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Director Emer Reynolds discusses Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away
08 Jan 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Phil Lynott.
We caught up with director Emer Reynolds to get a better insight into bringing the story of one of Ireland’s greatest ever frontmen to the big screen.

Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away, explores the life and music of Thin Lizzy lead singer and rock icon Phil Lynott. The feature doc will trace how a young mixed race boy growing up in working-class 1950’s Dublin became one of Ireland’s greatest rock stars as frontman of Thin Lizzy. Lynott who met his untimely death in 1986 at the young age of 36, was born in Birmingham to a Brazilian father and Irish mother.

As lead singer of Thin Lizzy, Lynott and his group enjoyed international success and Reynolds’ documentary tells his story largely through the words of the performer himself. The film also focuses on many of his best-known songs and features a number of well-known musical talents as contributors including Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell, Scott Gorham, Darren Wharton, Midge Ure, U2’s Adam Clayton, Suzi Quatro, Huey Lewis, Skid Row’s Brush Shiels, and Metallica’s James Hetfield. 

Reynolds, a Grierson-nominated feature documentary director and multi-award winning film editor, had her directorial debut with the documentary Here Was Cuba, co-directed with John Murray, which screened at festivals worldwide, on More4, and was nominated for a Grierson Award 2014. 

In 2017, Reynolds directed the award-winning feature documentary The Farthest, featuring the amazing story of the Voyager spacecraft. After a very successful release in Ireland, the U.K, and the U.S, the documentary won Outstanding Science Documentary at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards in 2018. A five-time IFTA winning editor, her feature credits include I Went DownThe ActorsThe Eclipse, and Patrick's Day, and documentary work includes One Million DublinersWe went to War and Broken Tail

Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away is produced by Universal Music’s Globe Production with backing from Screen Ireland. It is produced by Alan Maher and John Wallace for Cowtown Pictures and Peter Worsley for Eagle Rock Films, and distributed by Breakout Pictures. 

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin spoke with Reynold's about getting to know the man behind the rockstar, and getting to know the people closest to him.

IFTN: What a fantastic documentary to have the opportunity to do; on such an iconic figure in Irish music history. How did the opportunity come about to make the project?

Emer: “I was approached by Alan Maher, one of the film's producers, late in 2017, just when I was coming to the end of my publicity run from my last film, The Farthest. He was a fan of that film and heard that I was a Lizzy fan, and he and Eagle Rock were in the process of finally being able to make a film about Phil Lynott. Many, many fine filmmakers have tried to make either a drama or a documentary on Phil Lynott for many, many years, and for various reasons, they haven't happened, so this was certainly a moment when it appeared it might be possible. 

“He approached me to see, would I have any interest in coming on board and collaborating, and I nearly bit his arm off. I was so excited because I have been a massive fan of Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy since I was a teenager, so we talked about the sort of film I might be interested in making, and we explored how we would go about it. That's how it all began, spring 2018.”

IFTN: I had read before that you were a massive fan. As a director, what was it like, after all those years of immersing yourself in his music, to actually then immerse yourself in the story and make this homage to him as a person?

Emer: “I discovered very quickly when we started doing the research into how we'd make a film or what was the story of the film or what was the style of the film and how could you tell this story in the absence of Philip being alive and having a key interview and all that? I actually discovered that I was really just a fan. I had totally fallen for Philip's image. If you asked me who he was, I'd have said, 'He was an incredible performer. He had legs that go on forever and the hair. His command of the audience, his command of the stage, so confident and such a sexy, glorious voice and performer.’ I hadn't really known the depth to him or the man behind the rockstar.”

“It's interesting to me that all those years, I had never asked that question. I just completely thought, ‘That's who he is, that's the guy, and loved it and loved him. So it was wonderful. It was a wonderful journey of discovery for me as a person, as a fan, as a filmmaker, to find there was another person behind that. There was an amazing young sensitive shy boy behind this incredible confident rockstar, and there was an incredible poetic songwriter behind there too and to really peel back those layers and peel back the image and be able to peek in there and see the man, that was an incredible journey of discovery and joy, really, to see the depth that there was there to be ploughed and plumbed in a film.”

IFTN: Although the film is posthumously done, there is still a real sense of first-person narration to the story and how it unfolded. How exactly did you go about that and was that something you always had in mind to do?

Emer: That was key. That was the top-line note I had when we were trying to write the treatment and write the idea for the film and put the film into some coherent shape. It was that we would tell it in a close-to-the-first-time as we could. Obviously, Philip being passed, no way to get a contemporary interview with him, sadly, but really, how would I be able to tell it in Philip's own words? And there was three ways that I was able to do that.

“One was through his songs. In the absence of having Philip here to do an interview, you look around and you find all these albums of songs, all these songs spanning 20 years where he was writing about his concerns, his interests, his life, his inner life, his journey, his experiences to really try to put the songs centre stage. It's time to tell his life story through the songs, and as a result, a great spotlight is shone on the songs and on the lyrics through the film in order to let the songs speak for Philip.

