Over the past seven years, acclaimed director Sé Merry Doyle has sought to find the story behind ‘The Quiet Man’ and understand why the film that Ford spent 20 years trying to get made was so personal to him. It is a journey that has seen Doyle interview Ford’s Irish relations, as well as acclaimed filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jim Sheridan and ‘The Quiet Man’ lead actress, Maureen O'Hara. He talks to IFTN about that filmmaking experience.
You must be delighted after the time you’ve spent on this documentary that an Irish audience will get to see it on the big screen?
Yes, we are all thrilled. It’s taken a long time to get there, but it’s great to get there. I started this project seven years ago, although obviously I wasn’t working on it all the time, so it has been a while. I shouldn’t feel too bad, however, that it took seven years for this to reach the screen as it took John Ford almost 20 years to raise the finance to make his most treasured project, ‘The Quiet Man’.
You had some great guests at the film’s Dublin premiere last weekend as part of the John Ford Ireland Film Symposium.…
It was an absolutely amazing evening. I’ve been at a lot of screenings of the documentary over the past year but the last time that I was that nervous was the original premiere at the Cork Film Festival. It was amazing to have – in the same room watching the film – Dan Ford, Ford’s grandson; Peter Bogdanovich, a good friend of Ford’s; Redmond Morris, the son of Lord Killanin and a co-producer of ‘The Quiet Man’. So it was a scary moment but they all loved it.
It must have been great meeting up with Peter again after interviewing him for the documentary?
Yeah, I have to say I love Peter. There’s something about his banter and his wit. He’s mischievous and he’s just got such a wide palate as a great filmmaker; great documentary filmmaker and a great writer. I don’t know how old Peter is, I believe he’s in his seventies, but on one of his first nights in Dublin he went down to see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, whom he made a film about. He’s good fun.
You enjoyed the Symposium in general?
I thought the Symposium was better than I thought it would have been - and that doesn’t mean that I thought it was going to be weak. I went in to see the first talk by Joseph McBride, which was on at 9am. It was raining and I went in to it as a friend, because I thought to myself that nobody is going to be at it when its 9am and it is pissing rain. When I got there, however, the place was full. I thought that that was such a great tribute to John Ford and his standing among Irish people. There were full-houses at everything I went to see. There was such a wide variety of events. It was just fantastic.
I think with Ford, there is so much to him. He’s not a dull character so thank God for the John Ford Ireland Film Symposium. You can come at Ford from so many angles. You can break down a film he made; you can break down Ford’s own character or you can see the legacy he’s left to filmmakers that have come after him. He’s just so wide. You could spend your life studying Ford.
How did the idea behind the documentary come about?
Well, I was in a room having a discussion about ‘The Quiet Man’ and somebody said that it was rubbish, so therein started a good debate. I just said, ‘how could John Ford have made a bad film?’ This is a man regarded by lots of people as the greatest filmmaker in America ever. That just kind of got me going. I could understand why people might have equated it to ‘Gone With The Wind’ or Ryan’s Daughter’ and thought that it was cheesy or something, but I just ventured down to Cong and shot some characters who had been in the film and filmed some crazy stuff, like Quiet Man mania at these big anniversary get-togethers.
The more and more I dug into it, the more John Ford loomed out and it occurred to me that ‘The Quiet Man’ is in fact was his biography and that the film is greatly underestimated in terms of what exactly is going on in the film. It’s a kind of parable for the times that John Ford saw the world going through, which was a mad desire for money and the Hollywood studio system and so forth. Through more research I’d found that he bought the rights in 1932 but he didn’t get it made until 1951 even though he had huge successes and the studios made millions out of films such as ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley’. The studios just thought, as Maureen O’Hara says, that it was a silly little Irish story.
So this thing grew and grew. Although ‘The Quiet Man’ was obviously a huge hit in Ireland, I knew that certain people, particularly in Dublin, thought that it represented the Irish as fighters and drinkers and so on. I later discovered that the original story was much more of an IRA story. John Ford went to war himself, to World War Two, as part of a camera crew to record some of the war. He is said to have recorded the greatest ever war footage from that time because he got right up close and in fact got injured. He also lost his camerman, who was the son of Archie Stout and was under his guidance.
