It’s a Friday morning in late September – just a normal day at school. I sit in my fifth year ordinary level maths class, lost in thought – an eerie feeling surrounds me. I drop my head down – the size of the school’s budget is showing as I look at the words “MICK 1967” scrawled on to the ancient wooden desk.
Our short lunch is at 11:10am I look eagerly at my watch. It reads “11:04. “ Suddenly, at that exact moment, I feel a sharp pain circling around in my stomach. Unknown to me that exact moment would change my life forever.
I hang on until lunch at ten past eleven. The pain eases slightly as I sip on some watered-down Ribena. The bell sounds out its deafening roar for the end of lunch. I walk anxiously to Irish class – half anxious about my stomach and half anxious about Irish in general.
I didn’t last ten minutes in Irish class before the pain got so intense that I had to raise my arm and dismiss myself to the bathroom. As I walked down the stairs to the bathroom, my stomach pain, suddenly, eased considerably – I gave an eye- wandering, quizzical look to one side wondering what in God’s name was happening inside me. I decided to head back to class. I walked in the door, and got all the cliched eyeballing from the rest of the lads. The attention was too much. I had to break the ice. “Jaysus, it must be chronic, mad indigestion or something.” That raised a few laughs. I sat down, unknown to me that it was going to be the last laugh I ever raised in the school.
Another three minutes hadn’t gone by when the deadly pain resurfaced, but this time determined to succeed in beating me into submission. This time round the pain was so intense I felt as if I was going to vomit. I started to control my breathing, resembling a woman about to give birth to baby with a head as big as a melon. I couldn’t take this tension anymore, so I once again raised my arm and strolled out as cool as a cucumber, then the second the door closed I did an almighty runner down the corridor.
I reached the bathroom, but was unable to vomit. I tried, but was physically unable to vomit. I couldn’t believe my own body was teasing me. It was time for a change of scenery. I headed in the direction of my year-head’s room.
I was all ready to go home when the year-head told me to just sit out on to the steps, and I’ll be grand after some “fresh air” – I mean, who needs medicine in this day and age when you’ve got the aul teacher’s favourite of “fresh air”. I sat out on the school steps breathing this “fresh air”, wondering what was wrong with me? When I was going home? And why four hundred magpies chose our school lawn to congregate on? I went back into the year-head and soon enough was on my way home.
Saturday and Sunday were as normal as ever. “Freaky Friday” was completely forgotten about I just put it down to a bad case of indigestion. The day started off excellently with a free class first period. I had maths free, which was a bonus. As usual in free classes, there were a lot of games of ‘x’s and ‘o’s, a lot of feet- tapping, early-morning yawning and eyeballing between the supervising teacher and the pupils. I remember looking up at the miniature Jesus-nailed-to-a-cross on the wall. He looked at me – I looked at him, then the nauseating pain swept through my stomach yet again. I was soon enough on my way home yet again, and not once again would I set foot in that school to be taught.
10 Months Earlier – November 1997
I sit at the back of some transition year class (the class so boring I can’t even care to remember it). Then something new happens, the guidance counsellor walks in with a handful of sheets. I sit up straight, intrigued at the fact that I have actually seen the guidance counsellor in the flesh for the first time. I eventually get my sheet handed to me. On it is a list of careers (one hundred or so). I run my finger down the sheet, none of the careers jumping out at me in any way. When I thought that all hope was lost, I ran my finger over the career “scriptwriting”, saying it slowly to myself. Something then clicked in my head. Unlike most interests or loves, which you develop over a certain amount of time, it was as if this was lying dormant, only to be awoken suddenly with a bang.
Without ever once talking to the guidance counsellor, she had guided me to my future career. Top marks for Mrs. “D”, I say.
I have always had a love for writing and the movies from an early age. I just never thought the two would be collaborating together. After weeks of “I can’t possibly do this”, “where will I start?” and “what in sweet Mary is a screenplay supposed to even look like?”, I eventually bit the bullet and started to write one. Over the next few months I wrote more and more. My writing became better and better, and soon enough writing a screenplay became second nature to me.
In the mean time I had to organise my transition year work experience. With the fact that I had found this new love. I decided to try R.T.E. I sent in a short adapted script with my letter to R.T.E. I didn’t exactly have high hopes because it’s so hard to get in when you don’t have “contacts” within the place. Well, hey Joe, what do you know. I got in, and on my own merit too, which added to it.
My first day was daunting, but yet another twist was to occur. While in R T.E. I started to see the other aspects of filmmaking. I thought I was real brave taking on the screenwriting, thinking anything else in film would be too much for me. The next thing I know I’m thinking to myself while I watch a scene being shot: ‘This aul directing lark doesn’t look too hard.” I had gone from too scared to even write a screenplay to wanting to direct. From then on I was hooked.
