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13 September 2001

Date 13 September 2001

Mike McCormick on the making of The Terms

It seems to be a truism that a good story or book invariably translates into a bad film, and vice-versa. Often, the reflectiveness and subtlety of a complex novel, one which engages on several levels, are excised from the filmed version, leaving only the bare bones of the plot and a handful of photogenic stars. Exceptions exist, but they are rare enough for any fiction writer to be alarmed at the prospect of a cinematic 'reworking' of his or her work.
Mike McCormack's story The Terms, from his award-winning collection of stories Getting it in the Head, was made into a short film by Lemon Cut Productions and was shown at this year's Galway Film Fleadh. It centres on the complicated relationship between a father and son. Although dramatic, it doesn't immediately suggest itself to a cinematic adaptation. However, Johnny O'Reilly's film, also called The Terms, is visually striking, and effectively captures the core of the troubled father-son relationship. That this is communicated so clearly is also due to John O'Toole and Eamonn Owens, who respectively play father and son. Owens was signed up for the film well before his pivotal performance in Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy hit the screen in 1997, and John O'Toole is an established film and theatre actor, who made his debut in Ryan's Daughter in 1970.
In the film, the father and son live in isolation, sharing, physically, a desolate caravan but otherwise emotionally estranged from each other. When the father offers an execution pact as a means of breaking the deadlock between them, the son accepts the terms of the agreement. Their tortured game is played out against a wild, empty, landscape which is supremely indifferent.
The Terms has gone on to win several awards at film festivals this summer. It won first prize at the Temple Bar Film Festival and at the Terezin International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, and second prize at Corsica's Lama Festival and the International Film Festival in Palm Springs. Director Johnny O'Reilly has just returned from its screening at the prestigious Venice Film Festival last weekend, and the film will travel, by invitation, to a further 10 festivals this autumn.
I spoke to Mike McCormack, who co-wrote the screenplay, about the process of adapting his story into film. The very different, sensory demands of print and of film do require some alteration to a written text to make it work on screen. Weren't you apprehensive about the potential changes to your story in its translation into film? "No. The story's too schematic. If you read the story, it has its own internal logic that can't really be f*cked with. The argument and the two incidents are really the spine of the story, and after that you can do anything. I think anybody who wanted to make a movie out of that story wouldn't have wanted to do much with it. I wanted to do something with it; I had been looking at the story for three or four years, I was sick of it."
He continues. "All I wanted was that it be close to the atmosphere, and close to the theme. You can do anything then after that. I think it was a real relief to him, that I wasn't too keen to stick too tight to the story." You weren't too precious, I suggest. "I wasn't too precious about it, no. There were things that I'd have to put the foot down on, but I wouldn't be too difficult about it, because I'd had my say on it now, and it's up to someone else to do something with it."
The process was collaborative from the beginning. After Johnny O'Reilly initially approached McCormack about the possibility of filming The Terms, he returned with a development grant and asked McCormack to write the script. They worked together for an intensive few days, in a flat off Merchants Road, going right through the story. McCormack describes O'Reilly's methods. "He went through [the story] piece by piece, scene by scene, line by line, just saying what is happening, why is he doing this, why is he saying this. He was really analytical, and I was very surprised how tight and close to the story he worked. I was worried that it would become a line by line, page by page, transliteration."
However, this fear turned out to be unfounded. "It was kind of established fairly early on that Johnny would try anything. That was one of the joys of working with him. If I said that 'I think that we should have little spaceships fall down here, and big green monsters do Riverdance', he would have said, let's think about it. Of course, that's a ridiculous example, but he'd try anything, he was open."
This open-minded methodology, again possibly combined with the need to make a film which worked well on visual and sound levels, led to a few significant changes. The impressive and haunting use of landscape and music give the tensions between father and son an added gravity. However, the landscape at least was envisaged differently in the original version of the story. For me, the landscape of the film supersedes that described in the text. For McCormack, this is not necessarily the case. "I come from the short story towards it. The short story is green and sunlit, and the film's brown and kind of moody, it's earthy colours, bog colours. People think it's the West of Ireland, and for me it's supposed to be the West of Ireland. It's actually the Dublin hills." He insists he's happy with the change. "The short story is really brightly lit. And the opposite is the case with the movie. So that's one departure that I think is fine."
He elaborates on the effect of the film's landscape, which appears almost panoramic, an effect heightened by its shooting on 35mm film. "We wanted it to be a western. Well, I wanted it to be a western, with guns and reckoning. The short story isn't recognisable as a western, really. It's kind of like a fairy story gone haywire." Another new element is the film's soundtrack. The first half features piano music, but the second half is rendered particularly spooky by the incorporation of Mongolian throat music. This obscure type of music was finally tracked down by O'Reilly after he heard it at a friend's house, and decided it would provide the perfect soundtrack for The Terms.
McCormack is very happy with the film, which he only saw for the first time a few weeks ago. Although, he says, "I had real misgivings. I reread the script over a year ago; found it in a box and thought, there's too many long speeches. Johnny told me afterwards that one or two of the speeches had been cut down. He was moviemaker enough to know that you can't have people standing up in the middle of a bog making big speeches."
Katie Moylan.

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