The Door County Short Film Festival (DCSFF) held its 5th annual festival this February. Prior to last year, all of the entries have been from Wisconsin. Last year’s festival saw the first out-of-state entry, When You Need Them, a film by Pablo Cubarle, shot in New York City and produced by Amy Ludwigsen, the executive director at Door Shakespeare.
This year DCSFF not only passed the muster of holding its fifth consecutive festival, it also joined the international arena with two great films, Froschkonig (Frog King) directed by Stephen Pfeil from Germany and Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion from Irish screen director Shimmy Marcus.
Chris Opper, DCSFF founder, connected with the work of Shimmy Marcus at the 2013 Green Bay Film Festival with Rhino’s. The following year Shimmy Marcus entered Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion which went on to win the DCSFF with over two thirds of all votes cast.
Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion is about a seven-year-old Jewish girl growing up in Dublin, longing to belong to a larger community – namely, the Catholic Church. The only problem is – she’s the wrong religion. The acting is superb and the production values make for a mesmerizing screenplay. I had the opportunity to speak with Marcus about this film and his personal journey in screen production.
Ed DiMaio (ED): What got you involved with writing screenplays?
Shimmy Marcus (SM): Kitty Kitty Bang Bang. I fell in love with that film and that was it! I was only six at the time when I saw that movie I thought, “I don’t know what’s going on there but I want to be a part of something where that happens.”
ED: Did you make any film as a child?
SM: I was more of a late bloomer and became more obsessed with music, playing music, and lighting design. It wasn’t until my early twenties I started making home movies with just a camcorder.
I was touring a lot with bands as a lighting designer. I’d bring the camcorder, shoot everything, bring it home than make a documentary on VHS tape. That was my film school.
ED: Documentaries about the bands and the music industry?
SM: Yes. Working as a lighting designer I would shoot the show from the back of the hall. I would watch the footage the next day and look at where I thought the cues were working or if they needed improving.
So I started building up this great catalog of footage of the bands. They would be goofing around and I would film them. Then I just started putting it together as a fun thing for them to see. Before you knew it I had built up many behind-the-scenes documentaries of all their debortuous behavior. I could never go public with any of it.
ED: Any formal training in film?
SM: No, I thought I was beyond being told anything. I was way to arrogant for that. I started working as an actor. Then started telling directors what to do in order to get the right coverage of me. Someone called me out and told me, “You’re a control freak, you should be a director.” So I have done everything arseways the wrong ways round. I started way too late. I was thirty-two before I made my first short film.
There is filmmaking in my blood. My father has picked up two Oscar nominations for documentaries in the ‘70s. One was Conquest of Light which was about making Waterford Chrystal and the second was Children at Work which was a study of children at play in the school yard. They are both quite beautiful.
So I grew up with more of an eye for film. When most kids had their birthday parties they would get a puppet show, my Dad would show several Laurel and Hardy films.
ED: Was there talk around the dining room table about film?
SM: Yes, film and music. I had three younger brothers so there were five boys and one girl in the house. We basically talked film, music, and girls.
ED: What number film is Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion?
SM: Triple figures. It’s weird, as a filmmaker I make 12 – 14 films a year. Not all of them are professional. I’ll do a web-such-thing or go on a stag weekend with friends and then spend three weekends editing a documentary that no one else besides my buddies will ever see.
ED: Did Lana Citron, the writer of Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion, come to you with the project?
SM: I know Lana. We grew up together in Dublin until she immigrated to England. I saw her five years ago when a feature film was developing about a twelve-year-old Jewish boy who was preparing to make his bar mitzvah.
Then a few years later she sent me a script. I thought it was quite a nice story. I asked her, ‘Why don’t we make it a little different?’
That’s when she came up with the Holy Communion idea and making it about a girl. I said, ‘Write it about yourself, what you know.’
It took about seven drafts before I was happy enough to start shooting. The house we used was the house she grew up in. It was still in family ownership. It had been rented out to students at the time. We were able to pay them enough money to use it for two days for the shooting. It was nice to get that kind of benefit on this project.
ED: Was there any significance to the wedding photo that you pan to under the steps?
SM: That was random. I saw that in a box that the art director brought in and said, “I know just where that’s going.”
ED: The other moment was the shot of two gentlemen walking away from the church. There was something captivating for me about that shot, much like the wedding photo under the steps.
SM: It’s the little details I think, Edward, you know. It’s amazing what people take away from a film. That’s why you have great attention to detail because you never know what’s going to resonate.
ED: Was this your first time working with the Pears Short Film Fund at UK Jewish Film?
SM: Yes. To be honest it was a huge amount of backing. We were talking about this script and where to get the money to make it. Lana said there is a fund in London that helps you get a script ready for shooting. She asked if she could put my name down as the director, just for the application? So she was basically pulling me in bit by bit, very cleverly I guess. Then she told me that we got short-listed, we’re going to have to do the interview now! So I said okay, I basically told myself I got the job. By that stage I was so in love with the idea, that I was like we’re making this film!
ED: Is any of Hannah Cohen a reflection of your life?
SM: Yeah it is, it had to be or I would have no interest in making it. You have to put yourself in there to find something of you. I certainly identified with Hannah, with that sense of wanting to belong.
