Back In Their Element

Yorgos Lanthimos directing Emma Stone in The Favourite. Image Source – Fox Searchlight Pictures

Brian Quinn

The Dublin-based production company behind such hits as Normal People and the 2018 Oscar-magnet The Favourite are back in full swing. With film and TV production slowly getting back up to speed, Element Pictures gear up for what looks to be a busy year filled with plenty of exciting titles. 
The COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact on Ireland’s film and television industry in 2020. While some creative sectors, animation in particular, were able to continue working remotely, live-action productions faced a number of significant challenges and setbacks. “To be honest with you,” Element Pictures co-founder Ed Guiney told The Wrap last year, “when this all happened eight weeks ago, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll do this for a few weeks and there’ll be a vaccine and we’ll all be back to work in September.’” 
September came and went, but things were far from normal. By that time, Screen Producers Ireland (SPI) had published Return to Production Guidelines: a 50 page, ever evolving document outlining the do’s and don’ts for those returning to set. Such guidelines include options for modifying work structures, an effective cleaning and sanitation system and, most importantly, a strict testing regime – according to SPI, cast and crew should be tested twice per week.

On to the Next One
As expected, it took the industry time to adjust to the raft of new protocols, but as they say: the show must go on. And go on it did. Champing at the bit, Element Pictures picked up right where they left off. When Ireland first went into Lockdown last March, the team were applying the finishing touches to Normal People; now, over a year later, Element are busy producing its spiritual sequel, Conversations with Friends. Based on Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel, the upcoming show, expected to arrive in 2022, will explore millennial romance and all the messiness that comes with it. Alumna of Dublin’s Lir Academy, Alison Oliver will be taking on the central role of Frances, while Sasha Lane, the American actor from such indie hits as American Honey and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, will play Bobbi, Frances’ on and off girlfriend.

Breaking the Bank
Along with Conversations with Friends, Element are also producing The Gallows Pole for the BBC. The series, which is scheduled to shoot later this year, will be directed by esteemed UK filmmaker Shane Meadows, and is based on Benjamin Myers’ 2017 novel of the same name. The story follows a gang of 18th Century counterfeiters known as the Cragg Vale Coiners, who embark upon a revolutionary criminal enterprise that will capsize the economy and become the biggest fraud in British history. Meadows’ previous television work, This is England and Channel 4’s The Virtues – the latter earning Irish actor Niamh Algar an IFTA Award in 2020 – garnered much critical acclaim, so it’s safe to say expectations for The Gallows Pole are sky high.

On a Lighter Note
If you’re not in the mood for a heavy drama, having already had your fair share over the last 18 months, you’re in luck. The Dry, which is currently in development after receiving €485,000 under the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) Sound and Vision scheme last year, is a six-part comedy series made for RTÉ One. Written by award-winning Irish screenwriter and playwright Nancy Harris, the show is billed as an “irreverent, sharp and honest depiction of an Irish family in denial” – so expect plenty of folded arms and passive aggressive remarks. 

A Cannes-do Attitude
Moving on to the big screen, it’s clear Element are looking to add to their string of arthouse and box office hits in recent years. First up is Joanna Hogg’s highly anticipated follow up to her 2019 critical darling The Souvenir. Having premiered at the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight strand at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, The Souvenir: Part II is expected to arrive at Irish cinemas late 2021. Another one of Hogg’s films hoping for a release later this year is The Eternal Daughter. Teaming up once again with Element, the mystery film stars Tilda Swinton, and was shot secretly in Wales under lockdown. Spooky! 

It’s Alive
To Hungary now, where Element and Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos look to continue their winning collaboration. The filmmaker who brought us The Favourite, Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster is currently in Budapest prepping for his next feature film, Poor Things. Starring Hollywood heavyweights Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe, the film is said to be a Frankenstein-esque tale of “love, discovery and scientific daring,” focusing on a young woman named Belle Baxter (Stone) brought back to life by an eccentric but brilliant scientist. The film is likely to hit the cinemas in 2022, and will no doubt prove an Oscar contender come award season.

No Minor Miracle
Closer to home however, British actress Florence Pugh is set to star in a film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel The Wonder. The thriller, set in the Irish midlands in 1859, follows an English nurse (Pugh) who is summoned to a small village to observe what many consider a miracle: a young girl who has survived without food for months. The bizarre occurrence, thought to be an unprecedented medical anomaly, causes a local sensation, attracting curious tourists as well as catching the eye of a journalist. This will be Donoghue’s second novel to be adapted for the big screen, following Room in 2015, which earned several Oscar nominations, including a win for Best Actress. Principal photography for The Wonder begins on location in Ireland this August, and is slated for cinemas sometime in 2022.

Home Wasn’t Built in a Day
Thankfully you won’t have to wait nearly as long for Phyllida Lloyd’s festival favourite Herself, a female-driven drama releasing into Irish and UK cinemas September 12th. Shot in Dublin, the film was a standout at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, receiving rave notices for its stunning and sensitive portrayal of Ireland’s housing crisis. Co-written by Clare Dunne, who also stars in the leading role, Herself tells the story of an abused woman (Dunne) who, frustrated by the Irish housing market, opts to build her own home on a friend’s plot of land. “It’s feelgood but with a definite reality bite,” Dunne told RTÉ Entertainment, “It’s a hero’s tale, and a redemptive one at that.”
The future is bright for Element Pictures’ founders Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe; irons are in the fire, fingers are in pies and the plates haven’t stopped spinning. It seems like every week that goes by a new project of theirs is rolled into production. Whether it’s home or away on location, the team have proved a force to be reckoned with on the international market, with films racking up appearances across Cannes, the Baftas and the Oscars – making them the most successful Irish producers to date. The pandemic may have muddied the waters last year, but for Guiney it was never a question of when, but how. “I think what we have to face up to is that if we want to shoot, we’re going to be shooting in a coronavirus world,” he told The Wrap. “Our ability will depend on the availability of PPE (personal protective equipment) and of course testing.’’