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Saturday 17 November 2018

When HQ met... Declan Cassidy

For the past two years, hitherto unknown Declan Cassidy has been on an odyssey that's taken him from the streets of Dublin to the cream of the world's film festivals, from making films for a laugh with his mates to working with Moscow's movie moguls on his first feature, and all on the slim but perfectly formed back of a four-minute short called Whatever Turns You On.

The story of a homeless Dubliner who wanders into an electronics store and turns perceptions of homelessness on their heads with a gently surprising revelation at the end has touched the hearts of film festival juries from Kerry to Chicago, Cairo to LA who, among many others, gave it their Best Short gong. It was also longlisted for the Oscars, and the powers that be at Channel 4 and RTÉ have just purchased it for their schedules.

"We shot it over two days and were happy enough that we had a good film, but none of us expected that it would be rolling on after this time and have done as well as it has," Cassidy says. "It's been in over 50 film festivals and along with Channel 4 and RTÉ 2, television channels in France, Poland and Australia have bought it. It's even on the curriculum in high schools in America."

Rather than shooting off about his own filmmaking prowess, Cassidy points to the performance of the film's central character to explain its success. "I think the character is a very charming person, and Luke Cameron really wins hearts with his performance."

His short has been seen by more people across the world than the average arthouse flick might pack in, something Cassidy says wouldn't have been possible five years ago. "If you look at the music industry and the way iTunes caught it napping, there was a whole shift in the control of the industry. As a result, the record companies have been struggling to catch up ever since. The film industry is in a similar situation now.

"We've got very high-speed internet coming down the way, which makes watching films online easier and easier. We've also got very high-quality film equipment with rapidly falling prices, so you can go out there and make movies. Even mobile phone technology is becoming a lot more powerful. In the past, you would try to distribute your film through very narrow channels, but now there is no end to the way you can get people to see your film."

Limitless as the possibilities may seem, Cassidy admits that a little thing called talent is the key ingredient to capturing that ever-widening audience. "You still have to know about the art of filmmaking, you still have to understand how to frame a shot. It's still down to a good story."

Although he's filming another short about homelessness called Tramp, the next big story Cassidy is focussing on is less streetbound. "It's a ghost story," he reveals about his first feature. "I moved out of Dublin to Drogheda recently and took a Georgian house, which is nearly 240 years old, and the film is inspired by the building. It will be called Number 98."

For finance, Cassidy hasn't turned to typical investors in the industry; he's making it with a producer he met while showing Whatever Turns You On in Moscow. "The Russian way of making films is very different," he says. "Audiences there will watch films of any length, so their expectations are not the same as ours, and the way films are made for them is different, too.

"The American model is to make films with very big budgets, but with the Twitter effect now, marketing hype isn't enough to get audiences into cinemas. They're having to develop different ways of looking at the industry. For instance, the Screen Actors Guild have agreed to lower rates for their actors to work in indie films and the Directors Guild are doing the same thing. They are looking at the low-budget model, and in Europe we happen to have people who are well versed in that. We have been making low-budget films for a long time. I think a marriage between the American and European ways of making films is the way forward."

When he's not making movies with Russians, or fictionalising the lives of the homeless, a large part of Cassidy's heart is in a photography project that he hopes to exhibit across the town of Drogheda. "It's called 'Three Score And Ten'," he says, "which comes from a Bible quote that says humans can expect to live for 70 years or, as they put it, three score and ten years. I'm going to photograph each one of those years, and I'm looking for people to be part of the project. I'm looking for a newborn child, a one-year-old, two-year-old and so on all the way to 70. I want to show the human ageing over a lifetime."

You get the sense with Cassidy that what you see is only the tip of the iceberg of what you could possibly get. He's brimming with creative ideas.

"It's been an absolutely fantastic year, to get the opportunity to travel to so many festivals in so many countries," he says. "The only regret I have is that in some places very influential people asked me what else I had, and I didn't have anything to show them other than the film I'd brought. That's a piece of advice, if you get an opportunity to go to major film festivals, have your next project ready to go." HQ

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