ON LOCATION / Making movies against the tide: American director John Sayles is filming in Ireland and, true to form, is flouting the rules. Kevin Jackson reports

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The Independent Culture
Some of the most overworked similes about filming on location are military: the film crew is like an army, the director is a general and the shoot is a campaign. As with many cliches, there's often a degree of justice in such martial comparisons, especially during the amply-supplied meal breaks which show that a film crew also marches on its stomach. But, as the American novelist and director John Sayles once wrote, 'I never wanted to be in the army and I'm not at all interested in running one . . . Nobody I've known who was in the army was very impressed by its efficiency in doing anything but making people miserable.'

It's a characteristically anti-authoritarian quip, since Sayles - now in his sixth week of location shooting in Donegal on his children's movie, The Secret of Roan Inish - is not simply one of his country's leading independent directors, but one of the very few who work from a broadly leftist perspective. Over the last decade or so, he has tackled subjects that major studios would consider pitifully uncommercial: a 1920s miners' strike in Matewan, the politics of urban development in City of Hope (which one critic called 'the best American film since Robert Altman's Nashville'). He has shown, too, that there are ways to tell an absorbing story without recourse to the usual narrative arsenal of guns, guts and girls. 'John's really not interested in the trends,' says his producer Maggi Renzi, 'which is probably why he's not a millionaire'.

Well, he certainly doesn't dress like a millionaire, let alone a general. Though it's cold and raining heavily on the beach at Rosbeg, and everyone, from his Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler through to the seagull wranglers, is bundled up in waterproofs and wellies, Sayles is mooching around barefoot, dressed in nothing more than a T-shirt and shorts, apparently impervious to the chill and swigging from a can of diet cola as if it were a hot, sunny afternoon (which it may be in another 15 minutes: the weather here is changeable enough to give the continuity girl an anxiety attack).

There's no doubt that Sayles shoots efficiently, since he knocks off the day's first set- up of a boat rowing ashore in 40 minutes flat, but in doing so he still manages to set an informal, democratic tone that runs throughout the production team. He even mucks in when it's time to haul boats out of the sea or hurl buckets of water over the sand to smooth over tracks. If this is really a quasi- military set-up, then it's a militia of an uncommon kind. Where some productions trundle relentlessly over their locations like a Panzer division, a Sayles film will be more like a sortie by the International Brigade, and the idealists outnumber the mercenaries.

All of which may help explain why many of the locals seem inclined to regard this 100- strong film crew less as agressive invaders than as well-paying guests - and this despite the fact that by usual studio standards Roan Inish has to pinch the pennies. 'Our movies usually cost about 3 million dollars and are shot for six weeks,' Sayles says. 'This is costing about twice that and will last for a little over eight weeks. First of all we're working with animals, gulls and seals, which makes shooting very unpredictable. But the biggest problem we have to face is the tides. There aren't any accurate charts to let you know what they're doing, and by the time you've set up one tracking shot or crane you're either knee-deep in water or the waterline has retreated 15 feet.'

Human obstacles have proved easier to overcome. There was just one isolated act of guerilla resistance three weeks ago, when a drunk with an unspecified grudge and a can of petrol burned down a couple of the stone cottages that have been purpose-built on the shore of Kate Strand - easier than it sounds, since the stones are actually polystyrene. This won the film-makers a wave of sympathetic nods and letters, and Maggi Renzi had to ask priests in the surrounding villages to reassure their congregations that filming would go ahead as planned.

Otherwise, Donegal seems quite delighted that this particular regiment is Over Here. For weeks now, regional newspapers have been full of stories about how two Irish schoolchildren with no acting experience have been recruited for leading roles: Fiona Courtney, who is 10, plays the young heroine Fiona, and Richard Sheridan, who is 14, plays her cousin Eamon. Other locals have also been employed as extras, or in various back-up jobs, as construction workers and drivers by the art department, as skin-divers or as nurses or teachers for the children.

