The Birth of ‘A City Dreaming‘, Interview with Mark McCauley, Director
Back in the 70s, my brother was a young guy playing guitar, into jazz and blues and playing in bands, so we knew Gerry then, but I didn’t meet Gerry again until years later, after I came back from London in my 30s.
I lived not too far away, so I’d see him out walking occasionally. I can’t remember how we started talking, but he knew that what I did was a touch unusual, and he, from what he’d done and where he’d been, I think he was a bit unusual himself, so there was something of a mutual respect – you know what Gerry was like.
We connected, and we chatted about maybe doing something together. Gerry talked initially about making some abstract short dramas based on his experiences.
He showed me one story he’d written about Ronnie Hawkins – him, out of his head, sitting in a hotel room with Hawkins, who was on the phone to Bill Haley. Hawkins wanted to put Gerry on the phone and pretend he was one of the Beatles because Haley hated The Beatles – they’d ruined his rock’n’roll life by daring to come on the scene.
Derry City of Culture inspired the film’s genesis
Generally, these were just creative conversations that didn’t really have a goal. Then 2013 was looming – the year in which Derry would be the City of Culture. So, I came up with the idea of making a slightly abstract film about the city that wouldn’t stick to any historical or documentary style conventions – there have been too many of those about Northern Ireland.
I wanted to make something very different, and that’s where it started. Chatting to Gerry, we came up with a beginning, a middle and an end. And so it came about that the abstract bedroom scene was filmed down in my mother’s house with the curtains billowing at the window.
Gerry scripted that scene, and I told him how I wanted it to end – with an abstract kind of loss of innocence so that these two parts came together in the full circle.
The Real Beginning – concept, funding and a producer
And that was all we had to start. You need money to make a film, so we went about trying to fund the project. Our first stop was Andrew Reed at Northern Ireland Screen. He suggested that we get an executive producer, so it went to Andrew Eaton, a Derry native based in London, and now a high-profile producer with serious credits to his name, including Season 1 of The Crown and Rush.
Andrew rang me from the dubbing suite, where he was making a feature film in Berlin, and spoke at length about how he absolutely adored what we’d done and that he really wanted to be involved.
We had a producer. We had the promise of money from the NI Screen, who also pointed us in the direction of the British Film Institute.
Through a series of corridor ambushes, Andrew brought about a meeting so that I could outline our project. With endorsement from NI Screen, the BFI agreed.
We had a concept, funding, a producer – and now an end date! The film would have to be screened in Derry in the year of the City of Culture.
The Middle – childhood illness, heroines and blondes
There were a number of things that would have to feature in the film.
One was Gerry’s childhood, and his illness as a child which led him to be slightly more observant growing up; his street, the cattle scuttling by catching the whiff of what lay ahead – all those wonderful world descriptions that he had.
Another was the role of women in the society in Derry and how to create an arc between the wonderfully powerful and influential women, who, despite their limited place, were tremendously, dominant and intelligent, and in Derry often the breadwinners, and someone incredibly adventurous, glamourous and unfettered, like Amelia Earhart.
We were very lucky to come across footage of Amelia Earhart, landed in a field outside Derry. It was shot by a man called Mackie, who ran an engineering works in Belfast. Mr. Mackie was a man of means, so when Amelia Earhart’s plane landed in Gallagher’s field, he climbed into his plane with his film camera and shot this incredible footage.
His family kindly allowed us to use it, so now we had that link between the strong women of Derry and a very exotic woman who landed like someone from outer space; a connection between the woman in her apron at home and this magical woman dropping from the sky.
Gerry wasn’t sure if he hadn’t dreamt about her: Greta Gallagher – the young blonde-haired girl from Gerry’s street. She was hit by the police in 1951 during St. Patrick’s Day, and he had seen it all. A local Daily Journal photographer had taken the photo, but it made its way to the front page of the Manchester Guardian, as it was then. So, we dug into that – I took the sequence and put it to Debussy’s Girl With the Flaxen Hair. We made the photograph 3-dimensional and extended it.
Turning Point – education, ticking clocks and spaghetti westerns
I think it was 1945 the Labour government introduced an Education Act, which was going to grant university education to everyone. The result was a newly university-educated generation coming onto the streets all over Derry and Northern Ireland – you knew something was going to happen. From that point, we progressed to the whole section about civil rights and the shifting of tectonic plates.
So, the girl with the flaxen hair was a way to say that the clock was ticking, and this place was about to change forever, but also to say that Derry was about to take its place on a world stage that no one could have dreamed of. And then that in turn took us to Martin Luther King.
We were able to unearth great photos from the collected work of others. We also managed to get access to press photos from one of the newspaper offices that was bombed – it had glass plates dating back to the 1920s and 30s. Those guys from the 1920s and the 1930s and those orange marches reminded me so much of drifters, hired guns out of a Clint Eastwood western.
That brought us via Ennio Morricone to the film For a Fistful of Dollars and the spaghetti westerns. We had momentum – a combination of photographs, imagery and Gerry.
