With Mattress Men, which makes its world premiere at Hot Docs 2016, Irish filmmaker Colm Quinn and one of his producers David Clarke have documented one of the most beloved creative minds in Ireland in recent memory.
Struggling to drive business to his Dublin mattress shop amid the current Irish state of recession and austerity, Michael Flynn adopted the persona of Mattress Mick, an off-the-wall, over the top force of nature who has starred in almost surreal, hilarious viral videos. The unusual promo clips feature dancing mattresses, hilariously low rent clip art backdrops, nonsensical songs, and, of course, Mick’s larger than life personality. The character was created in part by Paul Kelly, a friend of Mick and an out of work family man looking to make ends meet. Together, they caused a sensation, but is the sensation enough for Mick to maintain his shop and for Paul to secure future employment?
Quinn followed Michael and Paul over the course of three years behind the scenes of their shoots and in their personal lives, and the resulting film speaks to a larger human drive to survive amid harsh times. The result is an uproariously funny movie, that’s also the most unlikely tearjerker at the festival.
We caught up with Quinn and Clarke over coffee shortly after their arrival in Toronto and the day before they unleash Mick, Paul, and Brian the Guy in the Mattress on an unsuspecting Canadian public.
I think people who go into this film will really be disarmed by how emotional the stories of Mick and Paul are. It’s a film about much more than someone making wacky viral videos for a local business. What’s it like bringing those personal stories behind the videos to a larger audience?
Colm Quinn: It’s great because it can kind of translate as this universal story. When we met Paul, in particular, the stakes couldn’t be higher for him in terms of his living on the poverty line. This was a chance for reinvention, and his story really paralleled that of Mick because of how the previous economic crash had affected him just a few years ago. These are men who both had to reinvent themselves. They were so lucky to have met, and they’re trying to make something against this background of austerity and limited opportunity. Mick just goes out and does it, and at a time where opportunity is limited, people really admire that. The pressure was really on for these two lads. I think with Mick in particular, there’s a feeling that he has nothing left to lose. Here’s a guy that puts on a costume that’s a cross between a pimp and Doc Brown. He just doesn’t give a fuck, and I think that’s how he has reached such cult status. That’s how cult celebrity status grows, and this is such a modern way of doing it.
David Clarke: They found a clever and unlikely way of tapping into this phenomenon of online marketing without having any experience in doing it before this. But what was more interesting is just how willing these guys were to put themselves out there and risk looking like idiots and how they look to family and friends. And they pulled it off.
Colm Quinn: They work together to figure out how the social media landscape works and how to translate ideas to an audience. I think they found that the zanier the videos are – literally throwing the kitchen sink at them – the better it works for them. Their motivation is the reason the documentary exists. I mean, in Ireland now, you’ve got a population paying off the debts of gambling bankers. There’s a fundamental absurdity that we’re being saddled with all these debts. People are forced into poverty out of decisions made in a boardroom somewhere. Globally this has been an issue.
David Clarke: And we met the boys at a good time. Over those three years we were filming, there has been a huge change. A lot of those bad things are easing off, but the story unfolded at the perfect time. Even in terms of social media and the explosion of the virality of these videos. It was kind of the perfect storm that we were there to document it.
Colm Quinn: I think it was clear from the get-go that this was going to be an austerity story. I supposed that’s why these guys are such a gift, in a way. You can explore how austerity impacts people’s lives, but you can do it in such a way with these characters that are so big and these scenarios that are equally outlandish and relatable. There’s a scene in a film where Paul and his family come across a protest, and those are still happening. There have been so many taxes lumbered upon people that it has become a proxy issue in a lot of ways. Once that backdrop is in the ether, that just shows the way life is in Ireland and how people are pissed off at a lot of things, and that’s the context that seeps in around it.
Was it different for Paul to be in front of the camera for this film instead of working behind the scenes? Was he at all hesitant given that he was still searching for employment and trying to support his family?
Colm Quinn: The stakes were so much higher for Paul, so yeah. For him, Mattress Mick was a huge opportunity. It was a chance at security. When I first met Paul, there was a sense for the first time that we had really high stakes within this story for some of the people involved. We filmed over the course of three years, and as we filmed with Mick and Paul, that discrepancy between when we were filming and when we weren’t sort of vanished over time. Paul was very frank, open, and honest. He was very generous when it came to having his family life filmed and his relationship with Mick. We screened it for Mick and Paul a couple weeks ago, and Paul picked up on how there’s so much struggling going on in Ireland right now, and so many people living on the poverty line, he felt that by telling his story as honestly as he could, that this story would resonate with people in the same situation. That takes a lot of bravery and honesty, and that’s great to make a documentary with someone willing to put themselves out there like that. Paul’s relationship with Mick in the film is one where they’re friends, but there’s a fight for Paul to maintain stability. Paul works one day a week in the shop and receives social welfare to get through the rest of the week. There’s not a huge amount of money in that. This Mattress Mick persona was huge in no small part to Paul’s contributions, and I think he rightfully felt a level of ownership over that. There’s that sense in the film that Paul learns a lot as things develop. I also think that Paul had Mick on a bit of a pedestal when we first started, and we get to see Paul start to challenge Mick in order to get a bit of security.
Mick and Paul really do have two of the worst jobs to have in the midst of an economic crisis. Paul is a creative type, and when there’s no money to be creative, it’s almost impossible to make a living, and for Mick, a mattress is a purchase almost everyone would put off buying if they couldn’t afford it. Did you guys notice before you started filming that given the current economic situation in Ireland that these guys were in losing operations?
Colm Quinn: That’s exactly it! Against those two backgrounds that you described, they’ve been able to join forces and turn Mick’s business around completely. The shop in the centre of Dublin has seen the number of mattresses going out the door quadruple, and there’s only one reason for that, and that’s this collaboration that they came up with. It’s a weird thing where in Ireland people talk about Mattress Mick and say they’ve known about him for years. They speak about him in such a way that they think they’ve known him for about thirty years, when in fact, the videos have only been around for three years. He has seeped into the public consciousness through these videos, putting signs in weird places, and having guys going out on the street and wearing mattresses. But when you’re back is against the wall like it was for Mick and Paul, it’s a question of survival. You’ll do what you have to do when you have a family, and that’s the most admirable part of their journey. Mick is getting on in years and Paul’s in his forties, so there’s only so many opportunities like this left for either of them. I grew up in the ’80s, and there was a recession back then, and I can recall a lot of the problems Paul was facing were ones that my family was facing. There’s a lot in their stories that will resonate will people.
How would you describe what it’s like to be on the set of a Mattress Mick shoot?
David Clarke: (laughs) Don’t answer that.
Colm Quinn: It’s like you just walked into a Buñuel film! There’s puppet monkeys, DeLoreans, scantily clad women, a guy dressed as a mattress. It’s bizarre, but fun.
David Clarke: It’s very fun, but I don’t know how much planning goes into them, but it seems to work.
I have to ask you about Brian, the guy who dresses up as a mattress and goes on the street corner to try and drum up business for Mick. He’s such a wild character in an already wild film. Any chance of a “best of Brian” reel in the future?
Colm Quinn: (laughs) You know, visually we shot with Brian for one day because we thought it would just be a sight to see and add into the film. But then I started listening to him talk, and I thought, “Jesus Christ, he’s talking some sense here! I better get a mic on him!” And he was in there just muttering to himself and coming up with all this mad stuff, and the truth of it is that you could have an entire spin off of just watching Brian talking to himself. There’s a lot of wisdom that comes out of him, I tell you. (laughs) There’s so much more that didn’t make it into the film. I love that guy.