Lisa Mulcahy is an award-winning feature film and television director. She completed work on 12 episodes of the critically acclaimed TV3 drama series Red Rock and directing the final four episodes of Season 1.
She is in development on several feature films including Stolen, a remarkable true story of a woman who enters war torn Syria alone to rescue her 6-year-old daughter. Her award winning second feature film The Legend of Longwood was released in cinemas in Holland in June 2015 and sold to many territories worldwide including Australia, Brazil and the USA where it was released by Shout Factory.
The Legend of Longwood was screened at many festivals worldwide and was the runner up in the 10-plus category at the 2014 Giffoni Film Festival, the largest children’s film festival in the world.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
As a child, I was always curious about how TV programmes and films were made so in my final year at school, I heard about a new Media Studies course that was starting in one of the colleges. I applied for it and got a place. This was in the early 1980s. It was based on a Canadian model – mostly practical, no exams, and we got paid under a European special education fund, to go. So, for two years, my classmates and I ran around Dublin with our Super 8 cameras mostly making terrible films but having a blast. We learned all aspects of filmmaking from scriptwriting, lighting, boom operating, propping to editing. We all did everything. I realised how much I loved editing and set up my own super 8mm cutting room, complete with viewer, splicer, the lot. It was incredibly fiddly work as the film stock is so tiny but I wasn’t keen on video editing. I wanted to work on film. Towards the end of my course, I decided that editing was what I wanted to do so I looked up the editing companies in Dublin. There were three of them. I knocked on their doors and asked, “How do I become an editor?” I literally said that to whoever answered the door. I got a job and left college early and I assisted an editor for a year. We cut an arts programme for RTÉ, the national broadcaster in Ireland, that was shot on 16mm reversal film so we cut the original film. It was pretty intimidating at the start because of course you had to be careful not to damage the original film, but it was amazing training and within six months, I was cutting full programmes myself, working with different directors. I truly believed that I had the best job in the world.
After a year, I thought it would be useful for me to go to London to get a different editing experience so I went and knocked on all the doors of all the editing companies in London (a lot more than three) and eventually convinced someone to give me a job. This was in a big company in Soho where I assisted on commercials and documentaries. Although I had got what I wanted, I became very depressed living in London. I had moved from Dublin which had, at the time, a population of about half a million people. It never really had a small town feel to it but when you went out, you’d always bump into someone you knew. People were friendly but also, it was hard to be anonymous. The prospect of moving to such a big place like London was hugely exciting to me. I could be who I wanted to be, could look how I wanted and no one would comment, no one would know me. But those things that I thought would be appealing, became my downfall. I didn’t have a support network like I did at home in Ireland and although the people I worked with were great, they had their own lives and lived at every corner of London or outside, so you wouldn’t just drop in, it wasn’t as easy to connect and I felt very lonely. After a year, I left London and went to the States with my sister and some friends for a few months. Went I returned to Ireland, although I still loved editing, I knew that I didn’t want to spend my life in a room, mostly on my own, so I became an assistant director. Editing is still a great love for me and every director should do it as some stage. It is a wonderfully creative part of filmmaking and storytelling and my experiences have greatly helped my work as a director.
