The way we communicate has changed more in the past two decades, than it has since Gutenburg invented his printing press in 1440. But now Gutenburg's been replaced by Zuckerburg, and we're no longer analogue creatures. We're carefully curated digital representations, information junkies – constantly in the loop, all wired up to The Matrix.
You may regard our new digital reality a dystopian wasteland – a bleak place punctuated by selfies, pornography and neon virtue-signallers. A lonely dimension, populated by narcissists frantically swiping left and right – and getting offended by re-runs of Friends on Netflix.
Or you may consider our new digital reality an interconnected utopian paradise. A place of unrestricted freedoms and possibilities, where you can talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime.
But whether you’re perched over the toilet in a tinfoil hat, or busy selling weapons, drugs and kidneys on the Dark Net, one essential truth remains. Today, it’s much easier to make films. All you need is a smartphone and an idea.
That wasn’t the case in the Midlands when I was born, in the bleak Irish eighties. Filmmaking was something Americans did. It just didn’t seem like an option for us Spud-Heads.
And anyway, I had more pressing concerns. In between defending my hometown from further Viking invasions with a wooden sword and shield made by my father, I was busy with my pencils and my paints. I was going to be the next Picasso.
Despite my Viking fascination, in secondary school the career guidance teacher told me not to take history as a subject. She said it was too 'wordy' for me. While this may seem a trivial incident on the grand scheme of life, it forms the basis of my first piece of advice.
Just because somebody is in a position of authority, don't blindly follow their direction.
But I didn't know that back then, and so I didn't take history in school – despite those Vikings. I had to fill in the historical gaps myself, and with the assistance of a chronic Wikipedia addiction, I became something of an autodidact (I taught myself that word).
I knew I wanted to go to art college since as far back as I can remember. Film school was just not an option for me, because you had to have a portfolio to apply. And the only kids who had access to the type of equipment you needed to make a film portfolio in Ireland in the late 90s/early 2000s were rich kids, or kids who grew up with parents already working in the industry.
So in September 2002 I started my big adventure, heading off to first year of art college in Galway, on the wild, rain-soaked Atlantic coast.
The building was home to two courses – Fine Art and Film & TV. You could spot the difference between the art students and the Film & TV students from a mile away. The art students were like the Atlantic that battered us – wild, creative, intense – sometimes genuinely insane. The very best type of people. I had found my tribe.
The Film & TV students, by contrast, were dull, uninspired rich kids who'd watched too much television, and as a result spoke in sitcom quotes with strange faux-American accents. There was more creativity and imagination coursing through a single finger of any one of the mad Fine Art students, that in an entire classroom full of the Film & TV geeks.
For the first three years I studied painting, inspired by Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombley and Jean Michel Basquiat. In third year they took us on a trip to London, to see some of these great works in the flesh. I stood in front of a giant Basquiat canvass in awestruck silence.
Then I glanced over my shoulder to see was there anybody watching. I simply had to touch the same canvass that Jean Michel himself had touched. (Don't tell anybody I go around touching great works of art – you can get arrested for that type of thing, and I'm not sure what the statute of limitations on such a crime is.)
Then one day towards the end of my third year studying painting, somebody showed me how to work a little DV video camera. I was curious, and also the idea of not being permanently covered in oil paint with turpentine-raw, itching, flaking hands began to appeal to me. I made a little video piece using one of my art college friends as an actor, and suddenly my life took off in a different direction.
I stopped painting, my flaky hands healed up, and I began spending every waking hour either hassling my friends to act in my little films, or locked away in the editing room, re-arranging the footage I'd shot. I loved the intensity of spending ten hours straight in the cutting room. I felt that was where the painting came in – moving bits around, adding, subtracting, adjusting – until you're finally satisfied with the picture you've created.
My painting lecturers weren't particularly equipped to critique my new-found passion for moving images. One lecturer told me I needed to re-shoot and re-edit a particular video piece that he really didn't like. But I remembered those Vikings – and that career guidance teacher – and this time around I didn't budge an inch.
