Pumpgirl The Movie

Director Carol Moore on the filmmaking process. Click Play Video for actor interviews and a behind-the-scenes film, courtesy of Carol Moore

How did you get involved in the Pumpgirl film project to begin with?
I was invited to a meeting with producer Tony Rowe and writer Abbie Spallen in early June [2008]. I was aware of the play but hadn’t seen any of the productions, until the Lyric Theatre's production prior to going into the shoot in October. PG Productions had already been working with Abbie on the script for some time and the shoot scheduled for July was being discussed with a time frame of only 12 days.

As I remember I only had two days to read the screenplay and prepare for the meeting. Tony had said they were looking at a number of directors so I wasn’t assuming that I was the 'chosen one'. As I said at the night of the preview it was a real page-turner, I couldn’t put it down (actually it was on the computer, so that would have been a challenge). The effect was the same though as I was drawn into the world of Pumpgirl, her disastrous affair with Hammy and the unfolding of a dark sequence of events - I just wanted to shout out to her like I was her mother, 'Don’t do it'.

I suppose at the meeting I was being auditioned for the role of director. There is no point second-guessing what a producer or a writer expects you to say about a script. But my approach is always to respond initially as a punter, a member of the audience and then as a director with a vision for the piece.

We discussed plot and characters; even throwing around some casting suggestions and I felt Abbie and myself were on the same page as we talked around Pumpgirl’s naivety and betrayal by Hammy and Shawshank’s ruthless manipulation of everyone. I remember also voicing at the time that budget and time frame were huge challenges and that the script deserved at least 18 days and a week’s rehearsal with the actors.

You've directed documentary films before [Moore's short film History Unfinished made it to the final of the BAFTA 60 Seconds of Fame competition, and her film about a Lithuanian worker in Ireland, The Farther, The Dearer, was critically recieved], but this is your first fictional feature, as it were. How did the process differ? Did you enjoy it?
Actually I made a short film ten years ago called Gort na gCnámh (Field of Bones) with the Northern Ireland Film Commission, as it was then. I wrote the screenplay based on the poem of the same name by Donegal poet Cathal O’Searcaigh with translation from the Irish by Art Hughes. I went on to make a second film (this time with no budget) and the same crew with nothing to offer them but free food for their efforts. God bless director of photography Mark Garrett who shot Gort na gCnámh and got everyone on board for Eileen McAuley’s script Room. It was shot on film and I just ran out of money. I suppose I realised then how hard it actually is to get funding for scripts and then to get your name attached to it.

I discovered a love of documentary filmmaking through a two and half year fellowship with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts in 2005. I wanted to make films about post conflict Northern Ireland and interculturalism. It seems obvious now but I suppose the penny never dropped that documentary, like fiction, also needs a good story and characters. I felt immediately liberated that I could go out with a camera myself and find and film those stories.

Funding enabled me to do a documentary course at the National Film School and so for the last 3 years I focused solely on making my own films about identity and issues around cultural diversity. In many ways they are very modest films but the fact that I shot them gave me a much greater understanding of how different types of shots bring you into a story in different ways. A good story is a good story. Whilst documentary is based on real life, just like fiction, the director and editor still have to go into the edit and find the story all over again.

Was it a challenge or a Godsend to work with such a large crew?
Any director needs to have a very good relationship with the director of photography and this being Angus Mitchell’s first feature as well as my own, we really wanted to find a style that suited our vision, the script and the budget. I suppose you could call the general visual aesthetic claustrophobic as you don’t see much in the film beyond this set of characters, the set-ups are simple, often with single shots where possible and a colour palette of tumbleweed browns, all quite saturated. Shooting my own stuff I didn’t have that luxury. It happened where it happened.

Having the support of a crew and a fantastic working relationship between myself, 1st assistant director Leon Coole and the DOP was both inspirational and really vital to keeping the shoot moving forward. Postproduction goes through all the same processes as documentary but having Rod McVey as music director and an eclectic mix of musicians, the process of improvising music directly from the locked scenes was a joy to behold.

