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FOSCADH – Director Seán Breathnach talks about the Irish language film

Based on the characters in the novel The Thing About December by Donal Ryan, Foscadh is written and directed by first time director Seán Breathnach (Maidhm) and produced by Paddy Hayes (Corp + Anam, Cumar).

Foscadh stars Dónall O Héalai (Arracht) as John; Fionnuala Flaherty (Out of Innocence) as Siobhán; and Cillian Ó Gairbhí (Blood) as Dave. Set in the wild mountains of Connemara, Foscadh tells the story of naïve recluse John Cunliffe who is suddenly propelled into manhood at the ripe old age of 28. When his over-protective parents pass away, friendless John inherits mountain land that is in the way of a lucrative wind-farm development, and he is forced to navigate the choppy waters of romance, trust and vengeance for the first time… The ensuing drama is a taut and absorbing late coming-of-age tale from the North-western tip of Europe.

How did you get involved in the adaptation of Donal Ryan’s book, A Thing About December?
My producer, Paddy Hayes, approached me with the book because I made a short film, Solitude, several years previously, and it had similar themes, so he thought I would be a good fit for this. Paddy suggested I try adapting the book because TG4, the BAI (Broadcasting Authority of Ireland), and Screen Ireland started a new scheme called Cine4 [A development scheme for feature films in the Irish language]; he thought we should put a treatment together for the scheme. We met on a wet, windy day in Galway in the autumn of 2017. I read the book in one sitting, and I loved it. I thought I could do a reasonable job of adapting it to the screen, and we were lucky enough to secure funding after writing an application in detail to treatment.

Dónall Ó Héalai is a phenomenal actor, he really gives everything to his characters emotionally and physically, and John is no exception. Tell me about casting him.
When we secured funding, we started thinking about who would play John and to be honest; there was no one else we wanted. Paddy had worked with him on a series called Corp & Anam for TG4; he had a relatively minor part in that series. Paddy said this guy is special. I knew of him. We don’t live all that far away from each other. We approached him, and, in all honesty, I don’t know who else could have pulled it off with the required level of Irish, the Connemara dialect and the acting abilities because it’s such a nuanced role and boy, that was a good decision.

John has a particular way in which he carries himself, a specific stance and walk. Was that something Dónall came up with, or did you workshop it?
We did extensive workshopping, but the physicality all comes from Dónall. He was given the freedom to move and express himself in any way he felt was right for the character. We did extensive workshops, and we recorded the workshop sessions. I was able to cut some rough themes together from these workshops. We were able to discuss it, analyse it, and find the John that we wanted to portray. It is quite a nuanced performance, and it is quite a restrained performance in many ways. Dónall wore a brace during filming, which helped give him physicality as well; it is really interesting to see. Dónall is just full of ideas. We worked well together because I was open to ideas and trying different things, and we had a fairly organic approach.

You did a lot of improvisation in the workshops, and some of the work made it into the film. How did that work? 
I wrote 15 drafts of the scripts, which is quite a number. I presented the cast with a script about six months to a year prior to shooting. Then, we cherry-picked certain themes using the script as a rough guide. We messed around with the characters; we tried to explore their histories and what they might have been going through to reach the point that we see them at. Once we started doing that, some interesting things began to happen. Different ideas started to form, and as I recorded everything, I could then go and write further drafts of the script and improve on everything we could. We kept going through that process and thinking about the themes, even up to the day of filming. We tended to the scene as scripted, but if time allowed, we would shoot them doing improv there and then. Quite a bit of the improvisation ended up in the finished script.

Some directors wouldn’t be able to give up control for that to happen. Is the collaborative process coming from your relationship with this cast, or is it your preferred way of working?
A bit of both, I made several short films and with the typical budgets for shorts, don’t allow you to have time to really rehearse; you’re there with the actor on the day. What I frequently found when doing that was what I had envisaged on the page didn’t always translate when we started shooting. On one short, I asked the actors to improvise. I gave them an idea of the characters’ emotions and what they needed to do and let them go for it to go. Immediately I saw a change; through that freedom, their performances were elevated. In my head, I was saying this is the way you should really do it, but that can be a risk; if your budget is small, you don’t have time for many reshoots. With Foscadh, fair play to Paddy Hayes; he gives us space to do that. If I was to make another film, I think I would go all out and write one draft of the script, work with actors and go again and again until we had the right take. I know it depends on the budget, but it seems to work better. You need to give actors ownership if they’re baring their souls on the screen. I think that’s the best way of working, collaborating and being open to good ideas, wherever they may come from.