That video piece got into EVA, Ireland's leading international contemporary art show. I was the youngest in the show, and the only artist still a student, and it launched my career. I'm not telling you that to boast (well, maybe a little bit) but I'm mainly telling you that for the lesson it contains. Always trust your gut.
I began to make large-scale multi-screen video and sound installation pieces, some of which I showed in art galleries in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany. My work at the time was concerned bleak empty spaces, abandoned places, a category Instagram now tells me is called 'Urbex'.
Rubber Gloves and Tube Belltable Installation Enschede Show
I'd read about the ghost city of Pripyat, in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and I simply had to go. I'd also become transfixed by the work of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and in particular his 1980 masterpiece 'Stalker', which in many ways eerily predicted the exclusion zone.
So I filled out the forms and got an Arts Council grant, and after a few months of negations with various Ukrainian tour operators I found myself traipsing around the empty city of Pripyat, armed only with a camera, an incredibly heavy tripod, and a chain-smoking Iron Maiden obsessed 'Stalker' called Yuri.
The resultant short film did well at various international festivals, which gave me the confidence to call myself a filmmaker – as opposed to a painter who dabbled in moving images.
A couple of projects later I was wandering around Israel and Palestine armed with that same heavy tripod, and another Arts Council grant. I'd been horrified by the Israeli incursion onto Gaza called Operation Cast Lead, and I wanted to see for myself whether the situation was a binary 'good and evil' as it was presented in the Irish media.
After two months interviewing people from all sides and strata of society, I came to the conclusion that it's not as simple as good and evil, or black and white. Like any long-term conflict there’s several murky shades of grey instead of black and white. A bleak, twisted situation where everybody's wrong, and everybody's right.
So I called my first feature documentary 'Forty Shades of Grey', a play on the traditional Irish song 'Forty Shades of Green.' Six months later a book called 'Fifty Shades of Grey' was released...then a film, then a sequel. Sickened would be an understatement!
My film showed the conflict from all sides and perspectives, as opposed to the traditional anti-Israel rant expected from an Irish filmmaker.
But back home in Ireland I quickly discovered it wasn't acceptable to have a divergence of opinion from the rabid foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Israel mob.
I wouldn't even call them pro-Palestine, because they're infinitely more focused on the negative. They branded my film as Zionist propaganda, without even taking the time to watch it. Unfortunately, many of them populate the funding bodies of the Irish arts institutions.
A shower of thugs who claim to be liberals, but yet viciously attack anybody with even the slightest different viewpoint from their own. Chronically ill-informed at best, blatantly anti-Semitic at worst.
A prime example of this ignorance is the campaign to boycott Israeli produce in Irish and British supermarkets.
I interviewed Palestinian farmers in the West Bank who were being crippled by these international boycotts. All of the fresh 'Israeli' produce being boycotted – figs, olives, mint leaves, and tomatoes – are being grown in the West Bank. But because the Palestinian state is unfortunately unrecognised internationally, this produce is stamped as Israeli in order to be exported to the west.
But such inconvenient details fail to provide opportunities for ill-informed virtue-signallers to storm into Tesco and self-righteously rip down a load of tomatoes. There’s not a lot of drama to be found in nuance.
That film cost me friends, and it stopped all my funding in Ireland. Soviet-style political censorship in the arts is alive and well in Irish state. I was banished to Siberia, and to this day have received no further funding from any Irish arts institutions, having previously held quite an impressive strike rate.
And while six years later there are still days I wish I'd never set foot in the Middle East, for the amount of hardship, friendships and career opportunities it's cost me, there's a lesson to be learned, another piece of advice. Which after all is was what I was asked to write, before I got carried away. (Never ask an artist to talk about themselves, it's their favourite subject, that's lesson number...I can't remember.)
