Richard Duffy, Technical Support Lead on Filmmaking

A lot of people talk about films as escapism, escaping reality. But for me, it’s about experiencing more reality than your life can otherwise provide. Obviously, the deepest and most meaningful emotions and experiences come from your own life, but films give you a chance to feel something more on top of that. They can make you feel the excitement of a high-speed car chase or the victory of defeating an alien invasion. Or they can give you heartache and redemption, without actually having to hurt you first. They can take you on amazing emotional journeys. To me, that adds to life, it doesn’t distract from it. I find the ability of movies to do that is incredibly powerful, and I love being able to use films to make an entire room full of people feel what I want them to feel. Be it laughter, or fear, or victory, I love bringing that to an audience because I feel that bringing people on any kind of a (safe) emotional journey enriches lives.

My name is Richard Duffy and I’m a Team Lead in Technical Support for Ireland’s largest ISP. I was freelancing through a bunch of TV gigs, but that kind of work is very unstable and there can be lots of downtime between jobs. I have two kids and it just wasn’t sustainable to support them on those roles, so I looked for something more permanent. I’ve always had an aptitude for tech, and many of the TV jobs I’ve had have been fairly technical in nature, so I went for an entry-level tech support job. The more technical aspects I was able to get involved in, the more interested I was in the work, so I brushed up on my scripting to build various tools for the company. I’m now the techiest team lead in the department.

My interest in filmmaking started when I was in college in Maynooth. I went to Maynooth to study music – I wanted to be a music producer, but about halfway through my second year, I realised that it wasn’t quite for me. Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that the reason I love music is because of how it can tell a story. I was already a big movie fan and I realised that movies tell their stories using all art forms. They have writing, and painting/photography, and music, and acting. There’s not an art form in the world that doesn’t have its place in film (apart from perfumery). I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to use all of those art forms to do it. So in my final year at Maynooth, I swapped out a couple of modules so that I could take up Cinema Theory and Cinema History.

For filmmakers that I admire, Rian Johnson and Danny Boyle immediately come to mind. Danny Boyle has simply never made a bad film. I don’t think there’s any other director in the world that can say that, particularly not one with the length of career that he’s had. I remember the year he created the opening ceremony of the London Olympics – he was also making a movie in any time he had to spare (Trance). I remember going to see that movie thinking that it would be a simple little film, probably not much to it given that it couldn’t have been his focus while making it. But then I saw it and it was excellent! Rian Johnson I discovered after seeing Looper at a mystery screening. It blew my mind. I then went to check out his first movie, Brick, and it blew my mind even further. I remember thinking that someday Johnson was going to create something new that would be as huge for the current generation as Star Wars had been. He was going to create something that would completely eclipse the impact that Star Wars had. But then he got involved in Star Wars and I was actually a bit disappointed because it meant he was less likely to create his own saga. And then he went and made a Star Wars film which blew my mind!

To me, directing, writing, editing, and producing are all just steps along the way to the singular job of making a film. But I guess directing is the main focus for me in my own films. The director shapes the final product and controls that emotional flow. I only ever started writing because it’s the cheapest way to get a script, but then it turned out I actually had some ability. Writing is probably the part of my filmmaking repertoire with which I’ve had the most success. And it is incredibly rewarding for me to move from an idea to a blank page to emotions on a screen. Editing is something I do by necessity. Most of the films I’ve worked on have been done as part of a group called Kino D, the Dublin branch of the International Kino movement. I’ve been to a few of their weekend cabarets and the timeline to making movies is generally: pitch an idea to a room on Saturday morning – anybody interested in helping out joins up with you. Shoot the film on Saturday afternoon/evening/night. And then edit on Sunday before a screening on Sunday night. Because of the time constraints there, there’s not much room to communicate fully everything your editor needs to understand. The editor and the director are the two people who need to have the strongest overall sense of the film; on a tight timeline, it’s sometimes just easiest for them to be the same person.

