Interview: Terry McMahon on ‘Charlie Casanova’ and the Once-Proud Fighting Irish
Follow the internet trail to socialistworld.net and you’ll find an article from 2003 entitled “Free the Bin Tax Twelve.” The article is about the arrest of 10 new protesters during a movement to resist a double tax on waste collection in Irish cities that placed its largest burden on poor residential areas. One of those protesters was the mother of a baby still being breastfed; meet the wife of Terry McMahon, director Charlie Casanova, which premiered this year at SXSW.
…I’m angry that my daughter went to prison when she was a baby to be breastfed. And I’m angry that in twenty years’ time, or thirty years’ time when she comes back to me and asks ‘Dad, what did you do?’ The least I can do is say, ‘well I tried to make a film that was about it, cause I was a eunuch and a whore and could do fuck all else. But I did try to use art on some level. I didn’t pick up a baseball bat and beat the shit out of some politician, which is what I felt like doin’ multiple times.’
Now you’ve met Terry McMahon.
I had the chance to talk with the tall, curly-headed Irishman last month during Austin’s beloved SXSW film festival. He and Ruth McIntyre, who plays Soairse in the film, sat down to lunch with me at the Buenos Aires Café on Austin’s eastside. McMahon takes a seat and, after glancing at the menu says, “what the hell are empanadas?“ The waiter, a little caught off guard at the question, describes the baked dough with meat and veggies stuffed inside, and then walks away to let us think a while, at which point McMahon’s turns to us and says, “so what are empanadas?”
Over a pile of empanadas, red wine, chocolate crème brulé and coffee, McMahon paints a picture of an Ireland that has defeated itself and how his film Charlie Casanova exposes the reasons for Ireland’s saddest downfall.
The film’s main character, Charlie Barnum, represents something very real and destructive for the Irish working class, and it’s clear that Terry McMahon hates his creation, Charlie, just as much the viewer will.
He’s a cowardly piece of shit. And he’s not a cowardly piece of shit that we need to empathize and understand so that we can somehow come to terms with him and by extension appease him. He is not a character to be appeased. This guy will destroy you on every level and see your humanity as a weakness.
Fonona Flannigan, she’s the “the grand dame” of Irish acting… got the film on every level. Her husband is a professor…and she said she could not wait for him to see the film because the title of his thesis was ‘the malignancy of self-doubt in the rise and fall of the Celtic tiger,’ which could have been a tag line for Charlie Casanova.
Why let such a despicable character come out on top in the film?
Because they are getting away with it. They are getting away with it with impunity and you get that long final shot, which everyone says is way too long, but for me the whole point of the shot is, that you were sitting there. There’s a guy dying just off screen and what are you doing? You’re doing nothing and for this long, long time when you have the chance to do something you do fucking nothing…He gets away with it, with absolute impunity and the more he gets away with it the more he thinks he can get away with it and the more we allow them to get away with it, the more they do. It’s a battle cry.
Three generations in Ireland down the fucking toilet.
There was a bit of a bullshit election but all they did was bring in a different form of the same nonsense. There’s a lot of stuff happening in Ireland but, we’ve made a deal with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and what they did was, they screwed us the next three generations minimum, the next three generations of Irish people to come. My kids and my grandkids are gonna get fucked, and that situation hasn’t changed with the new government…There are different politicians who’ve now come in and are determined to fight for rights. But they’re so small that as a collective body who knows what’s gonna happen.
There’s a small group of people in Ireland who have sold the futures of 3 generations in Ireland down the fucking toilet. The British Empire could not succeed in 800 years to defeat Ireland and over three terms of one government they managed to destroy everything that was good about Ireland. We did more damage to ourselves in 10 years than the British government did in 800 years.
Women in Ireland and the Women inCharlie Casanova
The suggestion that women are equal in Ireland is an absolute fallacy. The suggestion that they are treated as equal is a fallacy. The suggestion that democracy is somehow effective is a fallacy. The suggestion that we have rights, inalienable rights and entitlements are fallacies…
During the most progressive, in conventional terms, the most progressive era in our history, there was more erosion of rights than in any other time in our history. That’s profoundly disturbing and it has to be looked at because it will continue unchecked. But who the hell wants to see a film that’s a polemic about politics, so you try to make it polemic of character. And it turns out that half the audience really hate the film, and the other half seem to be passionate advocates of it…
The other night we were in a bar after a screening and there was an Indian guy there and there was an African American guy there and both of them spoke with incredible eloquence and for long periods of time with passion about how much the film meant to them and how their sense of disenfranchisement had suddenly been articulated in a way that they had never thought possible. And the rage it born in them, the hope curiously enough it born in them and the desire to stop it now, not to allow it to continue to go unchecked: Just the casual violence of language or the casual violence of arrogance or the casual indifference of women.
