Paul Duane Interview
Paul Duane Interview
Paul Duane is an Irish writer, director and producer, who has worked on the likes of TV shows such as Ballykissangel, Casualty, Footballers’ Wives and Secret Diary of a Call Girl. His first venture into the world of feature documentaries, is the film Barbaric Genius, which takes a closer look at the enigmatic figure of John Healy, a man who transformed himself from a street drunk into a world class chess player and a best selling author, before disappearing from the public eye after a violent falling out with his publisher.

Here, Duane talks to View’s Matthew Turner about working with this renowned character, why John Healy has become one of his best friends, and the next chapter in his Old Men trilogy of films.
What's the film about?

Paul Duane

John Healy was born during World War II, into an Irish family in London and had a horrific family background, ended up on the streets in his late teens, after a stint in the army, a stint as a boxer. He spent ten years as a street wino, a vagrant, a mugger, alcoholic, living on the streets of Camden and Kentish Town.

And then on one of his many short prison terms, a cellmate taught him chess and he instantly latched onto it, stopped drinking, more or less. He left prison, went to a drying out facility, didn't drink again and went on the national chess circuit at a very high level. Which, at the age of 30, I mean, nobody learns chess at 30 and becomes a serious chess player and certainly nobody who has spent ten years drinking methylated spirits, surgical spirits and fortified wine on the streets of Kentish Town becomes a serious chess player.

So he had a career for I think five years, winning ten major British chess titles and then came to the realisation that he couldn't ever become a Grand Master, knocked that on the head, spent a few years trying to figure out what he was going to do next, then he became a writer. His first book The Grass Arena won England's richest literary award, the J.R. Ackerley, it was made into a film which won the Michael Powell award at Edinburgh, it was number one in the best-seller lists.

So basically, everything he turned his hand to he conquered, but he came to a very sudden stop. I remember the front pages of the newspapers in 1991 or 1992 said he'd had a falling out with his publisher and it was a violent falling out and it was mysterious, nobody really knew the details and then he disappeared completely.
How did you get involved in the film?

Paul Duane

I was aware of the book, I'd just come out of film school and I'd read The Grass Arena and in my innocence and ignorance I tried to option the book but didn't manage to get it. And then I didn't really hear anything more about him for twenty years until I read a piece in The Observer, saying John Healy was appearing in a literary festival in Ireland and that people should be aware, if they were going to go, that they were taking a risk because he's a violent man.

So I read that and thought, 'Oh my God,' - I'd assumed he was dead, but when I read this I instantly just thought, 'Something's got to happen about this,' so I contacted them and said, 'Can you arrange for me to interview him?' and they put me in touch with him. Although I was quite fearful about talking to him with the reputation he had, I became aware quite quickly that he was a very damaged, lonely, isolated individual. He, at that point, had just recovered from a nervous breakdown, this was 2007 and his book had been out of print. So then the next four years were spent making this film and during that time, the book came back into print in Penguin Modern Classics and has sold 15,000 copies since then, which is quite substantial. And it's still selling.
How easy was it to persuade him to get involved in the film in the first place?

Paul Duane

Oh, very. I mean, you know you’ve got to remember that when I first talked to him, his book had been out of print for twenty years and he had absolutely nobody on his side. He was looking for someone to state his position, I suppose. So he was very keen to be involved but the thing was, as a documentary filmmaker, you don’t want to just give somebody’s line, you want to make your own story, so I had to persuade him that the process involved me understanding the story and me figuring out my own take on it, not just saying what John wanted me to say.
How did you come up with the title?

Paul Duane

It was John’s idea. I said to him, ‘I’m stuck for a title.’ He said ‘The Wino Who Became A Genius’ and then said ‘Barbaric Genius’ and I said, ‘Barbaric Genius’ has a ring to it!' It’s also a B, it’s high up on the alphabet, so when it's in alphabetical lists, it’ll be up there, you know? And the TV version is called ‘John Healy: You Have Been Warned’, which was taken from the Observer piece. But I don’t know, Barbaric Genius: he’s quite embarrassed by it now, because he thinks we shouldn’t be trumpeting him as a genius, but fuck it, he’s more versatile than anybody else I’ve ever met, in terms of the things he can do.

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Content updated: 21/06/2019 05:42

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