Fionn O'Shea, Gabriel Byrne and James Marsh at the press conference Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival/Jorge Fuembuena
Speaking at the press conference in San Sebastian Gabriel Byrne said that “talking to himself” as the writer interrogates a second version of himself of the film was quite tricky.#
“Technically, it was difficult," he explains, “because usually when you're doing drama, you're talking to somebody else but when you're talking to yourself, which I do myself in life anyway, that could be technically challenging. But between James and the rest of the crew, they made it really, really easy. You still can't get past the fact that you are in the end, talking to yourself. But sometimes talking to yourself can be the best conversation.”
Marsh said the script came to him during the pandemic. “I expected it to be a sort of conventional biography of Samuel Beckett,” he says.
Aidan Gillen San Sebastian. 'I think what Beckett learned from Joyce was to just do it himself, to do it his way' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival/Jorge Fuembuena
“It becomes very subversive, early on,” he adds. He also says that though he is known for documentary work, including Man On Wire and Project Nim “this was a great liberation”.
He adds it was a “way of doing a kind of speculative biography of Samuel Beckett, when you're speculating and using short vignettes of his life, it was a good way of making a playful film about Samuel Beckett. So Neil's writing persuaded me to do it as a feature film, not a documentary.”
Byrne adds: “I think that Beckett as a character is sometimes portrayed as, and he portrayed himself as, a kind of a mythical figure oftentimes dissociated from real emotion, which I think comes from the perception of his work. But if you look at any of those players, underneath the bleakness and the despair, there's tremendous humanity. I think that Neil’s script was really good in terms of presenting the life of a man who is a ‘myth’ in a human way with a kind of surreal touch.”
Forsyth adds: “I think theoretically, Beckett was never funnier, or angrier, or more scabriouss than when he was talking to himself. Whether it was his diaries or short stories or as thinly veiled autobiographical writings, so it was trying to create a device where we could see Beckett turn on himself, question himself, berate himself and poke fun at himself. So it was that kind of theoretical take and then I suppose I just handed the creative reality of that over to James and his team and I think they did a brilliant job.”
Gabriel Byrne as Samuel Beckett. 'I think that Neil’s script was really good in terms of presenting the life of a man who is a ‘myth’ in a human way with a kind of surreal touch' Photo: Sky Cinema
He explains: “I began to look at photographs of Beckett's situation in the 1930s and 40s, in Paris, and went to a photographer, Brassaï, who's a Hungarian photographer who worked in France and in Paris, in particular, and I sort of fell in love with the way he depicted Paris at that time, and felt that this would really work well for the film. Also the imagery of Beckett is a kind of monochrome Beckett, with a cigarette and a profile. So I think it was the right choice.”
It’s not just O’Shea and Byrne who are taking on a famous writer’s role in the film as Gillen also has to step into the shoes of Ulyssees author James Joyce.
He says: “I suppose it can seem like a daunting task sometimes to play real life characters, particularly ones that are so iconic and literary geniuses.”
Noting he had played real people before he adds: “A lot of your work is there for you, a lot of your choices have already been made. I wouldn't say it's an impersonation and I don't think Gabriel was too obsessed about it being a direct impersonation either. Because at the end of the day, I look like this, you know. For me, it was just about trying to get across what that spark might have been, what the influence was, and in a way, I think what Beckett learned from Joyce was to just do it himself, to do it his way, which they both did, and both changed the landscape of literature. It's an honor to get to do it and I hope it works.”
O’Shea also notes that he and Byrne worked together so that the younger and older versions of Beckett worked together well onscreen.
“I think something that Gabriel and I tried to establish very early was what mannerisms would be unique to my version of Beckett and his and then what we carry throughout both. I think probably the most difficult was the youngest version, the teenager going into twenties. But there was also a lot of freedom in that because you change so much in that time. I certainly hope I'm not like I was when I was that age. But in terms of the process of doing that I made a board of any image I could find of Beckett and kind of categorised it into when he's talking, when he's smoking, when he's walking and things like that. And then we went through that together to kind of establish what would be appropriate for the different versions.”
Dance First, which had its world premiere at Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, will be shown in UK cinemas from 3 November, on Sky Cinema in December and on Sky Arts and Freeview in 2024.