He came from a faraway galaxy, in search of a decent pint of Guinness. Well, actually, he came from Dublin in a figure hugging red rubber suit, but Zonad, the new genre-busting Irish-made comedy, has turned out to be the funniest film of the year, and it’s about to prove it at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this weekend.
Directed by John Carney, 38, who directed the Oscar-winning sleeper hit "Once" two years ago, and his brother Kieran Carney, 36, Zonad stars Simon Delaney in a breakout role that could easily stand beside the best work of comedy giant John Belushi, the manic Blues Brothers star that Delaney and his brand of physical comedy most resembles.
Looking like a completely insane sequel to The Quiet Man, Zonad is part Carry-On comedy, part 1950’s sci-fi potboiler, and part hearty revenge on America for decades of sentimental Oirish fare like The Quiet Man and Darby O’Gill. It’s also the most possible fun you can have at the movies, and that’s the goal.
The influence of directors as diverse as Mel Brooks, Ed Wood, Tim Burton and John Landis can be seen all over Zonad, but it’s also completely it’s own thing -- a whacked-out rural Irish 1950s style sci-fi comedy love story.
What’s really exciting is that it’s also the first of its kind. Part of the fun of Zonad is that you have literally never seen anything quite like it from Ireland before.
When Zonad (played by Delaney) arrives in the little village of Ballymoran (looking like Britney Spears’ overweight dad) he’s instantly accepted by the friendly locals, who for whatever reason never get around to asking him difficult questions, like where’s your spaceship or how come you speak English?
Instead they excitedly welcome him to their community the way they’d welcome anyone, with a stone cold pint of Guinness.
Ballymoran, it’s fair to say, is stuck in a bizarre 1950s time warp. People talk and dress like Dwight D. Eisenhower is still president and rock and roll hasn’t been invented.
Helping to underline this back to the future theme is the film’s outrageous score. There’s something jarringly off about using a dramatic Alfred Hitchcock orchestral soundtrack in a quaint little Irish village, and the Carney brothers know it.
The film opens with Zonad passed out on the floor of the Cassidy family’s living room. When they find him they don’t throw him out. They volunteer to be his hosts in the village.
So far so unlikely. Soon Zonad is a local celebrity, milking everything he can get -- free room and board from the Cassidys, bottomless drinks at the local pub and the adoration of all the town’s teenage girls.
Everything is going great for Zonad until a fellow rehab escapee shows up as Bonad! Directors John and Kieran have concocted a lunatic story that goes down like a nice pint of Guinness. But how did it get started?
“It was a very old pub joke between myself and my brother and a few actors we know,” John Carney tells the Irish Voice.
“We invited him and imagined what he would do in social situations. Then we realized we had an idea for a film and we cast it with Simon Delaney in a red PVC suit.”
Casting Delaney in the starring role is the secret of the film’s success. His all-out performance has star making potential, and the Carneys know it.
“I think Simon has international potential because he’s so likeable and people don’t know what to expect from him. He has a great John Belushi/Oliver Hardy quality to him and he plays very well against his rival in the film David Pearse. The sight of them in their alien costumes just makes people laugh instantly,” says John.
The Carneys’ original pitch for the film was The Quiet Man via Mel Brooks.
“It’s hard to know how it will go down in the U.S. I sometimes think it might go over like Napoleon Dynamite did and then I wonder,” says John.
“I have bigger budget projects that I’m writing, but I thought it was important that after Once I didn’t go and do a project that I didn’t love. I was getting offered projects that were okay. I think it’s important for a director to love the project because they’re going to be with it for so long.”
After the heat of Once, which starred Glen Hansard and Marketa Irgolva – they won the Oscar in 2008 for Best Original Song in 2008 -- it made it easier for the Carney to go to the Irish Film Board and to producers for major funding for the edgy independent movie without having to justify himself as much as he used to.
As he set about writing bigger features to keep projects ticking over, he set to work on Zonad with a vengeance. And with the global recession hitting the film industry, he had the perfect excuse to pursue a small budget film without controversy.
“The actual shooting happened fairly quickly on a small budget, which suited it,” says Kieran Carney. “We went with the 1950’s style sci-fi alien shows up in a small village Twilight Zone feel because the material just suggested it. A big part of the film was also just childish revenge for the way Ireland is represented in so many American movies.”
Don’t look to the script for answers about the plot though. Says Kieran, “Why is he there? Why do the villagers accept him as a spaceman? Once you start to answer those sorts of questions the audience starts asking more.
“So we ignored them entirely. We just presented the story and hope people would go with it. A lot of modern films are made quite cynically, and I think that the viewer can tell when they’re made from the heart. We made this because we really wanted to.”
It wasn’t the first time the two brothers had worked together on the film. It’s been a pet project for them both since 2000.
“We originally shot a feature length version of the film in John’s apartment with Simon Delaney and Cillian Murphy back in 2000,” says Kieran.
“But when we showed it to people outside the film business they didn’t enjoy it as much as we thought they should do. Eighty percent of it was completed and we rented an edit suite to cut it. But the editing equipment was repossessed and in that editing deck was the original film. Half a year of work was lost.”
With that kind of history it’s no wonder they felt compelled to complete the film. But the film’s secret weapon is its originality.
“It’s certainly original for an Irish piece of work,’ says Zonad star Delaney. “We’re getting our own back on The Quiet Man.”
When Delaney talks as Zonad he sounds like a weird mash-up of the speaking clock and Professor Stephen Hawking. It’s the sort of alien visitor voice that we used to hear in old 1950s movies.
“The real challenge of filming Zonad was wearing the red rubber suit,” says Delaney. “Wearing that big red condom for eight weeks was a challenge. But wearing it while trying to cycle a bike was a disaster. It was a tough, tough shoot.”
Delaney’s son Eliot was born during the shoot and, to save time, Delaney visited him in hospital in his costume.
“I was on set on the day my son was born and of course I wanted to see him. I only had my lunch hour so I took a taxi over to the hospital. The looks I got,” he laughs.
“I looked like a blubber-gram. One lad shouted that Britney Spears has really let herself go.”
Delaney comes from a musical theater background and has a robust soul singing voice (which is put to good use in the film singing the Hothouse Flowers’ signature tune “I’m Sorry”).
But it was just the fun of making the film in Wicklow and seeing the public’s reaction to his spaceman suit that really made the experience for him.
“I think the locals must have thought we were making a mad Polish porn film. We turned a few heads. But now that Zonad got a rave review in Variety we’re feeling very chuffed I must say,” Delaney says.
Zonad plays at the Tribeca Film Festival this Saturday and Sunday. Visit www.tribecafilm.com.