A few short years ago, Juliette Bonass was just another determined young filmmaker with a dream. Now she’s attracted global attention. Derek O’Connor meets the Irish film industry’s not-so-secret weapon to find out how she did it.
In the topsy-turvy world of film, the Cannes Film Festival is still a pretty big deal, so when an emerging young Irish talent is selected for Cannes’ Producers on the Move programme, you should sit up and take note. Juliette Bonass has just produced two of the most acclaimed Irish movies of recent hours – Glassland and Get Up and Go – and the industry is paying attention to a versatile, energetic and creative talent with the kind of hustle it takes to succeed in the most merciless of industries. And it’s all down to her taste in trousers … kind of.
“I only decided in sixth year that I wanted to do film,” she says, “and it was the only thing that I put on my CAO form. I went to the guidance counsellor and said, ‘I was thinking about getting into film, but I’m not quite sure …’ And he said ‘Well, you look arty, you’re wearing stripy trousers, so go for it!’ So the reason I got into film was because I was wearing stripy trousers that day,” she laughs. Note to future generations of film talent: never underestimate the power of an imaginative pair of pants.
After studying in DIT for four years, Bonass realised she had a rather natural affinity for the production end of things – from there, she earned her chops working from the ground up as a runner with a Dublin commercials company: “That allowed me to work with bigger budgets and professional crews,” she says. “Ideally, you start as you mean to go on. My only advice when it comes to film school is to get out the camera gear as often as possible, and go out with your friends and shoot stuff, as opposed to reading books and books of theory. I’m still in touch with all the college mates I did that with. They’re your basis for your career going forward.”
Before long, Juliette had graduated to production assistant, then co-ordinator, while simultaneously producing a series of acclaimed short films, including several with long-time cohort (and soon to be Jedi master) Domhnall Gleeson – she produced Gleeson’s directorial debut, a deliciously dark short entitled Noreen, also starring Domhnall’s brother Brian and dad Brendan. “This is where working in commercials paid off,” she says, “because you were working with people who were being paid well, and so when you go, ‘I’ve got this cool little project that you might be interested in …’ it’s easier to get a great crew involved. And truly, if you’ve got a great script, people don’t really care if they’re getting paid … Well, no, they do care, especially if they’ve got families to feed, but if you’ve a good cast, script, and team, then that’s half the battle. More than half the battle.”
It’s tough trying to do something on no budget, but totally worth it when the result is what you’ve imagined it could be.
Trying to create magic on a shoestring – director John Boorman refers to the art of film as that of turning “money into light” – always presents challenges, but Bonass persevered, and rose to the occasion. “I think I kind of blur it out now, how hard it was – sort of like childbirth, although I’ve never had a child, but I imagine so,” she laughs. “It’s really tough trying to do something on no budget, but it’s totally worth it when the result is what you’ve imagined it could be. When you’re watching it in a cinema full of people laughing, it’s like, ‘Wow … that’s why I do this. And that’s why I continue to do it.”
Thus, she’s balanced passion projects like Immatürity for Charity, a sketch show for RTÉ that raised much-needed funds for St Francis Hospice in Raheny, with a move into ambitious feature projects – both Get Up and Go and Glassland are the kind of smart personal low-budget pictures (the former an amiable buddy comedy, the latter an intense character piece) that suggest a confident new swagger to Irish film. Track both of them down immediately.
On the set, it’s all about making smart choices, making them fast, and keeping it cool. “The shoots are always quite stressful,” she says, “and you have to make a lot of decisions under pressure, especially when there are tight budgets, so you have to be careful you don’t compromise things and in any way strain your relationship with the director. That’s your key relationship on any shoot. But you’re always thinking about the film, at the end of the day. That’s why you’re there.” In the case of Glassland, writer/director Gerard Barrett’s follow-up to his acclaimed Pilgrim Hill, that means making the most of a mere five days’ shooting time with a proper movie star – Aussie Oscar-nominee Toni Collette. “There was a lot of preparation for that. We knew we had to be on our best game, as we only had her for such a limited time – the thing about Collette was that she was totally down to earth, and invested in her character in the film. I was nervous about her coming in, as we were sitting in this really old, dingy production office in Tallaght. And in walks Toni Collette – and the first thing she wants to talk about is the script, and her character, which is very cool for a Hollywood actress to talk to a producer about that, let alone a director. So I knew we were all okay. She was a dream. And she’s incredible in the film – as were all our actors.” She’s quick to cite all those people who’ve acted as mentors and supporters along the way, from established producers like Element’s Ed Guiney, to the Irish Film Board, who nominated her for the Cannes honour. Truth be told, they know when they’re onto a good thing.
Her next project, A Date for Mad Mary, is already in post-production; it marks the feature debut of writer- director Darren Thornton, who gave us one of the great RTÉ series of the last decade, Love is the Drug. Right now, Juliette is looking for good comedies. The secret to her success? “The way I did it was that I worked in every area of film production before I actually became a producer. That was so valuable, because I understand what I need to get people to do their job properly. Then, what I try to do is … be nice. I think it’s really important, because I think people radiate towards positive personalities, and do their best work for you because actually they respect you. We’re all part of a team doing this together.”
Juliette Bonass in an instant :
What did you want to be when you were little?
I think I wanted to be an actress, or a postman.
Your favourite film?
Do I have to pick one? Funnily enough, I really love Muriel’s Wedding, and I was lucky enough to work with Toni Collette, which was amazing. I love Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, purely for the spectacle of it. And I love Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York – that’s one of my favourites. It’s a bit dark, but that’s okay. And will I say Anchorman? Why not? It makes me laugh. And I have to pick one Irish film – say Adam & Paul.
How do you spend your downtime?
I like to go for long walks along Dun Laoghaire pier. Does that make me sound sad? I love to go to the cinema, to the Light House, especially. I love Dublin. I don’t think I’ll ever move. I love the people. Everyone’s just so open, and kind. Their sense of humour is the best in the entire world, and the only one I can truly relate to. And it’s getting better.
Your advice to would-be young filmmakers?
Keep making stuff, whether you have money or not. There’s always a way.