Writer and director Philip Doherty with his script for Redemption of a Rogue, his first feature-length film.

A loveable Rogue

Philip Doherty's big screen directorial debut 'Redemption of a Rogue' on show at Cavan cinema

Saturday, January 12, 2019. The call out ran: ‘Film actors and extras wanted for a new feature film by Philip Doherty, starring Aaron Monaghan.’

The Abbey Bar. People are queuing up, cheek by jowl, some with scripts, others leaned over and looking at the printed pages. Total strangers in close proximity. Imagine that.

It’s only two and a half years ago, it feels like a lifetime. It was a different world, one where it’s okay to pull someone a little closer. The mêlée of that audition hasn’t been possible in a year and a half.

The embryo of the film has since grown from a single cell to a fully developed life form. Now it stands on its own two feet ready to be presented to the public. It’s had festival screenings, but the first ‘general public’ showing took place last night (Tuesday) August 24 in Dublin. Tonight Redemption of a Rogue screens in Cavan.

Cavan has a fair few representations on the big screen. This latest revels in its Cavanness. It saturates it! From idioms to tone and tempo, it is quintessentially of the Breffni county. It’s as Cavan as a ‘hi’ at the end of sentence or a drumlin rolling into another, so it is.

The disruption of the last year has allowed Philip Doherty the chance to enter his creation in film festivals before it gets its public run. Awards in Greece, Galway, Glasgow and Minneapolis should boost audience numbers as the opportunity for the public to view it in cinemas arises.

“Yeah, it’s going well yet. It’s all heating up at the moment,” Philip says from Galway where he is artistic director of the Fíbín Theatre company. “It’s all happening very quickly. It’s a whole new experience to me, so I can’t compare it to anything.”

Disruption since early 2020 halted the film’s gallop. Philip’s predicament is no different to the seven billion or so other souls on the planet, but to have a pandemic interrupt the film you’ve been working on for years is a mite inconvenient.

Yet writer/director appears to be taking such upsets in his stride: “The response has been great. Over the last couple of years, it’s been going out to different people to have a look at, not only in Ireland, but in the UK and America. People say it’s got an original voice. That’s exciting to hear. I’m not gonna go into self-congratulatory superlatives, but it’s just been brilliant,” he says.

The use of the “we” is not a royal prerogative. Throughout the chat Doherty repeatedly gives props to those who prop him up - actors, crew, support all get mentioned. As does the county of his birth. Not surprising when you see the love for home portrayed in screen.

“It’s such a local story,” he tells.

“It’s got the language of Cavan, but people from all around the world really connecting with it. We had a festival screening in Greece, and the audience was laughing out loud at the black comedy. I thought is was unique to us, but it turns out it’s universal. The style is fresh, maybe that’s because I come from a theatre background, which has naturally influenced it.”

Doherty’s years of theatre work in Cavan present themselves in other ways in the film. A fair few local names occupy the cast list. The easy flow of the story of returned son Jimmy Cullen is in no small part thanks to that heritage.

“It all comes down to the acting. You can have all the lights, cameras and budget in the world, but you can’t edit around a bad performance. I knew the actors from working with them before in theatre shows. I knew their spirit. I hoped they’d bring themselves to the characters, into the parts. No one dropped the ball. Everyone absolutely nailed it,” the director lauded his cast.

Let it rain!

One character every Irish person will recognise is the rain. It permeates the story, establishing tone and driving plot. In Ireland, there’s not one rain, there’s hundreds, every single one of them different and every single one creating a different sort of mood and, in the story of Jimmy Cullen, punctuating plot points.

“The whole mood of the film is created by the rain,” Doherty explains. “Jimmy is disintegrating more and more into his head and into his subconscious. The extreme, wet weather represents that - how our world is encroaching into the other world and all those things are in flux. Music starts to seep into the live film, people singing on the street corners. It becomes like a neo-musical in places. All that is in a spin cycle representing what’s going on in Jimmy’s mind. Rain is a huge part; not only mood, not only symbolism of depression, but also cinematically.”

Biblical references

The vagaries of the Irish weather meant that the rain had to perform on cue. To this end Shane Carroll invented and built one for the film: “The texture of rain on screen is just absolutely beautiful to play with from a visual sense. Also it rains a lot in the Cavan. That’s why we have a tradition of Celtic mysticism, of history and mythology. You get to see different moods in the weather. There is a huge biblical metaphor in there as well. The plagues, the 40 days and 40 nights. It gives the audiences something to feel rather than just think about.”

