BLACK 47 is a revenge western set during the Great Famine, featuring an impressive cast & some of the best action ever seen in Irish cinema.
Was a story set during the famine always something you wanted to tell?
It’s the most important chapter in Irish history and one that had never been told in cinema before. It’s like Cú Chulainn or those other uniquely Irish stories that Irish filmmakers have been trying to figure out a way to stage for the big screen since we started making movies. But it’s the biggest and most challenging of them all. So naturally I wanted to tell it but I never imagined it would be possible.
The film has been described as a revenge Western, was that what you had in mind at the beginning? Are you happy with that description?
Any action film with horses, guns and brimmed hats set during the 1800’s in Connemara will most likely be labelled a Western. Yes there’s revenge and old loyalties and dusty strangers – but I’d hate for people to be put off by calling it a Western, which is a bit of an old fashioned genre, mostly about American themes of money and power and frontier and individualism. And this film is not that, it’s actually very Irish – about family and class and empire. And also, the Western often depicted the natives as savages and the settlers as the “civilizing” force, mostly I suppose because the American audience weren’t ready to accept the genocide of the Native American. But in BLACK 47, we (the Irish) are the natives and the English are the settlers – so it’s more of a “reverse-Western” – a Weshtern – I wanted to get the audience rooting for the Apaches to send the settlers back to where they came from. I think the Irish audience enjoy thinking of themselves as the Apaches.
What are the challenges of telling a story set in this time period?
Almost nothing of Ireland in 1847 exists today. There are very few visual records – most of what we know comes from reading eye witness accounts and historical records – the idea that the West was very densely populated or that most of us lived in cabins made of turf seems quite far fetched to us in 2018. Costumes, hairstyles and buildings were recreated from the few paintings of the time and illustrations from British newspapers, but we used original firearms from the period, with real gunpowder, which leaves cast and crew in an unbreathable cloud of authenticity after every take. Furniture, carriages, horse tack, were all the genuine article where possible but they didn’t come cheap!
Audiences could be forgiven for expecting a movie set during the famine to be bleak and slow-moving, was it important to make it more mainstream? What decisions did you make to give it a bigger, more epic scale and to make it feel more like a blockbuster film?
I didn’t want to make a film about the suffering of the famine. As far as I’m concerned the horror of that time is not something that can be portrayed in film with any kind of sincerity or respect for those who suffered and it would be perverse to try to stage it in any kind of entertainment format. It’s sacred ground to Irish people and should remain so. So how to make a movie out of this very sad story, and one that everyone could in some way enjoy? It can’t be a history lesson because the audience will go asleep and it can’t be a lament because the audience will be miserable. So I was just out to try to balance the seriousness of the subject and the emotional heart of the story with all the stuff that makes for a proper night at the movies – action, drama, treachery, twists, murder and mayhem. We all have a simmering anger inside us about what happened and giving that anger a voice through Feeney’s furious trail of revenge has somehow made the whole thing rivetting when it could have been depressing. So far, audiences have been pleasantly surprised that it hasn’t been as gruelling an experience as they expected, but eager to be riled up by the injustices and complexities of 1847.
The cast is terrific, can you tell us how you pitched the script to actors like Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent and Barry Keoghan? Did it take any convincing to get them on board?
I tried to avoid cardboard cutouts of dastardly English villains tormenting innocent Irish victims. The story of the famine shows that anyone is capable of anything given the right conditions – an Irish relative could do much worse to you than an English stranger – and I was originally more interested in concentrating on the system than individual moralities. But Jim really relished portraying the absentee landlord as a total prick and once he was committed to that course, I certainly wasn’t going to stand in the way!
Can you tell us about casting Australian actor James Frecheville in the lead role of Feeney?
I spoke to James (or Seamus as we now call him!) over skype – he was in L.A. – and I knew after the first call that he was Feeney. He just had this dangerous edge that very few modern actors have and he was ready to kill for this story. It was convenient that he also happened to be able to grow a huge red beard to complete the look.
How did James get on mastering his Irish accent and learning the language?
He’s gifted and he’s got a good ear but at the end of the day he just did the work. Simple as that. That was the promise he made to me and he delivered. I think it’s the best Irish accent any foreign actor has ever done. When we had a test screening before the film was complete, I asked an Irish audience where they thought he was from, and they started debating amongst themselves whether it was Galway or Mayo! None of them could believe he was an Aussie. He learnt the language with the help of Peadar Cox, who was our translator and Irish language guru, a writer himself and a massive asset to the production. Shout out to Peadar!
Why do you think there has been so few movies dealing with the famine and Irish history around this time?
It’s very difficult to find the resources to tell such a harrowing story. And maybe we just weren’t ready to talk about it until now.
What type of research did you do for the film/story?
We had a lot of very accomplished famine historians advise us in great detail – on every line of the script – and we partnered with the Quinnipiac Famine Museum in Canada, we looked at thousands of articles from the London Illustrated News and various other publications, we visited memorials and museums, read all the famine books, consulted with military experts and hobbyists and army reenactors. We knew the stakes were high so we wanted to make sure we did a thorough job. Lots of the incidents in the script are based on real events from Ireland in the 1800’s.
Do you think some knowledge of Irish history or the famine would benefit the viewer?
Definitely none needed – we made sure to tell the full story so that Americans could understand it too! But I’d say most Irish people know a bit and they’ll enjoy using any of the knowledge they have and tying it into what they see on screen. They’ll even – believe it or not – enjoy recognizing a cúpla focal along the way.
How has the reaction been from foreign audiences so far, particularly in Britain?
Reaction has been great. We haven’t shown it in Britain yet but some of our producers are British, as were some of the cast, and they seem to enjoy telling the story of their less-than-admirable past. The good ones know they were the villains once. The others are too busy cheering for Brexit.
This may well be the first encounter international audiences will have had with the Great Hunger, did you feel a responsibility to share this part of our history with the world?
Yes of course but I felt a much greater responsibility to the Irish audience – both at home and abroad – that’s who I made the film for. If international audiences enjoy it, that’s a bonus.
The Irish sub-titles are done in a clever format, hovering near a character rather than the more traditional format. Did you play around with this in post production?
That was always part of the plan. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen are just a relic of early subtitling technology. I wanted to do something more intuitive. I think this way makes you feel like you understand the language. Only a fraction of the film is in Irish but it’s oddly comforting to feel like you understand it all. It puts you on the side of the Apaches!
The stunt choreography is unlike anything we’ve seen in Irish cinema before, what type of planning went into this and how difficult were the fight scenes to shoot?
We worked really hard on the fights with cast and stunt supremo Giedrius Nagys. Of course they are hard, when you’re working with real gunpowder and blades and falls and all on a tight schedule, but honestly I find them the easiest and most fun part of the whole process. They’re technical, so they are solvable. The emotional and psychological aspects of filmmaking don’t have clear answers so that’s where the real work lies.
What were the challenges (and advantages) of shooting the film on location in Connemara?
A beautiful, evocative, inspirational landscape, a tangible connection to the story we were telling, and being away from hustle and bustle always helps too.
The use of singing rather than music over the end credits really suits the tone of the film, why did you decide to not use music over the credits?
I really loved the way the few songs sung during the film spoke to an oral tradition that was the backbone of this country’s culture for thousands of years, that preserved our identity despite a very determined programme to wipe out our language and traditions. I thought it felt really poignant to end with just the voices singing. When we cut to black. The only thing that remained after the apocalypse that was the famine was the few whispered voices carrying on our story.
BLACK 47 is at Irish cinemas from September 5th