In contrast to the other entries I usually write about films, this time I feel like just writing a letter.
Do you believe in curses? I’ve always been on and off about them. Back in my wrestling days I jokingly called one recurring phenomenon ‘the curse’. Whenever we had a show that I was booked on, I always seemed to develop tonsillitis, a sore throat or some other cold right before it. We did do a lot of shows in the winter, but then again it was a little too coincidental. Nonetheless I had my own recent experiences with curses in making a film that’s finally finished.
High & Tight came into my head long before I made the decision to become an actor. I was sitting in my room minding my own business when a scene materialised out of thin air. A guy was giving a big speech to his friends and persuading them to each cut their hair. Yes, this guy was you. I quickly figured out that they were cutting their hair because they were in the army. Why was this a big deal? Ireland’s neutral after all. It had to be a war in the not-too-distant future. I was in the middle of a Band of Brothers obsession, so I must have had army stuff on the brain. I even named you after Scott Grimes who played Don Malarkey. Your older brother became Shane after Shane Taylor, who played Doc Roe.
I can remember the vague drafts of the story that floated around in my head before I finally wrote it down. One of the first characters I thought of was an older guy called Moose (after Moose Heyliger natch) – he would be in his thirties and enlisting despite having a wife and child. He ultimately didn’t make it into the first draft. I can remember coming up with him while in the car park at Cornelscourt Dunnes – a detail which one of my actors will probably chuckle at (#Foreshadowing). The characters I did come up with were the following:
- A guy who was previously overweight and the last person you’d expect to join the army. He’d buckle down and work hard to lose the weight and thus earn his spot. I for some reason named him ‘Cade’, but someone advised me it didn’t sound Irish enough, so I changed it to Ryan.
- A snarky guy who was going to be either in administration or an intelligence officer. Cocky and full of himself, he’d be the first hipster soldier you saw in media. I named him Vinnie.
- A silent and troubled youth who would bluntly say he’s joining the army “just to blow shit up”. The real muscle of the team. I named him Aiden.
- A female who sadly did start off as a token girl, but eventually evolved into a bossy, bluntly honest team mother sort. She was called Sara.
- You had to have another brother – a little brother who would be more accepting of your decision to join the army. An artistic, creative type who is very aware of the world around him. He was called Seth. There was a sweet American teenage actor I knew who would be good to play that character. I could do an American accent no problem – so the Olsens became Irish-American immigrants.
This all came into my head in July 2015. Once I had it all written and showed it to a couple of friends to get the obligatory “well done” messages – I still wasn’t completely satisfied. My last year of college had been so hectic I’d sworn off doing anything media-related. I was a respectable normal 9-5 office drone now dammit! But I didn’t want this to stay dormant in the back of my mind like the umpteen other potential stories I’d written just for fun. And the idea of becoming an actor had been growing even louder inside my head. I hadn’t taken any classes yet but Scott, you could be my first role. I talked to my friend Pete from college, who had been pretty good with a camera and was likewise staying away from media for a while. We agreed that we could shoot it. I asked some friends to be the other characters and got a Filmbase membership so I could borrow sound equipment for the day. All it took was a good story to get us excited about making a film again. You reignited my creativity, Scott. But remember that this planning happened in 2015 and we’re in 2018 now.
The main obstacle to getting High & Tight done was of course me. Whether it was my nerves or my procrastination – “oh, I meant to message Pete about that thing and that was three weeks ago”, my brother was visiting from China and so we couldn’t use the house while he was there. Oh and now Pete’s a little busy with this other thing so let’s push it back a little bit. Suddenly it was March 2016 and not a darn thing shot. We finally did set a date, but a series of things happened. One actor missed the part of the script where a haircut would be required and – after suggesting complex special effects to fake it – backed out a few days before filming. Another actor got a schedule conflict and had to cancel as well. And finally, a great aunt died, so filming had to be cancelled indefinitely. I was getting a little anxious to let you out of my head, Scott. It was starting to feel too small for both of us.