After the war he re-shaped the script of ‘The Quiet Man,’ so that instead of the IRA central character - John Wayne’s character – he made him a guy who had killed another guy in a boxing ring called Tony Gardello for money, or as he says in the film “a piece of the purse”. The fact that he had killed somebody traumatized him and so he needed an escape. He needed to escape the money machine, which in fact was like Ford escaping from Hollywood to this mythical Innisfree. So in a way, what Ford was doing was like the way soldiers come back from Vietnam traumatized. They are so traumatized that they go and try and find a cabin in the woods or something. This was like that. This was a traumatized soul trying to get back to a kind of community living that he’d heard about from his parents who had emigrated to America from Spiddal. So all of these kind of intangible things led up to the making of the documentary. Instead of making a whimsical film purely about the making of ‘The Quiet Man,’ which is not what I wanted to do, I wanted to get into the head of John Ford and this desire; this comment on life.
Somebody said to me that ‘The Quiet Man’ is no more about Ireland than ‘Hamlet’ is about Denmark. It’s a kind of worldwide parable. You can equate a character like Red Danaher, who is just mad for money, with NAMA or whatever you want. Here’s another guy who just wants a home and a family but gets caught up in all this ritual of dowries and tradition, and all the rest. He can’t get back in to that community until he proves his mettle. So Ford is harking back to ancient Irish traditions. All of that is part of the journey that I went on in trying to make the film.
Was it a difficult project to finance?
As a film, it’s a complicated sell. Early on I created a trailer of what I’d had at the time but nobody wanted it. The idea was rejected by every broadcaster and funder in Ireland. Five years later, after I’d kind of given up, Alan Maher from the Irish Film Board was in our office to talk about another project. Just as he was leaving I asked would he have a look at the short promo, and he loved it. So bingo, we were on the road and within months we had a full budget. Before we knew it we were filming Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and getting some fantastic archive film. We went on a filmic journey just finding out what Ford was up to on ‘The Quiet Man’. That’s kind of, in a nutshell, the history of the film. The pleasure of seeing it unravel on screen at festivals, where audiences really engage with it, particularly young people, has been very satisfying.
The version that will be released on Friday is a slightly re-edited cut of that which went on the festival circuit, is that correct?
It’s a slightly revised edit in that, having had Maureen O’Hara in it, who is the only surviving member of the principal cast, it turned out that John Wayne’s daughter, Aissa Wayne, was over in Ireland last year to receive the Maureen O’Hara award. So I filmed an interview with her. What’s great about it is that John Wayne’s child is in the film, so you are getting a kind of intimate take of John Wayne and John Ford to John Wayne, which was a bit lacking. Interviewees in the film are taking about John Wayne and John Ford’s relationship in the film, but there’s nothing better than having the lifeblood of John Wayne having an input. So that’s the new bonus bit in the new cut.
Her interview gives a good insight into her father?
It does. It gives a good sense of him because John Wayne had all of his children present on-set during filming. They actually had a cameo scene in the race sequence on the beach, so it was a real family affair in that John Wayne had his children present; Barry Fitzgerald was the brother of Arthur Shields. Maureen was there and her two brothers were acting in the film, so there was a thread there. They used to call John Ford ‘Pappy,’ so there was this kind of family affair quality to it. Scorsese says it was like a home movie behind of and in-front of the camera.
You obviously shot in a number of locations across the US and America?
Yes, some of the earliest footage I shot in Cong, particularly featuring a wonderful lady named Nancy Murphy who ran a local shop that sold bootleg photographs of ‘The Quiet Man’. The shop was called Cohan’s. She’s one of the real stars of the documentary. She was one of the first people I’d interviewed and I’d gone down to Cong to try and meet her brother Jack, who had brought out a little book about ‘The Quiet Man’. They were just ordinary people from Cong and I was lucky to get those little moments because a number of those people, such as Nancy, have passed on. When I was making the film I wanted them to have the same sort of presence as say, Martin Scorsese. I wanted the people from Cong to stand up there beside all the other titans, and everyone that has seen the film has loved Nancy. She’s a real star of the piece, an incredible woman.
