23 January 2021 The Irish Film & Television Network
Hugo Weaving & James Frecheville Talk with IFTN
12 Sep 2018 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN caught up with James Frecheville & Hugo Weaving, stars of Lance Daly’s Famine Thriller ‘Black 47’, to find out about how the two Australian actors got involved in Ireland’s first Famine feature film, the balancing act between learning Irish, learning to shoot a musket and Pierce Brosnan’s piece of advice.

The film enjoyed a hugely successful opening weekend that saw it become the highest grossing Irish film of the year across Ireland, earning a total box office of €444k including previews.  Republic of Ireland delivered €392k, with an impressive screen average of over €5k.  It also saw its distributor, Wildcard celebrate its biggest opening weekend of any distributed title to date.

Frecheville first came to prominence in the iconic Australian crime thriller, ‘Animal Kingdom,’ where he led a stellar cast of Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Egerton and Jacki Weaver. Since then he has starred in feature films ‘The Drop’ with Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, as well as starring opposite Pierce Brosnan in ‘I.T’, produced by Macdara Kelleher of Fastnet Films. 

A Hollywood veteran, Weaving has starred in some of the most successful action and fantasy franchises in history, including ‘The Lord of The Rings’ trilogy, ‘The Matrix’  trilogy and ‘Capatin America: The First Avenger’. More recently, Weaving was involved in Oscar nominated film, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’.

Black 47 was written by PJ Dillon (‘Rewind’), Pierce Ryan (‘Standby’), Lance Daly (‘Life’s a Breeze’, ‘Kisses’) with contributions from Eugene O’Brien (‘Eden’).  Produced by Macdara Kelleher for Fastnet Films with Tim O’Hair, Arcadiy Golubovich and Jonathan Loughran.  Black 47 was financed by Primemeridian Entertainment, the Irish Film Board (Screen Ireland), the Luxembourg Film Fund, Wildcard Distribution, Altitude, BAI, TV3, Eurimages, Umedia, Samsa Films and Fastnet Films.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with the pair to get some insight into Hugo’s first experience working in Ireland and why James is so fond of country.

IFTN: How does Hugo Weaving get involved in an Irish famine film?

Hugo: “Well, MacDaragh Kelleher, who is the producer on this, and PJ, who was the original writer of the script, were both out in Australia making a film that I was involved in, so I got to know them very well. Rob Flanagan, who is the sound recordist, was on there as well. There was a group of five Irish people on this Australian film. We got talking and got on very well talking about what they were doing next. They told me about this film and I said, ‘It sounds really, really great.’

“We were talking about Heart of Darkness. We were talking about those sorts of journeys through a hellish landscape to track someone down, and seemed to be the spine of the piece.  Anyway, I wasn't going to be involved in it, but I talked about it to them a lot. A little bit later they said, ‘Look, do you want to play this guy Hanna?’ I said, ‘I’d love to. Can I read it?’ So they posted it and I read it. As soon as I read it, I was on board and said, ‘I absolutely want to do it.’ "

IFTN: Was it the script in particular that captivated you?

Hugo: “Everything really. The personal connection with them, I liked it.  At that stage, PJ was going to be directing it. Yes, script and human connections, having talked about it and what it was. Then Lance came on board, and then meeting him at Sundance Festival with Mac and talking to him about it and talking about marrying the genre with material and how that would happen. Then went out and just started working on it straight away, reading and ingesting it and that developed over a couple of years.”

IFTN: James, Conas atá tú? I was thinking, could we do our questions in Irish, would that be all right?

James: “Ahhh...”

Hugo: “Just sing the song from the movie.”

James: “I can sing the song.”

Hugo: “Every question in Irish, just sing another line.”

James: “I personally don't like fronting where you shouldn't.  I feel like I did my work well, but to pretend that I can still speak. It's not true. I'm not going to be fronting this ‘oh isn’t it amazing how he learnt Irish and he still holds it now’ front. That being said, I'd love to learn it.”

“At that time, I was reading a lot about Ogham? That was a really fascinating way to start with that. Even phonetically, looking at the way that the vowels were shaped..”

IFTN: Have you seen the Ogham drawings?

James: “Yes.”

IFTN: It’s quite a popular tattoo in Ireland for people to get.

Hugo: “I think we saw one today. In fact, Glenn has got one on his arm. He was talking about the lines and how it works.”

