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This Irish film about a Cuban drag artist is wowing people across the world

We spoke to its director, Paddy Breathnach.

Image: YouTube

IT’S ONE THING to make a movie in Ireland. It’s another thing for an Irish film crew to decamp to Cuba to make a movie in Spanish.

But that’s what director Paddy Breathneach and his team did in order to make Viva, which narrowly missed out on an Oscar nomination this week. The film, written by actor and screenwriter Mark O’Halloran, was Ireland’s official selection for consideration for a nomination in the Best Foreign Language category at the Oscars.

It tells the story of Jesus, who wants to be a drag artist – but whose tense relationship with his ex-con father stands in his way.

viva 2

When Breathnach spoke to TheJournal.ie before the nominations were announced, he was happy just to be considered.

“It’s one of those things that it places the film on an international stage and it gives it a chance to have a life and be seen, and that’s what you want most of all for your film,” said Breathnach.

“For better or worse, you put the word Oscar in relation to your film and suddenly everybody pays attention. It gives you a chance, the prospect at least that you have a moment where you can celebrate the film.”

Making sure you get it right

Viva was a low-budget film, and the fact it was being made in Cuba meant that the filmmakers had to be concerned about a number of factors. “As Irish people we understood that when you’re making a film in another culture there’s a huge obligation to be respectful of that culture,” said Breathnach.

They were not just featuring Cuban culture, but the drag queen subculture that they focus on in the film. “It’s an issue of you have to spend a lot of time thinking about that and paying attention to it and making sure that you got that right.”

The big moment for the whole team was showing the film at the Havana Film Festival recently.

“Until they fully owned the film or accepted it or liked it, that was a kind of hidden hurdle for us, maybe more important than getting the foreign language Oscar nomination,” said Breathnach. He was relieved to see that it went “fantastically – they really, really went for it”.

The film was written in English, but translated into Spanish. This meant “trying to make sure that all those nuances or ideas that you feel are so important in the script, that you want to make sure they translate well”, said Breathnach.

In addition, there were also the practical elements to consider – like having the right props and costumes in a country like Cuba. “You can’t just go down and buy something, or you can’t ring up and get a courier to get you something you need tomorrow.”

When you have limitations in a project like that, what it does in some way is it defines the aesthetic of the film.
You can’t just buy your way out of a problem, you have to find a creative solution to a problem. It’s a blessing in disguise.

A feeling of adventure

True to the Cuban spirit, during filming of Viva their crew car every day was a 1954 Chevrolet limo. This meant “such a feeling of adventure every morning, going to work in this car through the streets of Havana”.

“It woke us up always to this sense that we’re on an adventure here, we’re making this film in this place, and it’s a great moment in our lives,” said Breathnach.

The director started off his career making a serious drama, then moved onto comedies and genre films. With Viva, he wanted to get back to his roots.

“I wanted to get back a little bit to something that was a much more personal film, so entering into that I felt this was an important film for me to make, whether it had success and a life, it was an important thing for me”.

It helped him to reconnect, reboot and “hit the reset button in some way”.

“In a way it felt like I was making my first film,” he said.

When you make your first film you have this great excitement about it. You have huge enthusiasm and yet you have huge ignorance in some way and you don’t know everything and that in a weird way gives you this armour; you can go through things slightly oblivious. Your enthusiasm and your energy drives you so much through that process.

He learned Spanish to make the film, so that he could communicate with the actors and not have to always rely on translators. 

“It’s better for you to communicate in a broken language with your actors directly than be mediated,” said Breathnach, who described himself as “very lucky to have extremely good actors” working on Viva.

“That direct connection is very, very important and I was amazed at how you could get by with very little language.”

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He recalls meeting one of the actors to sign him up, and ending up drinking rum in the sea. “Moments like that, it’s that sense of adventure.”

The cast were all found through a renowned Cuban casting director, and through the local community of drag artists.

The great white hope

Breathnach described himself as “the great white hope for a couple of years” in Irish film, taking on the mantle from the likes of Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan after the success of I Went Down.

Then you make a different film that people don’t like as much, and you go from being genius to dunce for a while. Then someone else comes along and they take the mantle over.

“What’s happened over the last three to four years gradually is it’s not just one person who’s carrying this baton, that now there’s this spread.”

Whether the film got the Oscar nomination or not, Breathnach realised that being on the shortlist puts him and the team on the Hollywood radar. But he wouldn’t let it affect how he works.

“I’ve certain rules, I want to work with people that I like and respect and I get on with and I want to work on things I enjoy. It’s a very basic thing not to get distracted by the shiny metal objects. It’s very easy to do that.”

“Also life moves on – I’ve got a family now and stuff like that, so the basis upon which you make the decisions is different.”

In all, not getting an Oscar nomination does not quell his excitement in getting Viva out to as broad an audience as possible.

“You’ve got to use the energy and the interest in the film to help keep the film alive,” said Breathnach. ”[Winning an award] doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won the golden ticket forever.”

Source: Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films/YouTube

Viva is the closing film at this year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

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