Ross Whitaker talks to Conor McDermottroe about his debut feature Swansong: Story of Occi Byrne.
Swansong: Story of Occi Byrne, director Conor McDermottroe’s debut feature, premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh earlier this year to great acclaim and received the runner-up prize in the best feature category.
Screening Swansong in Galway was the satisfying completion of a journey full circle for McDermottroe – he had performed the same narrative himself as a one-man play almost exactly five years before in the same Town Hall venue.
I speak to McDermottroe on the phone from London, where he is based. It was there that the play was originally written as a monologue in just seven weeks back in 2003. Also called Swansong, the one man show was acclaimed from the start and the audience reaction to it prompted McDermottroe to see the possibilities for the story beyond the stage.
‘The lead character, Occi Byrne, was really touching people,’ he tells me. ‘People loved the character. In the play he was an older character, feeding the swans and telling his life story. People told me that the play was very picturesque, very cinematic, so I decided to write a screenplay of the story.’
Around that time, McDermottroe was working as an actor on a TV series and he invited the German producer of the series to come along to see the play.
‘It was an achievement in itself to get a TV producer to come to a play,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘Sometimes those worlds just don’t mix but Hermann Florin came and watched the show and really loved it. He asked me afterwards if I’d considered making a film on the same subject. I reached into my bag and took out the screenplay.’
Before Swansong, McDermottroe had made three successful short films and he appears to have moved smoothly and confidently on to the longer form. The film is atmospheric and very moving with fine performances from the cast and it is easy to imagine the film finding an audience internationally.
The film was made as a German/Irish co-production, funded by the Irish Film Board, Arte, RTÉ, Eurimages and Kinowelt, with The Little Film Company taking care of sales. It was filmed on the unusual format of 16 mm Cinemascope in Sligo for six weeks with a cast of 47 actors and over 50 crew members. The locals were delighted with the economic boost the film brought and how the area was captured on film.
Swansong is the story of Occi Byrne, a boy born to a single mother in an uncompromising garrison town in the 1970s. His fatherless beginning is the worst start possible in this conservative landscape and Byrne travels a road of misfortune from a young age.
In a world where any difference is ruthlessly exploited, Occi is mercilessly bullied by schoolmates, culminating in him being rolled down a sand dune in a barrel and sustaining minor brain damage that makes him prone to violent outbursts when angered.
McDermottroe’s script draws from his memories of growing up in Sligo where he observed how children in his school without both parents were immediately treated differently and ultimately marginalised. Later, when McDermottroe lived in London, he came across one such child, now grown-up.
‘I was working on a Frank McGuinness play in the Royal National Theatre and I was walking to the theatre along Bayswater Road when I saw someone wrapped in a blanket on the side of the street. We both froze for a second and I realised that each of us recognised the other. He used to sit beside me in school. It was he that turned away, I’m sure out of shame. I walked on and I thought about it for the day. Later, I went back to the street and he was gone.’
Vulnerability and violence
Having lived with his lead character for so long, it is no surprise that Occi is so well achieved in the way he is written and directed by McDermottroe. Martin McCann is thoroughly convincing as Occi, truly inhabiting the role and capturing skilfully the vulnerability and violence of the young man.
‘Doing the one-man play first was a luxury as a writer because I got to know the character so well. I had a deep, three-dimensional treatment in my head and I knew how the character would react to each situation. I could ask myself, ‘What would Occi say here? What would his attitude here be?’ All of that information was readily available to me, which was great.’
‘Martin brings his own energy to it, his own performance and persona. It’s miles away from the actors that played Occi on the stage. He brought amazing qualities to it and his instincts are bang on. We went on the journey together and he trusted me and I think that shows in the end result. He and the camera signed some deal with the devil. He’s an instinctual actor. He really feels what Occi feels. It was inspiring for me and I learned from it.’
McDermottroe hopes to use the lessons learned in making Swansong as soon as possible and is moving on to his next film. He is one of a seemingly endless line of burgeoning Irish talents that has directed one or two films and he hopes to direct many more. He is frustrated, however, by the current threats to indigenous film funding.
McDermottroe was forced to leave Ireland for Australia in the early 1980s when funding was cut to the theatre company he was working with. He lived and worked there for over ten years. Considering the benefits of Swansong: Story of Occi Byrne – in terms of culture, economics and the physical depiction of the West of Ireland – one hopes he, and others, won’t be cast adrift again.