In this society, and especially in Charlie Casanova, to me it’s very, very important-there’s a lot of muscular dialogue, but the dialogue is all overlapping. It’s because the men don’t listen to the women. When they say something, they’re not listened to. And the interjection is either, ‘I’m gonna bolster you,’ and as long as the woman is bolstering the man she’s fine. But if she interjects with anything that annoys him, it’s ‘shut the fuck up,’ there’s a man talking here. Those elements were very, very important. So that even within their own hierarchical society, it’s very, very clear that there’s one in power (Charlie), with multiple servants of his power who are male, and then there are multiple servants of those three who are female. That’s unfortunately the structure of our society.
What makes Charlie Casanova different from other Irish films?
In Ireland we don’t make films about class and we don’t make films about politics. Since the changes in Northern Ireland and supposedly peace–whatever form that means–came into play and politics took over, we stopped making films about politics. So for a long time in Ireland, every film that you saw was about some IRA imbecile who was going to blow himself up or somebody else up, and the drama was, ‘is he gonna get caught or is he gonna get away with it?’–and the old enemy The British Force. And that became our standard bullshit film in every form, but since then we don’t make political films at all. And the political landscape in Ireland has changed so profoundly for the better in Northern Ireland but so profoundly for the worse in Southern Ireland….
No novelists write about it, no playwrights write about it, our national broadcasters sure as shit don’t commission any projects about it. In Ireland we’re quite happy to represent the working class as track-suited thugs who are junkies, who are a danger, who are one-dimensional stereotypes.
We have a soap opera in Ireland called “Fair City” and I wrote for it for over a hundred episodes so I know how bad the representation is of the working class. I know that it’s a middle class perspective and a soap opera that’s supposed to be about the working class is a deeply patronizing and very dangerous presumption of what class is. So we don’t deal with politics and we don’t deal with class in Ireland. And I wanted to deal with both head on.
The Christians and the Lions
Go back to ancient Rome. I know in factual terms it’s probably a myth, but in terms of the narrative, the idea of throwing the Christians to the Lions. It made the locals forget their hunger as they watched the savagery of the Lions. As long as you have two sets of people fighting beneath you, they’re not looking up at you. That’s all you’ve gotta do; keep them at odds with each other. Keep us financial servants. Keep us unhealthy. Keep us uneducated. Keep us fighting and everything is good. If you educate us too much, we might turn around and go, ‘who the fuck are you? And why are you doing this to me?’ We’ d have a much greater fight in us if we were educated. We’d have a much greater fight in us if we were healthy. So it’s systematic and it’s deliberate. It’s not a conspiracy theory; watch the simple practice of it. We are imitating what happened in England. We are imitating the capitalist model. We are imitating the notion that the majority needs to be controlled by the minority for the betterment of all. When clearly it’s a fallacy.
By the way sometimes I have fun and I laugh. I sound like an incessant boring prick. Sometimes I get drunk and get laid and crack jokes.
The Dehumanization of Language in Ireland’s Ruling Class
The dehumanization of language is a magnificent weapon and I really do believe that the most effective form of fascism has now become democracy, because in fascism you clearly and publicly repress people. And with democracy you give the impression of freedom, which anesthetizes them much more effectively. Second thing is that with Ireland…the idea of creating shame, it’s like in Catholicism, you had original sin and I always noticed original sin was such a scam, such a disgusting scam, pulled by the Church but also so ingenious–that you were born with sin. This is what they’re doing here that literally, to be working class you were born to be ashamed of yourself. And the only way to get rid of that shame is to follow the capitalist model and excel within the given structure and all that structure satisfies the group on top.
I do love language of characters because very often the characters that I like to write, or that I like to explore…their language is designed to be smoke and mirrors. It’s the language of deflection…It’s meticulously orchestrated to be impressive but it’s totally vacuous. And it’s flashing to your left, flashing to your left, as they’re stealing your wallet to your right. And I find it very, very compelling in a character.