Soon enough I was buying an abundance of books, screenplays and anything connected with film-making. If someone in the house were flicking through the TV channels and the name “Quentin Tarantino” was uttered on the box, I would grab the remote and tune in. If the person holding the remote was unwilling to comply, they’d have to get the remote surgically removed from where the sun don’t shine.
With transition year I had lots of much free time, so I had lots of time to write, think, etc. School had just finished for the summer when I decided to send off a screenplay to a film producer. To be honest I was crapping myself. I couldn’t take criticism, but during a screenwriting course in London that summer, I was taught to ‘reject rejection’. Good, eh?
I finally got a reply from the producer. She thought it was quite a good script, but not what she was looking for. For me – a just-turned sixteen year old -I could have retired on that.
At this stage I had been out of school for a few weeks. I had tried on numerous occasions to go back to school, but in a Twilight Zone kind of way, every time I even got near the school ground the stomach pains would strike.
At this stage I had lost all faith in going back to school. My illness was a suspected ulcer – couldn’t have been further from the truth.
So then came the medical tests. I had blood taken from me by a nurse, who obviously took pleasure in watching people’s faces, as she sucked the life from them. The next test was – by far – the worst experience I have ever had – THE BARIUM-MEAL! For those of you who have never experienced this nightmare, it’s a bit like gulping down crude oil – and has the taste of four year-old Greek yoghurt with the sweat of the Greek man who made the yoghurt squeezed into it. I think I’m starting to paint a picture here.
The Doctor who was examining me said that the barium hadn’t covered the whole of my stomach, so I had to go out into the corridor – another experience I wouldn’t mind forgetting. I strolled out into the corridor, which may as well have been a waiting room, wearing one of these dressing gowns, with the backside of it missing (just my boxers on). I was escorted on my way to my bed in the corridor/waiting room by a very touchy-feely nurse – taking advantage of the missing back to my gown.
I lay sideways on the bed – people congregating all around me. People wandered the corridors like lost zombies on Valium – the odd zombie stopping to have a peak at me like a camera happy Japanese tourist.
It only hit me in bed late one night in early November that my problem was my writing and film obsession. In the mean time, every soul on earth was trying to convince me to go back to school. All this convincing had adverse affects – I started to have a hatred of school now. I hated this institutionalised situation. Society was telling me what I was supposed to do in life. Society was also tellin g me that film is for the dreamer, who lives in a fantasy world. “Become an accountant, lawyer or even a butcher – now that’s a safe bet.” But I don’t want a safe bet -I want excitement. No offence or anything, I just know I’m not going to be your average butcher on the street in years to come.
Now due to my mother knowing a therapist, it was time for me to book a date with the big man himself. My first impression of him was that he was a handsome version of Alf Garnett. Unknown to him this was going through my head through the whole session – a bit hard to concentrate with that on your mind. Another defining characteristic I noticed about him was that he had these Hollywood-like dramatic long pauses while we talked. Nonetheless, a dramatic long pause that was equal to any Oscar winning Actor in Tinsel Town.
During our meeting I told my therapist about my dilemma between school and film. He suggested that for the next time we meet that I write a short script interpreting the two. So I did. I called it Torn Between Two Lovers’. He was quite surprised, as the script had as much to do with film and school, as ‘Raging Bull’ had to do with a West Cork cattle festival.
But like any great script, I have a twist, unknown to anyone but me. ‘Torn Between Two Lovers’ was nothing to do with my dilemma between school and film. It was all about the dilemma between what I wanted to do and what other people wanted me to do – I just hadn’t the guts to tell anyone until this day, nine months later.
Meeting the therapist was of great help, yet there was something lacking. I was still longing for someone to say: ‘You just do what YOU want to do, Steve. You know what you’re capable of.’ Not once did anyone close say that to me. If anything, that is what has had me so down since last September.
Frankly, I don’t care what anyone wants to do in life, whether it is to be an accountant or manager of the bag-packing section in Tescos, I don’t care – JUST DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN AND CANNOT DO IN LIFE. Just because your average job is more mainstream, people somehow think they have this divine right to say, “Why should you make it in the film business? – You re no Spielberg. Without me even making a movie, or without reading one of my scripts, people have judged. It’s hard to go a day without someone saying that. But then again I have no time for someone who has only something negative to say about what I want to do in life, when they don’t even know what I am capable of.
If you go for the ‘safe bet’ in life, the chances are you’ll get the ‘safe bet’ – but if you decide otherwise – who knows what’s possible… I think I’ll decide otherwise.
Finally, I would just like to say, in August of 1998 people were saying to me, ”Steve, just two years of school – you get the bare minimum in the Leaving Cert, then you’re in film school.” Then two months later the unthinkable happens. Now, in August of 1999, people are saying the exact same thing to me, “Steve, just two years of school…” Well, if my life can change so much in one year, who’s to say it won’t change again? Believe you me, I won’t be touching on any wood. I’m all for another rollercoaster of a year.
The only thing I know is…. is that this time round – I’m due some good luck….