Director Paul Duane on making feature documentary Barbaric Genius, the story of John Healy - wino, chess prodigy, author of a classic memoir, and forgotten man.
Sitting, mildly hungover, on a friend's couch in Galway on Easter Sunday, 2007, I was stunned to read a small paragraph in The Observer's literary column, The Browser. It stated that John Healy, author of The Grass Arena, was to appear at that year's Cúirt Literary Festival. The column also had some vaguely phrased warnings about Healy's violent tendencies but that didn't bother me (much). It was just extraordinary to discover that a writer whose work I loved and who, it seemed, had disappeared off the face of the earth, was within easy reach.
I contacted Maura Kennedy who was at that time the Programme Director for Cúirt and she put me in touch with John Healy, who was still living in his native Kentish Town in London. I remember how nervous I felt as I phoned him for the first time. I mean, this man had been characterised as a psychopath, a paranoiac, he'd lived among murderers and nutcases, and I was a struggling filmmaker who'd just become a father – what was I inviting into our lives?
I found myself dealing with one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met. I didn't realise at that time that John was then only just coming out of a terrible depression and that calling him would be the beginning of a (so far) five-year journey we would take together. The longer I spent with him, the more remarkable things I found out: he was, understandably, cagey about my motives at first and worried about going into some subjects such as his absorption in Buddhist meditation (“I don't want them to think I'm a lunatic”, he said), his Yoga practice and his rich inner life.
Above all, the irony is that The Observer piece – meant to warn people away – brought him back into the public eye, and this somehow sums up the bizarre gallows humour that has characterised John's story.
Barbaric Genius opens EXCLUSIVELY at the IFI on May 25th.