Kirk Jones is about half the age of the youngest actor in his debut film, Waking Ned Devine.
Touted as this year’s The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine tells the story of two old Irishmen in a small village. One of their neighbors has won the lottery, and they plan to get some of the winnings, any way they can.
Jones himself is a young Englishman. He is well-dressed, more hip than businesslike. He is kind and softspoken, earnest and friendly. He plays the lottery when the jackpot gets big. “I love the fact that you can spend one pound and daydream for a week. It’s like a really cheap form of escapism.”
Jones jokes about having grown up in L.A. (that’s Long Ashton, population 3,000) near his grandfather, who was an inspiration to him. He has been working in commercials for about eight years now. Waking Ned Devine is his first feature film.
“It started with a newspaper clipping,” he recalls. Several years ago, he read a clipping about a postmistress in a small town who had won the lottery. She tried to keep the fact secret, but in a small town, secrets don’t last. “I was just fascinated with this idea of a tiny community, and within its midst there was a winner.”
Jones took that germ of an idea and started changing it around. “I suddenly became very addicted to developing that story. It was just like becoming addicted to a video game,” Jones said. “Suddenly, before I knew it I had a finished script”
That “suddenly” came after five years of hard work in his spare time, but it paid off. Because his script was so well developed he found it easy to get backing, and soon the production was underway.
“There’s a lot of cheekiness, and good humor, and playfulness, that I know came from watching my granddad,” says Jones. In fact, the two main characters — played by Ian Bannen (Braveheart, Hope & Glory) and David Kelly (Fawlty Towers), both around 70 — are partly based on his grandfather. The script called for them to ride a motorcycle to go skinny dipping in the Atlantic, and Jones says their age didn’t slow them down a bit.
“Ian Bannen really wanted to get on that bike,” he says. “I just couldn’t let him do it.” Instead, the motorcycle shots were captured either with stuntmen or with a rig. Still, the audience is treated to an image of David Kelly riding nude on a motorbike.
One of the key challenges to making this film was finding a location that looked like a small Irish village. With satellite dishes and gas stations, many Irish villages have become too modernized to look like the story’s fictional setting. Jones found the perfect place when he arrived at Cregneash on the Isle of Man, which lies between England and Ireland.
“What was interesting about Cregneash is that it was owned by the government. It’s like a working museum, so although people live there, they didn’t own their own houses. It was the government that gave us permission to shoot there.”
But Jones felt bad about showing up without any permission from the residents themselves. “I said ‘this is really unfair; we can’t just show up and shoot there,’” he recalls. And indeed they didn’t. Jones invited the townspeople for sandwiches and wine to thank them for allowing the crew into their community and to apologize in advance for any inconvenience.
The townsfolk showed up, but they gave Jones and his crew the cold shoulder. “They were so stony faced; they just stared! I got really stuck and I didn’t know what to say next so I thought ‘I’ll tell the story of the film, and hopefully, that will bring them around.’ And it did. They started to laugh.”
The people of Cregneash aren’t the only ones laughing. Waking Ned Devine has shown at several film festivals (including the Denver International Film Festival) to appreciative audiences. “I can’t believe there’s anything more rewarding than sitting in an auditorium in a theater and hearing 400 people watching your film and screaming with laughter,” says Jones of his debut.
Riding such a high, it’s hard to imagine Jones doing anything but directing comedies from now on. On the contrary, he’s biding his time. “I’ve gone straight back to commercials. I really enjoy ads anyway but what it allows me to do is earn my money doing ads. It gives me the freedom not to commit to a studio.”
There have been plenty of offers from studios, but Jones wants to make sure his next film is as well-developed and as personally important as Waking Ned Devine.