So a lot of it was shot around Cong and then I’d the great luck to interview John Ford’s cousin, Nora in Spiddal. She was quite old when I interviewed her and she’d never really spoken on camera before. I also interviewed a number of Ford’s other cousins. So there’s a lot of exclusive stuff in the documentary, if you like, about John Ford’s obsession with Ireland and his desire to walk the streets that his father lived; and going to the cottage; and telling John Wayne big fibs about the huge rock that his father carried, which was all lies.
Ford is a complex man and what I’ve tried to do is to read ‘The Quiet Man’ through him. The whole lens of the film is trying to tease those things out, that Sean Thornton (John Wayne) is really John Ford. Ford's cousins – the Thorntons – lived in Spiddal and their house was burned down by the Black and Tans. When Ford was there he saw it. He came back to Spiddal in 1922 before the British threw him out. He did, however, give some money to the IRA. So he was weaving actual names and places into the script.
There’s a great mixture of archive footage in the film…
Yes, we were lucky in that we came across some very rare archive footage that was shot during the making of ‘The Quiet Man’ in Ashford Castle in Cong. It was shot on 8mm and shows the cast and crew relaxing in-between takes. It’s never been seen before in the cinema, so it’s the first time that that will be shown. We got tones of extremely rare photographs of people on-set and the documentary is packed with great stories. There’s one about Ford who, at one stage during filming, got the jitters and wouldn’t leave his room. It was coming up to this race sequence on the beach and so John Wayne took over and directed the beach scene. He rescued a day of filming as it were.
You get the sense that Ford was carrying this huge movie on his back…
Well he was, and he was kind of scared of it himself. Republic Pictures only gave him the money to make it as long as he made a Western with the same cast, to make up for all of the money he was going to lose on ‘The Quiet Man’. That must have been a big deal for him. It was also the first movie shot in Technicolor outside of America. So you had all those elements… I could go on. The thing about Ford, as I’m sure most people know, was that he was a very grumpy man. He never responded to anyone and would never respond to questions about what he was really up to in terms of his work. So when people said that ‘The Quiet Man’ was a load of rubbish, he would never respond. There are some scenes in the film of people trying to interview him and he just will not answer the question.
Was there an interviewee over the course of filming that stood out?
I suppose that big one was Maureen O’Hara. I had tried for years to get an interview with Maureen, and just never succeeded. And it kind of broke my heart to think that the film might go out without her in it. Even all the funders were asking me, ‘have you got Maureen yet?’ Then in LA, I met her nephew – Charlie Fitzsimons – and he put in a word for me. Then in 2010, he flew over and we met her and we had the greatest day. It was tremendous to meet her and to get her talk on the experience of shooting the movie on-camera.
What’s the next stage for ‘John Ford – Dreaming the Quiet Man’ after this cinema release?
Well, we’ll see what happens. It will be released on DVD at some stage and there are to be a couple more international screenings in places such as London. An Irish-language version of the film will also be aired by TG4 on Christmas Day. So it’s got a life. The film is still being talked about, which is fantastic.
‘John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man’ will be released in cinemas from tomorrow (June 15) and can be seen in the IFI and Light House cinema in Dublin; The Gate, Cork and
The Eye in Galway.
The documentary was Filmed in the US and in Cong, Co Mayo, by director Sé Merry Doyle. It was produced by Martina Durac and Vanessa Gildea for Loopline Film. Patrick Jordan (Pentecost) was the cinematographer, while the film was edited by Nicky Dunne (In America). Genevieve Murphy was the assistant editor. Post-production was carried out by Loopline with sound mixed at Ardmore Sound. The documentary features original music from Ger Kiely. The film was shot on hi-def and DVcam with additional cameramen including Tom Byrne, Andrew Edger, Colm Hogan and Michael O'Donovan.