In the summer of 2017 I chanced upon an ideal method for making films during a pandemic. I was developing a film about the moon and was keen to film a solar eclipse that would cross the western United States in the middle of August. Going to America myself wasn't feasible and I wondered if I might find someone who could film a 16mm timelapse in an epic landscape in the path of the moon's shadow. A few emails around the art-film community later, I was in touch with a film-maker called Sam Hamilton — a New Zealander living in Oregon — who was up for it.
I sent Sam some reference images, a couple of poems I hoped to use and an essay by Virginia Woolf about witnessing a solar eclipse (I had cheerily highlighted the line 'we had seen the world dead'). Sam sent me some of his work in film, and some images he liked. We talked about approach, locations, atmosphere and style, but also about living in the countryside, the night sky and the sounds of our respective worlds. Hoping that he had a sense of what I was about, I wished Sam luck as he headed out of phone coverage and into the mountains.
Two weeks later I received a hard drive from the lab in LA and took a nervous look. It was stunningly beautiful. Sam told me that he had been somewhat awed by the scene of an epic American wilderness being plunged into silence and darkness, and this awe seemed to emanate from the images. The sequence itself didn't make the final cut of To the Moon, which premiered in Venice three years after the eclipse, and screens at Dublin International Film Festival from March 5th, but it changed how I work, for good.
The credits on my first few films are very short. At the beginning of my career I had developed a close working relationship with Feargal Ward. With his brilliant eye seeing to the images I had learned to do as much of the rest myself as possible so as to maximise limited or non-existent resources. Over the years we worked on each other's films, or as co-directors, doing almost everything ourselves. From early works like Bow St (2010, my first Arts Council Film Project Award), we progressed to features — Yximalloo (2014) and The Great Wall (2015, funded through Reel Art), all made with minimal input from outside of our small team.
In addition to the financial aspect, I also found as an artist that doing things myself allowed me to explore my half-formed ideas at my own pace, keeping any mis-steps private as I found my feet — showing work only when complete. Working without scripts on the experimental side of documentary, I also found it easier not to have to explain what I didn't actually have words for. Working with just one close friend was a deeply productive privilege. There was also a sense within documentary of the central importance of the relationship between maker and subject. If the subject was a person or group of people, this relationship had to be nurtured and protected, formed slowly in a private and guarded space, shared beyond that only when all ethical and artistic responsibilities were satisfied. I think the intimacy of such relationships is central to the success of such work.
In the summer of 2017 I was editing Feargal's feature The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid. In my head, especially late at night, To the Moon was taking shape. From my thinking and reading, the central theme that I kept returning to was of the moon as a symbol shared across time and distance. Uniquely, the sense of wonder that I got from stepping outside and seeing a glimmering moon rising above the trees was the same sense of wonder being felt around the country at that moment. It had been felt by someone an hour previously in Germany, and would be felt by someone a few hours later in Oregon. It was a sense of wonder that had been experienced by almost everyone who had ever lived. As I considered how to express in the film this idea of shared human experience, the dilemma of the American eclipse presented itself. The solution was more than a technical one. As I spoke to Sam I knew that he was someone whose sense of wonder and awe at the eclipse would bring a key idea to life in the film.
It seemed to me that if I could capture the shared wonder in the making of the film then it might be possible to create a work that evoked this shared wonder in the viewer. Such a film would be a celebration of universality, and had the potential to engage a wide audience. The Arts Council's Open Call award, with its brief for high-profile works in any medium that can engage audiences on a national scale, seemed an apt (if ambitious) means of making such a work happen. The deadline was noted, the application begun and a few months later — to my genuine surprise — the film was funded. Screen Ireland came fully on board, followed by French broadcaster Arté. Nobody, it seemed to me, disliked the moon.
Over the following few years, To the Moon evolved into a project that saw me work with a dizzying number of researchers, cinematographers, sound recordists, poets, composers, actors and musicians. I forged new collaborative partnerships with producer Clare Stronge and assistant editor Jack Lunt and they in turn drew more people in from all over the world, forming a network on which the moon never set. While some of those who worked on the film were friends — Feargal Ward, Amanda Feery, Linda Buckley, Joshua Bonnetta — there were many I had never met. I would talk on the phone, or through emails about mood and atmosphere, or share a text or photograph I loved, and listened to them talk about what they loved in the subject. I embraced chance and avoided prescription. And I waited anxiously for results. There were minor disappointments and small disasters, but in almost everything that people shared or found or shot or suggested there was some moment of wonder and beauty. Something that they loved, and which I loved too.
When it comes to the arts we often think of human connection as primarily existing between the maker and the viewer — a one-way transmission of ideas and emotion. It is an attractive idea, and each of us has had the experience of a powerful and transformative communion with an author or maker whose work reaches from their lives across time and space into our own. To think exclusively in such terms, however, is to miss the power of connection in the making - a connection just as powerful and one that is forged in a dialogue, in a striving towards shared imagination. In our present moment, such connections are a vital space of social connectivity, as a society prioritising individuality is further atomised by isolation.
Late last year the role of the Arts Council and UCC Film Artist in Residence was advertised. I felt a strong impulse to apply. I saw the chance to take my thinking and methods around collaboration and explore them in an academic context. I had by chance come to some insight on one of the biggest challenges facing our industry and was keen to offer it up for discussion and perhaps use, so that I might learn more and that the students – forced like so many to collaborate at a distance — might benefit in some small way from my experience. The MA students and I, scattered around Ireland and beyond, are making a film together, on the loose subject of human connection. With the undergraduates my focus is on communicating with each other and with potential collaborators using images — getting the ideas in one's own mind into someone else's mind without using words. I've told them a little about my next project, The Waves, The Sea, which has been funded under the Arts Council's Authored Works scheme. Working again with a combination of archive and live action, the film's credits won't be as long as those on To the Moon, but will feature some remarkable people, some of whom I have just begun getting to know. It's exciting to imagine what we will make together.
5 March, 2020