25 November 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
Morgan Bushe Talks 'The Belly of the Whale' with IFTN
07 Dec 2018 : Nathan Griffin
Writer/Director Morgan Bushe
IFTN caught up with Irish writer/director Morgan Bushe to find out more about his debut feature film ‘The Belly of the Whale’, which release in cinemas nationwide - Friday, December 7th.

Set over a long bank holiday weekend, ‘The Belly of the Whale’ follows misfit teenager, Joey Moody, as he returns to his home town in a bid to reopen his family’s crumbling caravan park and salvage his friendship with his best friend, Lanks. Meanwhile, on a mission to find the money to cover his wife’s medical expenses, Ronald Tanner, a fractured soul, risks his meagre life savings on a get rich quick scheme that ends in abject failure and humiliation at the hands of local big shot Gits Hegarty, pushing Ronald over the edge and off the wagon.

After Joey accidentally burns down Ronald’s camper van and is forced to find the cash to repay him, the strange pair find themselves bonded together in misfortune. In an effort to change their shabby circumstances they concoct a plan to rob the Pleasurama, the local amusement arcade, and the domain of the iniquitous Gits.

The film stars Pat Shortt (‘Garage’, ‘Calvery’), Lewis MacDougall (‘A Monster Calls’, ‘Pan’), Art Parkinson (‘Kubo and The Two Strings’, ‘San Adreas’), Michael Smiley (‘Kill List’, ‘Jawbone’), Peter Coonan (‘Love/Hate’, ‘The Drummer and the Keeper’) and Lauren Kinsella (‘You’re Ugly Too’, ‘Albert Nobbs’). The film is being distributed by Wildcard Distribution.

Bushe has previously directed a number of award-winning short films including ‘Doghouse’, ‘If I Should Fall Behind’ and ‘Mr. Crocodile in the Cupboard’. The last of which received the Torc Award for Excellence at the Celtic Media Festival in 2009. Bushe has also picked up three IFTA awards as a producer and one nomination as director for his short film.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Morgan Bushe to find more about his debut feature film.

IFTN: How did the story come about, and was it always the story you had in mind to be your first feature film?

Morgan: “Myself, my co-writer Greg Flanagan and an old film school buddy of mine, Mark O’Dare, decided to hire a campervan and basically went out on the road for a month. We just bashed out the story as we went. We were very keen to tell a story of an Irish town and we said we needed to immerse ourselves within that world to discover the characters and to give a depth of what we were trying to write about. Because at that particular time, it would have been at the tail end of the banking crisis and the fallout, and we were interested to tell a parable of that. We discussed a lot about John Steinbeck and that kind of timeless quality as a morality tale. That was our objective. That's how it came about and certainly brought the initial outline of the story.”

“Then we would have come back and worked on it subsequently with further drafts. In terms of first feature, I always knew that I would have certain restrictions in terms of budget. The best way to embrace that I felt, was to looking at a piece where I could really have the time available to work with the cast. We were really fortunate in terms of the cast that we got. I had written stuff previously. I had written a Sci-Fi film with Eugene O'Brien and it was a great script but it wouldn't have been achievable for a first timer, due to the budget that had been raised. So that's the kind of genesis of how it all came about.”

IFTN: How did you find the change in moving from a short film to a feature?

Morgan: “In terms of prep and in terms of setting it up, it's the same kind of machine. But then obviously in a short, you would shoot for maybe a week, whereas with a feature, it was four weeks, in our case. You have to pace yourself a lot more, there’s more stamina involved. That would be the main difference. It's more of a marathon than a sprint.”

IFTN: The film boasts a great Irish cast with Pat Shortt, Michael Smiley, Peter Coonan, Art Parkinson, Lauren Kinsella. Can you tell me about how they get involved?

Morgan: “I had worked with Peter Coonan on one my previous short films ‘Doghouse’ and we were very keen to work together again. I would've had him in mind very early for the rooster character. Peter would obviously be quite well known as Fran from ‘Love/Hate’ so we really went out of the way to create a character that would move away from that and really highlight his talent because he's a terrific actor. Then with Pat, Greg and I wrote the role specifically with Pat in mind. I approached him after the third draft. He was very enthusiastic about it, and we worked closely with him on the character, which ended up being such a nuanced performance. I knew with Pat’s talents we could build the character with him and get him comfortable within that space, but flexible enough to break out of it.”

