Irish writer-director Tom Hall speaks to Jeremy Kay about his €1m feature Sensation about a young man who inherits his father’s farming business, which is screening in Toronto.
Irish writer-director Tom Hall found success with the RTE television series Bachelors Walk and makes a rare foray into film with the Toronto-bound drama Sensation,a €1m project starring Domhnall Gleeson as Donal, a young man who inherits his late father’s farming business only to stumble upon a new career path after he meets ambitious escort Kim, played by Luanne Gordon. Most of the film’s budget came from the Irish Film Board with the remainder provided by the Rotterdam Film Fund.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
“I was driving in the West of Ireland while I was doing some teaching and lost my radio settings, so I tuned into the local news and heard the tail end of a report about a man who was accused of running a brothel out of the family farm. His defence was he was a sad, sad bachelor farmer who started using an escort and by degrees she moved in and started taking over his life and moved some of her friends in and started a business. I laughed, but a few days later I was thinking about this relationship and thought if that’s the end of this story, how did it begin? It’s one of those rare moments you get when you know you’ve got a story.
The father’s death was an opportunity for [my character] Donal to begin his life. In a sense he’s held back throughout his adolescence because he’s inherited a design for life [farming] that wasn’t his own. Part of him probably thought that once he inherited the money he’d work out what to do with his life. Because his father dies when Donal’s an adult, this accelerates the process and he finds himself in a situation where he has more money than he imagined. I had originally conceived of the character as a man in his 40s, but realised that was a film I didn’t want to see.
How did you research it?
It took about a year to write [and was completed by the end of 2007]. I didn’t investigate the real case at all; I just conceived the story around it. There are so many depictions of prostitutes on the screen and they’re entirely unsatisfactory. I think the truth is much more complex in this relationship. I did a certain amount of research, delving into that world of message boards and this online community who trade information about sex workers. I tried to interview some sex workers and posted something online, but I didn’t get a response for some time until one girl agreed to be interview via email. She told me she was interested in it because she was studying acting. When Kim tells Donal the story of her first client experience, that was based on what that woman told me.
I learned details about how [brothel operators] do things. For example they rent the show flats in apartment buildings to set up the brothels because there aren’t usually any immediate neighbours for a while. When [the adjoining flats are rented out and] neighbours move in, they move on. It resonates with the Irish housing market because for a while every field in the country was being turned into an apartment block and eventually you were left with these ghost estates that never got completed because they couldn’t sell the units.
Where did you shoot?
We shot for 22 days in May and June 2009 in a town called Newtownmountkennedy in County Wicklow. If you want to set up your film as a Dublin-based production and don’t want to put the cast and crew up in hotels [if you travel far from the city], you have to shoot within an hour of the centre of Dublin. You go round these little farms and every farmer that is inclined to help you knows everything about the location rates – they’re very canny. The farmhouse we ended up using belonged to a man who had a brief appearance in the film and like Donal was a son who had cared for an elderly relative.
Why did you choose Domhnall Gleeson?
It’s tough to find young actors who can handle that much screen time, but Domhnall knows the world of film-making very well and he’s a sought-after actor. He’s the eldest son of Brendan Gleeson’s four children and we’d done a television show together a few years ago for RTE. He’s also a writer and director and I found him to be a brilliant collaborator.
And Luanne Gordon as the escort?
We auditioned through London casting and the second she walked out of the audition an associate told me she was brilliant. She’s done a lot of television and is very, very quick. She has that facility for digesting material and giving you the performance and all you are doing is finessing it and trying to give it some direction. She wasn’t afraid of keeping Kim mysterious and withholding things. I didn’t want to make up my mind all the time about that character or her motives. The character might have been inarticulate herself about her behaviour because she has her motives, but her feelings for Donal are very sincere.
How did you approach the sex scene?
I’d had a little experience shooting sex scenes in television but they were tame by comparison. We had spent a couple of days in a hotel room blocking [Domhnall and Luanne] very precisely and I was almost storyboarding those scenes so the actors knew what would be seen. That really broke the ice.