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An Irish film about Cuban drag queens helped these filmmakers find their voice

The film was shortlisted as Ireland’s pick to be considered for a foreign language Oscar.

Paddy Breathnach (L) and Mark O'Halloran
Paddy Breathnach (L) and Mark O'Halloran

IN LIFE, IT’S not always easy to take the risks that are expected of us.

In work, our creative drive can be hampered by our inability to move out of our comfort zones.

Don’t take risks, we tell ourselves – we’re cosy right where we are.

But sometimes, our creativity dissipates, and we find ourselves at the mercy of taking that risky leap in search of inspiration.

Over six years ago, writer and actor Mark O’Halloran found himself about to take a new risk – one that almost led him to the Oscars. It came after a period where he was, he says, creatively spent.

“I had come to the end of a large, maybe two to three years of work and I had kind of run out of things to say,” the Ennis native tells as we sit in the plush confines of Residence on Stephen’s Green.

Viva 1 Paddy Breathnach (L) and Mark O'Halloran

“I didn’t have anything to say anymore so I stopped and I thought ‘maybe I won’t write anymore, maybe that’s me done’.”

He’s smiling wryly as he says this, but it’s a tough thing to hear. O’Halloran is one of Ireland’s finest contemporary writers and actors, as able to sensitively and humorously play a heroin-addicted lovable loser in his self-penned film Adam and Paul as he is to tread the Abbey boards in a Sean O’Casey play.

To think of an Ireland without O’Halloran in it is to mourn the loss of what gems he has yet to bring us – though one gets the feeling he’d laugh wryly at that suggestion. There’s not a hint of self-adoration about him.

(He’s also, it must be said, a dab hand at sending out droll tweets, too.)

“And then, out of that,” he says of that period of creative drought, “came this film”. ‘This film’ is Viva, the Paddy Breathnach-directed movie about a young Cuban man who dreams of being a drag queen.

Source: Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films/YouTube

The period of working with Breathnach (they argue in front of me about when they actually started writing the film, but we can narrow it down to, well, either 2007 or… 2011) turned into a particularly fertile time for O’Halloran, who spent a lot of months in Havana with the drag queen community (armed with the best ice-breaker: wigs) doing research.

That research also led to the play Trade, which is due to be made into a film next year. O’Halloran went from feeling like he had no words left to writing two pieces of work that tackled gender, LGBT issues, sex work and fatherhood.

The film “felt alive in our heads for a long time before it happened”, says O’Halloran, while Breathnach emphasises how much they put into the project.

“We believed in it a lot and yet there was a real chance we wouldn’t get to make it,” he says now. “It wasn’t a straightforward proposition to try and finance so the fact of getting to make it was wonderful and then having made it, it’s had a really great life.”

The thing about Viva is that to the conservative who’s clutching the purse-strings, it is a tough proposition: an Irish film about Cuban drag queens, set in Cuba and with every character (including O’Halloran, who plays a nasty sex tourist) speaking Spanish.

But Viva touches on both contemporary and traditional themes: following your dream, finding your place in the world, fatherhood, relationships, sexuality and gender.

“I didn’t think it was a risk until we started shooting it”

At the heart of Viva are Jesus and his father Angel. Jesus is a young hairdresser who tends to the wigs of the local drag artists, and Angel is his long-estranged macho father who has spent time in jail.

What’s striking about Viva is it looks and feels like a Cuban film, not a film about Cuba made by two Irishmen. How did they make sure it wasn’t the latter? “There is a feeling that you could fall flat on your arse and it wouldn’t work, or it would look very forced or it wouldn’t feel authentic – but you take that risk with every film you make anyway,” says a pragmatic O’Halloran.

“I didn’t think it was a risk at any stage until just before we started shooting it: ‘Oh no, what did I get myself into, what’s going to happen here?’,” reflects Breathnach.

He says the pair both had a strong belief in the film, “and if you start trying to second guess and doubting outside of that, there are plenty of other people who can tell you that, so if you start telling that yourself I think you’ll fall down”.

They wanted to avoid the pitfall, suffered by other films, of exoticising Cuba. “A lot of films that do get made there, they over-fetishise the way that it looks or they over light it sometimes or they concentrate on the old cars,” points out O’Halloran.

Indeed, there are but brief glimpses of rusty vintage cars in Viva, which is set in the Havana slums.

O’Halloran describes himself as an observational writer, and so was focused on absorbing the details of everyday life in Havana.

“Even from what I’d written before, writing Adam and Paul – I’m from Co Clare, I’ve never taken heroin - I sat and watched people in Dublin city centre,” he says.

So when it came to writing this I just went to Havana for a good bit and sat and watched people and interviewed people, and talked to people, and watched the way they interacted with each other, and what are the social norms within that environment – and from that then you write the story.

When he was making Adam and Paul with Lenny Abrahamson (who went on to direct the Oscar-winning Room), they were keen not to just show the Ha’penny Bridge as a shortcut for indicating the film was set in the Irish capital.

“I think with any film you make don’t go for the shortcut, go for a more authentic feel. We deliberately tried to steer away from the picture postcard version of the city,” says O’Halloran.

The dad question

In Viva, though the cast is overwhelmingly male, most of the men get to play with the gender binary. But what is striking is how every single character who talks about their father mentions their terrible relationship with him.

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This came out of the pair’s research in Cuba. “One thing we learned talking to the drag queens was they all seemed to have high drama relationships with their fathers,” explains O’Halloran, who as a gay man growing up in Ireland has experienced this country’s evolving treatment of those across the LGBT spectrum.

It’s a very macho society [in Cuba] and if a young boy is effeminate, is visibly homosexual or wanted to dress as a female and perform, or if they were transgender that causes – it causes problems in a lot of places but it causes real problems there. It’s almost an affront to people’s masculinity, it’s read as weak, as an aberration … and a lot of those relationships ended in violence.

So in essence, Viva “was trying to figure out where does strength lie – does strength lie in the feminine or masculine, or is it unique to either or can it be in both”.

The film follows the father and son’s fractious relationship, and the pained lengths they have to go to find some peace.

“They sort of heal each other,” says O’Halloran, though to mention any more of how their relationship ends up would be to spoil the magic of Viva.

Finding your voice


The tagline of Viva is ‘Find your voice’. Did the film help O’Halloran and Breathnach find their voice in any way?

For O’Halloran, it helped him find his voice after a period of thinking his creative spirit had been extinguished. For Breathnach, there was also an experience of reclaiming part of himself.

“I kind of felt that I lost something a bit as a filmmaker in some way, and this film in a way let me re-find and rediscover my voice as a filmmaker, going back to the first couple of films I made,” he says.

It also helped him find his way in his approach to his work. “I was conscious the industry or your career makes you begin to treat certain situations in a way where you’re … not manipulating them as much but you’re working under the clock of things,” he says.

But Viva “let me form a really strong working relationship with Mark, where we took our time on it and generally we worked respectfully to each other”.

It actually let me rediscover what it is like to have that collaboration that I really value so much in making something.

So together, Breathnach and O’Halloran found something while making Viva. And the spirit that this brought to the film has made it resonate with viewers worldwide – it even ended up being Ireland’s official selection for consideration for the foreign language nomination in this year’s Oscars.

But as Breathnach told us earlier this year, getting the golden statuette isn’t what being a filmmaker is all about:

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

Breathnach and O’Halloran may not have won that specific golden ticket, but through Viva they certainly found something neither expected.

And just as life throws you risks, sometimes it also hands you exactly what you need – whether that’s in the form of getting to proudly wear that dress on stage, or bring a story to the big screen.

Viva is on general release in Irish cinemas now.

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

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