The film borrows from mythology to present a modern Irish story. Knitting all this together was a two-part process. The first as writer, the second as director: “It was a mixture of loads of research and trying to find what is possible. I got some factual things that would work and then I invented a few. I won’t tell which is invented, which is not. The darkest one I came across was the rise in suicide after a huge flood. It’s scary and inexplicable.

“With a story things either happen, or they don’t. When you start seeing connections, you know you’re on the right path. That happened quite quickly when I was researching. If I was pulling my hair out when writing, then I was probably going down the wrong path.”

For Doherty the contribution of Aaron Monaghan was vital for the film. He described how the lead actor provided a framework on which the story sits.

“Jimmy Cullen is going through a lot of despair and pain. His mind goes into very absurd and very dark places, yet he’s the straight guy. This world is filled with larger than life eccentric characters, but his performance really grounds the whole piece. He made my life as a director very, very easy because he’s such a brilliant actor.

“Aaron allowed the other supporting characters to be a little bit bigger, a little bit more exaggerated, a little bit more playful. We find the black comedy in the characters around him, in these mad, beautiful characters. He’s slowly, painfully psychologically disintegrating, and yet he’s probably doing the same in the village,” he says of the Thespian.

A chunk of the humour in the movie derives from relief. It allows us escape from the overwhelming weight sitting on Jimmy’s psyche. Manipulating the audience’s feelings is a skill born from life experience.

Dark to light

Transforming the kernel of an idea into a story that wins plaudits from Greece to the US requires a deal of craft: “The characters need to have a change or a transformation. Part of that is to heal the past, just to move on and let go. I think a lot of pain comes from the past. You write stories from an honest and heartfelt place, from intuition rather than over analysing it, because then it doesn’t have heart.

“Story is change. Story is transformation. I’ve always been drawn to stories that go from dark to light, rather than light to dark. Like A Christmas Carol, The Outrageous Transformation, or Groundhog Day is another great example. I tap into those personal feelings,” Doherty outlines.

While the writing part of the process may be solitary, the nuts and bolts of film making requires a wider input. The director refers to his film making family, and in the case of his production designer it is quite literally that with brother Joe Doherty occupying the role. Long time collaborator Robbie Perry is another personality contributing to the overall feel of the picture.

Exactly what that ‘feel’ is may be hard to define, but Doherty gives a hint: “The first meeting I had with the cinematographer, Burschi Wojnar, we said ‘it’s a Western’. Just stylistically. That’s why we use the wide lens, and the anamorphic lens to get the feeling of a Western. He’s arriving into town, settling old scores. That tone is there, especially for the first half of it, before it kind of kicks into a different gear.”

New journey

Redemption of a Rogue’s journey isn’t the one planned two and a half years ago. Much has changed including where Doherty now calls home: “The whole universe is conspiring to give me the greatest challenge of my life. I’ve got a play opening in the Galway International Arts Festival on August 25, the same night that Redemption goes on national release. It’s a wonderfully busy time at the moment.”

Contributing to that schedule is ‘Cogadh na Saoirse’ his latest offering in his role as artistic director of Fíbín Theatre company. Cogadh na Saoirse is a multi–stage visual spectacle where the big house, country hall, pub, and fairground become stages for colourful characters to share stories and perspectives on the war.

Fíbín will use Connemara as the backdrop for a large ensemble cast, performing in Irish, for their spectacular style of theatre, that is accessible to spectators with or without the language. This is the first production by Fíbín as the new company–in–residence at An Taibhdhearc.

A description of the piece nods to the director’s addiction to hardship: “There are 14 stages, a cast of 50, a chorus of musicians. It’s a big production. Covid made this an outdoor spectacle. We are trying to create something that would work during the pandemic. The carpenters pretty much built a small village for me, actually a big village. The audience walk from stage to stage, and get a whole panorama of perspectives on the War for Independence from 1918 to 1921.”

His big ideas don’t just exist in his work, but also in his social observations: “We’re social animals, during the pandemic we haven’t been ourselves. We need to interact. We need to make each other laugh. We need to listen to each other, make things, get out, to have a party and make fun together, or make a piece of art together or make music together. That’s what makes us human beings, creating things together. Film is the greatest expression of that, because it brings in all the art forms.

“You have the script, actors, camera, visual artists, production design, musicians, producers, sound design, costumes. All those art forms coming together as one big tapestry and create one tiny thing. Isn’t that just a wonderful collective artistic magic?

“We all want to be part of something, if we’re not part of something we feel on the outside. Making plays and making art and making films in this sense makes you feel human and makes you feel alive.”