Irish filmmakers and pioneers have been at the forefront of Hollywood very literally since its inception. A new feature documentary, ‘The Irish in Hollywood’ will broadcast on Christmas day at 9:00pm on TV3 which will allow audiences the opportunity to examine the long legacy of Irish actors, producers and directors in Ireland. IFTN spoke with the doc’s director Paul Howard about the documentary.
The fruit of over two years of extensive research and archive work, ‘The Irish In Hollywood’ is a historical documentary spanning more than 100 years of Irish talent in Hollywood's film history. Directed and produced by Paul Howard of Imagine Films, the feature traces the roots of Irish talent in Hollywood down through the ages and examines the historical and cultural impact that these men and women have had in tinsletown.
The documentary, narrated by Patrick Bergin, is based on the book ‘Emeralds in Tinseltown’, co-authored by the late Steve Brennan, veteran reporter and key editor for The Hollywood Reporter, and Bernadette O’Neill, and follows the story of the early pioneers such as Rex Ingram through to John Ford right up to key Irish personalities in contemporary cinema. Producer and director, Paul Howard is quick to praise Steve Brennan who passed away in the middle of 2009. “I got to know Steve very well, making this documentary,” he says. I’m really sorry he didn’t get to see it completed because he really would have loved it.”
Paul explains that the ‘The Irish in Hollywood’ documentary came about as a result of several events: ”Myself and a colleague of mine, writer Donal O’ Neill, were working up a project tentatively titled ‘Green Light’ on the Irish in Hollywood,”he explains. “I was not even aware that the book, ‘Emeralds in Tinseltown’ was being written at the time. As it happened then, I was discussing our project with Morgan O’ Sullivan who told me about a book being written on the same subject. After that I contacted Steve.”
The feature examines the impact the Irish have had on the American movie industry through archival material and rare footage of the Irish luminaries such as Pat O’Brien, James Cagney, John Ford, Maureen O’Hara, and Barry Fitzgerald. The project also features engaging and insightful interviews with current industry leaders such as Gabriel Byrne, Fionnula Flanagan, Jim Sheridan, Anjelica Huston, John Boorman, Brendan Gleeson, Pierce Brosnan, Noel Pearson, John Moore, Saoirse Ronan and many others – something which proved very challenging, as Paul tells us: ” All our interviewees agreed that they would all be very interested in taking part. But of course it was a question of timing. One of the major difficulties with this project was that, because all our interviewees are working in different parts of the world and because they are all doing so well, the huge logistical problem was getting them to commit to a particular time, and that was very, very difficult.”
Paul was very much struck by the depth of knowledge many of his interviewees had as to the Irish heritage in Hollywood. One, in particular, surprised the filmmaker immensely: ” One of the things about Gabriel – and it was one of the most amazing interviews that I have ever done – was that we sat down to interview him about his life and career in Hollywood, but he went way beyond that,” he tells us. ” Gabriel was very knowledgeable - knowledgeable to such a degree that he could form very credible opinions on our topics.”
The documentary received support from the BAI’s Sound and Vision fund and the Irish Film and Television Academy and will introduce audiences to several Irish characters such as an Irish immigrant employee of MGM Studios who designed the Oscar statuette, the Irishman who dreamed up the Hollywood sign, the Irish pioneer filmmakers who invented the Westerns and, of course, the Irish characters who were no strangers to scandal!
Having examined every Hollywood era possible Paul finds it impossible to select the Irish person who has left (or is in the process of leaving) the biggest mark on Hollywood. After much debate he settles on nine. ”If you look at the different periods, I would say Rex Ingram to begin with,”he starts. ”He was an artist and sculptor himself and he embraced the whole idea of movie making, and this new language which was so new at the time. Then you move onto John Ford who becomes the great master of film-making in that particular period, even though he mythologised both the American West and his view of Ireland through this exiled longing that he had. Following him you have Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan who present a very, very different picture of Ireland, which breaks the stereotype created by John Ford and presents a very real picture through movies like ‘In The Name of the Father’, ‘The Boxer’, ‘The Butcher Boy’, ‘Michael Collins’ and so on.”The remaining five include John Boorman (”Who I know was fundamentally English – but in many ways he took refuge in Ireland and made a home in Ireland”) along with actors Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Ciarán Hynes and Pierce Brosnan.
That Paul can get no fewer than nine groundbreaking Irish filmmakers is very telling. Ireland has more than punched above its weight in Hollywood and has enjoyed a disproportionately large influence in the movie making industry. Paul thinks he can explain who: ”We came from a long tradition of storytellinghe says. And, if you go back to the very early days in Hollywood, or even pre-Hollywood when you had a lot of Irish flooding into cities like New York and Boston and Philadelphia and so on, a lot of these were kind of maverick characters, and they were involved in theatre and vaudeville and so on. So when the movies came about they naturally gravitated with their storytelling tradition into the movies. And were immensely successful because story telling is in their blood.”
On a final point I ask Paul what the ultimate message of ‘The Irish in Hollywood’ is. ”Ultimately this is really about two countries who embraced one another and who embraced this new language,” he replies thoughtfully. ”This new poetry of the movie has, in the context of the modern age, become the defining art of our time. That’s what this project is all about.”
‘The Irish in Hollywood’ will air on Christmas Day at 9.00pm on TV3.