In his debut directorial role Jack Hickey presents a tense and emotional short film about what it means to be truly vulnerable, with Cynthia. As an experienced actor Hickey has impressive credits including Penny Dreadful, Mary Shelley and Game of Thrones. It’s no surprise then that his set know-how and passion for film has rewarded him in a directors role, having already won awards at The Irish Film Festival London and The Galway Film Fleadh. We chat to Jack about his first time in a directors shoes and what’s next for Cynthia.
How did you go about writing the script for Cynthia?
For a long time I had wanted to make my own work. I’m an actor, so I was always going to initially write something that was a character driven piece. I really enjoyed the writing process, sitting in cafes or bars in London occupying every character in the film, finding their voice. Then creating stakes high enough for each of them, so that they could all be under pressure. The hope there was that by the time we got to our finale, our dinner table scene, there was enough tension there to have this exhilarating argument and ultimately tragic impasse. With Cynthia herself, there is a long sequence where, having not spoken for so long, she arrests everybody at the table with a heartbreaking speech. This for me was the place I was trying to reach from the beginning. This emotionally fluent monologue, where this character pours out her heart and soul so gracefully. It’s so exciting to see your intention in the writing translate to screen.
What were your initial goals when you set out to make the film?
I was hoping to make something that was unashamedly emotional. A film that felt raw, real and that had a lot of heart. For that we needed some immensely talented actors, which thankfully over the course of my career I had access to. The five actors involved are friends of mine, and it was such a pleasure to see them inhabit these roles that had lived so long only in my imagination. There’s a lot of tension, and a gut-wrenching finale, so in terms of our goals for the storytelling I couldn’t have been happier.
You’ve got an impressive acting resume, what prompted you to take the leap into directing?
Yeah, I think being on sets does intoxicate you. It can be quite addictive. So you’re always thinking about projects you could make, teams you could assemble, and what exciting thing you could come out with by the end. I had observed some very talented directors, and really admired the leadership, collaboration and compassion they all showed. And when you admire something to that extent your hope is always to emulate it some day. On my latest film Sea Fever, I worked with Neasa Hardiman, who worked across TV on projects like Happy Valley (BBC) & Jessica Jones (Netflix), and she really embodies these ideas. Boundless energy, creativity, and a human touch that actors respond so well to. So I think over the course of my acting career I’ve accumulated some indispensable philosophies that will serve my directing.
You directed the short with your sister Lara as the producer, how did you find making film as a family?
Fantastic! It was a little inevitable when you consider the family we come from. My mother was an actress, my sister a producer, and my father worked across film for many decades. Our dinner table hosts a lot of heated discussion. As well, having grown up amongst the same work and sensibilities, my sister and I were ready made collaborative partners for each other. So it would’ve been a shame not to work together at some point, and we plan to many times in the future.
Cynthia deals with very prominent current issues including LGBTQ themes and mental health, what drew you to this story?
For me, there was something very rich in the idea of how to be vulnerable even in the most robust of social contexts. There are some very dominant characters in this piece, and Cynthia has to gracefully speak her truth and be very emotionally artiulate. And I just love the bravery involved in that. It’s so hard to be open and honest, even more so with your friends, and especially when the truths are so difficult. Cynthia’s journey is one from being so paralysed, and in such denial, to having a great weight lifted from her. She frees herself with her new engagement to the world, and that has been hard won through a process of therapy and self discovery. So I think we strike a hopeful tone by the end.
How did you go about sourcing your amazing cast?
I’m just so grateful we got all of these immensely talented people together at the same time. Moe Dunford, who plays Elliot, I’ve known for years. He’s one of my favourite actors working in Ireland today. We’ve worked together many times, and we were in drama school together at The Gaiety School of Acting. Same with Caoimhe O’Malley (Mel). I’ve seen her theatre work, and she’s just so impressive and a pleasure to work with. The amazing Valerie O’Connor (Clem), actually used to direct me in plays, we did a lot of Shakespeare together when I was in my early 20s. Peter Campion, who plays her husband David, is actually her real life partner. So they obviously had such easy chemistry. Then with Clare Dunne who plays Cynthia, my producer Lara had just worked with her on her own one woman show. Which she was simply phenomenal in. So in terms of knowing these actors were right for the roles, there was no question. It can help when everybody knows each other, and gets on as well as they did. The history, and the relationships between these characters had to be so rich. We were very lucky with this team.
You shot the film in Portobello, Dublin. What factors went into choosing that location?
It’s actually my sister’s house! One of the benefits of low-budget filmmaking; sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. It was the perfect location.
What advice would you have for other debut directors?
An easy one is surround yourself with people that are better and more experienced than you. A DoP that can solve problems, and you get on with personally and creatively. Philip Blake, our DoP, was an absolute gem of a find. Then personally I would say keeping things light and positive on set. I think it’s fundamental to being an effective leader. You’ll have so much to do, and a degree of stress might be inevitable, but staying positive for everyone’s sake (especially your own), is essential. If you’re passionate for the work everybody else will be too.
The film has already picked up awards from Irish Film Festival London, among others, what’s next for Cynthia?
Yeah, winning there and at The Galway Film Fleadh meant a huge deal to us. Especially since The Irish Film Festival London award was selected by Lenny Abrahamson, someone who’s work I’ve always admired so much. We’ve had some truly amazing experiences communicating this piece so far. Our goal is to get it in front of as many different audiences, at home and abroad, as we can. In terms of what we can announce yet, I don’t know! We’re at the mercy of when festivals release their programmes before we can announce them.
Do you have any new projects in the works as a director that you can talk about?
I think we’re looking to make another short early 2020, something I had actually written before Cynthia. So that’s been fun to pick up again. It’s something extremely different in tone, and the style with which we’re going to make it. I’m really looking forward to getting back on set again. Especially with something that will present new challenges. I’m also developing a feature screenplay at the moment. It’s something incredibly different again. So I’m enjoying the diversity of what we’re moving forward with. But in terms of our production company Copper Alley, there’s a wealth of different projects and collaborations we have in the pipeline