This means more or less full-time employment for about 80 people for the duration of the shoot - quite significant numbers for a rural economy that has been ailing for years. In addition to this revenue, there's the income from the houses, hotels and B & B's rented by the crew, not to mention the healthy profits being made by publicans and the brewers of a certain well-known stout. Indeed, Maggi Renzi and her co-producer Sarah Green have both been awarded ceramic badges of pint mugs by the Dawros Bay Hotel in recognition of their contributions to bar sales ('We're the Guinness Girls' Club'). Nor will the revenue necessarily end when the last crew member has left. If The Secret of Roan Inish proves to be a hit, the Irish tourist industry may soon be swelled by cinemagoers who are entranced by the look of Rosbeg and want to visit the real thing.

It adds up, or so the film-makers hope, to something of a re-run of their experiences of shooting Matewan in and around West Virginian mining towns - a chance, as Ms Renzi recalls, 'for a film to bring something to a location for once, instead of just exploiting it'. It's easy to grasp why this opportunity looked appealing; even so, a lot of people have been surprised to hear that Sayles has chosen an Irish story for his ninth feature, and even more surprised to find out that it's aimed primarily at children.

Freely adapted by Sayles himself from a book called The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry (the film's production company has been christened Skerry Movies), The Secret of Roan Inish is a fable about a little girl's encounter with the Selkies, or seal people, and her discovery of the part they have played in her family's history over the centuries. In other words, Sayles is breaking the two cardinal rules of showbusiness: he's working with children and animals. (And as everyone on the set will tell you, seals may look cute and soulful, but they'll take your finger off in a wink if they're feeling grumpy.)

His reasons for making Roan Inish have little to do with the proven American appetite for Irish charm, let alone with the imminent deluge of 'family entertainment' that Hollywood is pumping out in the wake of Michael Medved's highly publicised Jeremiads. The real incentives were more personal. Maggi Renzi, who is Sayle's partner as well as his producer (which explains why they can hug each other on set without getting funny looks) had loved the book when she was young, and had long been badgering him to do something about adapting it. Last year, after they finished making Passion Fish, a two-hander starring Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard and set in Louisiana, they decided that the time was right to go ahead.

'All of our films come out of specific motives', Ms Renzi says. 'City of Hope happened because we felt such urgency about what was wrong in our country's cities, and Passion Fish because I'd been pestering John about doing something that had good roles for women. Roan Inish had to do with the fact that we now know so many children, and they are under-served by the quality and the quantity of films for them.

'It seemed like we could give every kid and every parent we know one guaranteed good hour and a half, which then turns into many hours because it comes out on video and is there forever. We had a really hard time financing it - Michael Medved didn't make it easier, nothing made it easier, so John ended up having to make up a lot of the budget out of his own pocket, and yet I'm sure that there will be a lot of buyers for the finished film. We hope that it'll be enchanting, but even if it were a piece of junk they'd buy it because they're finally waking up to the fact of how big that children's market is.'

The completed film should also strike Sayles's fans as a more personal product than they might have expected. In expanding the original novel, he has added material from Irish history: there are flashbacks to 1700 and the Great Hunger, and some oblique commentary on rural depopulation. He has also tried to give an anthropological spin to the Selkie myth rather than just exploit its cuteness: 'Those stories come from people who had to kill seals for their hides, and the method they used, since most of them didn't have guns, was to batter them over the head. That's a hard thing for most people to do, since seals have those big human-looking eyes, so my guess was that the Selkie myths arose from people's guilt about the killings.'

Judging by the screenplay, however, such notes of social realism are not loud enough to jar the fairy-tale quality of Roan Inish, and the seals should be cuddly enough even for the most Disney-struck audiences. Moreover, Haskell Wexler's presence as cinematographer should reassure aesthetes that the film will be visually distinguished - even people who disliked the politics of Matewan (which was also shot by Wexler) had to concede that it looked terrific.

Wexler's talents with filters and lenses are all the more important on a shoot like today's, which in reality began at noon filming day-for-night under a gloomy sky and ends just after 11.30pm filming night-for-night in pelting rain, but which will have to look like one continuous action when Sayles cuts it together. It's been a long, wet day, but by general consent a successful one: the child actors behaved impeccably and even the seagulls agreed to do retake after retake without grumbling too much. The regular army was never like this.

Passion Fish opens in the UK in late August; The Secret of Roan Inish next year.

(Photographs omitted)