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IFTA Focus: Q&A With ‘Lón sa Spéir’ Director Seán Ó’Cualáin
17 Jan 2013 : Seán Ó’Cualáin was in conversation with Eva Hall
‘Lón sa Spéir’ was broadcast on TG4
Nominated for Special Irish Language

‘Lunch atop a skyscraper’ is such an iconic image that people all over the world would be interested in its history. What made you want to pick a distinctly Irish angle to research? The idea came to us by chance when my brother Eamonn (Producer) and I were in Whelan’s pub in Shanaglish for a cup of coffee, while researching another documentary in the area. As we were waiting for our coffee we saw the famous photograph of the 11 ironworkers on the wall, (as you do in many many pubs all over Ireland) beside the photo we also saw a note from Pat Glynn - the son of a local emigrant who claimed his father Sonny Glynn was on the far right of the photo and that Sonny's brother-in-law Mattie O'Shaughnessy was also in the photo on the far left. We quickly realised there was a great story here. Eamonn spoke to the barman, Michael Whelan, and got Pat Glynn's phone number. By late evening Pat had agreed to tell us his story in a documentary. A bit of good fortune really, the story fell into our lap and we ran with it.

Was it always the plan to produce two versions of the documentary, an Irish version and an English one? We went to TG4 with the story as an Irish language film, the Irish Film Board was backing us quite early also, and they realised its international potential. It was from the very beginning that the film would have two versions, English and Irish, which Fionnula Flanagan narrates beautifully in both languages.

On one level the photo is a simple snapshot of eleven workmen having lunch, but on another level it is an image which has for many many reasons, captured the imaginations of people all over the world. When we began filming in NY in 201, the NY Post ran a story on the making of the film when they found out we were talking to families who claimed their fathers were on the beam.

How long did the research process take; finding the interview subjects, getting permission to film in the US etc? The research process began for us in early 2011 when we first visited the Rockefeller Archive looking for clues as to who the men might be, and to be honest we are still finding out new information with every passing week as new family claims and other pictures from the Rockefeller Construction came forward. Without doubt the research process was the most enjoyable of it all, filming at the large Iron Mountain complex that Corbis have in Pittsburg was really interesting with 20 million photos, and Lunch atop a Skyscraper is its most profitable.

Also interesting was researching the identity of the men and possible photographers in the Rockefeller Archive. Very little was known of the photo before we started on this film and to be the first to reveal new information on what happened on the 69th floor of the GE Building that September day in 1932 was exciting.

You filmed in New York, Boston and Pittsburgh. How did US residents react when they learned two Irish men occupied two seats on the iconic American photo? People were intrigued and fascinated when they realised the story we were telling. It is almost a badge of honour to have some connection with the photo or the men in it. It’s such an important image in American history, and people realise that. That period was the end of the skyscraper race, NY was being ravaged by the economic depression, racial tensions were about to explode, and with all that chaos underneath their dangling feet, the 11 men seem not to have a care in the world. People now know that while the men are posing for a camera they went to the 69th floor that day to work, not to have their picture taken. When we told people of the Irish connection, many just shrugged as if to say ‘Tell me something I don’t know'!

Is there more pressure creating an Irish language project, as it is for a niche market and holds historical significance, compared to producing an English language project? There is no difference in making an English or an Irish language project - the only pressure is for it to be interesting and enjoyable for the viewer. While making an Irish language programme does limit your audience at times, and this can be frustrating, both the Irish version and the English version of ‘Lón sa Spéir - Men at Lunch’ are having a nationwide cinema release in February, and that is very exciting and an important step for Irish language films.

Is there enough support in the Irish market when it comes to funding Irish language projects? The support is there and the slots for Irish language documentaries are there - but the budgets usually are not, so you have to cut your cloth and adapt your story as best you can - and call in as many favours as possible

If TG4 didn’t exist, do you think Irish broadcasters would commission Irish language shows? There would still be Irish language programming on RTÉ if TG4 did not exist - much more than at present. But an Ireland without TG4? Let’s not go there.

You embarked on an extensive marketing campaign for ‘Lón sa Spéir’, recreating the ‘Lunch atop a skyscraper’ photograph and submitting it to festivals worldwide. What has the reaction been so far? When we got selected for Toronto, we spoke with many other filmmakers who brought their film to other A-list festivals and the advice from them all was the same: 'Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell and others are here to promote their film, you need to get your film noticed and create a buzz around that’. So we did that and the film is still feeding off the marketing campaign we created at TIFF.

The reaction so far has been overwhelming - everywhere we have gone we have had a full house, be it Galway, Toronto, New York or Amsterdam. We have also had very kind words from the critics which is important for the film - as it can make or break a film's theatrical journey. What has also been interesting is the amount of people who have come to our screenings and who lay claim to one of the 11 men on the beam, We have catalogued all of these. At the moment we have 23 men on the beam - if we were to have all the claimants sat there!

Lón sa Spéir is up against three other Irish language projects for the Special Irish Language award. Have you watched the other nominated projects? How do you rate your chances? I have seen the other productions and all are quality shows, all very different in style and genre, so it’s going to be a difficult choice, but it is important such a category is there. Much like the Oscars have Best Foreign Film, it deserves to be there.

What would winning the IFTA for Special Irish Language mean? Winning the Irish language IFTA would cap off a brilliant year for the film, an IFTA is an IFTA no matter what category you have been lucky enough to have been nominated for. The film will have finished its nationwide run in cinemas the night before the IFTA ceremony, so it’s been an amazing journey for a film which all started after a chance sighting of a little note on the wall of Whelan's Pub in Shanaglish.

See more IFTA Focus Q&A's below:

'Congo: 1961'

'Bernard Dunne's Bród Club'

'Rásaí na Gaillimhe'

Element Pictures


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