We talk with director Alex Fegan about his heartwarming documentary
It’s such a simple idea, you wonder why no one has thought of it before. Make a list of the coziest, cutest and the most curious Irish pubs out there, grab your camera and tripod, and just go visit. No narration, no agenda, no crew, just you – and some Irish pub owners alongside their regulars, telling it like it is. Or, in most cases, how it used to be. The Irish pub is many things to many people. For Billy Keane – who now runs the Listowel pub founded by his late father, John B. – it’s a confessional box. It’s also a safety valve, where people can let off steam about politics, sport, space travel and who should have really come first in The X Factor. The best Irish pubs, of course, are pure comedy improv. Without the mic. Or John Sessions. What’s not to love?
For Alex Fegan, having debuted with his 2009 feature MAN MADE MEN – a film the young Irish filmmaker wrote, produced and directed – the past four years have seen just three shorts but plenty of corporate gigs. The frustration at not getting another feature film made resulted in the DIY approach to The Irish Pub.
“I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get, but, as each interview was recorded, I kept finding that I had more and more nuggets of conversation that were just inspiring,” says Fegan. “It was these moments that really dictated the edit, the shape of the movie. There’s a truth that comes across when you’re just one man with a small camera. After a while, it felt like that confession box, as people just opened up.
“Not that the Irish have a problem with opening up. Especially in a pub.”
Given the subject matter, was The Irish Pub ever going to be anything but wry and heartwarming? Or, should I say, hearthwarming?
Alex Fegan: I never set out with a gameplan, other than just heading out there and talking to these people, see what kind of stories, what kind of history, they would have to share. As the stories gathered, I guess the shape of the documentary took place, but it was always going to be the people I spoke to who truly shaped it.
The camera never lies, but the edit can certainly twist the truth – were you straining for those Father Ted moments in the edit? Or were you worried about pushing the Irish stereotype?
AF: I definitely didn’t want to push the Irish stereotype. I was hoping that I could capture some of the quieter, more introspective moments that can tell you so much about a person, and about a town, the people. That meant trying to keep out of the way, both when setting up my camera – which was often just done in the spur of the moment, so people didn’t have too much time to stiffen up – and then just letting people relax. To be themselves. It really helped that I didn’t have anyone else with me, nor any big equipment to set up. It meant you could go largely unnoticed, and capture real conversations. As opposed to David Brent monologues.”
Perhaps inevitably, The Irish Pub is as much Bord Failte as it is Nick Broomfield. There’s only the merest hint of the sadness and the madness that can be found in the shadows of many an Irish pub.
AF: I didn’t feel it was my place to go digging deeper and deeper into these people’s psyches. The audience can bring to the table any number of theories about those who frequent a pub. There was really no need for me to dictate what it is you should be thinking when you see an old man tell us that his bar stool is pretty much the extent of his life outside his home. There are so many ways to read that, and so much history to extract from that, I didn’t feel there was any need to put my own layer of paint on top.
We meet a wonderful set of characters, each seemingly birthed by Aardman Animation and voiced by Pat Shortt. What was your criteria when entering these pubs? Point the camera at anyone who looks like they could be related to Shane MacGowan?
AF: Why didn’t I think of that? I think with any pub, you’re just drawn to the people who have a story to tell. There wouldn’t be too much premeditation involved. It was often just a case of asking the owner if they’d be up for a short interview, and then it just grew from there. As I said, travelling light meant there was no great ritual involved, no great set-up needed. It meant the conversation flowed pretty easily…
The creature comforts available in a good Irish pub are hard to resist, but they are a dying breed in many towns. Coffee shops are the new meeting place, especially when you can buy 30 cans of Gunther’s Faintly Peculiar for a tenner in your local supermarket.
AF: There’s definitely a shift in Irish society away from the pub being the centre of a town’s social life, and that’s partly why I was drawn to make this documentary. Not only to provide a record, but hopefully to remind people of the central role a pub can play in a town’s history.
Most feuds in an Irish town start now with the simple question, “Did you spill my cappuccino?”…
AF: Yep, it’s a line most Irish people fear the most, as they know it’s just an invite to take it outside to the sun-kissed patio. We live in terrifying times.
This is a film that neither Bord Failte nor Guinness will have a problem with, given that it captures the Irish in his natural habitat. It’s certainly the image many abroad embrace as typically Irish, and one that will no doubt go down particularly well with ex-pats, and ex-Pats, abroad. Say, in America. For example.
AF: Funny you should say that, but I’ve been getting emails every single day from people in America, asking me about the movie. This whole thing has kind of snuck up on me. I put a trailer up online, without any distribution, and everything just happened so fast after that. The Irish distributor, Element Pictures, just got in touch, saw the film, and they were on board. I think they were inspired – as I was – by the success of ‘His & Hers’, Ken Wardrop’s wonderful documentary. It just showed that there was an audience out there who enjoyed seeing real people just talking to the camera about themselves, and their loved ones.
People have been using HIS & HERS as a reference point for The Irish Pub, which is flattering.
THE IRISH PUB is in Irish cinemas from October 4th
Words: Paul Byrne