Louise Ní Fhiannachta recently directed all six episodes of Irish-language musical comedy-drama Eipic for TG4. The visual style was key to establishing the tone and energy of this series, so Louise has written for us about the way she approached this unique project, a series that was quite unlike anything that had been seen on Irish TV before.
Eipic is a stylistic 6-part comedy-musical-drama series written by Mike O’Leary (Misfits). It tells the story of five teenagers in rural Ireland who rise up against the boredom of small town life and attempt to create a musical revolution. We’re “celebrating” 100 years of the Easter Rising in Ireland at the moment – an armed insurrection to gain independence from British rule – and Eipic comes at this theme from a different angle. Here we have five teenagers – each with their own aspirations, concerns and ideologies – living in a backwater that reeks of misery. Their only escape is through music so they decide to enter an online music video competition by doing Irish language covers of songs that speak to them. I was immediately attracted to the story’s madness, its defiance and to the complex but lovable characters. Eipic comfortably blends drama with music videos and even catapults us into the surreal world of an online chatroom: a fabulous challenge for any director.
From the outset, the series spoke to me on so many levels. I’m conscious of giving a voice to Ireland’s teenagers – this generation is going to own the future. There’s big change afoot in the country; last year’s marriage equality referendum, the energy stemming from Waking the Feminists and the ongoing debate to repeal the eighth amendment in our abortion laws are all seismic events. So what does it mean to be a teenage hero in the Ireland of 2016? First, we needed to find our heroes.
For about 3 months the producer, Ciara Nic Chormaic, and I embarked on a nationwide search to find our leads. We were not only looking for fresh faces, but fluency in the Irish language and a musical sensibility were also a must. When it comes to casting young people, it’s important for me to initiate a relaxed atmosphere so the creative energy flows. I’m a big fan of improv, as it gives you the artistic freedom to reveal truth, and it’s particularly great for comedy. I saw something very special in each of our cast so it was all about building trust, encouraging them to take risks, giving them the confidence to kick around ideas as an ensemble. Although we were dealing with a sophisticated comedy, there’s always a truth underneath, or another story going on, which lends itself to a much more layered performance. So the rewards of doing rehearsals during prep were clear throughout the shoot.
Like anything I work on, the visual style needs to be earned through the narrative and tone. Through Mike’s writing, I knew Eipic needed to have an indie, punk visual sensibility, so for months beforehand I was using Pinterest to collect visual references and inviting the key creatives to do the same. There were also other elements to consider: each character experiences a musical fantasy and we’re also catapulted into the surreal world of an online chatroom. Design was always going to be integral and Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson were big influences here. I’d also been watching snippets of Glue, Utopia and even as far back as The Young Person’s Guide to Becoming a Rock Star.
The fictitious village of Dobhar is central to the series so finding the right location was paramount. It needed to have a sense of abandonment and the potential for all of our locations. We decided on Woodford, an isolated village in east county Galway where we set up shop for two months. I’d visualised each character with an identifiable style and a signature piece of clothing or prop – Sully’s orange headphones, Aodh’s array of jumpers, Mona’s beanie, Oisín’s scarves, Bea’s lip-gloss and even Aengus’ vaporiser.
The online chatroom
The series sees Sully chatting online to someone known only as Rebelsound. The audience knows it’s Mona – one of Sully’s bandmates – and when she finally reveals herself to him later in the series he understandably sees this as betrayal. So how were we going to visually portray an online chatroom? I really wanted to push the creative boundaries. The virtual world of a chatroom is such a cool device and an exciting opportunity for any director. For months, I was visualising a vast space with suspended random objects with neither a natural light source nor a door to explain a method of entry.
However this concept proved to be a logistical nightmare. With only a week to go before we had to shoot our chatroom, our DoP spotted a silver birch forest on his way to work. I was immediately sold on it during the recce. Using the trees as lines of perspective was an exciting prospect and after kicking this idea around we decided to build a platform on which to place our actors. At the end of the second shooting day we did some wide shots, then we cleared the platform, locked off the camera, and shot a clean plate shot so we could paint the legs of the platform out in post-production. The audience is left with the illusion that our characters are floating which adds to the surrealism.
We chose an over-exposed look in the grade so the images appear otherworldly. The big selling point for me was the use of VFX to act as a transition from the real world into the virtual. We see Sully typing on his laptop as he engages with Rebelsound in this chatroom. The text on his laptop screen breaks up into animated graphics and this is what we use as a transition into the chatroom.
I was adamant that the comedy should mainly come from the performances and energetic dialogue, yet I knew we had to be clever in how these were informed by the visuals. There are also moments of darkness and truth running through the series and I wanted us to be damn bold in our approach.
