24 February 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Float Like A Butterfly Writer/Director Carmel Winters Talks with IFTN
10 May 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Float Like A Butterfly writer/director Carmel Winters
IFTN caught up with Irish director Carmel Winters to discuss her second feature film’s challenging journey to the screen, winning the Fipresci Discovery Prize at TIFF and what Muhammad Ali’s daughter, Jamilah told her after she saw the film.

Filmed on location in West Cork, ‘Float Like a Butterfly’ is an inspirational coming-of-age story of an Irish girl from the Travelling community and the pursuit of her dream to be a boxer and releases in Irish cinemas on Friday, May 10th.

15-year-old Frances has been raised in roadside camps in rural Ireland and wants to become a boxing champion like her idol Muhammad Ali. However, she must overcome cultural and familial hurdles to achieve her dreams.

Written and directed by Carmel Winters (‘Snap’), the feature film picked up the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) prize for the Discovery programme at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last year. The film also won the Audience Award in Cork where it had its Irish premiere in November. ‘Float Like A Butterfly’ stars Hazel Doupe (‘Ripper Street’), Dara Devaney (‘Camelot’), Aidan O’Hare (‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’), Lalor Roddy (‘Hunger’), Hilda Fay (‘The Cured’), Packy Lee (‘Peaky Blinders’) and newcomer Johnny Collins.

Producers are Martina Niland (‘Sing Street’) for Port Pictures and David Collins (‘Once’) for Samson Films with funding from Screen Ireland in association with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and RTÉ Television. Cathleen Dore (‘Snap’) is co-producer; executive producer was Lesley McKimm for Screen Ireland.

Crew members include composer Stephen Warbeck (‘Billy Elliot’), editor Julian Ulrichs (‘Sing Street’) and DoP Michael Lavelle (‘His & Hers’). The film was post-produced at EGG Post-production in Dublin.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Carmel to find out more about the film.

IFTN:  How did the idea for this project first come about and what was the inspiration behind it?

“Oh, I thought it was about time we celebrated the power of teenage girls and a Traveller girl in particular.  I loved the idea of Muhammad Ali passing on the title of ‘Champion of the Underdog’ to this wonderfully courageous character.  Katie Taylor was just beginning to come up through the ranks when I wrote it so I think some of Frances’ lovely understated nobility of spirit can be attributed to her too.”

IFTN: You have previously spoken about the long 10-year journey this film has travelled to get to screen. What were the key stumbling blocks and how did you overcome them?

“Well, it was pointed out to me that the female filmmakers who made their debut film around the same time as me were not fast-tracked to make their second the same way our male contemporaries were.  ‘Snap’ was extremely well regarded and I know I earned my stripes as it were. I overcame the Stop and Yield signs as it were with sheer determination of will, and the knowledge that if you are doing something that rocks the boat you’re doing something right.”

IFTN: The film was selected to make its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival where it went on to receive the Fipresci Discovery Prize. How vindicating was that for you as a filmmaker following the adversity faced in getting it made?

“TIFF is incredibly competitive to get into so that was a big boon for the film in itself.  And the audiences there absolutely loved the film. We had such a great response - crying, laughing, cheering, crowds waiting outside afterwards to share their own stories prompted by the film - that I already felt vindicated.  I’m not very awards-orientated (audience awards being an exception as I craft everything I do with an audience’s experience in mind - and my heart was honestly fit to burst when we won the Audience Award on our homecoming to Cork International Film Festival).  But when the Fipresci jury came out to make their announcement, I was fascinated. They were six top film critics from all over the world - China, Australia, India, Chile, Canada, Belgium - so it was a real affirmation of Float Like A Butterfly’s universal appeal. “

IFTN: The film is centred on the life and struggles of the traveller community in 1960/70s Ireland. How did you go about researching this period of history and authenticating the way in which the community lived and was treated during this period?