Pete and I talked half-heartedly about setting another day, but he was getting busier and busier with his music and I was fast losing interest in the story. By the latter half of 2016 Aaron had entered my mind and I was focusing my energy on producing that. I had to let you rest for a while. As Aaron’s production itself became quite lengthy – and the uptight Chris Barry was getting stuck in my head too – High & Tight’s story started to seem a little more appealing. I realised that the postponed shoot was a blessing in disguise; the script was fine but it was too raw. It needed to be jazzed up a little. Aiden was cut completely, and Vinnie pretty much became him. All of Vinnie’s other traits were shared around the rest of the group. The film was looking like too much of a sausage fest, so Seth now became a girl called Serena – and Serena would be making a documentary about why these people were joining the army. The first draft had shown interview scenes that didn’t really make sense, so this was a good way of tying that together. Vinnie’s character was now lacking a special something in his motivations, so a girlfriend called Becky was created to add some more female presence to the story.
Once I discovered No WiFi, getting High & Tight made seemed even more possible now. Once we’d finished Aaron I knew instinctively that Zeff was the DOP I wanted again. Tom Fitzgerald was in the back of my mind for a role too even before we’d shot Aaron. I had imagined him as Vinnie and I was hoping our good friend David Donnelly would take a trip out from Sligo to play Ryan. August 2017 seemed like a good time to aim to shoot – but my brother was home for his wedding and my house was a near circus of relatives and visitors in and out, so any filmmaking was on hold until the summer was over. By that time Dave would be back at college. I then decided to change Tom’s part; the two of us agreed that Vinnie was a little too like Adam Chester, so he was cast as Ryan instead. Vinnie would be played by another Tom – Thomas Sharkey, who I’d worked with on a music video for Stolen City. With the latter being French, that would add a nice mix of nationalities. Kaireht Yovera was in my very first acting class, and I had loved her nice haunting quality when she had to read a scene from Silence of the Lambs – so she would be good as the girlfriend Becky. Louise O’Toole, I had done a self-taping class with and I knew I wanted to work with her at once – and the part of Sara seemed almost tailor-made for her. I’ll tell you about finding your siblings another day.
September turned out to be a no-go. King Lear was getting even closer and I was steadily more exhausted with my trips in and out to the city – leaving my house at three and not getting home until midnight. October wasn’t looking great either – due to loads of other commitments. We made some progress one day that Tom Sharkey came down to Wicklow and got a few home movies for Serena’s documentary shot – the poor guy even let me shave his head on camera.
But things just didn’t seem to be happening. By November I had to call it quits and say I’d wait until 2018 – dimly aware that was the ‘far off’ date the first draft had set your story in. By the time I was ready to get cracking on the film again, I was ready to adapt to all situations. I had to tell your story, Scott. Each day we suggested, there was always one person who couldn’t make it. I even tried arranging body doubles and other ways to try and work around all the schedule conflicts. We were all set to film on the 8th of April but two people had to cancel once again. It all came to a head on Friday the 13th of all things. Three parts had to be recast; Tom Sharkey wasn’t able to make either of the filming dates and he gave his permission to find a replacement – sadly meaning that the stuff we’d already shot couldn’t be used. A friend of mine who I’d done a couple of days on Fair City with (who was going to be one of the aforementioned body doubles) was the first replacement. But he too had a schedule conflict. In a perfect world we all would have been able to make it work – but Zeff was going away on the 8th May so that was our deadline.
James Healy was a newcomer to No WiFi and he’d leant me some army fatigues to be used in a scene. After the replacement Vinnie dropped out, I decided to ask him to be involved. Tom Fitzgerald was on standby, ready to be cast as either Ryan or Vinnie depending on who I could get as a replacement. James chose Vinnie, which I was happy about. As we’d ended up with three Irish supporting cast members, that meant one of them would have to do an accent to mix up the nationalities a little. Although James did a very nice American accent, Vinnie felt like he had to be Irish and so Tom opted for an English accent for Ryan. Having learned my lesson from the 2016 business, I had the uncomfortable conversation about haircuts and beard shaving well in advance. Both the guys were happy to do it. We were getting closer, Scott!
It looked like things were going ahead on our planned shoot date of the 24th. The day before was an eventful one – as I went around getting my own hair sheared (my barber looked ready to cry when I showed him a picture of what your hair would be), dressing the set and getting all the necessary paperwork ready. As I’d done with Aaron I woke up the morning of the shoot at around 7 am, did a little yoga sequence to energise myself and started setting up craft services. Rian the sound guy who I’d almost worked with on a short called Almost Here that got cancelled arrived first, and eventually so did the others – and magic began to happen.
