CIFF 2011: Vincent Gallagher talks to Jenny McFarlane about his short films, Crossword and Signs

ImageImage from the short film, Signs

Vincent Gallagher is the director of short films, Crosswords and Signs which were recently screened as part of CIFF 2011 Shorts programme.

Gallagher graduated from The National Film School of Ireland with first honors and received the institute’s inaugural Outstanding Contribution to Filmmaking award. At film school Vincent specialized in Directing and Cinematography, winning awards at the Kodak Commercial Awards, the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and the Best Drama Award for his graduation film, Bright Idea at both the Irish and U.K. Royal Television Society. Bright Idea and another film he directed, The Salesman both played at festivals world wide. On the strength of his college work, Vincent was accepted to the Berlin Talent Campus during his final year in film school. Vincent has worked as a director on commercials and corporate promos for clients such as Vodafone and the ISPCC.

Signs is a comedy about seeing magic in what we see everyday and in Crossword we learn about Heather, a semi-lonely woman turning 40, who has a strange experience when all the answers to the day’s crossword seem to be around her on the eve on her birthday.

Here, he talks to Jenny McFarlane about his direction, writing and process. If you missed the short films over the weekend, it’s not too late to learn more about the man himself.

Signs is about “magic in what we see everyday, sometimes you just have to look hard enough.” It’s a fantastic comedy! What made you come up with this concept for a short film?

The concept for signs SIGNS came about from when I was in school. At the end of the street that my school was on there was this ‘children crossing’ sign. It’s a little boy holding the hand of a little girl. Somebody had drawn over the little boy in heavy black marker and now the sign was the grim reaper, sickle and all, leading the little girl to god knows where. Instantly it connected with me, the idea of something you see everyday garnishing new meaning with a very simple, direct application. So it was years later that I actually put it all together. Telling a simple story that uses different aspects of various sign posts. The story came very naturally, it’s basically a comedy cautionary tale about strangers, and strong clear visual signs are a great way to get a message across.

Where did the ideas for your other short film, Crossword, come from?

Crossword was a very fully formed story that was written by Hugh Travers. He showed me the script and I immediately loved it. The connections and circumstance was what drew me too it. So many of our relationships, if one was to be cynical, can be attributed to geography or some other such triviality, the school you go to, the place you work etc. I was fascinated by the idea of two people that are completely perfect for each other, but would never meet because of the schedule of a train. Hugh, myself and the producer, Claire McCaughly attacked the script, pushing and pulling until it made as much sense as it could to us. We always work that way, making sure that every characters motivation seems real.

When do story ideas usually hit you?

Story ideas hit me in the most different ways. I’m not the type of writer that can just sit down in front of a blank page and spit something out, I never have been. It might be as simple as a line in some random article I read while waiting for friends in an East Village bar on New Years Eve, or something I see while I’m out and about. I don’t think I can go searching for inspiration, sometimes if the circumstances are right, it finds me.

Is drawing on your own personal experiences important to you when directing a film?

I think you have to draw on your own personal experiences when directing drama. A lot of it is about human interaction, and finding empathy with the characters. It might not be what you would do, but you have to be able to understand that different people would have different motivations for their actions. And in that you could look at a situation from your own life and think, what I’d I had done that differently. Everything then has a knock on effect. Even when working with actors you convey directions in terms you know, in terms you hope other people can relate to, so in that, it can be a very personal experience, and you put a lot of yourself into it.

In terms of logistics, what was the hardest thing to film?

In approaching SIGNS, it was the first time I had ever done animation, and it was the first time the animators had worked with live action, so we were really finding our feet as we went along.  So basically I storyboard everything and then did an animatic, a sort of edited series of storyboards with elements of sound design and character direction. This gave us our timings for the plates, which we then shot, and the animators got all those plates in edited blocks to work off. So it was fairly straight forward, but time consuming.  Crossword was a short film on a big scale, multiple locations and a intricately complex script. One of the hardest aspects for me was making sure that all the connections made sense. From a logistical point of view the scenes in the train station were challenging. We were working under very strict guidelines from the train station authorities, so what we could shoot, when we could shoot, where we could shoot, and all under a high blood pressure inducing time limit. Working it out we only had two shots at getting what we needed, as the trains are on a schedule, we had our x amount of shots to get, get on the train and get the hell off it before it took our actor and steadicam operator to the next station! So we pushed our permissions a little and we got what we needed.

What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?

The most challenging aspect of making SIGNS, aside from the actual lengthy animation process was the scene with the dandelion. It was important to get the location right. I wanted a very consistent look over all, so we ended up scouring the city and found various pockets that fit. The challenging part of the scene was moving the dandelion and having it feel like the characters were moving it. So we did a few tests and then used a green screen type method, and I did the flower movements to give it a kind of weight so it felt like it was being plucked and carried rather than just floating around the place.  In Crossword we tried out a lot of stylistic dynamic camera moves. The train station sequence was challenging because of the pressures upon us, another neat scene is in the apartment when Heather arrives home. Because of the connections Heather makes I wanted to show her in her comfortable environment, but I wanted it to flow smoothly. So I came up with this sort of one shot scenario, so she walks in and the camera follows her, and continues to move to the television and then turn to Heather, now in pyjamas, on the couch, and then move to heather in the kitchen and finally into the bedroom. This was technically quite difficult having the timings of the Steadicam move, and orchestrating the doubles moves and costume and lighting changes all in one shot. I think it took 17 takes to get it exactly right.

Tell us about any future projects you have planned.

I’m outlining a number of short scripts at the moment while continuing to work on music videos and commercials. I’m also working on developing a feature project with Hugh and Claire, the same team that wrote and produced Crossword.

Thanks to Vincent Gallagher. Here’s to more from this great director!

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