You shot the film in 17 days straight. Was it a tough process?
I don’t think I would like to have to do that again. There is no room to manoeuvre. With the best scheduling and planning in the world things always change on the day. Either it’s the weather or you are running over time or the challenges of the location mean changing the shoot and while you stand talking about it, the scene isn’t in the can. Creating a shooting script in pre-production saved my life. Without it I would have been in La La Land.

Everything should run like clockwork on a set with the crew and cast rightly expecting and demanding answers 12 hours a day. Occasionally you just can’t remember what you had decided shot wise for a particular scene and the shooting script is there to remind you. But sometimes you also abandon it when the DOP comes up with a better idea and you just need to go with it.

It is difficult for the crew, no doubt about that, but the actors are in front of the camera and shooting quickly is an even bigger challenge for them. We didn’t get the week’s rehearsal in the end (about a day and a half) and because of other commitments Samantha Heaney (Pumpgirl) and Geraldine Hughes (Sinead) didn’t get any prior to the shoot. Everyone had to come to set already up to speed. Often it was a quick rehearsal on the bus or working the scene as we were shooting it.

I have such admiration for their talent and commitment to the film and am bemused at the lack of real opportunity for local talent who are often relegated to bit parts on larger movies. I hope I had a listening ear when we discussed motivation or delivery and that I didn’t openly share time pressures, but I did feel towards the end that the schedule did compromise my shots on certain occasions.

Obviously the film is quite different from the play. You have a history in theatre. Did you work with [original playwright] Abbie Spallen on the screenplay itself?
I know that Abbie talks about writing drama whether it be for the stage or film and the play was already hugely successful in London and New York long before I came onboard. She is a very exciting new Irish writer and clearly moves easily between genres and it was this strong visual sense that immediately attracted me to the screenplay. Abbie was very open and generous with her time as we passed the script back and forward for about three months, discussing everything from locations to Leanne’s hair in great detail.

The production utilized local filmmakers on a grand scale, almost from top to bottom. I noticed particularly that Brian Philip Davis did the editing. As the director of the project, was it important for you to use local talent?
I talked earlier about the lack of opportunities for actors but the same could be said of local crews. I made my first short ten years ago and it has taken this long to get the opportunity to work on a feature. Incidentally it is also Brian Philip Davis’s first feature as an editor and I would also like to pay tribute to his vital role in the film. At the end of the day someone has to take a chance on you and it is a chance. Possibly a £200,000 budget movie is easier to justify if it takes a wrong turn and doesn’t quite deliver what it promised. The industry here is small and people sometimes have to go away to learn their craft elsewhere but it's helpful when funding strands recognise those people who want to stay and encourage them with skills training or direct nurturing.

For those interested in seeing the film, what should they expect? From the outside it seems like a peculiarly Northern Irish story.
The character of Pumpgirl epitomises people on the fringes. She doesn’t have a name and exists for us only in the world of the garage and in stolen moments with her lover Hammy (Richard Dormer). Similarly Hammy and Sinead sit outside their marriage looking helplessly on and wondering how it all went so wrong. Finally there is Shawshank (Gerard Murphy), a malevolent force, meddling in people’s lives and with disastrous consequences. Abbie’s writing is funny and unsentimental with a strong sense of dialect that very much grounds the story in Northern Ireland, but universal themes of tragic fate and the need to atone could be set anywhere.

Your passion seems to be in the documentary filmmaking field, but can we expect to see you directing more features in the future? Has the process of directing Pumpgirl left you wanting more?
It certainly has. I was surrounded by a cast, crew and postproduction team who were drawn to a powerful story and weren’t going to let the challenges of a low budget inhibit or stifle their creativity. Documentary or feature – it’s all about good storytelling that is compassionate and humane. I have no difficulty straddling both.

Lee Henry

Read a review of Pumpgirl, by Fionola Meredith.