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BERLIN 2018 Out of competition

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Lance Daly • Director

“The Great Famine has affected the whole country”


- BERLIN 2018: We chatted to Irish director Lance Daly, whose Black 47, presented out of competition at the Berlin Film Festival, takes a closer look at the Great Famine

Lance Daly  • Director

In his sixth feature, Black 47 [+see also:
film review
interview: Lance Daly
film profile
, screening out of competition at the Berlin Film Festival, Irish director Lance Daly enlists the help of fresh-faced newcomers and veteran actors such as Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea to find a new take on a tragic period in Irish history, only to discover its effects can be felt even today.

Cineuropa: Hugo Weaving said that the Great Famine is still very much a part of Irish culture. Would you agree with that?
Lance Daly: Not every country has a disaster on such a scale – not that we need to compete. It’s commonly referred to as the greatest European disaster of the 19th century. You can see how it has affected the whole country just by looking at the statistics – Ireland is the only nation that has a lower population now than it did in 1847. It was a ripple effect. The population continued to decline for 60 or 70 years afterwards because there was just nothing left. There was no infrastructure. But how does it manifest itself now? I think it’s very subtle, but there is a certain something in the Irish attitude.

What do you mean by that?
There is a scene in the film when Martin Feenay [a character played by James Frecheville] hangs a judge. Somebody who was working with us on the post-production said that once the Irish audience sees that, they will be on our side. There is this deep mistrust of authority and a lack of respect for the rules. The rules are the rules for a reason – at least that’s what I have experienced in other countries I have worked in. There is usually not much wiggle room. But we say: “That’s the rule? But you know, we can call someone, and let’s see.” There is a lack of respect for law and order, because law and order did nothing for us.

It took you a while to find your Martin. Why?
You don’t usually think about physicality when you are casting. It’s all about an essence and previous work, and being able to trust the actor. James was in Los Angeles at the time, and we could only do a Skype interview, but I immediately knew he was the guy. He was ready to roll up his sleeves. He was hungry to prove something, and this part had so many elements that he could wrestle with. It was just pure instinct. Barry Keoghan was cast in the film before we found our Feenay, and when we finally did, he showed me an email from two years back. They made a TV show out of Animal Kingdom in America, and Barry was offered James’ original part. Instead of accepting it, he wrote to his agent: “Why would I want to play this? Nobody could do any more with this part than James already did.”

Were you ever discouraged from making a film like this? When one tackles a serious subject, people expect something respectful – whatever that might mean. They don’t necessarily expect a western.
I think that the western was always there – when you have horses, brimmed hats and one group of guys going after another, it’s hard to avoid it. A couple of people said that it’s not a good idea, but I was more discouraged by knowing how difficult it would be to do it properly. Sure – there is action and some other things that will hopefully attract the audience, but you know what would be really disrespectful? Making a film about the Great Famine that would be so focused on the suffering and all these unimaginable horrors that only a few people would see it. There was a point where I had the chance to make this film for twice the money, but people kept talking about Braveheart and “a hopeful ending”. But how can there be any hope? I remember a similar discussion surrounding Schindler’s List. As brilliant as that film was, how do you make it about success when the Holocaust was all about failure? It was the same thing here. The trick was to balance all of these different sensibilities, but also to do that in a format that anybody could watch. That’s what we were trying to do.

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