Breaking Out – Interview with director Michael McCormack

Breaking Out is a documentary about a one of kind singer from Ireland. You might not know Fergus O’Farrell but you know his legacy and his story is the story of Ireland.  We sat down with director Michael McCormack as we chatted about his 10 year journey documenting the life of Fergus O’Farrell.

I have to say Michael I feel a little bit ashamed that I didn’t know anything about Interference going into it.
Yeah, well, I’m delighted that you didn’t because that’s the whole point of the film. I made it so that more people would hear about Fergus O’Farrell and his music. I remember when I was recording the last bit of recording that Fergus did with Glen Hansard and the Frames.

Glen and I turned to each other at one stage and said, you know, years ago used to feel cool that you’re in this private club that knew about Interference, and that you felt really privileged, but you can’t hold on to your heroes.

So, you got to let as many people as possible and know about the music, but it is it is. So that’s exactly why Breaking Out was made. And the reaction so far from people is brilliant is exactly what they want. They come out and they go, how did I not know about this guy? Exactly.

And I suppose that’s the kind of question I want to start with. How did you discover them? Because this is as much a story about Fergus as it is you because you dedicated 10 years of your life to this kind of journey for Fergus.
Taking it all the way back when I was 14, there was a thing in Dublin called People in Need, which followed on from Live Aid. And it was a bonkers thing, you’ve probably never heard of it. But it was put together to try and raise money for the unemployed because there were so many unemployed people in Ireland at the time.

So, concerts happened all over the country on one day, featuring a host of different artists, and I was a mad music fan. So, I was doing backline, and a lot of the bands around Ireland were playing at this gig. I wasn’t expecting anything new. And then Interference walked onto the stage. And at the time Fergus was standing at the mic.

He was kind of how to what they say in Cork they call it a gouache where he was striking a pose and he looked like a rockstar, and he sang like a rockstar and then they started playing and I was immediately taken aback because I hadn’t heard an Irish band sound this good and sound this different.

And I when he came off the stage and I saw him sit into his wheelchair and that was first stage I knew about that but that for I was still concentrating on the music, and I went over and bent the air off the poor guy, and I used to go and see them whenever I could over the next one. Now the thing about it is when Interference played in Ireland at the time, none of us knew when.

They played few and far between. So, every time they played, it’d be like a religious experience. Everyone will be there, the greater good of Dublin because we all knew that this was something special. And it didn’t happen that often. The reason it didn’t happen that often, which we didn’t know was that Fergus sometimes would hit a bad patch with the muscular dystrophy.

And they’d had to take a break for a while. But that’s where I started, where I fell in love with the music. And then years later, when I was making documentaries, they reformed, and they were playing a gig. And one of the members says, he doesn’t remember this. But he came up to me and said, would you not make a documentary? At the time, it was bad. This was 2004 and the whole television industry in Ireland had turned its back on music.

So, I went over to Fergus and I said, “Can I call down to you in Schull in West Cork?”, and then we’re down to Schull, West Cork, and I set up a camera, and we started chatting, and he didn’t shut up for the whole weekend.

I realised he told me in that first chat I had with him, he told me three key stories that are in the film, and I was sitting there actually visualising them happening. He then said, “what are we going to talk about?” I said, tell me about the greatest day and I thought he was going to tell me the best gig he ever played. Instead, he told me the story about ending up in the ditch.

When I was trying to get the film finished, that was always for me, the end of the film. I never saw the end of the film as Fergus passing away. I wanted him to be here to see it because l think the film is all about the ability to keep going, which is what we are. Like, what would be going on in your life, that you always have to find a way to keep going? Because he did.

How much of the film did Fergus see before sadly passing?
Good question. Very little, because I made the mistake in the early days of showing him something and for a period after that, and he’s changed the way he acted on camera. And it really messed things up for a while. So, I stopped showing him things he didn’t tell you. So, he didn’t see very much, which, of course, I regret. But he knew exactly what I was doing. And I talked to him about the treatment all the time, he would hear the ideas I had and going in that we got that, and I never got that done.

And towards the end, his sister told me after he passed away that he never had an intention of letting me finish it while he was alive. Oh, that conversation never happened. But he, I think it got to the stage as you can see in the film, like we never discussed Muscular Dystrophy over the years. It was a part of his family’s life, but he didn’t dwell on it.

And it didn’t you know, we’d so many conversations about him to the music was the things we didn’t talk about a lot, but towards the end when it started really getting in the way and we talked about it a fair bit more and he clearly was finding it very, very difficult to just live the life he wanted to live so I think he saw it as his greatest performance and he thought he was going to go out.

How was it for yourself watching it back and editing it, finding the right places to put things because I imagine a 10-year experience like that there must be a lot on the cutting room floor?
Yeah, there’s a huge amount. It was a horrible process because there was so much that you wanted to get in. And thus, it wasn’t until, you know, two thirds into the editing process that we began to realise that we were getting to the point where and the whole point of a film like this is to get his personality on screen.