“The second way was that we dug deep a big archive through his previous interviews, audio and on TV, to try to find Philip talking personally and talking about his journey, talking more intimately about his process as a songwriter, as an artist. That was pretty hard to do, not only to find the archives, but also to find him prepared to let his guard down. He often spoke about ‘The bands’ and ‘The gigs’ and ‘The tours.’ He was quite happy to speak about the albums and all that, but not actually to reveal himself, and so that took a long time, and amazing credit to my two researchers, Jo Halpin and Maggie Fagan, that we were able to discover those pieces.

“The third and final way to let him talk for himself was to talk to as many people as close as possible to him. Maybe people who had never spoken before, who'd never gone on record before. People like his great friend, Gus Curtis; people like his daughters; people like his early girlfriend, Gale Clayton; people who had never really spoken before but who knew the man, knew him personally, knew him intimately, knew the man behind the image. And to hope that they would trust me with the story, trust me with the responsibility of telling it well and telling it with the care and love and tenderness that they wanted it to be told by. We were so fortunate to have unearthed and gotten in the film people who knew him so well and were prepared to talk to us with such intimacy and closeness, to reveal himself.”

IFTN: You touched on three of my next questions, so I suppose I'm going to go into each of those three aspects a little more. 

Firstly, from an editorial point of view. How did you find that approaching the interweaving or the marrying of that life and music? Because it really fantastically tells that story of almost, without attaching it directly, but how the songs tell the parts of his story that we don't have him there to speak of?

Emer: “I approached this in the sense of trying to-- early days, it was almost like, is there a song that shines a light into this moment. If I wanted to talk to his separation from his mother at age seven, is there a song that talked to that idea? Or his thoughts about his birth father that he never met, are there songs that talked to that? It was really just to line up those kinds of stars from the same constellation or tracks on an album of Phil's life. Was there a way to find songs that would allow me to deal with those ideas, all the narrative beats that I wanted?

“Then I didn't want to take a straight line through his life chronology, although some parts of the film are pretty chronological. That just became a driver to do a drama. The drama to see him pretty shy on stage, and then a few moments later when he perfects his stagecraft, you see a more spectacularly, confident Phil emerging. Playing that chronologically has a really strong narrative driver and potential.

“In certain places, it was really just allowing the song, seeing where there are songs that could allow us to deal with those moments, and then always wanting his life and his career, his public life and his private life, to be always weaving in and out of each other all the way through the film. I keep trying to keep that leisure ticking all the way through, although, in one part of the film, you do, when he starts to become huge and the hits are taking off. At that point in the film you go on a bit of a roller coaster of, ‘Oh my God, he's in front of screaming fans every night of the week’. You almost forget that he is a private man and has a private life. That's a deliberate feeling to almost try to spellbind the film's audience into how it must have been for him that suddenly, he was in this vortex of fame.”

IFTN: You have touched on the wide array of first-time accounts and interviews that feature in the film. What can you tell us about unearthing those different contexts and then the interview process; did that lead you on to other gems that built the narrative as well, from talking to these people?

Emer: “Yes. It's a huge credit to my researcher, Jo Halpin, who tracked down all my top hits of ‘can we find numbers and addresses for these people?’ She went and dug deep and really sought them out. Then we did what I do on all my films, which is to meet with the contributors long before we ever sit down in front of a film camera, and really get to know them and get to express to them what sort of film we want to make and the tone of it and the approach of the film.

“In this instance, talking to his close family and friends that from the start, it wasn't a salacious or a tabloid version of his rise and fall: the tragic ending, that that wasn't the top note of the film. The top note of the film was to be personal and to be poetic, to be intimate, to be tender and compassionate. To celebrate him and to be compassionate about the way his life turned out: the turn that he went down that led to such a tragic ending. 

“So we met all of them beforehand with a couple of obvious exceptions like James Heartfield and Huey Lewis, who were in the States. But all of the close family and friends I got to know, and I got to know them to build trust. That's very important to me, that we have that integrity and that we build it on an understanding. That it's not building trust in order to eventually get them in front of a camera and make them say something that they don't want to say, that it's borne out of proper responsibility and respect, and respect for their lives and their story and their relationship with Phil.

“I managed to build those friendships and those relationships before. Then when they sit in front of the camera, there is great trust and a bond and an understanding. I hope that's how they were able to speak so freely and so openly, and you really feel that in the film: the love they have for him, the journey they went on with him. It's a huge privilege for me, and I believe it's a privilege for the audience to be able to share in that intimacy.”

IFTN: There’s obviously quite a touching moment towards the end of the film with Phil Lynott’s daughters, Sarah and Kathleen, discussing the songs that their father wrote for them. I can only imagine, but you saying that now, explaining your process that allowed them to speak very openly and comfortably, which really came across on screen.

Emer: “I too lost a parent as a young child. So, when I first met Sarah and Kathleen those things bond you to other people in the world, nevermind people that you're hoping to have on camera, that you have shared experiences, and that you understand what Kathleen is talking about when she says that her memories of her father are so fragile; they're little snippets of memory. 

“You look at them too carefully but they wriggle away from you. Really, to be able to understand each other and get to know each other like that was huge and was huge in terms of being able then, for them to agree, they’ve never spoken before, to be able to agree and share their memories of their dad, it's so moving. It's so moving to hear them talking about the songs he wrote for them as little children. It's a wonderful moment in the film.”