As an assistant director, I worked on many movies and TV shows initially as a trainee, then as a third, second (briefly) and first. During a lull one year (you have to learn to live with lulls), I decided to direct a play. My sister was an actor at the time so we went to Samuel French’s in London and chose 30 plays. The criteria was that it had to be a comedy with no more than four cast. We came home to Ireland, read them all and settled on the one that we both liked. We put on the play in a theatre in Dublin and then toured for a week in the west of Ireland. The venues were small but we sold out for our three-week run. It was a fantastic buzz. In doing the play, I rehearsed with the four actors for four weeks. It was simply the best thing ever and I realised how much I loved working with actors. That was when I knew I wanted to direct.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I continued being a first AD and during gaps in jobs, began making short films. A couple were made using friends and favours within the industry and the third was funded by the film board in Ireland – it was great to finally have a budget to work with! The more I was directing and working with actors, the more I loved it and the less I loved being an assistant director. In many ways, although I was very organised, a clear thinker and problem solver, I was too sensitive to be a first. The first often ends up being a punchbag for the crew and I found that aspect of the job upsetting so I decided to stop. I also knew that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a director, it would be more difficult if I was still working as a first. So, I quit and as a result became very poor.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Having been known by everyone in the industry in Ireland as a first, it was a challenge getting people to see me as a director. I was looking to every area, trying to get experience – commercials, documentaries and TV drama. The drama industry in Ireland is very small and was even smaller when I was starting out – perhaps one or two home-produced dramas might be made each year, so maybe a total of 12/16 episodes of TV – that is a tiny amount of work being chased by a lot of directors so it was very hard to break into. I was taken on by a commercials producer and directed a number of commercials but I knew that it wasn’t where my talents lay and I didn’t have a passion for it. I didn’t fit into the advertising world and unless the commercials were performance based or had good scripts, I didn’t really enjoy it. I couldn’t get excited about products but I do admire the many directors who are brilliantly visionary in this world. But each job is of value and every day should be embraced as a potential learning experience and directing commercials definitely helped me on the directing road. I then produced and directed my first documentary which was funded by the national broadcaster. Because I was also the producer, it was full- on, adding to the pressure that it was a very personal story for me. Documentary making is so different to drama in that there isn’t a script in the same way, so much of my structure was discovered during the editing process. I gathered the raw materials through filming and also found extensive archives (both in the form of super 8mm family footage and other historical archival footage). I was happy with the final film and it was very well received but a traumatic experience for me personally (and for my poor editor). I set out to make one film but ended up making something very different, but better. Making documentaries has been particularly useful for me in relation to story structure and working with actors as I feel that to make compelling real-life stories about people, you have to be a good listener and always alert to what is happing right there in front of you. You learn to seize a moment and that can often turn out to be something very special.
I eventually got to direct a block of the second season of a TV drama. It was two episodes and a great experience for me. The following year, I was asked to be the lead director and do four out of eight episodes of a new drama series. It was a great break and I loved being part of that show. The following year I was pregnant whilst working on the 2nd season of the show and went on to have my first daughter. I didn’t work for two years after that. I wasn’t offered work and no matter how much I chased, I couldn’t get work. I have no idea why that happened. All I know is that it did and it was a very difficult time, emotionally and financially. Eventually I got back onto season 5 of that show and did the next two seasons too. In 2010 I had twins and when they were about 10 months old, I was offered a Hallmark film. We had a good childcare system (we’ve had 17 au pairs since they were born!) as well as the fact that my husband works mainly from home. I ran out the door, happy to be back working.
For the last four years, my work has been mainly in the UK. It is difficult being a mother and working away from my children (as this must be for fathers) but this is where my career had led me and as a family we are all used to it. I travel back every week to be with them and as things have panned out, most years, I have spent six months commuting and the rest of the time, I work from home so we see each other all the time.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Every day on a job is unique for me and therefore I am learning every day. The day I don’t feel that flutter of excitement coupled with fear on my way to work, I shall stop. I meet so many different people whilst working, whether it be on a drama or a feature film. I love the variety – there are so many talented actors out there, for example, and each is different, each has their own way of working. And problem solving is a huge part of a director’s life. I love the challenge of that, the thrill of feeing your brain whirring as you look for the next creative solution. I suppose I have been developing my voice since that first day on that first short all those years ago and continue to do it every day I step on a set. As the film business in Ireland is quite small, you don’t get as pigeon-holed as you might in a country that has a much more prolific industry. I have directed commercials, documentaries, TV dramas and feature films and every single one of them has been a learning experience.
How did you get your first break?
Through making shorts, dogged perseverance and the trust of a producer who knew I could do it.
TV Credits: On Home Ground (2001), A Penny for Your Thoughts (2002), Raging Bulls (2007), The Clinic (2003-2009), Gift of the Magic (2010), Red Rock (2015-2016), The Moonstone (2016), Holby City (2017), Blood (2018), Years and Years (2019).
Film Credits: The Very Short Stuff (1997), Half Full, Half Empty (1999), Dan Dan, Dad and Me (2000), Day One (2001), Situations Vacant (2008), Coming Home (2011), The Legend of Longwood (2014), Undercliffe (2018).
Photograph: Ed turner