We shot on the Red Epic Dragon using wide-angle lenses with Colm Hogan as DoP. I didn’t want anything handheld as my gut was that the narrative didn’t suggest that. I wasn’t ever interested in getting ‘coverage’ for coverage’s sake; we needed to tell the story in a clever, visual way using intelligent blocking. Pace and rhythm were vital so I decided to use big, bold wide shots of our isolated environment to serve as breathers from highly energetic sequences. This also served to juxtapose the aspirations of our heroes with their miserable environment.
There were also opportunities to use creative devices through which to tell our story. I always feel that the use of any visual device needs to be earned. In episode 3 Oisín presses the self-destruct button, has a party at his parents’ house and reveals he’s gay. As the carnage surrounds him, I decided to create a time-lapse with Oisín as our focus. In another instance, we see his mask gradually slipping as he meanders his way through the party. I used a Snorricam to achieve this, which, coupled with clever sound design, proved to be a more intimate experience for the audience. Music promoter Fintan appears in episode 5; a particularly frenetic individual, I decided to use a series of tight cuts, crashes-in and crops to convey his character.
We used a GoPro on a C-stand to shoot all the webcam material, with our characters looking directly into the lens. This also gave it a grittier, degraded look. I also wanted to show the world from vantage points that are more or less unseen by our eyes in real life – this involved strapping a GoPro to the bottom of bottles during a drinking contest, using a drone as Oisín does doughnuts in his BMW, and down a toilet as someone vomits during a party episode. We also captured intimacy or intensity using beautiful close-ups and chose certain lenses for certain actors (we used an 18mm lens for close-ups of the characters Mona and Fintan) to give their features a slightly exaggerated look.
I was in virgin territory here as I’d never shot a music video before, but the musical sequences were great fun to do. All songs and lyrics were translated into Irish and pre-recorded and mixed by our composer, Ray Harman, prior to shooting so we had playback for our actors. A Town Called Malice by The Jam, Frankly, Mr. Shankly by The Smiths, and Seasons (Waiting on You) by Future Islands were just some of the numbers we shot. We had about 5 hours to shoot Seasons in our chatroom space so I decided to shoot it very simply. Róisín’s voice is superb and it’s a version of the song that really gets you in the gut. I’d already liaised with the editor, Conall de Cléir, about my approach to various elements, such as using a macro lens to shoot a close-up of Mona’s eye and superimposing Sully’s image in post-production. At the end of the day we shot some abstract shots of light through trees; in the edit, Conall used these abstract shots as composites over the actors. What we’re left with are beautifully textured images that add to the tone and message of the song.
Bea is a character who dreams of glitz and glamour and her musical fantasy is set to Frankly, Mr. Shankly by The Smiths. This was supposed to be shot in the local chipper but, again, logistical problems meant we had to restage and rethink the concept. What was the message? How were we going to achieve it in limited time? A glitter ball, red drapes and a ballroom dancer later and we’re left with one of my favourite music videos of the series. Huge credit goes to the actress, Fionnuala Gygax; she had never ballroom-danced before and only had an hour to rehearse before we started to shoot. To this day I’m still mesmerised by her determination and professionalism.
To complement the visuals, the soundtrack needed to have a particular energy across the board. Using techniques like heightening sound FX, hard-cutting from a quiet scene to high levels of audio, or warping a musical soundtrack in order to disturb the audience, all proved to be highly effective. I also wanted to have some fun with identifying a ring tone and message tone for each character. This kind of attention to detail provides so much with regards to character reveal and identity. And of course, we’re talking about a musical drama here so music was imperative. I thought it was important to have a balance between new music and established indie music throughout the soundtrack. It was important to reflect each character’s taste as much as possible throughout that character’s episode. Mousey Mona’s tastes range from Nirvana to the more modern Wolf Alice; Terry is an ageing rocker, so Pink Floyd, Rory Gallagher and Scullion were staples. I became addicted to Spotify, listening to tunes well into the night, especially during post-production.
We edited for almost three and a half months on Final Cut Pro. Conall is a dream to work with; he’s got a tremendous visual flair and a brilliant musical sensibility. Although the series is written as highly-energetic at times, pace was crucial in each episode – it needed to peak and trough. The cutting also needed to reflect the emotional tone of each scene. Visual comedy was very important: hanging on a reaction shot for an extra five frames could be the vital component to earn that belly laugh. We created abstract dream sequences and highly-charged transitions for the party episode – Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream was a big influence here.
My ambition for the series was always to attempt to achieve high production values on a low budget. Having spent a good few years shooting to low budgets, I’ve learnt to be versatile and it forces me to be more creative within these parameters. Through the magic and the madness, I think we managed to achieve exactly that.
You can watch all six episodes of Eipic on the TG4 website (scroll down to the bottom of the page for the individual episodes).