IFTN: I'm very interested in your process that; that idea of meeting with them in advance and establishing a very strong rapport with them before you sat them down in front of the camera. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you developed that?

Emer: “That came, in fact, from my process on The Farthest, the last film I made, which was about the iconic voyager spacecraft. From the start, we had a desire to tell quite a personal film with a lot of humanity and heart and humour and openness, and all that, and really needed to talk to the contributors who are very, very experienced scientists and engineers who've talked about this spacecraft for 40 years. 

“I really just wanted to meet them to tell them what I want to do with this film, what we wanted to do with the film was different. We wanted to look at the human behind the store, to really get into the feelings. [chuckles] I don't want to just explore the scientific results of the flyby of Jupiter, I want to know how it felt like for you when you built that spacecraft and sent it out there.

“It was something myself and Claire Strong who was my producer on The Farthest and John Murray, the other producer, that we honed in on that point and we really saw it paying such incredible dividends in terms of the quality of the engagement with the characters when they do come on screen. I learned it then and brought it to Songs For While I'm Away, and I'm so glad I did because I think it's so valuable.

“It's so valuable that your contributors are prepared to trust you and you build that relationship with them before the camera gets turned on, because it gives you that magic ingredient of when they do sit in front of the camera, that the camera can fall away. This strange little studio environment with a boom overhead and all that, and the lights, that it can all fall away and really, it's just going to be them talking to me, somebody they know, someone they've met a few times; we've had coffee, we've had pints, that they know, so they can engage with me, and they're happy to do so. That's a real magic ingredient, and I think it's so valuable in my process.”

IFTN: Yes, it's an incredible thing. I'm sure it's probably happened to you in the past where you could talk to someone who is so articulate or so open to discussing a topic and then you put them in front of a camera, and all of a sudden, you just realize that it's just such an obstacle in the way of actually speaking freely.

Emer: “Clang. It just stops, yes. But also, there's so many ways that can go. They might think you want them to deliver sound bites, they want you to give me the little 30-second bite of what it's like to be Phil Lynott's friend or in the band with Phil Lynott, so actually, it's important to say, ‘I don't want that. Let's go off-road; let's just chat, I'll figure out the story and put it together coherently afterward; let's just freewheel and go down blind alleys, and tell me funny anecdotes even if you don't think they're germane to the story.’ 

“What we're doing is talking as friends and revealing ourselves to each other and trusting each other, and thus, we find some incredible gems in that way of working. I do, certainly.”

IFTN: With Covid, you have probably had a bit of time to reflect on making this project. Having had a bit of perspective now, what was it like painting a visual picture to a soundtrack you were so familiar with growing up?

Emer: “I was very, very keen to make a film that was greater than just our cause and interview, that it would have a very strong visual flair, that it would have very strong visual language borne out of a desire to be empathetic and open and epic and cinematic and tender. I asked myself the question, 'Was there a way for the film to represent the man? Is there a way for the filmic language to be the man, to talk to those ideas that are in the film about the difference between the private and the public, that the shy boy learning to reveal himself, the man on stage versus the man in his back garden?’, and finding a visual language to express all of that.

“I can't tell you how honoured and excited I was that I was able to have with me my incredible team from The Farthest: cinematographer, Kate McCullough; production designer, Joe Fallover; editor, Tony Cranstoun; and my composer, Ray Harman; all of them. We’ve got this shared aesthetic, we've been through it before, we all know each other so well, what we want to create. They're just four incredible film artists that bring such authority and intent and style and ambition to the piece, and we really just workshopped all of these ideas. ‘How can we make this really explore?’

“I often talk about the film now and I think, as I said, ‘Could the film represent the man, or could the film express the man that you see on stage?’ I kept talking about wanting to make it a shy film with swagger, that it would be tender and poetic and intimate, and it would also be loud and colourful and blowsy and sexy, and to make a film that could embrace all of those things. With my incredible creative collaboration team, I really feel we certainly gave it a good shot.”

IFTN: Lastly, details of your first feature film, Joyride, written by Ailbhe Keoghan, has been announced with Oscar winning actress Olivia Colman starring in the lead role. What can you tell us about that?

Emer: “It was announced recently at AFM. It's with Subotica, with Aoife O’Sullivan producing, and, as you say, a fantastic Irish writer, Ailbhe Keoghan has written it. They're calling it a foul-mouthed, feel-good fairy tale with the incredibly talented Olivia Coleman. I'm so honoured, I can't believe our fantastic fortune to have Olivia signed up to play the lead character, Joy. 

“Really, it's a kind of dark road movie comedy with huge heart. It's so uplifting and feel-good, and it's really, really fun, and it's really warm and beautiful. It's set in the wilds of Kerry and Clare with a fair wind. COVID willing and all that, we'll be shooting it, hopefully, next summer, depending on everyone's schedule, so that's the plan. I'm so excited to do it. I can't wait to do drama.”

The new release date for the documentary is yet to be announced, with cinema closures due to Covid delaying the release last year.   

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