“It was a joy to bring this incredible period to life and I was partnered by two brilliant women, production designer Toma McCullim and Costume designer Triona Lillis.  They both loved and held Traveller culture in high esteem. Triona had reared her family when they were young in a camp, and Toma had spent 2 years in Greenham common living in the kind of tent Frances’ family live in.  We talked to Travellers about their memories of the time and found literally thousands of extraordinary photos from the period. These were absolutely invaluable. We had a rich archive to draw from. And both Toma and Triona really believe in the power of ‘the real deal’ in making a world come to life. So everything you see is genuinely from the period.  Pot-stands made of horseshoes welded together, copper washing basins cut from old cylinder tanks with the rivets of many repairs over the years visible. Michael Lavelle our cinematographer was in heaven. He was brilliant at making sure every frame was packed with gems!”

IFTN: Can you tell me about the symbolism and role of Muhammad Ali who plays a significant role in the development of Hazel’s character Frances throughout the course of the film, particularly in the absence of her father?

“Muhammad Ali is perhaps the ultimate ‘Champion of the Underdog’, an icon for the triumph of the oppressed. Muhammad Ali’s daughter Jamilah came to our gala screening at the Gene Siskel Film Centre in Chicago.  I was so proud when she said ‘my Daddy would have loved this film’. And I loved hearing her remark upon how moving it was to watch a girl “who loses faith in her own ‘Daddy, put her faith in my Daddy instead.”

IFTN: The film features great performances from a strong Irish cast, which includes rising star Hazel Doupe, Dara Devaney, Hilda Fay, and Lalor Roddy, to name but a few. Can you tell me a little bit about the casting process and your selection?

“And newcomer Johnny Collins is a real rising star as well, watch out for him!  I didn’t need to audition Hilda or Lalor - I was a long admirer of theirs and knew they would be true keepers of the flame in their roles as ‘Big Mammy’ and ‘Big Daddy’.  The same with Aaron Monaghan who I have always wanted to work with. After that I went through casting directors’ suggestions, (it was Louise Kiely who introduced me to Hazel), talked to other directors about talent they had spotted, did street castings at horse fairs and John O Sullivan at Cork Traveller Visibility was a great help, as was Catherine Collins from Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group.  Catherine was terrific in really matching my character outlines to likely young talent - I said she should be a casting director! She led me to Rosie O Sullivan who I think has a great gift for screen acting. I did a variety of singing, boxing, improvisation and script workshops - whatever I felt really allowed the actors to show me what they could do. And how they go about it. Hazel knocked my socks off.  I knew I was in the company of a rare and massive talent. She really is special. I am thrilled that her performance is getting the attention it deserves. “

IFTN: The film features a number of traditional folk songs. How did you decide upon such a fitting soundtrack and was it always something you had in mind when writing the script?

“Music was always going to be front and centre in this film.  Irish Traveller sean-nos singer Thomas McCarthy, who recently won Gradam Ceoil Traditional Singer of the Year, not only features in the film, he also advised me about the choice of folk songs.  He is a walking encyclopedia of songs and stories he inherited from his mother Mary. And our Oscar-winning composer took inspiration from some of his choices. You can hear in the score motifs prompted by the old Irish lullaby Seoithin Seotho for instance.  And it was Cork actress and singer Noelle O Regan, who plays Aunt Nelly, who pointed me in the direction of the CD ‘From Puck to Appleby’ where I first heard the absolutely brilliant Traveller anthem ‘Gum Shellac’ written by ‘Pops’ Johnny Connors sung with gorgeous gusto by Lisa Lambe in the film.   I still needed traditional songs that were a rally to the power of girls so when I couldn’t find them I wrote two of the songs in the film, Queen of Puck and Blame Me Mammy, with Stephen the composer. And the song Hazel sings at the lakeside is a song of her own called ‘Chasing Butterflies’, which I thought was just perfect.”

IFTN: What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring writer/director beginning their career?

“Build great relationships with great people who will continue to inspire and sustain you when the going gets tough.  Don’t take the knocks personally. if you are not a great writer, work with a great writer. Give your best and try to bring out the best in your team. “

IFTN: What next?

“I want to continue to work with great artists.  That’s as good as it gets. “

‘Float Like A Butterfly’ Releases in Irish cinemas on Friday, May 10th.

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