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'I felt like there was a curse over the thing': What it was like making Ireland's first Famine feature film

The director Lance Daly and star Stephen Rea talk to us about the highs and lows of making Black ’47.

Berlin Image Black 47

“[FILMING] WAS SO hard. It was hard in every way, I don’t think there was one easy thing about the whole filming of it.” 

In a moderately busy Dublin city centre hotel bar, as tea cups clink and coffee machines spurt out hot air, director Lance Daly is reflecting on the gruelling process that was the making of his film Black 47. Across from him sits Stephen Rea, the veteran Irish actor who plays Conneely, an ‘everyman’ Connemara local, in the movie.

Black 47 is remarkable because of its topic: the Irish Famine. It’s set in 1847, and focuses on a young man named Feeney (played by James Frecheville, an Australian who nails the Irish accent and language). Feeney is a member of the Irish Rangers, who returns home to discover that his family as he knew it has been destroyed, and the country that he loves is in the grip of a potato famine. 

The various elements of the film – particularly the fact it had to be filmed in the winter time – added up to quite a challenging job for Daly and his actors and crew. This isn’t Daly’s first time at the rodeo, as he previously directed Rae in 2004′s The Halo Effect, and his other films include Kisses, Life’s a Breeze and The Good Doctor.

Stephen Rea in Black 47, Directed by Lance Daly Stephen Rae as Conneely

Daly had a list of potential difficulties when making Black 47. “And every one of those boxes is ticked: ensemble of seasoned actors, two languages, children and animals, a lot of horseback action, gunpowder and loads of stunts, two countries. And period and creating a world that doesn’t exist anymore you can’t look at it, so plenty of challenges,” he says.

In fact, he began to feel “like there was a bit of a curse over the whole thing, to be honest”. Daly doesn’t strike me as the type to over-exaggerate, and it must be the same with Rea, who immediately asks him: “Why?”

Daly sighs. “Just the curse of the Famine and the suffering and all that. I just thought ‘Jesus, why is it so hard?’, and it’s hard because of how terrible a story it was to start with.”

He only felt the stress lift on the very last day of filming in Connemara.

“I was thinking: I don’t have to shoot anymore for this film, and I remember feeling this weight lift that I never felt on any of my other movies,” he says. “And I’m not being superstitious or anything – it’s all in my mind but it did feel like some kind of Famine curse on us.”

He admits that what he’s saying might sound odd, but at the same time there is a lot riding on a film like this.

To be the first person to portray Ireland’s Great Famine in feature film form means not just exploring what happened for Irish people, but potentially being the first to show what happened to some people around the globe.

Why was there such a delay in getting a film like this made? Were we as a nation afraid to tackle the Famine on screen? “I don’t think so but I think probably we had all this other stuff to figure out,” says Daly, who believes Ireland may have had other stories about her past that needed to be told first.

Stephen Rea and Jim Broadbent in Black 47, Directed by Lance Daly Stephen Rea and Jim Broadbent in Black 47

“But I think if you were a filmmaker you’d be scared of doing it – I know I was,” says the director.

Because there are so many ways it’s not going to work … it’s a hard thing to figure out how to represent that story.

Not just ‘a man on a horse’

Daly notes that some people call Black 47 a Western, while others call it a revenge thriller, and that the greater question is whether that’s fitting for a film about the Famine at all. 

“When I saw it last night I couldn’t understand all this thing about the Western,” says Rea. “Because what it is cinematically is a journey through incredibly different atmospheres, and you create the atmosphere so intensely that you’re going with these characters … the landscape is the atmosphere.”

For Rea, it’s not just about a ‘man on a horse’ as he puts it, though Frecheville does spend much of the film roaming around on a horse wreaking revenge.

Feeney’s emotions are not writ large on his face. “The performance is so profound,” says Rea. “He’s carrying the intensity of the history, it’s a brilliant performance and very original.”

“It isn’t flashy, it’s complex,” adds Daly. “I am asking the audience to believe here is a character who is of his right mind, but is murdering people, and is coming face-to-face with people in the cold light of day soberly deciding ‘I am going to kill you’. I tried to take that seriously.”

Rea sees Conneely on the other hand as “a form of historian” while Daly says he’s “the voice of reason” in the film.

Hugo Weaving in Black 47, Directed by Lance Daly Hugo Weaving in Black 47

Black 47 outlines the facts of the Great Famine. We see starving people wrapped in grey rags in semi-collapse on roadsides and outside decrepit houses. We see British absentee landlords shipping grain abroad as hungry people gather outside their homes.

For people familiar with Irish history, some of this might seem obvious, but there are many who don’t know what the Famine involved. 

“[A character says] in the movie: ‘When we kill people it’s murder, when they kill people it’s justice’,” says Rea. “I mean, this is the most clear analysis of what a colonial country is faced with as an action that they can to improve their situation, because [Feeney's] is a singular action, he’s on his own. So then of course ‘oh he’s a head the ball’ – actually he’s profoundly rational.”

He compares the language Feeney uses to that freedom fighter.

Freddie Fox, Hugo Weaving and Barry Keoghan in Black 47, Directed by Lance Daly Freddie Fox, Hugo Weaving and Barry Keoghan in Black 47

‘You can’t just do torture porn’

Asked if he thinks Black 47 will pave the way for a wave of Famine-related films, Daly says he doesn’t believe there will be another Famine movie for a long time, “because you come up with something that first of all it’s got to be bearable, enough that someone is going to finance it”.

“You can’t just do torture porn, a sort of voyeuristic middle class getting off on watching people suffer and actors seeing how much they can lose weight and all that madness that happens when people take on a project like that,” he says.  

“Everybody is going to have their opinion on it,” says Daly of his film. “I did (feel the pressure) when I was making it, and now I’m like there’s so many varied opinions I’m hearing.  

He realises there were aspects to the Famine they couldn’t cover – such as the workhouse and women’s stories (there’s only one prominent adult female character, played by Sarah Greene).

Daly describes the film as “uncompromised”, explaining: “We fought for it and fought for it and turned down opportunities to do it a different way because we didn’t want to distort it but in the end I do stand by it, it is an uncompromised telling of the story.”

Perhaps the final words on Black 47 should be left to Stephen Rea. “As Sean O Faolain said, the Irish were pushed to the brink of extinction and yet they survived, and it’s finally a story of survival, even with the help of America,” says Rae.  

“[The film] Michael Collins is important as we were telling our own history, we were you know – and [Black 47] is us telling our own history and that’s what’s fucking vital.”

Black 47, written by PJ Dillon, Pierce Ryan and Lance Daly, produced by Macdara Kelleher and directed by Lance Daly, is in cinemas now. 

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