Black 47 featured

Director Lance Daly and Actor James Frecheville on the Historical Revenge-Thriller ‘Black 47’

September 28, 2018Ben MK

Ireland's Great Famine is an event that has never truly been depicted on film. But for Irish director Lance Daly, that's something he set out to change with his latest, Black 47.

A violent, bloody tale of revenge set against the backdrop of real-life historical events, Black 47 follows Feeney (James Frecheville), a Connaught Ranger who returns home from the Afghan War only to find that his family has been, for all intents and purposes, murdered. Consumed by unfathomable grief and driven by an intense desire to see justice served, Feeney embarks down a path that will ultimately lead him to confront not only his own inner demons, but the evil that grows in men’s hearts when civilization is reduced to its basest elements.

Black 47 director Lance Daly and Australian actor James Frecheville sat down with me ahead the film's premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, where they shared their experiences making the film, in addition to highlighting the important role the movie plays in bringing Irish culture and history to the world.

Why did you want to make this film? Why a revenge tale set against the backdrop of the Great Famine?

Daly: The Irish famine — they call it the Great Hunger — has never been explored in cinema before. No one's ever made a movie about it. It was important to tell that story — a story people internationally certainly don't know — and a revenge story felt like a smart way to do that. Not dwelling too much on the suffering. Just a way to bring a wider audience along, with a narrative that moves through the famine and tells the story of that time and all of those events that are remembered in the folklore. [It] tells them through chapters of what is essentially a genre movie.

Why do you think it took so long to depict the Great Famine on-screen?

Daly: It's very hard to finance, because it's very hard to find a story that isn't focused on suffering. Once you make a movie about suffering, it's an arthouse movie [with a] limited audience, limited resources. I know John Ford talked about making O'Flaherty's novel [Famine] into a movie, but never managed it. And there were various attempts to make films about that time over the years, but no one figured out a way to do it. It has to be something you want to watch, but it has to be respectful of the time. And it has to pay some regard to how serious a legacy of suffering and misery that comes with that.

And what drew you to the project?

Frecheville: I've always had a great love of Western films and period pieces. So to do something that was mid-nineteenth century was appealing to me. And then to do something physical was very appealing to me. I couldn't ride horses before, [but] about two weeks after I had my initial Skype with Lance I started growing my beard and not engaging with other auditions or opportunities, cuz I really, really wanted this one to happen.

Physical work's quite rewarding, and then having ample prep time for it to try and make a character in the vein of all my favorites — like Harmonica from Once Upon a Time in the West — is something that I've always responded to. That idea of selective mutism and trauma and guilt and regret, and just all the different flavors that make something interesting. And then being able to show it and not necessarily tell it. Cuz Feeney doesn't have much to say, [but] he's obviously a really complicated guy.

Daly: And perfecting his Irish accent, cuz the Irish audience are pretty unforgiving now. James passed the test that 95% of actors who come to Ireland fail, and, yeah, he managed it.

So aside from the military and horse training, the Irish accent and the beard, what other preparation or research did you do for the role?

Frecheville: I was reading things about the famine and learning bits about it, but I didn't find a need to become an authority on the way that things were, or my opinion as such. I just know that it was calamity, and that was enough. And that idea of guilt that someone had, with their best intentions, maybe gone off to fight to send some coins back to the family for 13 years; and this guy [who] became an adult off shooting guns and being a soldier and being in the ranks.

I just had my hands full, making sure my accent was sound, and making just sure that it was 100% spot on, because of that responsibility and just the situation of making a film about the famine. I completely put everything into this thing, and I'm really just fortunate to be involved in something that's meaningful to a lot of people.

You also filmed in Connemara in the winter time. What were some of the challenges of that shoot, being outdoors and all?

Daly: Yeah man, it's hard — we had horses and background actors, all that in the winter, barefoot. When you get to that point where society's broken down so much [and] the famine's that widespread, people don't even have clothes. So you're up against the weather, and also some of those locations were quite remote, so it's hard to be located there.

When you have a crew, you need to move everybody every day, [and] it's very hard to do location moves. But the landscape is an essential part of the story. And we shot in the middle of winter because we wanted it to feel that way, because you're trying to tell something between the lines of the story as well, and just create a sense of the place and that barren landscape. The overhanging grey is in its own way very beautiful, but it's certainly part of the aesthetic to make it grim and make it hard.