Because despite all the difficulties, the experience opened up opportunities I hadn't anticipated. In the ten years I've been playing this game, I've learned you can turn the setbacks into opportunities, if you frame them correctly, and roll with the punches. But in order to frame them correctly, you must become like water – fluid enough to adapt to your environment, and find the path of least resistance. That's lesson number...I really have no head for numbers.
My experience in the Middle East and the subsequent Irish backlash allowed me the unexpected opportunity to begin writing opinion pieces for The Sunday Independent. And then that subsequent international exposure got me the offer of a distribution deal and a Canadian screening tour for 'Forty Shades of Grey'.
But most significantly of all, the legal paperwork that came with that distribution offer put me in the path of a very special man – someone who had a massive influence over the subsequent years of my life.
The legal jargon in the paperwork had me completely baffled, so my friend Niall suggested I visit a friend of his, a retired business-guru called Michael Thatcher. Michael had built up an empire of thirteen hairdressing salons across the UK, before he sold them and retired back to his native Ireland, where he began a second life as a visual artist and poet.
After he poured over my paperwork, showed me his paintings, and drank several cups of tea, Michael told me he was suffering from what the doctors said was terminal cancer. Then he brought me out to his garden shed, and showed me his huge cannabis plantation, which he was cultivating with the intention of distilling into cannabinoid oil.
Having been through several rounds of conventional treatment without success, Michael'd begun to research the work of renowned Israeli biochemist Professor Raphael Mechoulam. Prof Mechoulam was the first scientist to isolate THC in the 1960s, and since then had been having huge success treating and curing cancer with cannabinoid oil.
Professor Raphael Mechoulam
Michael asked me if I'd be interested in making a film, documenting his journey to find a cure for his cancer – and breaking the law in the process. I didn't need a second thought...
For the next three years, armed only with a couple of cameras, that same ridiculously heavy tripod – but this time zero funding, myself and my friend Niall began to document Michael's progress. He grew his plants, made his oil, and began to treat his cancer with remarkable results – all under the ever-present threat of a police raid. We even managed to score an interview with Prof Mechoulam, and we travelled with Michael to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
I called my second feature 'The Iron Man' – a play on Michael's shared surname with the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. But mainly because he refused to die. Michael refused to accept conventional wisdom. and he followed his gut. You can see this is becoming a theme…
When we began filming he'd been given only months to live. and looked like a walking skeleton. Two-and-a-half years later he was four-stone heavier, and out planting roses in his garden – when he should've been six feet under the soil, if he'd listened to the doctors.
The Iron Man Thatcher's Grow-House
Thatcher's Art Show
But more than providing me with a phenomenal subject for a documentary, Michael Thatcher gave me so much more. He taught me to meditate, and he instilled in me the power of positive thought, and positive people. Which forms my next piece of advice – avoid negative people like you’d avoid the plague. They’ll suck the life out of you like a cranky vampire.
Surround yourself with the dreamers, the schemers, the chancers and the borderline insane. They’re the ones blessed with enough madness to give birth to ideas, and a fire in their belly to make those ideas grow. My English teacher in secondary school – Mr. Kelly – told us to "aim for the stars, because you'll at least get past the clouds."
My experience making 'The Iron Man' also forms the basis of another piece of advice. I once saw a diagram, a triangle drawn on a napkin, which explained the dynamics of low-budget filmmaking. On one point of the triangle was the word 'cheap'. On the second point was the word 'fast', and on the final point was the word 'good.' In the middle of the triangle was written 'pick any two'.
‘The Iron Man’ was made with no money, and I'd like to think it's good...but it took almost four years from the first day of shooting, to the premiere.
After it did the rounds at festivals, we decided to throw the full film up on YouTube, so as many people as needed it could have access to Michael's research and knowledge.
Then after two feature docs and several shorts, I decided I wanted to try merging my love of writing with my love of moving images, so having a crack at drama was the next logical progression in the winding ever-evolving yellow-brick road of my progression from painter to filmmaker.
