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Amy Hobby, producer of avant-garde vampire flick Nadja
and recent Sundance success 13 Conversations About One
Thing
, teamed up with longtime David Lynch DP Peter Deming
to direct Dublin born writer-actor Karl Geary's Coney Island
Baby
. Where and How? In Sligo on DV, of course! Neil
Dowling reports.

Coney Island Baby, shot last August in Sligo, is the story of a
young man who returns to Ireland from New York to discover
the girl he had never been able to get out of his mind is now
pregnant. Written by Karl Geary, who also plays the lead role
this was the most personal project he has done so far in a career
that is rapidly gaining momentum. "At sixteen I left Dublin for
the US. I went into the heart of the East Village, where it was
incredibly vibrant. A few years later I came back to write this
novel, it didn't make a very good book, but I knew it had some
good elements especially the dialogue."

"I discovered a Coney Island out there in Sligo. The name came
from the word conin, Irish for rabbit, because the place is full
of rabbits. l think some Irish guy who went to America gave
the other Coney Island its name because it reminded him of
home, he says explaining the title. After landing a part in
Michael Almereyda's Nadja, produced by Amy Hobby, Geary
turned his novel into a screenplay and teamed up with Hobby in
the search for a director and funding, "We looked at a lot of
talented people at Sundance and other festivals, but it occurred
to me that I already had a good working relationship with Amy,
and I knew she would be totally unsentimental about Ireland.
Amy was brought up in suburban Florida and the world she
knew best was shopping malls and parking lots. That was the
world my characters were from even though it was in Ireland.
Amy also had a photography background so I trusted her visual
aesthetic."

"If you're in the loop you're in the loop." Says Geary, critical of
the reception he got from the Irish Film Board, "They suffer
from the same disease as RTE. If someone else shows an interest
or if something goes well they'll jump on board. But they support
the same people over and again. People we'd approached eventually
came back in from the cold and gave us the money. I knew that after
that I could approach people here but at that stage l didn't need the
m." With a budget of $150,000 the decision was made to shoot
the film on DV.

When it became obvious that the only way the film was going to
get made was on digital video, I sat down with Karl to address
what this meant for my personal storytelling experience." Says
director Amy Hobby. "Basically, I sat down and got myself jazzed
about the LoFi experience. I carefully assessed what tools I did
and didn't have. For example, depth of field is not a strength of
video, so l ruled out telling the story by racking focus or by
isolating somebody psychologically through having the background
out of focus. I wasn't a fan of how static shots looked in video,
so I started thinking in terms of blocking to keep my actors moving
in the frame and ways to move the camera. I felt that with DV my
notions of how to create a sense of place would be defined by the
people who inhabited it. This reinforced the importance of casting
and rehearsal."

"The colour palette I had originally imagined shifted when we
decided to shoot in digital video. After looking at plenty of DV,
both projected in video and transferred to film, I found a range of
colours that I liked and thought worked on video - brown and
more brown, wood panelling, nicotine-stained walls and tea stained
T-shirts. And avoidance of all red! I found shooting on DV a
generally positive experience compared to shooting on film. Because
of its lower key nature I got to shoot in awesome locations like at
an airport (Knock International), on an abandoned Russian ship
and at the Sligo races. I could also take the camera and do some
shots myself. I could never do this if we were shooting on 35mm.
I could also take second unit shots of clouds or birds flying over
the water without feeling we were wasting precious film."

"The shoot also gained impact inevitably because the camera
could be running at a moment's notice and due to the brilliance of
my actors and the unobtrusive size of the camera. For example
we were shooting a scene where the character Mr. Hayes (played
by Tom Hickey) was selling toilet accessories door to door in a
small housing estate. We were shooting in one particular doorway
when somebody came down from upstairs and started to get very
interested m the coloured bathmats. I think Tom had sold all four
of them by the time we stopped rolling the camera. This sort of
thing adds a real texture to shots and films that is much more
difficult to get with a bigger crew and a more formalised way of
working."

There were also drawbacks of course. We used a Century Precision
optics 'anamorphic adapter' which is more accurately a 16:9
converter. Placed on the front of the zoom lens of the Sony PD-150,
it increases the sharpness of the image about 20% when the video
is transferred to film. What I didn't realise was that the second
(longer) half of the zoom lens couldn't be used with the adapter
because you would lose focus. This became problematic in what
I call the watching and waiting scene. The character Billy is parked
across the road from his ex-girlfriend's place of work. The POV
shots became a nightmare. It was impossible to create that
psychology of watching from afar without the use of the longer
lens. Peter agreed to take off the adapter to do these shots after
much grumpiness from me because I felt it was the only way to
tell the story. Unfortunately these shots will look 20% less sharp
than the rest of the sequence."

LET THERE BE LOTS OF LIGHT

As a first time feature director. Amy Hobby could hardly have done
better than having cinematographer Peter Deming, a long time
collaborator with David Lynch, by her side. "Working on a new
format was something I was hoping to do eventually, and it was
primarily through my association with Amy that I got involved
with this project she's been a good friend of mine for ten years
and I wanted to be part of her first directorial effort." Deming
found a number of positive aspects regarding his work on Coney
Island Baby, "I enjoyed very much working with Amy and Karl.
And shooting in Sligo was different in that it seemed the area had
not been used a great deal for filming, so the locations were fresh
and the people were receptive to our presence. It was interesting
to work on a smaller scale project because everything was much
more immediate. There is a very small chain of command and if
you wanted something done you'd do it yourself." Locating in
Sligo was in Geary's opinion probably part of the attraction for
someone like Peter Deming. "If we'd been just another low budget
movie shot in New York or even Dublin, he may not have been
so interested."

"The thing that made everything work was that we were lucky
enough to strike the right balance between people at the top of
their game and a load of people who worked to get the experience
. There were a lot of firsts and that made things interesting. It was
my first time as writer, Amy's first time directing and Peter's first
time to shoot on digital." Hobby also responded very positively to
working in Ireland after years working in New York and L.A. "I
found shooting in Sligo to be one of the warmest and most
wonderful filmmaking experiences I've had. The people who owned
my B&B (Timmy and Vanessa) were constantly giving me locations
tips over breakfast, or showing up on set to act in a scene. We
had a handful of local Irish crew people who worked for no
money (Thank you all!) I have no idea if it would be the same
working in Dublin or if we were shooting a much bigger film in
the same locations.

Peter Deming is reluctant to give a final verdict on the DV/film
question from his perspective just yet. "Since l haven't seen the
result of the completed process (transferring from tape onto film)
I can't completely say how I feel about the DV experience. But
the big thing I found out was that the notion that this format
requires little or no lighting I can say is not true. In my opinion,
you need as much if not more than when you're working on film."
Now that it's all over Karl Geary is less concerned with how the
film does than with the fact that after years of hard work he has
realised the long held ambition of getting his film made. When
production began he admits he found it difficult to step back and
concentrate on the acting. "Obviously as the writer you see the
story a certain way but I didn't want to ask Amy to direct and
then get in her way. She had to tell her story from my script, and
my job was to interpret her vision of my character based on the
feeling she got from my script. Then again," he adds, "there were
forty two speaking roles and we shot it all in eighteen days so I
had enough to worry about trying to get everyone to turn up on
time."