Anton is the latest independent film to tackle a story rooted deep in Ireland’s troubled past. Director Graham Cantwell chats with Movies.ie
Anton centres on one character’s dilemma, the eponymous Anton O’Neill, who returns home to Ireland in the late 1970’s, to find the civil war has spread from Northern Ireland to his hometown in County Cavan. He must choose between his family, his country, and ultimately risks everything for the woman he loves.
Q: Can you describe “Anton” for someone who knows nothing about it?
Anton is an Irish made film financed completely by private investors. It is set in the 1970s in Cavan, just south of the border and tells the story of Anton O’Neill, a young man who gets caught up in a world of violence and his struggle to protect his family from the various factions that pursue him.
Q: This is your directorial debut on a full-length feature film. How did you come to be involved in the project?
I had known Anthony Fox, the writer, for some time and went to a reading of an early draft of the script. I was very impressed with the potential in the piece and since Anthony had seen and liked “A Dublin story”, a short film of mine which was short listed for the Academy Awards, it felt natural for us to move forward together with the production. Patrick Clarke came on board as producer and once he got involved the wheels started to turn.
Q: Gerard McSorley is probably the best known face in the cast. What was he like to work with?
Gerry is an incredible actor with an artist’s soul. We met early in pre-production and chatted about how we would approach the film and working together and we just clicked from the word go. I’ve worked with a lot of actors over the years, but none who are as instinctive and in the moment as Gerry. On set he was a total pro and set a great example for the younger, more inexperienced cast members.
Q: The cast is a striking mixture of well known actors and relative newcomers. How well did they work together?
Most of the actors I met through The Attic Studio, which was founded by Rachel Rath and I as a community of actors, writers and directors working in the film and theatre industries in Ireland. Over the years we have worked closely with hundreds of actors, who all came to know and trust me through working in the studio. When it came time to cast the film it was naturally quite easy to pull from the considerable pool of talented actors in the community. On set there was a great rapport between these younger actors and the more experienced veterans like Gerry and Ronan Wilmot. There was a mutual respect there that we fostered and it led to some wonderful performances.
Q: How comfortably do you see “Anton” as sitting alongside what you might call the canon of Irish IRA movies?
We talked about this from very early on, as we didn’t want the film to be seen as just another Irish movie about the troubles. The original script that Anthony wrote was culled from stories he had heard from his parents and the locals in Cavan as he was growing up, and it painted a picture I hadn’t seen on screen before, one of a community just south of the border who were close to the violence but not touched directly by it. This created a huge sense of guilt among the young men in the community and paramilitary recruiters from the north played on that to draw them into the fold. In subsequent drafts of the script we refocused the storyline so that it became less political and more about a family’s struggle to survive in the face of the violence brought to their doorstep. The situation in the north is really a backdrop to a more intimate family story.
Q: The subject matter is bound to raise hackles in some circles. How has the movie gone down with British critics and audiences so far?
People of a certain age group are naturally more sensitive to the subject matter, so we have had reservations expressed from some quarters, but overall the response has been incredibly good. Really I wanted to use the film as a way to communicate my own feelings about violence being used as a political tool. When Anthony brought the script to me first the London tube bombings had just happened and I was trying to make sense of these young men who had been drawn in by idealism and led to the point of sacrificing themselves and their families for a political cause. The film doesn’t take sides in the conflict, its message is one of anti-violence and I hope people will look beyond the surface material and view the film on its own merits.
Q: Do you see the inherent Irishness of the story as a help or a hindrance to reaching a wider international audience?
The film has been more positively received by international viewers than we anticipated. We screened at the Cannes film festival and the Galway film fleadh and feedback from international participants at both was overwhelmingly good. American and British viewers in particular seem to have taken to the film in a big way. It seems to have struck a chord with the current global attitude to violence in the political arena. We have been taken on by a sales agent based in London and they are very positive about the film’s prospects overseas.
Q: Is there a growing market for slick, well-produced but recognisably Irish movies?
There has always been a market for Irish content, as long as the stories are well told. Independent productions like ours face an uphill struggle, however, to compete with larger budgeted affairs and foreign blockbusters. I think if Irish audiences come out in support of home grown productions the Irish film industry will thrive. It is important that we have a voice on the international stage, but foreign interest in a film is very often largely dependent on how it fares in its own back yard.
Q: How do you think the economic downturn will affect investment in Irish-made movies?
People are batting down the hatches and circling the wagons, so accessing private investment will be more difficult in the immediate future. Couple that with gloomy predictions for the upcoming budget which will likely mean less investment from the state in the film industry and things don’t look very rosy. In saying that, however, Irish filmmakers will always find a way to tell the stories they want to tell and adversity has never stopped us in the past. It is a big challenge, but no more than anyone faces in these difficult times.
Q: Finally, any more projects under way, or plans for the future?
I have a number of scripts in development and a few more experimental projects ticking away in the background. I’ve always wanted to film something in the Irish language so I might look at that next. The challenge of filming abroad also appeals to me, but sure we’ll see where the wind takes me.