Bye-Child (short film)
Much to my surprise this short film did well. It was nominated for Best Short Film by BAFTA and won a Best First Director award from BAFTA Scotland. Producer Andrew Bonner and myself were invited to many Scottish schools to show the film and talk about the experience of making it.
When I was handed my short (16mins) film ‘ Bye-Child’ I thought, ‘There are no more excuses’. I can’t say ‘We can remove that at the digital stage,’ or ‘It’ll be okay when the music goes on,’ or ‘The dub will help a lot.’ This is it. But there’s a small breathing space. It is finished but no yet seen by an audience. How did I get to this point ?
Two or three years ago I was answering some audience questions about the novel CAL and found myself referring to a poem of Seamus Heaney’s called Bye-Child. Afterwards a young man called Andrew Bonner came up and said it was one of his favourite poems. He had done a thesis on Heaney.
A year or so later we met again and he had a proposal to make. The Heaney poem would make an interesting short film. Would I like to write it ? He also said he would produce it although he had no experience in the field. Up till now he had managed a band. But he was keen, enthusiastic, organized and had a legacy of red hair from his Donegal ancestors. I said I’d think about it.
Some months went by and I read and thought about the poem. Then I sat down and wrote a 10 page screenplay. Andrew liked it. Some time later I wrote a second draft expanding the story to about 15 minutes. Andrew liked the changes and I said – gulp – I want to direct it. . No one would ever trust me with millions to make a feature – but it was feasible I could make this. I had written two full length movies and had been around for some of the shooting but I knew absolutely nothing about how to go about it. Andrew said all I needed to do was concern myself with the performances – and get a good cameraman and a good 1st AD.
‘What’s a 1st AD ?’
So, because of our dual inexperience we asked Paddy Higson of Antonine Films to act as an umbrella production company for us. This she agreed to do.
We sent the script to our first choice of actress, Susan Lynch ( I had already worked with her brother John who played the lead in CAL) Susan said she would love to do it. Scottish Screen liked it enough to fund it. Then we applied to the Northern Ireland Film Commission – because the story is set there in the early '70s – and they gave us reason to hope that they would also fund the film. The last dollop of money came when I applied for and got a Creative Scotland Award of £30,000. The Scottish Arts Council paid me and I gave the money straight to the film (taxman please note).
When Antonine Films closed down Andrew went to David Griffith and Garfield Kennedy of Posh Pictures and asked them to do the same job, to become our executive producers.
In February so I wouldn’t look like a complete beginner Scottish Screen financed me to go on a weekend course ‘Directing for Single Camera’. It was helpful and the thing I found most useful was the technique of working from a story board. I applied this to Bye-Child when the time came. I drew meticulously – so much so that I found myself trying to do the best drawings I could – shading, ridiculously colouring them in like a child. But when it came to being on set and there was a problem I could always refer back to my comic – point at it – that’s the scene, that’s what I want.
After many false starts – looking for places to film in South Ayrshire – we finally struck it lucky when we found a totally right location in Ireland. Andrew and I just happened on it outside Antrim - the right dilapidated farmhouse from the script. We approached cautiously - waiting for dogs to attack us. Silence. We looked through the windows and saw that the house was empty. It was as if the architect had seen my storyboard – right down to the range and the kitchen window overlooking the garden. The house had been vacated two weeks previously. Nothing had been changed in 40 years – so it was right for our period. We later learned that the farm was to be sold and the new owner was going to knock the house down. So we could do what we liked with it. Shame about the house – but a gift for a film-maker.
A film-maker ? It was to be a 6 day shoot. I was blessed with a great cast and good June weather. The Director of Photography was Oliver Cheesman, fast, unflappable and full of creative ideas. And Amanda Black as 1st AD was in charge of a great crew. They both knew I was a beginner and were constantly supportive. I was frequently asked how I was feeling and what it was like. In response I told an old joke about a child who goes to school for the first time. The school bully grabs him, sits on his chest, punches him repeatedly in the face shouting ‘Have you had enough ? Have you had enough ?’ And the child cries out in anguish ‘I don’t know – this is my first fight.’ So I didn’t know what to expect. I had nothing to compare it to.
I was glad that Bert Eels, our editor, was there. It made me think of the finished film. How do we get from here to here in terms of pictures ? His quiet, thoughtful presence in post production was wonderfully helpful as well. One Monday morning – ‘I was digging in the garden at the weekend and I thought of a different place for that grunt.’
It sounds like a cliche but film is a team thing. I found all the craftspeople made essential contributions to what the final film is. Bert Eel’s edit of Oliver Cheeseman’s pictures, Eddie McGuire’s score, John Cobban’s sound. And I am so grateful to them. If the story doesn’t work it’s my fault.
You can download the script for 'Bye Child' here.