In my experiences, there are quite a few differences in the atmosphere on set between amateur productions and professional films. On a professional set, everybody knows exactly what they’re doing because they’ve been doing it for years. They know how to do it and, therefore, get down and do it. On an amateur set, you’ve got all kinds of different levels of experience – some people might actually be pros, but you’ll also have people who’ve never really done anything before and are just really eager to be involved. They require more direction, but that eagerness brings a wonderful energy to the set. There’s a real sense of passion on an amateur set, which is invigorating. The professionals are obviously passionate about what they do as well, but when you’ve been doing it for a few years, that passion doesn’t bubble over in quite the same way.

Drama and sci-fi are my go-to genres, but they can be quite big and extravagant to produce. It’s much easier to write a short comedy sketch. I’d never written anything shorter than feature-length until I had the idea for Blackman. I just had this stack of extravagant scripts gathering dust that I’d never get to make because I didn’t have anything smaller to showcase what I could do. Since then, I’ve done a few other comedy shorts and gotten some jokes on the comedy shows I’ve worked on. Off the back of Blackman, I landed a meeting with a producer where I got to pitch a sitcom series I had developed with a friend. They were going to take that on for production, but they had a couple of other things in development at the time and one of them blew up and become a very big show for them. So other things, including my sitcom, went by the wayside.

I worked as the script editor on The Missing Scarf, an animated short by my outrageously talented cousin Eoin. He’d gotten funding for this short, but everything he’d made up that point didn’t have any narration or dialogue. He had the full plot and had done a few versions of the script himself, but he brought me on board because he knew I did a lot of screenwriting (even though I hadn’t actually had anything made at that point). He asked me to try to polish and refine the narration. So I basically rewrote his script while keeping all the structure and plot elements, just changing the actual words spoken (which could at times have a significant impact on the emotion or tone of the piece). So then we each had our own version and we started bouncing them back and forth against each other, picking out what elements of each we felt worked or didn’t, along with plenty of input from Jamie, the producer. I don’t think there was ever a version of the script where anyone ever felt “oh no, that one doesn’t work, we can’t use that”, but all the bouncing back and forth resulted in the script which Eoin felt happiest with, and Jamie and I were really happy with it as well. I was delighted when George Takei liked it too.

The process of bringing George Takei on board to narrate the film began when Eoin and Jamie drew up a shortlist of actors they wanted (quite a few Star Trek alumni on that list as I recall). They then found out who their agents were and fired off e-mails. Eoin did up a kind of simplified draft version of the short that he narrated himself. It’s pretty standard in the early stages of making an animated film to put the storyboard together in a video sequence with sound – Eoin basically put together a more advanced, polished version of this to give potential actors a better sense of the final film. George Takei was one of the guys’ highest priorities, so things moved quite quickly after that. I remember the mail where the guys told me George was on board, and one of the main reasons he gave was the strength of the script – I nearly died! That moment was almost as big as when we found out that we beat Pixar into the final 10 for an Oscar that year (though we didn’t end up getting nominated in the final 5).

My most recent short, End, was the result of me trying to figure out a short I could do that wasn’t a comedy. Because drama is more what I’m interested in, I wanted to make something that showcased that. I had this goal in mind for a while and I was bouncing around a few ideas when I finally settled on the idea for End, which was actually inspired by a dream I had. Fairly frequently, I have action-packed dreams where I blast my way through some criminal lair, no doubt inspired by a childhood spent binge-watching Bond movies. In these dreams, I always win, just like in the movies. But one night I had a dream where I was trapped, and I was going to die. There was no way out of it. Nothing I could do. No deus ex machina. So in this dream, I had the horrifying realisation that my life was going to end. I didn’t realise I was dreaming at the time, but I did have all the memories of my life, my family, my career, my ambitions. I was losing all of those and there was nothing I could do about it. It was pretty awful, but also kind of useful. I think we all have this sense that “I’ll be fine”. It’s why people smoke or jump out of planes. You know how risky it is, but there’s also some part of your brain that denies that and thinks “I’ll be fine”. Because of that dream, I had the experience of “I am not invincible, this is over and there is nothing I can do”. I still want to jump out of a plane someday, but I think it was useful to have that experience of the ultimate loss of control. I figured that feeling would make a good core for a film, so that was one of the ideas rattling around in my brain until it finally started to eclipse the other ideas and the monologue started to form.

