their films. After our meeting Christine went off to meet with potential funders for the next film. I’ll be looking out for it in a year’s time.