In the first in a series of interviews with Fierce Nice's favourite artists and creatives, Ruan Shiels catches up with indie filmmaker Ben MacGregor for a wide-ranging discussion about Making Marks, his award-winning Tony 'Doc' Shiels documentary.
Thanks so much for joining me for this interview, Ben. Can I start by asking you to introduce yourself and talk a bit about your background and how you got into documentary making?
I currently work in TV and Film and make documentaries in my own time. I made two documentaries whilst at college and found that I enjoyed that the most. I like the way in documentaries you cobble the story together. It's more challenging I think.
When and how did you first hear about Tony 'Doc' Shiels?
One of the documentaries I made in college was based on myths and legends. Inevitably Tony Shiels was featured in it due to his past involvement with most of them. I had never met him, but a friend said that a documentary solely on Tony would be a great idea. Ten years later I decided to make it.
How would you describe your film Making Marks to those who haven't seen it yet?
I would say it's a tragicomedy documentary but also a sensitive portrait. It’s kind of a hybrid between a documentary and an art film. I didn’t want it to be an encyclopedia-style art film just listing his work. I wanted it to be funny and heartfelt too.
All in all, how long did you spend researching, shooting and editing the film?
I researched for a couple of months by reading a lot of books written by or about Tony. The story of Tony’s life was so fascinating that it gave me the drive to tell it. The shooting was the quickest part and then the edit was the longest and hardest part. I chose not to use voice-over which makes it a lot more difficult as you have to bridge the story and scenes together using just what you have. Many late nights piecing it all together.
You filmed quite a bit of Making Marks in and around Tony's home and studio in Kerry. Can you recall your first meeting with and impressions of him? And how was the experience overall?
I first met Tony with his daughter Kate in The Laurels Pub in Killarney. They were nice but I also sensed they were a tad cautious as the press has treated them badly in the past. We spent the first night in Tony’s lounge drinking tea and watching old clips of Tony from the past. We didn’t start shooting until the next day.
Tony talks very candidly and openly in Making Marks about his career(s), art, family and personal life. Did you have a clear idea of the kind of material you wanted for this section of the film going in, or did it come together more organically?
It happened organically. I had a brief idea of the story I wanted to tell but then it evolves as you learn more and more about the character. The film ended up being a mash-up of everything that’s ever been made about him but with a new spin added. I wanted the real Tony on screen.
Making Marks features contributions from the esteemed likes of Dr Chris Stephens (former Lead Curator of Modern British Art at Tate Britain) and Steven Cousins (author of Tony Shiels: Third Generation St Ives). How did you go about reaching out to people like this, and was everyone you got in contact with happy to be a part of the documentary?
No. Some people were very cautious about the film and I completely understood and respected their decision to not appear. I presume they thought I was out to further exploit Tony as people always associate documentaries with exploitation. I think it takes more skill and care to make a documentary about someone where you don’t hide anything from the audience but they still go home in love with the character.
The film's talking head segments are intercut with some truly fascinating vintage video and audio clips. Was any of this archival material tricky and/or expensive to get the usage rights to?
This was one of the toughest parts. One music track took over four months to clear. Due to most of the footage being so rare, they kind of have you over a barrel. You can’t just go to someone else for similar footage. I was very lucky along the way to meet some very nice people who understood I was an indie filmmaker who didn’t have tens of thousands to spend and helped me with the costs. The Lanyon family being one of them.
By design, the film leaves it up to viewers to decide for themselves how Tony should be 'defined'. I'm curious what your own take is?
I think my view kind of comes through towards the end of the film. Making Marks isn’t just how he makes them on paper, it’s how you live your life day to day. Tony lived his life exactly how he wanted to.
Making Marks has been screened at numerous events and festivals, including the Kerry Film Festival, the London International Short Film Festival and the Fine Art Film Festival in Los Angeles. What's the overall response been like from audiences to Tony's story and work?
Great reactions so far. I’ve been along to several of the screenings and the overall consensus is they love Tony. It’s very satisfying to sit in an audience and watch them react to the film. You can see they are waiting for Tony to pop up again and do a funny one-liner. It’s recently been showing at art galleries as part of Tony Shiels exhibitions and it seems to tie in really well.
Making Marks has picked up more than a few awards and accolades since its initial release. The project getting that kind of recognition must feel wonderful after all the time and effort you put into bringing it life?
It's very satisfying. You don’t really know if your film is any good once you finish it because, after watching it so many times, you’re kind of numb to it. I used screenings to tweak the film based on the audience's reactions. If a joke didn’t quite work I would take the film back to the edit and rejig it. Work on the timing and whatnot. I can sit and watch it now and be proud of it. I think it’s exactly how it should be. No more re-edits!
You used Kickstarter to fund aspects of the production of Making Marks. Would you recommend online crowdfunding as an option to other filmmakers and artists?
Yes, definitely. I self-funded the shoot and edit but it massively helped pay for a lot of archive at the end. If I were to do it again I would start promoting months before I actually launch the Kickstarter. Build up an audience beforehand.
Looking back now, what would you say was your favourite part of the whole experience of making Making Marks?
My favourite part was when we first got to Killarney. Tony handed me a programme for The Kerry Film Festival 2018 and said get into that. I wasn’t sure if the film would get in. The following year it did and I got to sit and watch Making Marks in a packed cinema with Tony. The story went full circle.
What’s next for Infinite Donkey Productions? Do you have any new films or projects in the works?
Yes, I am playing around with a few ideas but it has to be the right idea to get you to invest so much time and effort and see it through to the end. I definitely think I will be working on a new documentary before the end of the year though.
Ben, thanks again for giving such an interesting interview. I eagerly anticipate your next film!
Infinite Donkey Productions' Making Marks is available to view in its entirety on Vimeo or via the film's website. An exclusive selection of Tony Shiels works can be purchased in limited edition print form from Fierce Nice here: The Tony Shiels Collection.