How to Cheat and I

00:00 Tue 17 Mar 1998. Updated: 14:24 13 Jan 2007
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Warning: this is a long piece. (Also, the date above is a guess; I don’t know exactly when this was written.)

My involvement with How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate goes back to 1991 / 1992, when Graham Jones and I were 6th years in Newpark Comprehensive. Neither of us thought much of the Leaving Certificate system, to say the least, and we tended to discuss its shortcomings frequently. I think it was in early ’92 that Graham had the idea of making a film to attack the system, a film about people cheating in the Leaving.

Graham was already set on making films at that stage, and ended up going to film school in London in ’93. He was very passionate about the How to Cheat project (though it wasn’t called that then), however, and was determined to come back and make it, and not get sidetracked by 3 years away. His ideas about the film were very different from the final version, but the basic kernel was there. He and I talked about it a lot, but I can’t remember what came out of those conversations except even more commitment on Graham’s part to make the film. That, and a strengthening of our belief that the LC / CAO system was deeply flawed.

It was Graham’s project from the start, and it was his determination and belief that led it to go anywhere at all. My role was an advisory one; while Graham looked at the project dynamically and in broad strokes, I was more tactical / political, and gave a lot of input as to how the message of the film might be deflected.

Sometime in ’93 or ’94, when Graham home on holiday, I saw an RTE news piece on a UCD Filmsoc film called (I think) How to Get a Seat in UCD. The short film was essentially a tour around the Belfield campus, highlighting the fact that it was almost impossible to find somewhere to sit at busy times of the day. The film’s intent was pretty obvious: show the problems graphically and with the publicity embarrass UCD into doing something about it. The RTE piece showed some of the film, and then allowed a UCD representative to dismiss the film’s claims.

I later that night told Graham about it, pointing out that our project would face quite similar problems, though perhaps on a larger scale. He got me to write down my predictions of how politicians would react to criticism of the kind we intended. (I’ll put these predictions up if Graham can find them). This is important because Graham resolved to try and make the film in such a way as to deflect or undermine these likely reactions. We talked a lot about it then, and now, as the film nears its release date (4 or 5 years later!) we’ll see how the predictions pan out.

Late in the summer of ’94, Graham started trying to set up a structure to prepare for the making of the film; he mainly wanted researchers and producers. I agreed to be Director of Research, and Graham found some really good people to act as researchers (including Michael Cosgrave, who was absolutely brilliant). The research was centred on the history of the Leaving Certificate, and the way in which it really worked-i.e. who it excluded from Higher Education, who it catered to, etc. Later on, the Research also involved details more directly related to the film, such as the logistics of the examinations themselves.

A lot of this research work is not immediately apparent in the film, but the picture we put together was essential as a backdrop. It aided our understanding of the whole system, which was evidently crucial to the project.

I can’t remember exactly when Graham decided (another flash of brilliance) that the film would be a heist movie, but I think it would have been sometime around then.

In 1995, after my finals, Graham asked me to write the script of the film with him. I agreed, with the proviso that we be equal partners. By this time Graham had assembled a production crew and was actively trying to raise money. We all worked out of Graham’s flat on Rathgar Road, and things were really moving. Graham had managed to secure an initial investment of £5000, and that really acted as a spur for everyone.

The early summer was a great time. We got rid of a lot of the early weaknesses in the script, we got an initial investment of £5,000, and there was a buzz of activity around the flat. It was also one of Ireland’s hottest and sunniest summers, which doubtless helped a lot.

Late summer began to bring problems. Some of the producers, as Graham put it, ‘jumped ship’. Moreover, the script work was getting more and more difficult. This was primarily my fault, as I experienced increasing difficulty in sticking to the working arrangements Graham and I had agreed on. I realise now that essentially we were working in a way that just didn’t suit me at all, and thought Graham compromised a lot to accommodate me, the basic structure of our work was his, not mine. That’s not to say the problems were his fault; on the contrary, they were doubly my fault: first for agreeing to work in way that didn’t suit me; second, for not keeping to that agreement.

