A Shakespearan love story set amid the bone-crunching world of bare-knuckle traveller fighting may seem like an unlikely combination, but director Mark O’Connor has married the two for his latest feature ‘King of the Travellers’, produced by Vico Films and distributed by Wildcard.
A graduate of film at Ballyfermot College and the New York Film Academy, Mr O’Connor earned praise for his first directorial effort ‘Between the Canals’ – focusing on criminals in inner city Dublin – and established a reputation for gritty realism and authenticity that he brought to bear on his latest feature.
Speaking to IFTN, Mr O’Connor explained the challenges he faced in shooting ‘King Of the Travellers’, from testing untrained actors to embracing unsimulated fight scenes, ahead of its Irish release this Friday 19 April.
Mr O’Connor, did you feel a certain responsibility to the travelling community to portray them in a positive light or was that something you were concerned about?
‘I wasn’t out to show them in a positive or negative light. It was all about making it feel real and authentic and about the story. If racism didn’t exist, you wouldn’t do either of those.’
In choosing traveller John Connors to play lead character John Paul Moorhouse, did you think it was a risk casting someone who had never acted before? What was it about him that convinced you that he could do it?
‘It was a big risk. During discussions, I had to convince people to take that risk. He also looks very different from the typical leading man, but I was convinced he could do it because he came in and I just thought he was really special. He was very real and powerful and had a great presence. It was all those things rolled into one. I just thought he was great. I go for intensity and realism. I wouldn’t pick someone just for their looks.’
How useful was it to have Michael Collins – former Glenroe actor and member of the travelling community – onboard in terms of guiding the production?
‘He helped with the initial introductions, definitely. When I first met Michael, he brought me to traveller weddings and different halting sites. I met his cousins but also cast different families, including the Connors, and wanted to have a mix of different traveller families. A lot of the travellers who appear in the film were from Dublin but they were drawn from all parts of the country.’
What were the main filming locations you used?
‘We shot in Rathfarnham, Inchicore, Wicklow, and the Ballinasloe horse fair in Galway.’
The Shakespearan overtones of Romeo and Juliet - with members of two warring families falling in love - are an integral part of the film. What made you decide to adapt such a well-known love story?
‘I was reading a lot of Shakespeare at the time, carrying around a book of all his plays, and started writing the original script in his Iambic Pentameter style. Then I thought that would come across as ridiculous or pretentious, so I decided just to draw upon some themes from Shakespeare. Travellers have a very old, traditional culture and I thought the Shakespearan themes would fit that nicely.’
What were some of the biggest challenges in utilising so many untrained actors from the travelling community?
‘First of all to cast travellers in the roles was a big risk and everyone wanted me to cast actors, but I just thought it had to be authentic. A lot of them couldn’t read and we had to put their dialogue on CDs for them to learn.’
Critics have noted the influence of elements of ‘The Godfather and ‘On the Waterfront’ in the film. What directors do you most admire in the film industry today?
‘I’d be a fan of Alan Clarke, Shane Meadows and Peter Mullan. Those guys in particular.’
In making ‘Between the Canals’, were there any lessons you took away that came in handy while making ‘King of the Travellers’?
‘I learned how to get the best performances from non-actors and how to handle stunts and make everyone work together, so they’re all heading towards one vision and not conflicting with each other.’
Was it difficult orchestrating the fight scenes or how did you manage those?
‘It was hard. We did a lot of rehearsals for the fight scenes, over eight weeks or so. I wanted it to be completely real so it was done in such a way that they’re almost actually punching each other. They’re not faking it with massive head movements, so in the film - even though they don’t look like they’re getting hit too hard, like you’d see in a Hollywood film - that’s actually because they’re getting hit. The lads had bruises and everything. They wanted it like that. They wanted it to look like a YouTube traveller bare-knuckle fight.’
What’s your opinion of other films that have depicted travellers on screen. Are there any you admire or things you wanted to avoid?
‘I felt that travellers never get portrayed realistically on film. Often when they cast travellers, it was only for one or two parts and it was a little bit stereotypical. But ‘Pavee Lackeen’ is a very good film and very realistic but has a documentary feel to it. I wanted to do something fictional and more dramatic.’
You famously read your Irish Film manifesto on the steps of the town hall at the Galway Film Fleadh last year. Is that something you’re still passionate about?
‘The manifesto was written to inspire people and bring recognition to the new wave of Irish filmmakers, which I feel is very important because a lot of people are not going to see Irish film enough. It was intended to get people more aware of what’s going on in the film industry and to start a debate.’
‘How do you feel about the critical response that ‘King of the Travellers’ has received so far at home and abroad?
‘I’m very happy with the Irish reviews, and Variety, Total Film and Sight & Sound gave us very solid reviews. I’m very excited about it coming out in the cinema in Ireland. It’s been a long time coming as I’ve been working on it for over two years and can’t wait for Irish audiences to finally get to see it. I think it will give people something they have never seen before. Recent depictions of travellers in ‘My Big fat Gypsy Wedding’ were very sensationalist, but ‘King of the Travellers’ shows all aspects of traveller culture, from sulky racing to bare-knuckle boxing. But it’s also a story about revenge and love, and I think people will enjoy it.’
Your next feature ‘Stalker’ will be out later this year. Are there any other projects you’re working on at the moment that you can share with us?
‘I am finishing my new script called ‘Circus Town’ and hope to get that made soon. It’s a superhero film about a character that gets back from the army and has to retake his town from a circus that has taken control of it.’
Mark O’Connor’s ‘Stalker’ – about a homeless man who has to rescue his friend from drug dealers - will be released in cinemas later this year.
'King of the Travellers' will be screening in the Light House cinema and IFI- which is hosting a Q&A with Mr O’Connor and cast members following a preview screening of ‘King of the Travellers’ on April 18th at 6:30pm.