End was made at a Kino D Weekend Kabaret, so it was pitched, shot, edited and screened all within 36 hours. Because of how demanding the main role was, I had hoped to cast it before the weekend, but unfortunately, I had no luck and I faced the daunting prospect of trying to find someone good enough to learn all those lines and get into that character in a very short time frame. I flitted about a bit trying to find someone until I had pretty much given up. I decided to just get involved in one of the other films which were getting made, maybe do some acting. I got talking to Chris McMorrow, who had pitched a film too. But he came to the conclusion that his idea was too ambitious to pull off within the time frame available, so I asked him to read for my film, and he was fantastic. He spent the rest of the day engrossed in the script trying to learn all the lines. He had already agreed to do another film, so he had to disappear in the middle of the afternoon to do that before coming back and diving back into my script. He still wasn’t completely comfortable with it by the time it was dark enough for us to start shooting, so we did a few takes wide, then a few takes of Rob Reeves close up. We left close-ups of Chris until last so that he had had the most possible time with the script. These close-ups were the most important part of the film, and just when we got to them, a ska band started playing a gig next door! You can still hear the ska coming through in the final film, but Chris’ performance was fantastic. The editing was quite straightforward on that one because the set-up was so simple – I was one of the few people finished well before the deadline that day. Most of my time was spent trying to find a way to reduce the volume of the ska!

The most obvious correlation between my filmmaking and technological career is probably the fact that filmmaking equipment goes wrong all the time, particularly the editing software and managing all the different file types and drives. That kind of thing was my primary focus while working as a freelancer. But now that I’m making my own films, I’m troubleshooting problems with the software all the time, so I guess that ties into the technical support background. A lot of the professional work I’ve done in film and TV has had me dealing with fairly technical issues. I was learning about equipment and software that most people get degrees to learn about. My ability to quickly strip down and assess tech, how to poke and prod it to see how it worked, has been incredibly valuable to me in my work. Less obvious, but probably more significant, would be decision making. Most of the questions I get as a team lead are just looking for someone to provide an answer. Some people aren’t comfortable making some decisions, and some people aren’t at the level where they’re allowed to make decisions, so being someone who will make a definitive decision is something I use quite a lot in my job, but it’s also one of the most important attributes of a director. The best way to make a good film is to work with people who are better at their jobs than you are. If I’m working on a film and feel like I could get better images than the cameraman, or get better sound than the recordist, then I worry. You want people who know their job well enough to give you a bunch of great ideas that they can pull off really well for you. Then a director’s job is filtering through all of those ideas and picking out the ones that work best together. You need to give a strong decision on what ideas you’re working with.

The last time I pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone was on a film set. Much as I love it, running a film set is not in my comfort zone. It always makes me nervous because whatever you’re filming lives or dies based on how well the shoot goes. But those nerves are important. I remember reading an interview with Steven Spielberg shortly after one of his movies came out that didn’t do terribly well – I think it was Kingdom of The Crystal Skull. He said that he was too comfortable. He said his best movies are the ones where he’s outside of his comfort zone. You can have a great plan, but you shouldn’t be so comfortable that you just coast through hitting all your planned marks. If you’re uncomfortable, then you’re constantly in creative mode trying to find new ways and ideas to try and make it better.

The most important filmmaking lesson I’ve learned is to pick up the phone. I remember thinking for years about “how do I actually get things made, what do I do to get people together and make a film”. I had no idea where to even begin. Then when I had my first professional job in TV, I was told our next planned shooting date and was asked to book the crew and interview subjects. Basically “we’re filming Friday, make it happen”. It was incredibly intimidating but it turns out that in order to get people to go do what you need, you just need to pick up the phone and call them. I didn’t have time to think about it and let all my fears and anxieties get in the way, I shoved all of that aside and picked up the phone. And it was fine. It seems really obvious, but it was a really valuable lesson for me. Making a film is incredibly challenging and difficult. It’s intimidating and you’re constantly questioning and worrying about all of the things that need to happen in order to pull it off. But it turns out that the hardest part is actually just starting. If you can shove your worries to the side long enough to pick up the phone and make that first call, then you’ve already passed the biggest hurdle to making something.

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