But getting public funding in Ireland was no longer an option, so I launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise the five grand I needed to make my first short drama. I found some great actors, and we shot the film over three days, and it went on to screen at a several international festivals. (attach.24,25,26,27)
Peter Campion and Gary Lydon...and with Denise McCormack rehearsal
'Too Shall Pass' Poster
Which brings me to the present, as I sit here typing in my tinfoil hat, with one eye on the fluctuating costs of kidneys on the Dark Net.
I’m currently trying to get a couple of TV comedy pilots off the ground, and busily bashing out my first novel. I’ve relaxed on the Viking front, since a visit to Sweden where I realised the Scandinavians have lost their edge in recent centuries, and no longer pose a long-boat threat. They used to be all about raping nuns and decapitating monks, but now they’re all about hipsters, hygge and healthcare.
I still consider myself quite new to this game, this business of film. A painter in recovery, prone to the occasional relapse where I find myself wide-eyed in an art supplies shop, clutching a fistful of paintbrushes.
But hopefully my winding yellow-brick road journey from still to moving imagery has provided you with a few little tips…
The last piece of advice is perhaps the most important. So important, that I can't even remember who first said it to me, because it’s been said to me multiple times, by multiple people far more established than I.
Never have a back-up plan. Because by having a back-up plan, on some level you are already preparing yourself to fail. But if you have no back-up plan – if there's simply no alternative – you will burst your gut until you make it happen, however long that takes.
I’m not there yet, but I think I’m on the way.
And if I'm wrong about all of the above, then you can always take to the Dark Net and sell a kidney. You only need one to survive, so having two seems like an indulgence. Find yourself a Viking, and they'll do the messy bit for you...
About Nicky Larkin
Nicky Larkin was born in Birr, Ireland in 1983. He studied Fine Art in Galway-Mayo IT, and Chelsea College of Art, London. He works as a filmmaker and writer, based in Belfast.
He has written and directed documentary, drama and music videos. His first short Pripyat (2008), shot in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, was screened at several international film festivals, including Locarno, Bergamo, Strasbourg, London East End, Darklight, and European Media Art Festival '08, Osnabrueck.
In 2011 he traveled to the Middle East to make his first feature-length documentary Forty Shades of Grey, about the Israel-Palestine conflict. After premiering in The Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin, Forty Shades of Grey went on to play at sell-out screenings in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Manchester, Birmingham and London.
His next feature documentary - The Iron Man - followed a terminally-ill cancer patient called Michael Thatcher - for the final two years of his life. Shot over a period of two-and-a-half years, The Iron Man premiered at OFFline Film Festival, before going on to screen at the Belfast International Film Festival, then winning Gold in the Spotlight Awards at the Atlanta Film Festival.
In 2015 he wrote and directed his first drama, Too Shall Pass, starring Peter Campion, Gary Lydon, and Denise McCormack, which screened at the Kinofilm Manchester Film Festival, the New York State Film Festival, Belfast Film Festival, OFFline Film Festival, and was nominated for two awards at the Portsmouth International Film Festival.
He has directed music videos for Mark Geary, The Chapters, Lyndon, Adela & The Meanits and Roesy.
His video art, sound pieces and installations have featured in the Chicago Art Fair, Videology Brooklyn, TULCA, EVA 2006 and EVA 2009. He has held solo video and sound installation exhibitions in Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Frankfurt, Krakow, Enschede, and The Hague.
In 2010 he was the youngest artist featured in Robert O'Byrne's 'Dictionary of Living Irish Artists'.
His visual artwork is represented by The Molesworth Gallery Dublin, and Galeria Strefa A, Krakow.
He has written for the Sunday Independent, the Limerick Leader and the Jerusalem Post.
https://vimeo.com - Nicky Larkin showreel
https://nickylarkin.wordpress.com - 'Tales From a Twisted Traveller' Nicky Larkin blog
https://www.facebook.com/kranky.nilic - Nicky Larkin Facebook
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