James: “When I was learning it, I was going down an esoteric pathway, like just feeling my head with all these different shapes and ideas. It's been like, ‘If I lived in the trees, would I be doing hand signs?’ It was rewarding to really dive into it, and I had a fantastic teacher.”

IFTN: Yes, Peadar Cox was your teacher?

James: “Yes, when you've got a support like that, you can put in the time to do the best job that you're expected to do, because they hired you. It was quite fun to do with Peadar because there was a lot of phonetic challenges. The difficulty of language is that people try to make sounds that they don't necessarily have in their own personal syntax. I was just in Brazil, for example, and there was one guy at the reception where I was staying. Every time he'd say, ‘You're welcome,’ he'd say, ‘You're relcome.’ It just made me smile because it was so sweet.”

Hugo: “They've got all those beautiful "zhzh" sounds as well.”

James: “That's the thing. There were these guttural noises in their r's. A lot of the accent work was married to the muscular mechanics and tongue placement and how the ‘t’ is just stabbed ever so slightly at the back of the teeth, anything that sat on the roof, and just finding the truth in it from making it authentic. Someone that was from Connemara that never spoke English, then learned English from soldiers in India. It was just fascinating.”

IFTN: It’s crazy that two Australian actors have found themselves in the heart of the very first Irish famine film.

Hugo: “It is crazy, isn't it?”

IFTN: With such an important piece of Irish history, that touched every Irish family, there could be some Irish begrudgery about the casting.  As foreign actors, did you feel any pressure taking on the roles and how did you approach the project once you knew the significance of the background?

James: “As Pierce Brosnan once said to me, "Fuck the begrudgers!"

“No, I didn't feel any pressure. I just knew that there was a responsibility. I've got Celtic stock, my beard is extremely red and the colour in the film, the grey (toned it down), but its fire red or carrot red or whatever, orangutan red! I felt a big responsibility to myself, because it was a very full opportunity to carve something that was so special and minimalist in a way that would aesthetically suit a revenge story, because I love that sort of film. I’ve got a lot of time for Once Upon a Time in the West. Charles Bronson doesn't do much, but he does so much.”

“Understanding that and knowing that you don't have to be trying to reach unless you can know exactly where you're putting the tip of the knife, or you get to carve or cut and slice or dash, de-limb or whatever it might be. I found a lot of the character while I was growing the beard and learning how to ride horses, because I'd never ridden horses before. Part of that being the continuity fetish that I've got where if there is a cut it can depower the momentum of the shoot. Or something like, Omar Sharif coming out of the desert.”

Hugo: “One of the great entrances…”

James: “One of the great entrances and you retain a certain power. It doesn't mess with the suspension of disbelief and as much as they can get stunt doubles to look like you and such, people have a great ability to physically recognize a person just from the way and shape. I've had stunt doubles before and it's never quite on the mark. I did a film where I spent a lot of time physically getting really, really big and then for the final shot in the movie, they used my stunt double, George Kirby.

“He took a massive fall during this fight scene and he was okay, but he was fantastic. George was much slighter. I might have been pushing 85 kilos, and George might have been about 77. That was a topless fight scene in the rain, and they just used someone else. I just thought to myself, ‘Oh, no. All that work…’ it was heart-breaking.”

James: “(With Black 47) I really wanted to make sure I was doing everything. I think there was like two shots in the film where it wasn't me on the horse. There was that desire to have that physical responsibility to look the part, look like you've been killing people for 13 years for the empire. Because then, once you've got that, then the rest of it's just an execution of steps, and it's not like I was straining at the time.

We've been talking about this that you just do the work. You build it up so that on the day it just comes out and it's not forced. You don't have to waste energy by trying too hard, because it's already completely built and it can just be pointed or taken away from depending on what Lance wants you to do.”

IFTN: James, you have previously worked in Ireland with Macdara Kelleher and Pierce Brosnan on ‘IT’, but this was your first time working in Ireland, Hugo.  How did you both find the experience of working with Irish cast & crew, that environment?

Hugo: “It’s been pretty good.”

James: “Black pudding every day!”

Hugo: “I'll leave the black pudding... I'll drink the black stuff, but no pudding for me.”