Still, I don’t think the script itself suffered too much. My working relationship with Graham did suffer, but we kept the script ticking over very well, I’m still extremely proud of the work I did on it, especially certain scenes such as the heist scene. The first draft was flawed in many ways, but had flashes of true excellence and also a fairly solid framework that simply needed refinement.

Unfortunately, I was leaving to live in Berlin in October, which meant we didn’t have too much time for refinement.

When I went to Berlin, things really began to go wrong as far as Graham + me + the script went. I found it pretty difficult to work on it from Berlin, with no feedback, but worse than that I had the impression that we would only be making relatively minor changes; Graham was working on more major alterations. When I got back for Christmas, I disagreed with many of Graham’s revisions but couldn’t argue against them too well because I had written no alternatives. Also, Graham was locking off the script, he said, so that the important pre-production work could be done. I went back to Berlin fuming at myself for not working more on the script when I’d had the chance.

While things were going really well for the film, in terms of investment and preparation for the shoot, this is also the time when my involvement was more painful and most frustrating.

To explain, I should delineate the agreement that Graham and I had regarding the script. It was simple enough: the script was ours 50/50, neither of us could change it without agreement from the other. When the script was finished, however, Graham could go away and shoot it any way he liked.

After I returned to Berlin, Graham broke this agreement rather spectacularly in late January / early February, by:
a) re-opening the script for input and alteration
b) signing on Aislinn O’Loughlin as a third scriptwriter
c) not consulting me on either of these, or even telling me about them until mid-March, at which time the script really did have to be locked off, as the shoot was rapidly approaching.

I still feel pretty bad about all that. Graham later convinced me that for the good of the film I should agree to he and Aislinn being credited with an ‘Adapted Screenplay’, while he and I would share the ‘Original Screenplay’ credit-even though Aislinn’s contribution was minimal. I could have been credited with an ‘Adapted Screenplay’ credit also, but decided against this because at the time I had to decide, I had too many problems with the Adapted Screenplay (it later changed a lot, in ways I liked-c’est la vie).

I now feel I should have held out for more than that, and should have paid less attention to the fact that Graham really didn’t want to break the agreement he made with Aislinn (regardless of the fact that he’d had no right to make it). Graham was doing what he felt was best for the film; I just think that his thinking on this whole issue was (and perhaps still is) deeply flawed from start to finish.

Griping apart, however, things really roared ahead while I was away. The film was shot in spring 1996, something I really wished I had been around to see. By the time I got back, the buzz of production had died down and the more sober work of editing had was beginning. As I had all along, I acted as general advisor to the project, but the stresses between Graham and I meant I was far less effective in this role than I had been.

I continued to give input and sporadically work on revisions right up until the premiere at the Galway Film Festival in summer ’97. It was really great to see it there, especially since it was very well received.

After than, I wasn’t that involved until Graham asked me to do the website. (Kevin Teljeur got involved later at my request.) Unhappily, Graham and I didn’t interact particularly well on this aspect of the project either. We both like the site, which is what’s important, though I have more reservations about its content than he does.

At this stage, less than a month before the film’s release, I’m pretty excited about it. I’d love to play an active part in pushing the film’s message about the Leaving; myself, Graham, and Deirdre Ni Fhloinn wrote a submission to the Commission on the Points System outlining our concerns, and I’d like to do more work like that. Public debate on the issue is badly needed, and that is what the film was always intended to spur. If I get the chance, I will definitely be involved in any such debate.

I really think that the whole project is extremely important. It’s important because our education system is important, and public debate is necessary. It’s important because it’s an Irish independent film of high quality. It’s important because it is an Irish film about modern Ireland addressing a modern issue. Lastly, it’s important because it demonstrates how much can be achieved, starting from virtually nothing, with belief, passion and tenacity. Graham Jones started 7 years ago with an excellent idea tha was just an idea. From that he has created a feature film about to go on commercial release. I can literally think of no-one else who could have achieved such a result.

That’s all. Go see the movie.

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