Desperate Optimists on all time high after Sydney Film Festival

As far as filmmakers go, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy – the pair behind creative partnership Desperate Optimists – are somewhat unusual.

Meeting as neighbours decades ago, the Irish pair have survived a happy 25-year marriage (while working together) and managed to carve out a career from theatre, music and film.

And, they’ve done it all outside of cinema society with their own distinctive style.

“It is kind of a very odd hybrid – so no film financing – its focus is on a moving images project," Lawlor tells IF Magazine. “So we keep well away from the film world proper – aside from when we screen it."

Using this model they’ve produced Helen (shown at the Sydney Film Festival in 2008), short film Joy and their Civic Life series.

“The feature film Helen, it's basically the story of a teenage girl, but it was filmed by working in partnership with arts organisations across four cities (Dublin, Liverpool, Birmingham and Newcastle)… so it’s a community project that happens to be a feature film.”

Similarly, their approach to narrative development preferences experience and expression of place over one liners and plot twists.

As Joe explains it, their process is an organic zoom – constantly narrowing in on what will make it to screen – a process employed to good effect on the Singaporean Civic Life project.

“You start talking to people [who live in that neighbourhood], which we would have done for several months, on many visits, and spoken to many hundreds of people to ask them about this neighbourhood.

“What do the think about it? What do they feel about it? And, if they were making a film about it, what would they put in it? And then a pattern emerges and that pattern actually becomes the story of an elderly woman, a young man, a teenage girl and a child.

“So we didn’t come in with any of those ideas. I guess by osmosis we were orientated to the hawker centre, but then specifically the people and the stories come out through discussion and conversation.”

The end result – their Singaporean Civic Life project (and their most recent Civic Life project, Tiong Bahru) – screened at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and has led to the possibility of an Australian instalment.

In its earliest stages of development, the Australian Civic Life film would straddle both Sydney and Melbourne, and has set off talks with ACMI, Metro Screen and other Australian bodies.

“We have never ever seen a film where the story is as good as Anna Karenina as told by Tolstoy – I’ve never seen a film that can do that,” starts Joe in his explanation of starting with space not script.

“But then I think, is that really what I want? “I think its all about the experience – the form, of how this is being articulated.

“But I think in the true sense of writing i.e. through dialogue, thinking about structures… is very much part of the creative process for us.

(So, Robert McKee and his Academy Award winning minions needn’t be too disheartened just yet.)

Desperate Optimists’ next feature will take them closer to the mainstream than ever before, as they employ a professional actor – Aidan Gillan of The Wire – to lead their cast.

“So now the interesting task for us is: how to retain some of our vision? Yet, also, how to expand and reach a much larger audience? Combining these two elements together – so a more rich, more expansive notion of storytelling might develop in the process.”

One thing is certain; they will not be directing the next Batman movie.

“I don’t think you can do that kind of thing cynically,” confesses Joe.