“Then with Michael Smiley, I think he's such a terrific actor. I remember the first time I saw him in Ben Wheatley’s ‘Kill List’ and I was just blown away by it. Then there was just something about ‘A Field in England’, I was like, ‘Okay, this guy is perfect for Gits’ Because, I think with the character you could've maybe overdone it, but I think he brings the right level of charisma to essentially what the antagonist is. Then, with Lara Kinsella, I've been a big fan of hers for a while now, and in particular in Mark Noonan’s You’re Ugly Too. I just think she blew me away, so she was who I had in mind for that, very early on. Then there are a couple of first timers like Cian Gallagher, who played Noddy and Ronan Graham who played Pale Face, so I mean, its exciting work for those guys as well. They really delivered. Then there is Art Parkinson as well, who I would have seen in Game of Thrones and made a great counterfoil to the protagonist Joey Moody.”

IFTN: The lead in this film is played by a young Scottish actor. How did you come across Lewis Mac Dougall?

Morgan: “With the help of our casting director Louise Kiely, we did a big search for ‘Joey’ because I knew the character would probably be played by a first timer as well. We didn't have a great deal of time and when you don't have a great deal of time, you really have to be confident in your actors to deliver. We looked at a lot of kids and there were a lot of strong kids out there, but they just didn't have that spark that I was looking for. Then we put the call out internationally and Lewis did a self-tape and sent it in. Originally, I thought he was from Northern Ireland, but the minute I saw it, I just said, ‘That's our guy.’ He's exactly what we're looking for because, I think, with the role, he was 14 when we shot the movie, but if he had been a bit older, then it would have been something else and I was keen to get that cusp of not a kid but not yet a man. I hadn’t been aware of Lewis previously as I hadn’t seen A Monsters Call or Pan so it was great that he could come to the set already with that discipline and that professionalism for being a young actor.”

IFTN: Something that is very clear from the outset of the movie is the great onscreen dynamic between Pat Shortt and Lewis MacDougall. How crucial was preparation in strengthening that chemistry?

Morgan: “Yes, it was crucial because if the chemistry wasn't there, the whole ‘funny movie’ sense wouldn't have been there at all. What was great, and what I did at the start of rehearsals was to let them get into it. I knew the guys had the lines. So I had blocked them in to explain what I was trying to do in each scene, but they are both so intuitive anyway that half of the battle was already won. A lot of them just kind of sitting around and we would have played a lot of cards and stuff, just for the guys to get to know each other and get a sense of who they were. Lewis would have known of Pat before he came but I think it was only when he came to Ireland and we were shooting the film that he realized how revered and well-known Pat is.”

IFTN: The film comes out in Ireland on Friday. Are there any further distribution plans in the pipeline and has there been any international interest regarding it?

Morgan: “Yes, so we've had a really terrific festival run. We played in Rome and then we played in Chicago where it was up for the new director's competition, which was great. After Christmas, it’s hitting San Francisco and a few others so it's been great to watch it with international audiences as well. It obviously opened the (Galway Film) Fleadh, which is a big deal for a first movie. Especially since all my shorts have been down there. So it really felt kind of full circle. We have screened in Cork as well. In that regard, it's great just to gather different viewpoints from around the world and other material. In terms of the next steps, it’s down to XYZ, they're going to sell the film in North America. Then we'll see then after Christmas and look to try and push it internationally, and obviously, just try and get as many people to see it as possible. Bring it to everyone's attention.”

IFTN: Do you have any other projects coming up now? What are you currently working on?

Morgan: “I'm working on a number of things, but in terms of from a director point of view. I've adapted a book called ‘Irish Fly’, which is about a con man in America. Then I'm also developing a TV series called ‘Closed City’. That's part of SeriesLabs. It's set in Russia, just after the war. It's a new secret city the czar would have built. Then, from a producer point of view, I've just finished Ciaran Cassidy's film, Jihad Jane and the Real World, and I'm producing George Kane’s new project the new year, so I have a lot on mostly!”

‘The Belly of the Whale’ is being released by Wildcard Distribution in cinemas nationwide on Friday, December 7th.

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