James: “It’s been just fantastic. Working here in 2015 was a great experience and then coming back, continuing friendships, getting new ones. I remember just before we started shooting, I got to watch McGregor roll around at SBG just before he went off to fight Eddie Alvarez. That was pretty cool, because it's like the fighting Irish and just getting to see him in the flesh, not bothering him at all, but I got to have a chat with Coach Kavanagh.”

“He gave me his book and it was just excellent, just to see modern fighting and what that kind of spirit is, what that's all about. I have had and continue to have the best time in this country. I've spent a lot of time down in West Cork, down in the Leap. I just have a lot of time for this place, and I just want to keep coming back as much as it makes sense to.”

IFTN: Most people will assume you are Irish after this film.

James: “There was a really embarrassing thing that happened down in Leap one time where there was like a singing competition, but it was like a pub singing thing.”

IFTN: A sing-song?

James: “A Sing-song, yes. I got introduced as ‘James French’, not James Frecheville, so there was an element of people thinking that I was local-ish, I got a bit pissed and sang the song that was in the film and it just came out a bit squawked. [Laughs] I felt like I was a child again on the stage with that trembling voice (that) I couldn't quite control. I just love it here so much.”

“And you can't beat the milk here either! I don't think you can get dairy like that anywhere else. That's a reason to move to Ireland anyway.”

IFTN: Tell me while you were on set, did you get much of an opportunity to get out of it for a couple of pints?

Hugo: “Oh, Yeah…”

James: “Yes, we sure did.”

Hugo: We went to Grogan's a lot.”

James: “We had a night at The Blue Light overlooking the city, which was fantastic. Just learning about Guinness and learning how the way that a pint can be different from one place to another or what dictates a good pint.”

Hugo: “It’s why Grogan's is so fine.”

James: “It's all pretty good.”

IFTN: You can't go wrong with Grogan's.

IFTN: Lance spoke at the IFTA screening about striving for authenticity in the film. Obviously having Peadar Cox for the Irish language was brilliant, but he also spoke about the weapons used, in particular the muskets, can you tell me a little bit about that.

James: “Boyd Rankin is a hero. Boyd is a fascinating man. I asked him one day on set. I said, "What were you doing when you were my age?" He's like, "I was a chemist." I was like, "My God." Boyd developed a hobby making weaponry and blacksmithing, which turned into something else. He forged the weapons in Games of Thrones. He made all of his own gunpowder and all of his own ball bearings and casings. He taught us how to shoot. There was one shot that I remember being a great challenge, because early in the production I flagged it with Lance and asked if we could try to work in some time with Boyd to practice reloads."

“The day came where it was like, "We've got this shot," and I was just like, "Shit”, so I had this like crazy two hours, just practicing getting to the point where you can whip it out, catch it right at the right point, reverse fist to put it in and then to get it to point where you look like you've been doing it for 13 years.”

“I really was proud of that shot, because it was just really satisfying. I kick down the door and then you're looking out the window and you're just loading this gun, and it's just like silk, and then you just pop it up, out, and shoot.”

IFTN: Did you get many opportunities to go shooting together?

Hugo: “I remember we went up to the hills in the south of Dublin with Boyd, Barry (Keoghan) and Freddie (Fox), and the two of us. Just firing stuff off, reloading and trying to see how quickly you can do it.”

James: “We did. I had a bit of a faux pas because I just got a bit too excited and shot.”

Hugo: “He started shooting without saying ‘FIRING’ (laughs)... in fact; you did it a couple of times.”

James: “I did. I remember doing it once and you just turned around and looked at me like ‘you dipshit...’” (laughs)

IFTN: This might be a divisive question, but who was the best shot?

Hugo: “We all were! Who knows where it hit? We were just firing them.”

IFTN: Those guns weren’t known for their accuracy, so I guess that is a fair answer.

James: “That’s it, that's the thing that's great about the film. It's that even at a short distance, the ball, which was spherical at the time, had no guarantee it would work.  There could be a misfire or maybe the powder is wet.”

Hugo: “There was very little accuracy. It also depends on whether you're shooting a musket or a carbine. We were working with different weapons.”

James: “I had a couple of different weapons. My main weapon is a flintlock and then in the poster beside you, I took someone else's gun, and that's a percussion cap. It's tricky because you can't act very effectively on the accurate recall of what happens when a piece of metal leaves the gun like that because it's something else when you shoot.”

‘Black 47’ is currently on release nationwide.

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