Sullivan, Keane Chat Up ĎPersonal Development"

By Martin Hintz

The Irish are at it again, hitting the cinema screen big time.

One of the major selections of the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival, Sept. 24-Oct. 8, is the showing of Personal Development, produced by Hot Drop Filmsí Alan Keane, scripted by Muirinn Lane Kelly and directed by Tom Sullivan, the latter of Dublinís Wolf Island Films. Helpful funding came from Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board.

Cinematographer was Tim Fleming, with music by Michael Fleming. The all-star cast includes David Murray, Kathleen Breathnach, Una Kavanagh, Eva Jane Gaffney and Dylan Tighe. 

In the 15-minute short, the hero, Fintan, is having a tough time after his divorce and is growing apart from his two daughters and subsequently must face his new life. The film is being screened as part of the festivalís "Shorts: Modern Families" series at 1 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 30 at the Avalon Theater; 9:45 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 1 at the Downer; and 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, at the Downer.

Personal Development premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh 2014 and screened at Tribeca Film Festival April, 2015. In addition to Milwaukee, the movie has also been selected for Seattle International Film Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival and Calgary International Film Festival.

Director Tom Sullivan:

Okay, director Tom Sullivan. Whatís all this about "Wolf Island?"

"Some of the earliest documented accounts of mariners traveling off our coasts describe Ireland as impenetrable woodland populated predominantly by wolves," explained Sullivan. "In fact the Irish word(s) for wolf is Mac Tíre or "íson of the land.í" 

Sullivan has worked in television and film for more than a decade, using his gaelic name "Tom O Suilleabhain" for acting credits. Five years ago, he began writing and directing his own films. 

Regarding Personal Development, Sullivan was approached by producer Alan Keane and scriptwriter Muirinn Lane Kelly. "They had seen some of my work and attached my name to a funding proposal. We got the money, amazingly, assembled the cast and crew and shot it," he said.

Regarding his own work, Sullivan pointed out that he has a need to tell stories. "I feel they help us deal with this life and, if told well, can blow some badly needed fresh air through old head. A good short can be like a little eye opening shot in the arm. I also think you need to know if you can do it," Sullivan asserted.

One of his first film memories came when Sullivan was small, watching The Wizard of Oz, televised every Christmas in Ireland. He grew up with Steven Spielberg so Jaws, and Close Encounters, plus Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, had a big effect on him. He subsequently "fancied myself as an actor and did that for a few years. I did all right. We all love films don't we? Great films drew me to the business. I suppose acting was what got me initially interested though."

No other family members are in films but his longtime partner is a "long-suffering artist," he laughed. "We have just had a little boy, so this year has been busy. I've just finished a six-part comedy drama for television called Fir Bolg so the schedule has been demanding. There's a lot of facilitating but that's what grown ups do, I'm told," he said. 

For Sullivan, the most fun of film work is meeting and working with new people, while the hardest part is dealing with lack of funding, although he has had help with two of his five films from the Irish Film Board.

He regularly collaborates with other writers, as well as flies solo. "I do both. I love to collaborate. I find writing alone can be...lonely. I would love to waffle on about how shorts are a different discipline and all that, but the truth is I make shorts to learn how to do it so my first feature is good.

As far as the state of Irish film today goes, Sullivan felt that Irish film is on the verge of something truly great. "There are brilliant actors, writers and directors breaking through. So good!," he enthused.

Producer Alan Keane:

Producer Alan Keane linked up with Sullivan for Personal Development when learning of his festival win at Galway for his first short film, Asal. "When I saw what a great job he made of it, he was immediately someone we were interested in meeting to discuss the material," Keane recalled. "The industry is pretty small over here and scriptwriter Muirinn Lane Kelly and I both knew people who worked with him." 

Keane then got contact details via a friend who had written a television show where Sullivan had an acting part. "I rang Tom and sent on the script, asking him to read it and then meet us so we could get his take on the material and how he felt about it."

According to Keane, Sullivan immediately got the gist of the material. Part of the deal they worked out was that Sullivan had to be willing to take a collaborative approach to the project.

"On the shoot, it was very much Tomís set, but there was a lot of talk and discussion before that on various elements of the script and production that we all had to be on the same page for," Keane said. 

