Last week, after a hugely and sometimes painfully protracted post-production process, my short film Point of Departure
was finally completed. On Saturday night, Kieran Fitzgerald, my long suffering editor, pronounced it ready for mastering out this week.
Sunday morning stunned us with the news of Anna Manahan's death.
My first direct contact with Anna was a phone conversation in summer 2007 during which it became obvious that our collaboration would have no room for the trivial. Almost immediately she launched into recounting a dream that she had in hospital which she described as part of a recent near death experience. The atmosphere of that dark dream certainly informed the film.
Anna Manahan, national treasure and international theatre legend, came to Cork to work with an unkown writer / director on a black-and-white short art film with a €10,000 budget while still recovering from major surgery. In fact, Point of Departure
, shot in autumn '07, was her return to work after this illness. What motivated this decision? Pre-filming discussions revealed the extent to which she had fallen in love with her character in the script, and to which she felt compelled to incarnate her. The character was called Betty, an old lady housed in an institution, living a loop, wandering the corridors of the building in search of escape.
She gave everything in her performance, ploughing through pain and exhaustion with a formidable concentration and intensity. The last time I saw her was the night of the last shooting day. Sitting in the back seat of the car that was to drive her home, she was flanked by large bouquets of flowers that made her look both small and regal. The darkness of the car was broken by the soft, orange sidelighting of nearby streetlamps and the feeble, diffuse keylight of the lamp above the rearview mirror. The scene felt staged, steeped in unworldly glamour, unreal yet unforgettably vivid. We had a warm, frank conversation in which she reiterated her commitment to this character. She spoke of the pain she had undergone during the shoot, which she regularly surmounted with the jauntily delivered expression "I will transcend!". She gave of that pain, made a sacrifice of it for the character. But, I reminded her, I was the one who had to accept that sacrifice on the character's behalf which resulted in perhaps the most harrowing moments I've experienced as a filmmaker, trying to gauge just how far to push, and knowing full well that Anna would stop at nothing.
"But, dear Max" she responded in a line I will never forget, "you didn't take my dream away and I can never thank you enough for that!" What she meant by this was that in my approach to working with her, I allowed her interpretation of the character to remain intact, modulating, guiding, often reigning in, but working with her to allow her
Betty to emerge. When she arrived on set first day it was obvious to me that she knew Betty better than anyone- the extent to which she had been living with Betty during her illness amazed and humbled me.
This actually became one of the time-consuming blocks in the post-production proccess. Anna was commited to the script but in working through the rushes, it became apparent to me that there was a far more powerful film contained in these images, one that would represent the stark spirit of the script much better than the literal enactment of it. Several times we spoke of Point of Departure
's crucial relationship to silent cinema. In viewing the powerful performance Anna gave, this link seemed even more pronounced. Almost all the dialogue was cut. The story gave way to an oneiric restructuring that emphasised the sense of a drama occurring between two worlds, a Cocteau-esque twilight zone between life and death. Above all, it's a portrait of Anna- in the stripping down of the narrative the film came to focus exclusively on the presence of this great actress in the throes of this 'dream' of a character.
I worried that she would not approve. But I never thought we'd never get to find out.