Were you familiar with rural living and isolated characters, like John, or was it something you had to research? 
I am from rural Connemara; the next stop is the Aran Islands. Anyone from a rural background knows people like John, and I would have seen bachelors of all ages who live like this. I find it very interesting. I often thought, God, if certain things happened to me, would I have ended up like that? How does that come about? It is interesting to think that you can almost be over-loved and taken care of too excessively, which can cut down on your life choices and your ability to be independent. While all the intentions are great, the reality is we all need to be tested. We all need to fall; we all need to find a way. On paper, John might well be a near millionaire, but what good is that if there’s no touch, no way to develop a relationship.

There are hints that John might have a condition, he mentions overhearing his mother say she didn’t think John would ever be able to manage, but you have left it ambiguous. Is that a case of you wanting people to decide for themselves? 
Yeah, I have a deep respect for audiences. The types of films I like are the ones that raise questions. And as you leave the theatre, you wonder, and you might even fill in the story a little bit yourself. I find that fun and interesting. We considered the source material when we were shaping John, and there is no reference to it there. I understand that it’s ambiguous. I would say that he is more a result of his environment and upbringing.

When John comes out of his shell, he forms attachments with Dave (Cillian Ó Gairbhí) and Siobhan (Fionnuala Flaherty). The trio has excellent chemistry. How did you go about casting them? 
We had an open casting call. Fionnuala and Cillian knocked it out of the park, Cillian so much so that initially, his character was to be from Connemara, but I was so taken by his audition that I changed Dave’s backstory to so that he was Muster Irish, rather than Connemara Irish. His audition was brilliant. Fionnuala just blew us away. There were many, many fine actors that auditioned, and they all had something different. A connection immediately formed between Dónall and Cillian and Fionnuala. The audition wasn’t a typical one. It was more like an interview to see if the actor shared the same sensibilities and whether they’d be comfortable working in the approach that I was planning, the workshop approach, the ad libbing, the exploration of their characters, and that the script would change as we’re coming towards the filming date. They were all up for it and were brilliant collaborators.

The landscape is a significant character, and it beautifully shot, and there are very moving scenes where John recites the old names for every hill and clochán. Does that come from you being from Connemara and being so embedded in such a landscape?
I’m sure you agree that being Irish intertwines us with the land. In rural Ireland, you have a connection that comes through each generation. The land is really, really important to all of us. In Irish, we have logainm, which is every field, every stone wall, every stream has a name, and I always imagined the relationship that John would have had with his dad would have involved reciting and talking about the different parts of their land. So, it seemed like a nice scene to put John on his land, in stunning landscapes that you have in North County Galway, going through that again. One of the challenges of adapting the novel for screen is that there are lots of interior thoughts written on-page. Using voiceover is one way to work, but it didn’t suit the film. Instead, we imagined scenarios where he might speak and found that reciting the place’s names made sense for John because he is tied to the land.

We are in the most fantastic time for Irish language film; thanks to the Cine4 funding, what does it feel like to be part of the first wave of filmmakers to benefit from it?
I have made a few documentaries for TG4, and I’ve made a few short films, and I’m not speaking about myself here, but I was aware of the talent in the Irish speaking world, but the funds were never there. For TG4, Screen Ireland and the BAI to come together was a visionary pathway to making film. I think we’re seeing and will continue to see some work coming from it. An Cailín Ciúin is on the way, Rósie and Frank and more. What’s lovely as well is they’re different from each other. It’s an eclectic bunch, and that is exciting.

What was it like to have your film put forward as our Oscar contender? 
A huge honour, as if you are putting the jersey on for the country. It brought a lot of attention to the film worldwide, from media outlets and from showing the film at different festivals. All I can say is that it made my mammy very proud. I’ve an uncle; he was a brilliant inspiration for me. He taught me photography. When I was younger, growing up, we used to watch the Oscar ceremony. He said he never believed we’d have any connections to the Oscars when we were watching TV all those years ago. It elevates the standing of the film, which is huge.

What do you want audiences to take from the film? 
I like the idea of people adding their own post credit scenes to the film and thinking about the characters and what happens next. There are loads of themes, including an investigation into a type of masculinity, especially in the rural situation. The film is very much about our heritage and the expectations that are placed on the next generation that isn’t always a good thing. I think that’s something we should consider when we think about our place in the world and our own sense of that. Maybe the film will get people to think about that.

Words – Cara O’Doherty

FOSCADH is now showing in Irish cinemas