Matt Micucci sat down with director Maurice O’Callaghan at the 58th Cork Film Festival to discuss his film The Lord’s Burning Rain, which screened last weekend
I understand this film took quite a while to shoot.
It did, it took nine months because, first of all it was a very low-budget film. Second of all my son, who plays the lead role, was doing his Leaving Cert and he was only seventeen at the time so we could only shoot it during his vacation time. We shot it during Summer, Halloween, Christmas, Easter and then the next Summer, so it actually nearly took us twelve months.
Can you tell us a little about the story of the film?
It’s about a teenage boy who sets off with his father and his uncle to buy a horse from a mountaineer farmer one October day back in the 1960s. The boy then has to ride the horse home – a journey of forty miles over an enormous mountain range. On his way, he has a series of adventures. The story is based on The Odyssey of Homer and the idea of Telemachus who goes in search of his father, Odysseus, one of the great heroes of the Trojan war, who is not coming home because he has been side-tracked and gone off for twenty years.
Along the way, he meets all these people that tell him bits about his father. In the same way here, Donnachadh Diarmuid meets all sorts of people. The seductive tinker woman , who is based on the similar character Circe in The Odyssey, who tries to seduce Telemachus and steal his horse. The Protestant farmer, who is sort of based on the character of Nestor, the old warrior who has returned from war and knows everything about what happened. And then he meets the blind prophet, Tiresias, who is the man in the black cloak from the house of dead. In all the big stories there is always someone that tells the hero that he must go through the land of the dead to come safely to the other side. Donnachadh has to go into hell and has to see what his ancestors did before he comes out of the other side.
It’s based on a story I wrote in 2005. It was the second story in a collection of short stories that I published that year. In addition to that, as a young man, when I was thirteen years old, I rode a horse like that and I originally wrote it based on myself. Then when you write the story, other fictionalised elements come into play, such as the Greek elements that may already be there but you are not aware of at the time.
You have dealt with these themes in the past, and they are themes that are quite personal.
Yes, I grew up in a family of strong Republicans, all fighters from the old revolution. Most writers that are any good will write about what they know. For instance, I lived in America for along time and tried to write stories about my time there, but my publishers told me ‘your writing shines when you write about what you really know and about West Cork’. Although I have left it, even when you’re younger your best writing is about what you have known from the past. So when you don’t know your environment exactly, you have to make it up, whereas it comes natural when you know the environment well.
After a few scenes in the film, it becomes clear that this is a personal film. Did working with your own son (Harry O’Callaghan) acting in the film and your daughter (Maud O’Callaghan) producing it enhance your own personal journey while making the film?
It did because I was also playing his father in the film, both in the present time footage and it the black and white ones. That was footage we had shot twenty-five years ago, and had been sitting in an archive. So, you had three generations. I was playing his father, and the original story was based on my own father. It worked fantastically well. Harry was a reluctant actor, he is very naturalistic. He doesn’t do much in the film, but he reacts well and has great stage presence. Plus, I surrounded him with great actors like Jonathan Ryan, who plays the farmer and Caroline Morahan who plays the tinker woman.
Speaking of the way in which the film was brought on screen, one of my favourite elements was actually the narration – which sometimes is a drawback in films. Here, it reminded me of the older documentaries by Flaherty and Grierson…
…like Man of Aran?
Exactly. Was that deliberate?
Yes, it was deliberate. Another big one was Terence Malick, who uses vast amounts of voiceover in his films. Again, the idea of voiceover is very Homeric with Homer reciting The Iliad and The Odyssey in these big long poems. With this approach I’m reversing the idea of showing and not telling. I guess it’s more of an art-house approach but I think that you can get very bored of the same old bang bang Hollywood stuff.
This is, as you said yourself at the Q&A session after the screening, guerrilla filmmaking.
Yes. We had a big budget for my previous film Broken Harvest, but then I stopped filmmaking for a while and went back to writing. So, we didn’t have the money and that is another reason why the voiceover becomes a big thing because it can be added afterwards.
Do you find that the Irish revolution has been commercialised by bigger budget films and the realism and intimacy of the subject has been taken out of it too much?
I don’t think there have been many films made about it. I suppose, there was The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which I was involved on an early draft of the script. Michael Collins by Neil Jordan was another one. I just wanted to do it in another way. There is the young boy finding out about the past. Then there is the theme of division between the Catholics and the Protestants in West Cork. Then, there is the theme of the Irish fighting against the British.
Was this totally independently funded?
