SXSW ’13 Interview: Glenn Leyburn, Lisa Barros D’Sa & Jodie Whittaker Spread “Good Vibrations”

When Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa set out to arrange an early friends and family screening of “Good Vibrations,” which recounts the remarkable life so far of Terri Hooley, they wanted to keep it small, allowing their main subject to invite a few pals, but figuring it for the best that Hooley would have the chance to see himself portrayed on screen without the additional pressure of experiencing it with a crowd. Of course, Hooley, a Belfast-based record store owner who presided over the incredible wave of punk music out of the area during the height of the unrest of The Troubles during the 1970s and 1980s, had other ideas.

“We were expecting 10 people to be there,” laughs Leyburn. “70 showed up.”

Adds co-director Barros D’Sa, “Glenn and I sat shaking in our seats – I’d never been so terrified before a screening in my life.”

Yet the married directing duo needn’t have been worried. Not only would Hooley get up after the screening to give a thank you speech to everyone in the house, but Leyburn and Barros D’Sa’s second feature following the 2009 comedy “Cherrybomb” is an experience best shared with an audience anyway, a film that chronicles Hooley’s madman efforts to break such bands as The Undertones and The Outcasts and pulses with his fiery passion for championing the music which reduced the explosions that were a part of everyday life in Northern Ireland to mere background noise.

Naturally, “Good Vibrations” made its American premiere at the SXSW Film and Music Festival where it rocked the house as it’s currently doing in its UK release and while Leyburn, Barros D’Sa and Jodie Whittaker, the “Attack the Block” star who shines in the thankless role of Hooley’s wife Ruth, were in Austin, they took the time to talk about how the long-in-the-works project finally came together, the film’s clever incorporation of archival footage to recreate 1970s Belfast and how Hooley, who was busy in Russia during SXSW promoting the film, keeps expanding the reach of his musical tastes on a global scale.

How did you all get involved in the film?

Glenn Leyburn: It started about 10 years ago and it was really the writers Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry, who had been researching another story for a television documentary. They were sitting at a bar with Terri and as you do in Belfast when you sit at a bar with Terri, he was telling him lots of stories about what had happened during the years of the early punk days. Glenn just felt there was a story in here, something that should really be told. At that stage, there was a little bit of traction with some production companies in Dublin and in London, but Terri was a little bit nervous, I think, that the production going outside of Belfast. There weren’t really the indigenous filmmakers and the infrastructure to do a production like this, so it’s stalled for a few years, but about four years ago, the guys wrote a new treatment and we had finished our first feature. That’s how it all kicked off again.  

Jodie Whittaker: I auditioned for Glenn and Lisa in London a couple months before [production], and I was woefully underqualified because I’m not from Belfast, I didn’t know anything about punk and I didn’t know Terri. So [the script] was amazing to read because everything I ever read script-wise or seen, if it was set in the ’70s or ’80s of Belfast, was always about the Troubles, so it was really exciting to read something that actually celebrated that time and showed that there was so much more to the city than that. I was quite passionate when I talked about it in the auditions.

It was brilliant because I had never been to Belfast either, so to be there and to see the legacy Terri’s left — all the young musicians and up-and-coming bands are really influenced by him — so to know that the story is a biopic, but it’s not kind of about a past time, he’s still there and he’s still exactly the same guy still fighting for music to get heard that wouldn’t necessarily be heard if things like huge record labels were the only way of getting music out was special.  

Lisa Barros D’Sa: Jodie’s being modest when she says she was woefully underqualified. She’s an amazing actress as everyone knows and when she came to read, what we really loved about her is that she was able to bring to Ruth what was really necessary for the part, which was this incredible strength, serenity and intelligence. It would’ve been very easy to play Ruth as sort of a doormat, a victim of what Terri does, but it’s very important for the story that she believes as much as Terri does in this very special vision that he had, which was quite a radical vision at the time, to create an alternative space in Northern Ireland for people who didn’t want to be defined by politics in one way or another and had just wanted to live a normal life. That was an audacious wish in Northern Ireland in the ’70s in some ways.

You use archival footage in an interesting way, to fill out the scenes obviously in a way that your budget couldn’t cover, but to do so as if it were naturally part of the environment with the rest of the film. Was watching the footage actually inspirational to what you wanted to do in the narrative?  