For example with Charlie…I don’t want you to listen to what he’s saying, because it’s ‘smoke and mirrors’. Charlie’s meandering and his gorging on this language of prejudice is what excites him, but it’s absolutely meaningless. And I see this in politics every day. Language has no meaning anymore. I take the word ‘love’ and I can make you hate the word love if I want. I take the word ‘hate’ and I can make you yearn for the word hate if I want. That’s disturbing! And Charlie and his ilk do this type of thing all the time, everything they say is to manipulate. Everything they say is to solicit.
Charlie Casanova, the Bastard Film.
In Ireland there is a small group of people who have seen it. The Irish Film Board, the head of the Irish Film Board, Simon Perry was his name, the head of development of the Irish Film Board Andrew Meehan was his name, and the head of production of the Film Board, Alan Maher was his name. Three remarkable men with real passionate yearning for provocative cinema and a real love for writing– all three of them despised the film. They despised it at inception stage, they despised it at script stage, they despised it at reading stage and they despised it when the film was made. They hated it. Absolutely hated it…
Yes, the script was roundly rejected, but the level of embrace in America was remarkable…Donald Sisk gave a copy of it to media ventures, Screen Media Ventures in New York. They immediately offered a deal, a V.O.D. deal, but they offered a deal before the titles were even done. And then we were selected for the Dublin Film Festival…
But then suddenly we get an email from Janet Pierson [Producer of SXSW], two days after Christmas, that is the most incredibly passionate comprehension and defense of the film. And they offered to do the world premiere…we had our first screening and the sound wasn’t great, unfortunately, and I could tell we were leaving half the audience cold. And then the second screening the audience laughed their asses off, which is fantastic, and everybody stayed for the Q&A, it was really extraordinary. And now our 3rd screening, it’ll probably be empty because we won nothing and Variety hated us…
And I’m aware I pushed it to such an extreme-I’ve alienated a huge amount of people. I’m not fucking naive or stupid enough to think otherwise, but I also knew it would be the only chance I’d get to do that. It would be the only chance I’d ever get to go right down the line, that I’d never have to answer to anybody or compromise the aspiration on any level, because every other time I will have to, and appropriately so… To me it was very important that you weren’t watching Charlie going ‘I actually kind of feel his humanity.’ I wanted you watching him going, ‘half of what he’s saying is bordering on a kind of truth but the other half is so obscene and disturbing it’s like watching a Hitler-fucking-rally.’ And you should be mesmerized by that. We don’t know what Hitler is saying. We don’t need subtitles to know what Hitler is saying. Charlie’s language is the same way. It’s all bullshit language. Watch what he’s doing. Watch how he’s manipulating people and watch how he’s getting away with it more and more and more.
A Filmmaker and a Nation, Reeling.
…There’s a woman called Mary Harney, one of our government officials. This grotesquely sweaty, fat, caricature, a poster child for everything that was unhealthy, was our minister for health. An arrogant scum piece of shit who should be in prison; she swaggered away, waddled away from government in the last election with a pension of over a quarter of a million a year plus multiple others.
These are people-and I think it is important we name these people-these are people who–I don’t want to go to the extremity of phrases like ‘war crimes’–but these are people who have committed crimes against the humanity of a nation. These are supposedly-elected leaders who are there to protect the interest of the people and they sold us out on every level, on every single level. And we are reeling from it. As a nation we are reeling from it and for generations to come we will be reeling from it. And the once ‘proud fighting Irish’ have now become the squalid, cowardly Irish. And I’m ashamed of that.
So if I sound naive, or if I sound churlish or I sound whatever, it’s because I’m reeling from this. And I want to somehow articulate it in some way. And I know Charlie Casanova is a difficult sell. Even the tagline of the film, “You don’t know him, but he already hates you.” You know you’re not going to be going to see a Disney film. And that’s okay. And because it was made completely independently, in an unnecessarily maverick style, I own the film outright so I don’t owe a huge debt to anybody, I don’t have backers to consider, I don’t have producers to fellate, I don’t have any of those things. And for that one time ,you wanna make a film that is about something…
And it’s as fundamental as that, that’s the drive. I wouldn’t mind getting laid too.