You might say that the luck of the Irish is with emerging filmmaker Ciaran McGuigan. Mo Chara, the first film that Ciaran directed, was accepted into the Savannah Film Festival and is steadily growing in acclaim. In between stints as a professional soccer player and an assistant soccer coach at Savannah College of Art and Design, Ciaran made this film about school age boys whose friendship overcomes the Catholic-Protestant rivalry in Northern Ireland. I sat down with him this week in Savannah, where he’s visiting from his native Ireland with his mom, Rosie. Rosie and Ciaran’s father came of age in the 1970s as the ‘Irish troubles’ flared, but they taught their children to find common ground with all people, regardless of race or religion. It was this upbringing that inspired Ciaran to make “Mo Chara.”
TM: Thanks for taking a break from the festival to talk with me. So did you always know that you wanted to make films?
CM: When I came to SCAD, I told my dad that I thought I would do interior design or architecture, something that would tie back into the family furniture business. Dad rang me up and he was like, "Try something different so you have a few bows to your arrow." Is that the saying?
CM: Dad said, "Why don’t you do film?" I didn’t really want to do film at the start. He said, "No, do it you’ll enjoy it." I ended up doing it, but I was really intimidated by film at first.
TM: I understand what you mean. This is only my second film festival and I feel like I have to speak a certain language.
CM: Well, I didn’t know anything about the history of film or RED cameras and stuff. It really intimidates you at the start. But Professor Chaney, he just goes, "Forget about the big cameras and forget about 50-man crews, it’s all about the story." That really registered for me.
TM: That’s so true. Focus on story. So let's go to Mo Chara. You’re in the program and…
CM: I thought it would be interesting to teach people in America about kids in Belfast, how they conduct themselves, how they speak, and what their view on life is. Growing up as a kid in Northern Ireland, there are Protestants and there are Catholics, and the two are usually very separate. But in Mo Chara these two little boys have common interests. They support the same soccer team, they like soccer, and their religion doesn’t really matter. I wrote the film on the bus to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving.
TM: Almost exactly a year ago. You just wrote it a year ago?
CM: Yes. I had it all written in the notes on my phone. Two boys meet, there’s a conflict, then there’s a resolution at the end. My uncle (director of photography Kieran McGuigan) told me with that everything in life there’s a beginning, middle, and end, and that if you stick to that three-act play then you’ve got the foundations to make a good film. So that always stuck with me.
TM: You had those basic things.
CM: Right. And for me it was like filling in the blanks almost.
TM: This is for your senior thesis film?
TM: When did you shoot Mo Chara?
CM: We shot Mo Chara in March 2013 over spring break. I got a flight home to Ireland. There’s only one other kid from SCAD who came. Sean Robinson, he was fantastic, he was my first assistant director.
TM: So you’re the writer-director of Mo Chara?
CM: I’m the writer, director and producer, yeah. We literally, eh, had no money. Our Kickstarter was in shambles.
TM: How much did you raise with Kickstarter?
CM: A few hundred dollars. We all stayed in my grandmother’s house. She woke us up every morning with porridge and a full Irish breakfast fry. We stayed in my cousin’s house where my mom grew up. My auntie lives there now and they all gave up their beds for my six crew. We woke up every morning and traveled an hour to Belfast. My cousin Robert drove us and my cousin Laura was there in the camper van making breakfast and tea on set.
TM: How did you raise the rest of the cash to fund the production?
CM: Budgeting wise, we shot the whole film for around 2,500 to 3000 pounds. I used some savings from football that I had. My mom and dad were very generous, as well. I took a loan out. Then, after we shot it, the grandfather of one of the boys in the film, Mr. Bryne, I gave him an executive producer credit. He came up to me and gave me a check. He said, “What you have done for these kids to foster cross-border relationships between a Protestant and a Catholic is terrific. Go and do good things with this film. Go and get it into festivals.” I was really emotional because I just couldn’t believe that this guy would give me 2000 pounds.
TM: That’s wonderful. I really liked what you said at the Q-and-A after the screening about the importance of having an international crew. Tell me about that.
CM: The editor is from Spain, the art director is from Colombia, the director of photography is from London, the grip is a French guy. You bring different cultures together and they bring different things to the plate, their experiences and their know-how. You sit down over dinner and a coffee and you’re joking, and then things come into the conversation about what we’re going to do. Everyone had an open ear. There were no egos. I said to them, "This is our film, it’s a collaboration." For me, problem solving and creating with other artists, that’s just epic. It was such a joyful and amazing experience.
TM: W.C. Fields said to never work with animals or children because they’re unpredictable. But you chose to work with children. Where did you discover the talented young actors?
CM: At first, I had this casting call and it just didn’t work. These parents were coming in and teaching their kids what to do. They were posh kids coming in and a trying to act raw and I was like, "No, I want this raw element to it." So I went into the streets with a family friend of mine, and we ended up meeting Nathan Corbett and Ben Labourn. The boys had never acted before in their lives.
TM: I can’t believe you directed untested actors in your first film. That’s crazy.
CM: They’re the best lads you’ll every meet. Impeccable manners. I had one hundred pounds each for them in the budget. I took them to the soccer store to buy them a football jersey and football boots. One them said, "Ciaran, can I get a pack of these football cards, I’ll put my boots back." The cards were like one pound. I was like, "You can have the boots, too." I bought them like 15 packs of cards and they could not believe that.
TM: What does it mean to have your film shown at a festival? What went through your head when you got the call?
CM: To have “Mo Chara” showing at a festival is fantastic, but to have it showing at this festival, in Savannah where I know everybody, I’m so overwhelmed by it. When I got the email telling me that I had been accepted I was so happy because I got to come back and thank everybody for helping to make it happen. Frankly, it was this institution that provided me with the foundation to enter into a career or a medium of art that I didn’t have a clue that I was any good at. You can’t speak highly enough of this college. I am really honored and thankful that I was able to go to school here.
Ciaran is currently finishing his degree online while playing soccer in Ireland. He plans to enter “Mo Chara” into more festivals soon and will graduate from SCAD with a B.F.A in film and television this spring.