Oh yes, totally independently funded. Not even the Film Board was involved. I kind of didn’t want to wait around, I wanted to do it my way, and I think that nowadays if you do get outside founding you are always kind of required to leave some things in and take some things out. Then I showed it to James Mullighan here at the Cork Film Festival and he was a big fan of it, even though he is Australian and this is his first year – I think maybe it’s also because he saw it from an outsider’s point of view and saw maybe things that the Irish might be more familiar way.
The main questions that come to mind when talking about a film totally independently funded are two. The first being, are these types of films hard to get financed and the second one being whether you would be concerned that once they are financed, your original vision would be altered.
Certainly with this particular story, they might have said that the film was a little too pro-Republican, even though I think the big twist in the story is when the farmer, who is telling the kid about his father, actually is a Protestant – and that’s a big shock because he is helping the boy. So, I wouldn’t want to be doing this every day of the week, financing my own films myself – even though nowadays it’s easier with the new technology and the lighter camera. I mean, for instance, what did you think of the cinematography?
Like I said, I took it as a piece of guerrilla filmmaker and once you get over the initial shock of seeing something different then it simply becomes a part of the experience.
One person mentioned to me that the landscape became a character in the movie.
Yes, that’s true and when you mentioned Terence Malick as an influence it made even more sense.
Yes. And then there is the fact that the kid has to conquer the mountains. It was a little slow at the start but it was deliberate. The story of the film kicks in with the introduction of the character of the tinker woman.
You mentioned that that particular part of the film was added after a first screening.
Yes, we showed it once at the Light House Cinema, just to a test audience of twenty people. Some said that it needed a little bit of excitement, and once the audience meets that tinker woman, then they forget about how long it took to get there. All that stuff in the middle works quite well and keeps the audience watching.
One of the conclusions of the film is that it’s hard to predict the future even when understanding the past. But speaking of the future of the film itself, is this the kind of work a filmmaker would make to attract financing for a chance at making a bigger budget feature based on the same themes?
Certainly not a remake, but one of the reasons I was out of it for fifty years – writing, even got involved in property development and made money elsewhere – was because I never made money from my films, only what I lost in them. I still loved making films. I made last year A Day for the Fire, which was made with the same crew and the some of the same cast about two men sitting in a bar and one telling the other how his son committed suicide. A very powerful film which showed here last year.
I dipped my toe back in the water with that film last year, which went off to Los Angeles in a shortlist for the Oscars. On the strength of that I said that I would work with the same actors. Besides that, all the stories I have filmed are all in the same book. My ultimate aim was to make all the ten stories, like a decalog, like Kieslowski. So it is possible that I might do the remaining seven, but I have another major script called The Caress, which is based on the life of Liam O’Flaherty. It’s a kind of a cross between The Quiet Man and Man of Aran. That is a much bigger film that I want to make with a bigger crew. That is a film that I think would be very commercial and there is no politics in it, it’s more about love, lust and sex. It’s a love triangle.
And it’s a period piece?
It’s set in 1935. It’s one of the most commercial stories that might come out. I have been making movies for twenty five years, and they have tried all sorts of things that have never worked. The Americans still love to see Irish period films – in other words, a film like this might do better there than it might here, because they like to see that landscape, hear that music and can’t seem to change their mind that Ireland has become a modern place because then it would simply become another America. They want to see something exotic.
Do you find that digital filmmaking has made it easier for The Lord’s Burning Rain to come to life?
Oh, yes. I mean, it was all shot on digital apart from the archive material that had been shot on film. We made that black and white and that was great because it made it look very old, it looked like footage from the twenties – even though it was shot in the eighties. The rest of that stuff was on digital and we didn’t have to fly all the reels to Heathrow Airport like we did with Broken Harvest, which was shot on 35mm. Digital filmmaking has definitely made everything a lot easier, but ultimately it’s not down to the camerawork or even the music, it’s down to the acting and the story.
Would you put marketing in that list?
Marketing is important but it can only go so far. But this kind of a movie will hopefully go by word of mouth and hopefully get into the art-house cinemas circuit.
Have you been talking to anyone yet?
We have been talking to the IFI and the Light House where we screened the film already. I think RTÉ might want to have a look at it as well. But you’d be surprised. I mentioned the film Pilgrim Hill, it was made for 4,500 euro and won loads of awards. Done on a digital camera and the guy has made deals for Hollywood. We’ve entered The Lord’s Burning Rain in Sundance and will probably be entering it into Tribeca too.
The Lord’s Burning Rain screened on 10th November at The Cork Opera House as part of the the 58th Cork Film Festival.