As kids, Lana and I grew up in a community of about 5,000 Jews surrounded by four million screaming Catholics, so you could imagine. This was in the ‘70s when the church politically ran the country. It was all-powerful.
Contraception was not made legal till the ‘80s. So we were backwater, incredibly backwater, living in the dark ages. So I was very conscious about differences. I can’t speak for Lana but I was very anti-religious anyway. One hundred miles up the road Catholics and Protestants were slaughtering each other. So I really wasn’t seeing any benefit to religion at all.
I really sympathize with the protagonist, that sense of Hannah, wanting to belong and not understanding why she couldn’t partake in the communion ritual. I did not want this to be an anti-religion film or a bitter religious film. There had to be a positive uplifting ending. The only difference in the script was that the priest had to be warm and welcoming. Back in the day I think Hannah would have been shown the door quite quickly.
ED: I loved how upon Hannah nervously entering the church you pan up to the large stained glass depiction of Christ on the crucifix. Juxtaposed to the shot of the Madonna and child as she is leaving with her mom. Which was perfect, just perfectly done.
SM: I like that kind of iconography in religion. That is what it is supposed to be all about versus the reality at times, how children have not been protected in this country (Ireland).
It has been appalling the way children have been treated and I don’t mean just religion. In general the church takes quite a bashing but that is just two percent of child abuse. That’s why I did like that very protective imagery of the mother and child to mirror the relationship between Hannah and her mom.
ED: Yes, the way the mom turned her scowl into a smile was just priceless.
SM: How could you not smile at that girl?
ED: Do you have anything that you are working on now?
SM: I am finishing a documentary on an Irish composer and a poet who spent four weeks in a hospital observing Parkinson’s patients. From that, they are writing music and poetry.
I’m curious to learn about Parkinson’s and exploring their creative process – how the harsh realities of life become poetry and music. So that has been kind of an interesting project. And I’m trying to finish scripts. I also teach acting full-time as well. So that is pretty intense.
ED: Do you teach screen acting or stage acting?
SM: Only screen acting. A problem we have in this country is that everybody is trained in the bloody stage. I need actors who understand the subtleties of the camera. So myself and three other Irish film makers – John Carney, Kirsten Sheridan, and Lance Daly – set up this place called The Factory. It’s a community center for filmmakers to train young actors to work just with the camera. It is nine months a year. We have twenty-five kids and that’s full on, pretty intense. The work they are doing now is amazing and they all are beginning to get huge work. Jack Winer, who just graduated, is the kid in the new Transformers.
ED: Is the school on your website as well?
SM: Yes. We just had Richard Dryfus in last week. We have had Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy, Danny DeVito, Saoirse Ronan, Stephen Rea, Jim Sheridan, Ros Hubbard, Leo Davis, and acting coach Gerry Grennell. We have a really good name so it is easy to get good people to come in and work with the kids. So that kind of sucks the soul out of you. It’s not about the money it is about getting the best work out of them. Then I get to use them in my work so it works out quite well.
ED: What does it take to captivate you as far as projects go? What turns you on to wanting to shoot something?
SM: I’m not sure. I know I need a wild moment and they are harder and harder to find. Generally it’s something that makes the viewer go, “Wow, that is such a beautiful story”; or “Wow, I have never seen that done before”; something that is worth working eighteen hours a day on. So whether it originates with me or someone else I don’t care.
Filmmaking is a form of addiction for me, so I need something to feed that. If I can’t feed it I get frustrated and if I can’t find something worth doing I get more frustrated. Which is the other advantage of having the The Factory, we can grab three actors and start doing some improv.
Once we worked with the idea that we have never been so technically connected but emotionally disconnected. Everything we do such as Facebook or Twitter is actually separating us rather than connecting us. I was at a New Years Eve party, I looked around the room, there were about ten people and every single one of them was on their phone. I said, “Why are you guys here? Go home!”
We started the improv with a guy stalking a girl on Facebook, relationship stuff based on that. There wasn’t a full film in it but it was a fascinating exercise. In the process I kept my directing muscle strong and the actors were working all the time. No film came out of it but we learned loads and it kept us fresh.
ED: Did it birth another project or was it complete unto its self?
SM: It’s in the air with a whole bunch of stuff. A lot of it I have taken and put it into something else. I have taken one of the characters from that and put it into a different film, it all feeds into something else. It all gets put in a draw and gets used eventually.
In film you have to have a lot of things in development. When one thing finishes it could be a long time before the next. The idea is when you finish one project your next one is developed so you can go straight in. I like juggling different projects, whether it’s a music video, documentary or a drama they all feed into each other. You have to keep all the balls in the air.
ED: Do you find that you bring a fresh eye to a project that you haven’t touched in a while?
SM: Exactly. Particularly when I’m making documentaries, so much of it comes together in the edit. I cut for two months then I leave and work on something else for four months. When I come back I see it with totally fresh eye, I gain perspective.
ED: Shimmy, thank you so much for your time. It was great to get a glimpse of your life regarding screen productions.
SM: Thank you, Edward, I was really happy to be the recipient of the Coffee Mug and the reaction the film received. I really enjoyed it all very much.
DCSFF will screen a short and a feature length film by Marcus on May 24 at the Sister Bay Village Hall at 7 pm. For more information about Marcus and his films, visit shimmymarkus.com.