Q&A with director Claire Dix on “Broken Song”
Where did the idea come from?
A couple of years ago while making a television programme for DCTV (Dublin Community Television) about community art I met Dean Scurry - an artist and youth worker - who was working out in the Ballymun Axis centre. He introduced me to GI (Git) and Costello (James) and after hearing them rap acapella I really wanted to explore the idea of making a piece of film about what they were doing. At the time I thought it would be a short doc. I was working with Nodlag Houlihan from Zucca Films on another film at the time, she liked what she heard too and so we started shaping the doc and looking for funding.
What was it like working with the lads?
We filmed with the lads for roughly a year but had been meeting with them on and off since 2010. From the start they got where we were coming from with the documentary and were happy with the approach that we wanted to take. Costello and GI gave so much time the filming process and we were very lucky that they were so into it and willing to give it so much of their time. We met Willa much later on – just before we started filming and he was just as open as the lads to the whole process. It was a real eye opener filming around Finglas and Ballymun. We couldn’t walk down a street or turn a corner without someone coming up to the lads to rap to them or talk about some new beats they had written. One of the opening scenes in the film aims to represent that environment where kids are rapping to each other out in the open. It happens all the time is very free and organic and is a way that GI and Costello help to foster new talent in the area.
Are you a hip-hop fan?
I had never heard of Working Class Records before I started to research the documentary so it was an education for me!
Where did the visual style come from?
Many people have asked why the documentary is in black and white and I don’t really have a very satisfactory answer for that. The best I can say is that I just saw it in black and white from the very start and that it was a gut instinct. At one stage we thought about changing back to colour mainly because we started to question why black and white but kept coming back to it. Now that it’s finished I think it could be because of the slightly dream like element I wanted to work into the film. Costello told me early on when we first met that the first time he really listened to hip hop he felt like he floated out his bedroom window and that dreamy image was a big source of inspiration for me. The idea that music and art can transport you out of your environment became a metaphor for the whole film. I think the black and white helps to give it an other-worldly or cinematic feel to the piece.
Bruce Weber’s portrait of Chet Baker – Let’s Get Lost – was a big source of inspiration also and that was filmed in lush black and white and I wanted to emulate some of the dreaminess of that documentary.
We also have four visual effect sequences running throughout the film that are in colour. The idea here was to represent the past. GI and Costello talk about darkness in their pasts that I think have inspired a lot of their work. We created a housing estate sunken down under the sea as a way of visualizing the past and we run their voices over these sequences. The film opens with the lads swimming and water features throughout the film so using the underwater world the represent the past made sense visually.
Tell us about the production?
We started shooting in March 2012 the day before Willa was due to appear in court. We had met up with GI and Costello several times in the two years before the documentary was funded but this was our first time to meet Willa. It wasn’t an ideal way to begin our relationship with him but he was very comfortable with the camera crew from the beginning. He had more important things on his mind I suppose! After those couple of days in March we had a break until the early summer when shooting continued. We had a very fluid approach to the shoot. The lads would keep in touch with us and let us know if any gigs or events were coming up and we would go and shoot with a day or two’s notice. Most of the time though we just hung out with them with a rough plan for the day. That was when the best stuff happened really – when we didn’t plan too much and just let event unfold in front of the camera. We were lucky that our director of photography, Richard Kendrick and camera operators Narayan Van (SURNAME HERE) and Dom Pomtillo adopted the same relaxed attitude to the filming. Aswell as being a pleasure to work with Richard, Narayan and Dom all have such a fantastic eye and were able to capture some beautiful moments on the fly.
The opening sequence where Dean, Costello and Willa jump into and float on that rough and not so sunny looking sea was shot by Richard Kendrick on three cameras, mainly on the Arri Alexa. We had planned to shoot it in August but due to various hiccups we didn’t manage to get around to it until early October. Swimming in Ireland in October is not for the faint hearted and we could have had a very different opening to the film if we had kept the sync sound in!
How much of the film was planned and how much evolved while filming?
The overall structure of the film was planned from the beginning. We knew that we were going to look at GI and Costello’s work, the creative process, the work they do with kids in the area and then they would speak about their pasts which we would represent with underwater visual effects sequences. Willa’s story though evolved as the cameras rolled. It was planned that Willa’s story would play out in the present and that it would be a sort of mirror for GI and Costello’s past but I had no idea what would happen with Willa from one shoot day to the next. As it happened we started filming the day before Willa was due in court for an assault charge. He was due to play a gig with the lads that night and we weren’t sure if he would get off or wind up in Mountjoy prison and that would be the end of any filming we could do with him.
How long did you spend with the participants? Did they have any role in directing how they wanted the film to be produced and directed?
We filmed for a couple of days in March, then we took a break for a few months, filmed throughout the summer and finished in November. We always discussed our intentions and vision for the film with Costello and GI but it was very much my response as a filmmaker to their work.
What is the Reel Art Scheme that funded the project?
It's an Arts Council scheme run in associated with JDIFF and Filmbase where they look for films about Irish artists or art movements. On the Arts Council's website thy say that the scheme is there to support films that otherwise wouldn't get made. It's a fantastic award, the funders give you complete creative freedom.
The opening scenes, of the lads going around the area, meeting and offering support to younger aspiring rappers is great. It suggest the scene really has roots out there. Were you surprised by the sheer numbers of people it seems to be engaging?
Yea it's amazing. While we were filming people who were just strolling past would come up and start rapping with the lads. GI and Costello work with lots of younger guys out in Finglas, encouraging them to write or make beats whatever they're interested in. So that opening scene with them around Finglas and Ballymun is just how it is. I'd like to say thanks to all those guys who agreed to be in the film because a lot of them are just writing their fledgling raps and it was brave of them to allow a camera to witness that process.
How much of the story was created in the edit?
Guy Montgomery cut the documentary and thankfully it was a very smooth process. Guy really the film from the start and it was a pleasure to work with someone of his calibre. I planned out a rough paper edit, which Guy then responded to after sifting through all the footage. It was great to have fresh eyes looking at all those hours of film as it’s easy to get bogged down with an idea of what you thought you had in the can, as opposed to what you really have.