LB: It really was an inspiration to us. Of course on our budget, it’s very difficult to recreate a vast world, but we didn’t want to use the archive just to kind of fill out the background. It was very important to us that this wasn’t a story about the Troubles, but we needed to talk about the Troubles as a context in order for everyone to understand why Terri is such an extraordinary person and why the scene was an extraordinary scene. But it was very important that remained in the background and the foreground was this story about music and youth and resistance and having fun and being young. So in a way, it was really useful for us to be able to have those strands of footage so we could almost see the foreground world through Terri’s glass eye – this very colorful, vibrant world,  but at the same time, it’s kind of a relentless march – the Troubles keeps approaching and having that different strand of footage enabled us to kind of tell that story in a formal sense. That no matter how much they lived and they celebrated, they could never really get away from what’s going on in the background.

 GL: Stylistically as well, if you imagine a punk fanzine of how you would put that together with the cut and paste [format], we thought about the archive in that same way.

 LB: We always had an idea that we were going to use archive footage, but we didn’t really start looking at it until we were already in the middle of cutting the film. We sat with our editor Nick Emerson and spent about four days just watching through reels and reels of stuff from the BBC and of course, even though we grew up in Belfast a bit later on, so much of it you forget and there’s so many dreadful things you haven’t really seen during the time of the Troubles. You feel a responsibility to tell something of that time and it’s quite a delicate responsibility because we didn’t want it to become a foreground story, but at the same time, we had to acknowledge how serious that was for everyone who was living through it.

I understand that’s Terri who has a cameo as an accordion player in one scene and his daughter Anna plays the nurse during the birth of he and Ruth’s first child.

GL: Yeah.

JW: And his son is a truant, one of the kids that are chased trying to get back into school.

LB: Jodie should probably talk about the birth scene because honestly I think we landed her with a very odd situation. I feel like we should apologize for it.

JW: It was fine, but I think the thing for Anna was there’s that strange thing where she isn’t involved in the film industry at all, so she wasn’t quite expecting it. When I was acting giving birth, she was really squeezing my hand like, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” I was like, yeah, I’m fine, I’m just pretending. [all laugh]  She found that incredibly emotional. She’s an adult now, but it doesn’t paint your dad in the best light when your parents’ breakup is around your birth, and of course, she is aware of that, so it’s wonderful that she’s in the film because it is full circle probably for a lot of [her family]. That’s what I love about it is the film is a great celebration of Terri, but it doesn’t shy away from the truth of who he is and the mistakes that he has made and that he’d be the first to admit that he’s made as well.

LB: That’s one of the disarming things about Terri is he’s quite open about the things he’s got wrong in life. We always wanted to make sure that we didn’t paint too sentimental a picture of who he is. He’s got the good and the bad sides of never having truly grown up. He’s got the great, childlike vision that cuts through all the preconceptions and presumptions that people have about life, but at the same time, responsibility is not necessarily his friend. I think it’s been hard for him to watch [the film], but at the same time he’s been very supportive of it. One of the things about Richard Dormer’s performance as Terri that I think is really wonderful that he captures that energy, that vigor, that exuberance and the infectious nature of Terri’s character, but at the same time still allows you to see that darker side.

As you’ve traveled with the film, has there been a particularly great experience from the road?

LB: The travel in itself is great. When you make a film, it’s about a particular place and we always felt it was a really universal story, but one of the big questions was whether it would travel? We’ve screened it in the Czech Republic at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, we screened it at London at the London Film Festival, in Seville and Turin, even in South Korea, and people in all of those places seemed to really respond to it. and I think for me, that was one of the most exciting things about the journey. To be able to premiere it here in Austin, which is the home of live music, seems like such a treat for us to be able to do it.

JW: A really amazing moment for us was I wasn’t able to make [the premiere in] Belfast because I was working, so the first time I saw it was at the Dinard Film Festival [of British Cinema in France] and Richard Dormer was able to come as well, so that was amazing and the screening went so well because considering it was subtitled. It’s in France, so you don’t know how it’s going to play,and then when we came out, the first phone call that we made was to you guys [Lisa and Glenn], but you were in South Korea [at the Busan Film Festival, so it was so bizarre…

LB: Yeah, standing on the street. It was very emotional and actually talking on the phone with Jodie from Busan. Whatever hopes you might have for a film you might make, you never know if anyone’s ever going to get to see it. It felt special.

JW: “Good Vibrations” was all over the world.

“Good Vibrations” does not yet have U.S. distribution, but it is now open theatrically in England and Ireland.

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