We shot those home movie bits first, entirely improvised. And that’s kind of where the characters started to change from how they were written. For example, I’d just had it in my head that Becky and Vinnie would already be together at this point. Kaireht and James however did some ad-libbing that they were old friends meeting up for the first time in a while – and that their relationship started at the party. When they were filming one of their scenes, Tom even asked me “so they aren’t together at this point?” and I just went with it. Zeff said that since this was a party, someone had to be passed out. Tom volunteered, and we realised this was the second time we’d done such a scene. At some point he yelled out “I’m always drunk in your films, Bobby!” – there’s a shot of him semi-passed out licking cake crumbs off the table that never fails to make me chuckle. What also never fails to make me chuckle is the following scene where Zeff suggested everyone drunkenly singing something. Cue Kaireht grabbing a pepper shaker to use as a microphone and leading everyone in singing “Stand By Me”. Scott, you of course were a little classier and your mic was an unopened bottle of bubbly.
Kaireht turned out to be one of the biggest stars of the day. The part of Becky was originally quite small. She didn’t really have lines or feature much outside of the home movie segments. A week before shooting I had a eureka moment and went “no, she needs more” so she was given a confessional as well. She pretty much improvised the whole segment and we would have only needed one take if not for the heavy rain disrupting the sound. She did two more takes and was even better – and in the edit the majority of it is left in. We had talked about filming a break-up scene for her and Vinnie just to give her some more to do, but it was late in the day and I was wary of running too late overschedule. She and Zeff however insisted that it was important to have the scene – and the rain was preventing us from shooting our exteriors. So they set up the lights and camera, and she and James improvised a break-up. Within fifteen seconds I felt like saying to Zeff “feel free to say ‘I told you so’” and the scene is there in the final film. I have to say I enjoy eating my words. She also pulled double duty and acted as Assistant Director for the scenes she wasn’t in.
James was a real revelation. I should show y’all a before and after picture so you can see the transformation he went through for the sake of the role.
Anyway because of the heavy rain we had to shuffle the schedule around so that his big scenes were shot earlier in the day. The conversation between Scott and Vinnie ended up being one of the more complicated scenes, because of how much coverage there was. I had about seven different shots to incorporate in the edit. I honestly don’t remember too much about the shooting process – other than James having to take several sprays to the face with some water to look convincingly sweaty. What I do remember is watching the rushes back and getting really impressed. I even showed them to the friend he had replaced – who then said he was “better than I could hope to be” – and in the edit I told him he was coming dangerously close to just walking away with the film. He sent me a nice message later that evening thanking me for the opportunity – and I would send him several thanks for giving one of my favourite performances in the film.
Since most of Tom’s scenes were meant to be exteriors, the rain led to him spending a lot of the day sitting around waiting – since we had to shuffle the schedule around. His character changed a lot from how he was originally written throughout the course of the day too; as said above, Ryan was written to be an overweight guy who buckled down and got in shape during the training montage. On the day I half-considered trying to pad Tom out in the cheeks and stomach, but I already knew that wasn’t the character anymore. While filming the home movie scenes, Tom created a new persona for Ryan. This time around he was the party boy – the heavy drinker, the goofball who nobody takes seriously. But you see him grow and mature throughout the training montage – and it’s a great moment in his big scene where the two of us essentially switch. You no longer need to be his mentor because he’s gotten where he wanted – so now it’s you who needs guidance. During that scene, Ryan was scripted to say that his father gave him a grudging ‘good luck’. Tom instead ad-libbed that the father said he was proud – getting a nice genuine reaction out of me. That was the first take and we had him say that line for the rest of them too. The last scene of the day ended up being my big emotional breakdown in the garden. The script had all the friends come out and sit with me. But since Louise couldn’t be there on that day, that idea had to be scrapped. It worked out for the best though – as it effectively gave Ryan his ‘moment’ as the one who comforts you. That was the hardest scene I’ve ever had to do so far; it’s the only time I’ve ever had to get properly emotional on camera. You make me challenge myself, Scott! I was lucky to have a top man like Tom there to help me through it.
Lunch was particularly fun that day because my long-suffering and hard-working mother pulled double duty to make sure everyone had plenty of everything. As soon as we were done filming in the dining room, it was laid out for everyone. I had a blast just getting the chance to talk to everyone, and getting to know the people I didn’t know as well like James and Rian. Although organising the shoot was a stressful experience, I wish there could have been more days because the crew was so great. Maybe I’ll write a sequel. There will be a sequel to this letter however, as I’ll give you the stories from Day 2 another time. Take it easy until then, Scott.
Your faithful actor,