Oscar-nominated director, Steph Green chats to Laura Bell about her reasons for settling down in Ireland, the generosity of Roddy Doyle and how directors apply their personal touch
“I’m trying to keep things very truthful, rooted and grounded, at a time where media can be about the biggest explosion or the weirdest thing or the bloodiest thing or the craziest thing. I’m more interested in the craziness and truisms of character.”
In an industry that is notoriously poisoned by greed and excess, filmmakers like Steph Green seem all too rare. Having earned herself an Oscar nomination for her short film New Boy in 2009, Green returns to our screens this year with her first foray into feature film, in the form of the sensitive and reflective Run and Jump.
Born and raised in America, Green studied Radio, Television and Film at Northwestern University before emigrating to Ireland in order to undertake a postgraduate degree in film theory from UCD. “I immediately loved being in Dublin,” she says. “I came over and studied film theory for a year and stayed for twelve.”
Green would return to America periodically in order to keep herself financially afloat, working as an assistant to director Spike Jonze, who is perhaps best known for the comically mind-bending Being John Malkovich, as well as HBO’s Alan Poul, a producer and director behind a number of critically acclaimed dramas including Six Feet Under and The Newsroom. “I nurtured a commercial career in the US while creating a cultural one in Ireland. Ireland was always where the storytelling bug originated.”
Green’s first short film took the form of 2001’s Copywrite, which she used as a base for her initial major learning curve. “I was interested in the relationship between a writer and their subject and that complicated love affair.” More than a decade on, she admits to Otwo that it was a learning experience; an exercise in creative restraint. “I was trying to fit all my dreams of an opus into a short… Copywrite was incredibly over-complicated for a short film.”
Her second short, Push Hands, followed in 2004 and hit the barrier at the other end of the spectrum; a deliberately and decisively simple production that chronicled the relationship between a teenage graffiti artist and Chinese Tai Chi master. Green admits that it wasn’t until the hugely successful New Boy that she feels she found her voice and personal equilibrium as a filmmaker.
The accolades and rave reviews that were lavished upon the 11-minute drama certainly reflected this creative growth. In addition to its Oscar nomination, New Boy swept the short film category at film festivals around the globe. At the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008 it was described as “moving, funny, and powerful… New Boy took us on a complete emotional journey.”
Based on the short story by Roddy Doyle, New Boy deals with the experience of a young African boy in an Irish primary school. Conscious of the difficulty inherent in funding short films, Doyle generously gave the story to Green and her team for the kingly sum of one euro, “with the caveat of that if we didn’t make any money from this, we would pay him something slightly more deserved.”
The collaboration ultimately proved itself to be magic; Green describes it as, “The perfect situation where a writer is able to share their work with a young director.” With New Boy, the production crew had the advantage of being able to follow the structure of the original story and simply adapt it to a more visual medium. In this sense, Run and Jump therefore presented a risk and a deviation from Green’s tried and tested formula.
Starring Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame, Run and Jump tells the story of an Irish family who must adapt their lives when the father suffers a stroke and a consequent personality change. Forte features as an American psychologist who moves in with the family in order to research his condition.
“The writing of the screenplay by Ailbhe Keogan was so idiosyncratic, honest, and really truthful,” Green says. “All of that was because it was her first screenplay. It wasn’t subscribing to traditional media structure… There was this great truthfulness to the script.”
The story is personal and the setting intimate, a luxury Green believes the Irish setting affords her vision. Hollywood studio politics are the least of her interests. An Oscar nomination can open a lot of doors for Green, but they all lead back to her home in Ireland.
“What’s nice about Ireland is its encouragement of expression with less resources than you might expect. I think Irish audiences are very sophisticated. It’s a storytelling culture, Ireland lives for the joke, for the clever turn of phrase.
“Irish people take time to have that conversation with you and greet you as a human being before ever going into the business side. In Ireland there’s this priority on story. Hollywood has this obsession with business.”
Ultimately, Green is always conscious of portraying intimacy and of applying her personal touch. It’s clear from viewing her work that she respects the power of the visual and non-verbal. Her director’s eye pushes beyond explanatory dialogue and space filling chit-chat in order to unearth the incredible, if subtle, descriptive power of body language.
“A look or touch or subtle expression can have such a ripple effect in a person’s life… I love the use of films to show facial expressions. To show the emotion in relationships that tie us together as humans.”
These aspects of her character shape what type of director she is and helps Green stand out from the rest of the crowd, which ties into her advice for budding film makers. “I think there’s a lot of pressure: have a distinctive style, or you’re not going to get anywhere. I think that can be distracting from figuring out what you want to say. If you say it from your gut, then it will have a distinctive style.”