A lot of the backgrounds are rotoscoped in shots like when they come into the village and they find the pig with the head chopped off. We shot the actors much closer to Dublin, and then I went to Connemara, just with my bag on my back for a week, and I hiked up mountains and photographed a lot of backgrounds. So there's a lot of augmenting what we shot as well to create that world.

Speaking of the background actors, there are also several really good actors in the foreground. Namely, Hugo Weaving, Barry Keoghan, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea, to name a few. What was it like working with all of them?

Frecheville: It was quite fantastic. A lot of the actors I worked with were [in] individual scenes, because Feeney was being chased through[out] the movie. But it was problematic at times getting everyone wrangled together, because of the conditions and things like that.

I think everyone was really fantastic. I'd never heard of Moe Dunford before, and I had a great joy working with him, and Sarah [Greene] was fantastic. Everyone was just perfectly cast in their role. I remember one day in particular, I was doing fight rehearsals on a day that I wasn't shooting on-set, and I was watching Freddie Fox and was hypnotized by the physicality that he had of this rigid officer who's really just projecting out his importance or success in this landscape. It was a great joy to work with everyone, cuz everyone brought so much to what it was that they were doing.

Daly: It's a good ensemble. It's really a good span of ages as well [and] a good mix of backgrounds. Jim [Broadbent]'s British, Stephen Rea's from Northern Ireland, Moe and Sarah are from Ireland, Barry's from Dublin. So even within the Irish cast, it's a nice mix. And then Hugo and James are Australian and Freddie's British. So it was nice to have a mix, and a mix of perspectives on the history. Having English voices in the conversation about what England did in Ireland was useful, cuz I did try to tell a balanced tale as much as possible. I didn't want the English to show up and be the villains and the Irish to be the innocent victims.

But it was great. Doing an ensemble film is tricky because everybody brings their own process, and every actor works differently. And part of the fun for me is trying to figure out how each actor works. But they all work differently, and you try to get it to a point where it feels like they all work the same way, and they all work in the same style. That was one of the challenges.

Frecheville: It was hard and rewarding work, I thought.

So the movie has already come out in Ireland. What has the reception been like so far?

Daly: It's been brilliant, yeah. It opened in the top position at the box office. And everybody's going again and bringing someone with them. So it's been ideal. It's actually stirred up a lot of pride and emotion and strong feelings, so it's good. And it's bonding people in an interesting way. People are rediscovering their love for the Irish language, which is only sporadically spoken. But people are reconnecting to the Irish language and the history, and that's great. [And for] people who left Ireland because of the famine and the 50 years after that, I think it's a nice way for [them] to reconnect to their origin story.

Is that what you set out to do when you made the film? Is that what you want audiences to take away from the movie?

Daly: Yeah, I'm definitely very interested in connecting to that wider Irish diaspora. When you make an Irish film, people say, "This'll do really well if you can connect to the diaspora." But if this doesn't connect to them, I don't know what will. Cuz this is that story.

What are you both working on next?

Frecheville: I've got an open slate. I'd be hopeful to get something where I can get prep time, cuz locking it down in my own head so that I could come to set effectively was the most enjoyable and rewarding part of this process. I [also] found a great enjoyment in learning new skills sets for the film, and so I'm hopeful to find a part which would involve me to have the assistance of a specialist to teach me how to do something.

Daly: I have a TV show which I think could be really great, which I was gonna do before I made this film. So that may happen. That's set in the States, in San Francisco, currently. But all the films I'm working on developing are really based on Ireland.

Ideally, I want to continue to work at home, make films at home, and then send them out to the world. So it's really just about trying to develop our production base there and also finding stories we can tell in Ireland that we can attract an international cast to. And also, I think when you bring a movie to Ireland and you make it there, you're doing something for your home. But also, I have a family in Ireland, so I'd much prefer to be at home working, rather than taking the circus on the road. I've always admired directors who've been able to work on a world stage but work from home, like Luc Besson or Peter Jackson or Baz Luhrmann. Definitely that model of how to do it is really interesting to me.

Black 47 is now playing in select theatres.

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