And to tell the story coherently because there’s so much detail. It must flow. It has, as far as I’m concerned, like as a storyteller, you must bring people along for the ride. You’re trying to sell a story that is basically about somebody that nobody knows, that probably haven’t heard his music before. And there’s a lot of negatives in the way when a person sits down to see a film, you have to catch them and keep them for the duration.

I already knew I said this is the best person I’ve ever filmed on screen because he jumped off the screen. Yeah, you had a story. He was a total chancer and, and I knew that audiences would love him. And the nicest thing I heard, because, as you know, it has not really reached its audience yet because of COVID. But at the closing night of the Doc Fest, a person came up to me afterwards and said, I feel like I just saw a life pass in front of me, I do not feel like I just saw a film, I feel like it was part of a life. It is just unbelievable. And that was amazing to hear as well.

And I decided that no matter what I was going to be there for all the important moments. But more important than that, you know, as I said here earlier, when Fergus saw that bit of footage, and he started changing on screen, I had to spend time then with him, to get him back to the way he was and get him forgetting about acting on camera. Because the real him was what I wanted. So, I really did spend an awful lot of time with Fergus. He became one of my greatest friends.

I think, while he didn’t go on about his disease at all, I think the way he worked was he brought it in, he sucked it in like a spider and he, he needed musicians around him to get his music made when he lost the use of certain limbs. And he needed me around to tell his story. And so, he made sure that I that I became totally devoted to it.

And the way he did that was just being himself.

You were also privy to many other incredible kinds of moments in Ferguson’s life. What was it like during filming when Once happened?
Well, I’ll tell you the truth of the matter when Once the film happened. I remember going to see it in Dublin, and I thought it was a lovely film. But it wasn’t well received in Dublin at the time. It also wasn’t well received in the UK, it took a go into the States and becoming a success over there.

So Ferg at that stage had had a few, you know, had a few bad run ins, you know, for somebody with Muscular Dystrophy getting a cold or flu is the worst thing that can happen to you. So, he would have a few episodes like that over the years.

So, Glenn was going back to the well. When Glenn came back to the well and said, “Would you come to New York and do Radio City?” It was an amazing thing to do, because Fergus had not been gigging a hell of a lot at that stage, he was recovering, he was coming back into playing a little bit. He also had just put an updated version of Interference together and it was a bigger version.

To return to your question though, I could not believe it. Because obviously, when you take on a story like this, and it’s going along, and you feel that this person needs to be heard more, you feel that this person’s music is good enough to make it on an international level. And yet, nothing is happening. And then this happens, and he’s going to New York, and he’s going to be playing in one of the premier venues.

And you don’t know what’s going to happen from there. It was an amazing experience. And it was it was brilliant to see that camera on him. During that performance, that camera is maybe 75 metres away from him, he can’t see that camera, but it looks like he’s looking into it. But with that happiness on his face, where, you know, from somebody that wasn’t playing that much anymore to show that much desire to be up there.

Nobody in that audience knew who Interference were or who Fergus O’Farrell was. Let’s face it when Gold became one of the premier songs in the Once musical, nobody knew the focus was his song. Nobody knew who was behind it when the song was played at the Tony Awards. Nobody knew about its origins. So that was also part of the slightly heart-breaking element of going home.

While that was all happening somewhere else, because shortly after, you know, it became increasingly difficult for him. From around the time of the musical onwards in 2012, he could not really travel anymore. He never saw it on Broadway and he never saw it in the West End. I had to go back to him and tell him you know, it’s great. You know, it is an American production. The first time he saw it was the one in Dublin, I think when it came out. But I don’t know what it was like for him.

How was it going back to his old stomping grounds, and then also bringing back his friends to all these many places that they worked in and they lived in? Also, for yourself was it like walking down memory lane?
Yeah, so I would have been down there as a teenager for a variety of different reasons. It was also a cabaret club and I had worked there as well. But we all knew about that band that lived there. But they were they were kind of an enigma.

So, the band members were coming in to be interviewed and it was amazing. It was exactly what I hoped. They were extremely emotional. It all came flooding back. And, you know, it says everything about how important location.

And as we wind up the interview how do you feel now that Breaking Out is coming out to Irish cinemas?
I only saw it in the cinema for the second time there recently at the Documentary Festival and I’m glad that that happened. It was very emotional in Galway, and I was very emotional again. Because when you make a film like this, there are certain points, and you’ve seen them in the movie where you’re hoping for a reaction from the creative and yet and you’re, you know, you’re going you’re, for me, as the filmmaker, I’m sitting there, and I’m waiting for that first moment.

If the reaction happens, I can relax a bit. It’s a beautiful thing. I always thought that this film should be seen in the cinema, and I’m delighted that it’s going to be because I think it’s a communal experience. Yeah, so please God the government get their act together. It’s exactly why we love going to the cinema and for that communal experience, for hearing people’s reactions to stories like this, so yeah, I’m really excited.

Words – Graham Day

BREAKING OUT is at cinemas from November 19th