Naturally there were challenges in producing Personal Development, he admitted. "With any short film, there are many things to consider, such as crewing up with the best people we could find. Casting it exactly right. Getting the perfect locations. Balancing budgets. And then when the film is made the whole new problem of getting it to as big and audience as possible. So much has to be done right to have any chance of real success," he explained.

"We had a generous budget given to us by the Irish Film Board, one of three films made that year. We had to compete against about 150 experienced applicants. "Itís not a newcomers scheme and we really were up against some impressive competition," Keane indicated. 

The movie was filmed on location in Co. Galway. "We felt that it would have a very different look to a lot of Irish films, most of which are shot in Dublin and Wicklow," he said. "We wanted a fresh look and knew how unique and beautiful Galway was, even if it was going to be more challenging to crew up and shoot there, alongside the extra cash it would take to put everyone up while shooting there. We feel it was a risk that vindicated itself well." 

"We debuted at the Galway Film Fleadh, Irelandís oldest and biggest film festival, and it was amazing to finally watch an audience watch something we had probably gotten a little snow-blind watching. You start to lose objectivity a little towards the end. We were really moved by how the audiences responded to it," he added.

Personal Development made its way to the Milwaukee festival after Keane was contacted by a fan who loved the film at its international premiere at Tribeca. "Once Milwaukee got in touch, we were delighted to accept the generous invitation. We want as big an audience as possible to see the film and it seems to be doing particularly well with U.S. audiences,"" said Keane. "They are so warm and generous and totally got the tone of the piece so well. We have been blown away by the response. It makes all the hard work so worthwhile."

"I love the adventure of script to screen. Itís long, protracted and not an easy task but if you work with the right people and material there is no feeling like seeing an audience watch your film for the first time," Keane said. 

"It feels real then. Itís an audience-driven medium and until itís seen as good as something is, it doesn't really exist, in my opinion. Thereís no point having a great film that no one has watched. Itís so important to get your work out there," he reflected.

For Keane, Ireland has become a fantastic place for short films. He said that the amount of Academy nominations in the last decade attests to the fact there is a lot of talent for a small country. "Iím super proud to be part of a small but very effective filmmaking community here and am grateful for the support of the Irish Film Board in helping us realize our ambition in getting this made," he said. 

Keane lives just outside Dublin in Naas, Co. Kildare, and is a graduate of the National University of Ireland Galwayís Screenwriting Masters program. In 2006, he was awarded the Pat Sheeran Scholarship to study at UCLA. Since graduating from both schools, Keane has worked mostly in a production, writing and development capacity across a wide number of both film and television projects for companies in the United Kingdom, Europe, United States and Ireland. Clients have included the BBC, RTE, TV3, Channel 4 and the Irish Film Board. 

He has been producing works over the last seven years, primarily as a story editor and writer for television. His company, Hot Drop, does numerous international business projects with fairly big animation clients. "Weíre hoping to use the success of this short to launch our own slate of film and television ideas in the coming months," he went on.

For a producer, the thrill comes with seeing it all come together. "Every decision is a risk but if youíre good at spotting talent, that risk is vastly reduced. I love working with talented people. As a producer, your talent needs to be getting the best out of them, as well as convincing everyone itís going to happen and making it a reality." 

"You need tenacity to solve every problem that comes your way. And there will always be problems to solve. In the darkened room with an audience, then it finally feels real. Thatís the biggest thrill. Before that, itís all theory and application. You never know 100% if youíve got it right or not. You just hope you do," he said.

With Personal Development now out making the rounds, Keane is currently negotiating the rights on a book for a television series and also looking at a lot of different feature scripts as a potential next project. "As a company, we are always looking to find new talent and develop it together. Whether that is writing or directing," he said.

The main bulk of Keaneís business at the moment is producing about 150 episodes of animated content for various partners, all currently in production. "Itís a privilege to work on these shows. We hope that the finance that weíll be bringing in for all the jobs should allow us to push our own IP and projects into production. So far, itís so good. The bonus is that we work with so many different writers, so we are coming across some amazing ideas developed by some very talented individuals. The future as it stands looks really bright for the company."


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