Pioneers – Ennio Morricone, Burt Lancaster, Martin Luther King and the streets of Derry
Gerry badly wanted to get a John Wayne type section in there, but footage from a John Wayne film – or any other western, would have cost much more money than we could afford.
Then I found Vengeance Valley from 1951, starring Burt Lancaster. It seemed that the lawyers had neglected that year to renew the copyright on the film, so it had lapsed into public ownership for two years. As luck would have it, Burt Lancaster’s ancestors came from Belfast. And that’s how ideas came together in the scanner room.
Of course, Gerry ‘s great twist on it was that he recognized that the way these cowboys talked – it was not unlike old Ulster Scots… he was fascinated by those pioneers of the Wild West.
Jump forward, and I’m researching the Martin Luther King speech for our civil rights section.
Anything to do with troubles or civil rights was not Gerry’s thing. But when you’re making a film about the City of Derry, you must go there because it’s an integral part of the story of Derry.
As for Burt Lancaster being called to the podium and addressing the crowd during the Martin Luther King speech in 1963 – the gods were smiling on us. It was blessedly accidental that I came across that.
I think we recognize that it’s not only in America that the fight for freedom and dignity is being waged.Burt Lancaster
The struggle for freedom on the previously subjugated is occurring in capitals and villages all over the world. It’s in our awareness of what the struggle means and in the degree of our dedication to it that our futures and the futures of the world depend on it…
Sometimes things fall in your lap. But maybe also, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
Anyway, it’s how we used Ennio Morricone to lead to Burt Lancaster leading into Martin Luther King leading back onto the streets of Derry. It helped us to make sense of it all in an artistic way rather than through the lens of current affairs. Gerry was definitely more uncomfortable with that section.
The End – unbroken spirits, Seamus Heaney and Derry City’s future
The final part of the film was meant to be a way to describe the troubles without dehumanizing the people. Whatever way you look at it politically, the violence and destruction was endured by those on all sides in the city.
In the final sequence, the violence decreases in duration and the smiling faces come through more strongly. It was our way of portraying an unbroken spirit. And that was meant to be the end of the film.
But Gerry’s illness was progressing. Though we had finished recording, I wanted to add something on to the end, the sense of Gerry having lived a life from that child that we first saw in his bedroom.
Now he’s gazing back over his life with the hope that Derry won’t be that city dreaming of a decent future or a decent present, but that it be a city that lives that decent present into the future. And that’s where the Seamus Heaney poem comes into its own.
Now clearly, Gerry was skeptical at this idea. I wanted to include it not only because I liked the idea, but partly because Gerry used to take the piss out of him on the radio show. Secretly, he obviously had an admiration for Heaney. I thought too that the idea of them sharing the poem would work well.
Heaney had already left us, but before he passed away, I had found that section with Seamus Heaney down in his house down in South Dublin, and so we got in touch with his wife, Marie, who was very happy for us use the clip. This was one of the magic moments. And so it came to be that Gerry and Séamus shared the poem.
Ending the film with the shared poem rather than an edgy troubles sequence with kids made it more philosophical. As Gerry was.
The Caveat – ‘I hope they’re right’
I remember sitting down chatting about the script – it was about people looking forward to a brighter future and he said:
Listen, I want to put in another line. I want to put in a line ‘I hope they’re right’.Gerry Anderson
Having lived here for long enough, he realized that sometimes what’s meant to be doesn’t always happen. There’s always some chance that things could take a wrong turn – that was his caveat.
The Music – sticking to our creative guns
Michael Keeney was responsible for the orchestration, particularly powerful at the end of the film.
We’d really done almost everything with contemporary music, and I regularly sent sections off to Michael for his input. By the end, he had written it all, and had it recorded in one day – a Saturday. He sent it across to me on the same day after spending 10 hours recording with 12 musicians in a Dublin studio – a fabulous job.
Michael was much inspired by the composer Thomas Newman, who was a cousin of Randy’s, both part of the highly talented Newman family of composers.
Though there were fears among stakeholders that the music was too small, too soft, too romantic, we stuck to our creative guns in the knowledge that we knew how the bigger picture was going to deliver. We were not wrong.
Would there have been more?
Was it a format Gerry would have liked to work in more had he been granted the opportunity? The answer is yes, of course. Though he grew increasingly ill as the project went on, he was hugely impassioned about it and, had he lived, I’m sure that he would have been desperate to do more – he loved the whole process. I think the older he got, the more he felt like he wanted to do something more challenging.
With this film, you’re not going to walk out of it feeling any simplistic emotions. You leave this film with very complex thoughts about human existence, but told through the eyes of Gerry Anderson and his city. On his radio show, he was master of sidestepping troublesome water. He just loved to entertain. That’s why his appeal was so strong – staying a million miles away from mainstream or straying into political territory. He did feel some reticence about going into political territory in the film, but you know, I think he did it well.
The part of the whole process that stood out for me was the night of the screening – seeing how it had all come together. Because when you put all these things together with so many different thoughts, and different pictures and different music and see how people appreciate it? It’s truly wonderful to see that the whole thing worked.
But yes – that was Gerry.