James Doherty is a director come animator come designer. Comfortable working fully in live-action or crafting stories pixel-by-pixel, the Irish-born filmmaker cares more about what best suits the narrative. His debut short film ‘Breathe’, a 14-minute drama about a tough Traveller father who’s worried his son is too soft, is smashing through the global festival circuit and has been showcased by the British Film Institute - with startling results. Commercially he is repped by Piranha Bar. LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with James to talk ‘Breathe’, books and getting chased.
LBB> What inspired the narrative for Breathe? Tell us a bit about what’s going on.
JD> Breathe tells the story of an Irish Traveller who becomes increasingly concerned with his young son. Feeling that he's 'soft' he sets about toughening him up.
For me it's a story about trying to force somebody to be what you want them to be. More than likely you will torture yourself and the other person, and you're probably fighting a losing battle anyway. In the story it's focused on a macho-orientated character who is more concerned about what other people think than the well-being of his own kid. Rather than take the easy route out and have the victim be the protagonist we very much see it through the eyes of the unlikeable character, the father. That appealed to me.
LBB> It has been incredibly well received and is being screened at various festivals around the world. Why do you think it has proved so popular?
JD> The festivals have been so great, but there was also one other thing that we've cheekily been keeping quiet so it didn't affect our festival run. Breathe was selected by the British Film Institute to be showcased online and, incredibly, it picked up an audience of over 525,000 people in one week. For a short film, particularly a 15 minute drama, to get an audience of over half a million in a week was quite a shock for us (and the BFI and British Council).
I think it's because despite the specific community that Breathe takes place in, it ties into something pretty universal: the conflict that comes from trying to force people to change to our liking. There are tensions of that sort in many relationships, be it between parents, partners, friends. People around the world who know nothing of Irish Travellers (and don't understand the accents!) have still connected to it because of that resonance.
LBB> Why was it a project you were keen to make your debut short film?
JD> It has heart. It has emotion. It chooses to focus on the least likeable character in the story and yet somehow you come away understanding that kind of person a little more.
I read over a hundred short film scripts before discovering Breathe. I ran a paid open competition, and while there were plenty of strong submissions, none resonated like this did. The writer, Theo James Krekis, is very talented and I'm happy to say that we've got more projects in the oven.
LBB> How long was the production and what are your most memorable moments? Where did you shoot?
JD> It was a four-day shoot in County Offaly, Ireland, mostly on the grounds of the Charleville estate. If we'd have panned a few metres to the right our halting site would have been revealed as the yard of a big old Gothic Castle. It would have definitely added production value, but also been pretty inappropriate for our story!
Like on any intense shoot there are a lot of stories, but for me the most memorable was the performance that our lead, John Connors, pulled out of the bag on the final day of shooting. It was stronger than I'd hoped for and even in the midst of these intensely emotional scenes he remained responsive and open to my directions. Not the sort of talent you come across every day.
LBB> How was it immersing yourself within Irish Traveller culture? How did you ensure you were giving a true reflection?
JD> It was very enlightening. There’s a tendency to have a blanket opinion of what Travellers are 'like,' as if they were all of the same disposition, when even a brief open-minded interaction reveals that's not the case. Overall we were very much welcomed. We went and visited halting sites in the Republic and the North, we consulted with Traveller organisations, we asked for script feedback from members of the community and John was instrumental in giving feedback on authenticity. We did get chased away from one site by a rather scary gentleman, but filmmaking wouldn’t be as enjoyable if it didn’t present the odd challenge.
LBB> Which other projects are you particularly proud of and why?
JD> I’m itching to tell you about the short I'm currently working on, but really I'm not allowed. Hint: it involves punk bands, Bavarian forests, teenage love and the IRA.
I've said too much.
LBB> What are your aims with regards to commercial filmmaking?
JD> Honestly I just get off on creating things that invoke some sort of feeling or effect on people. Before I started directing film I was a commercial animator and designer, so I'm very familiar with the industry. What I really enjoy is when there's freedom to use whichever tools are right for the project. If it works best in live action then let's whip out the camera, if it would make an evocative animated piece then let's get keyframing. There are many differences in the forms but working in one feeds off the other and vice versa.
LBB> What do you get up to when you’re not filmmaking to keep your creative batteries charged?
JD> Books and travelling. Though really they are the same as film; a way to open your eyes and encounter more of the world than your fair share.