28 September 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
“The Irish language is an incredible cultural mine that has barely been tapped in terms of film;” Director Tom Sullivan discusses Arracht
22 Oct 2021 : Nathan Griffin
We spoke with Dublin writer/director Tom Sullivan about his debut feature film Arracht, to find out more about making his first feature through the Cine4 scheme, bringing authenticity to the film through collaboration, and the untapped potential of Irish language film internationally.

Arracht is currently on release in cinemas across Ireland with distribution being handled by Break Out Pictures.

Arracht was among the first five projects selected for the Cine4 development scheme back in 2017. The joint-funding initiative between TG4, Screen Ireland, and the BAI was created to support the development and production of feature films in the Irish language.

Having been selected as Ireland’s official entry for Best International Film at the 2021 Oscars®, Arracht made international headlines recently following the news that Oscar-winning producer Greg Shapiro optioned the film with intentions to develop the story into a Hollywood revamp.

The Cine4-supported film has also followed in the footsteps of Dathai Keane’s Finky by screening at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, one of the world’s leading international film festivals.

Director Tom Sullivan believe that these successes are only the beginning of what Irish language filmmaking can achieve internationally. I think that the Irish language is an incredible cultural mine that has barely been tapped in terms of film,” Sullivan told IFTN.

The Cine4 scheme was renewed with additional support in Budget 2021, something Sullivan welcomed and holds in high regard after making his debut feature film through the scheme. I'd love to make another one as Gaeilge,” said Sullivan. “I would give anything to do it. Just look at what Arracht has done. It's a great example of how a scheme like that gives freedom to creatives to do their thing. When creatives are left alone, if we're allowed the space to make mistakes - I think that's important.”

“What Cine4 did for me anyway was it created a very trusting environment,” Sullivan explained. I felt like they were supportive, all Screen Ireland and TG4 were very supportive all the way along, but also very respectful of space. I thought that was brilliant, so more of that.”

When asked whether there could be an international appetite for Irish language film and drama in the same vein as the recent Korean subtitled-successes, Parasite and Squid Games, the director had no doubts. “There definitely is,” Sullivan said. “The Irish language only seems to be burdensome as a language in Ireland. Anywhere else, where I've been, it's just another foreign language.”

“Foreign language for all the non-English audiences, subtitles is a way of life for them, so it doesn't make any difference,” he added. “There's a massive opportunity out there for Irish-language content on an international level.”

Sullivan’s debut feature is the perfect embodiment of this untapped potential following the interest it garnered from Hollywood. “Just look at what's happened with Arracht and the remake, that's a whole world that hasn't been tapped,” Sullivan stated. “There are producers out there in mainstream Hollywood that are looking for good content in every language and they're particularly zoned in on European projects.”

“A lot of great Hollywood films are remakes of European films, so why wouldn't we be tapping into that as well?” the director added.

“If you make a film in Irish, don't think about it that it's just a small film you've made in Ireland in your language. There's so much that could be done with the language. I'm not even touching on it as a cultural touchstone,” Sullivan added. “For us as Irish people, I'm not even beginning there. I'm talking purely commercial and its potential there is huge. That's what I've seen.”

In terms of what the optioning of Arracht by Shapiro will do for Sullivan himself, the director is optimistic about building relationships and encouraging more of Hollywood to come to Ireland. “What I'd love to do from this is to develop a relationship with people like Greg and try and get them over here to make some stuff here,” said Sullivan. “It's incredible potential just in terms of the future and making connections. That's where the gold is now for me, it's the connections, which might help get something made for me; my next project or my next couple of projects.”

Arracht tells the story of Colmán Sharkey, a fisherman, a father, a husband, living on the wild shores of Connemara in 1845 as The Great Hunger descends. As land taxes rise and crops rot Colmán confronts his landlord, the night ends in deadly violence and Colmán is forced to go on the run, hunted for crimes he did not commit. As the years pass in solitude, Colmán returns to the mainland and encounters a young girl, Kitty and a life-saving friendship develops.

A bracingly authentic and tender story about finding hope when all else is lost, Arracht is written and directed by Tom Sullivan, featuring Dónall Ó Héalai in the starring role alongside Michael McElhatton, Siobhán O’Kelly, Dara Devaney, Peter Coonan, Seán T. Ó Meallaigh, Michelle Beamish, and Saise Ní Chuinn. The film is produced by Cúán MacConghail of Macalla Teoranta and backed by Screen Ireland and TG4. 

Though not a native Irish speaker of the Connemara region, Sullivan has a long history and love for the west coast of Ireland, where Arracht is set. I'm from Tallaght originally but went to an Irish school,” he told IFTN. The connection is the people who set up the school back in the '80s were from there. They used to bring us out there and that was beginning for me of my life out in Connemara.”

My partner of 20 years is also from out there. I'm well in there, but I wouldn't say I'm a local. I'm still an outsider, I'm still a Dub,” he joked.

“I always wanted to make a film out in the West of Ireland,” Sullivan told IFTN. “I suppose what was tempting to me about it when the script was beginning to form, was that I was able to use the landscape as a storytelling tool.”

“What I tried to do is to show the warmth of life on the west coast in the summer,” Sullivan explained. “At the beginning of the film, the greens, the flowers, and then to kind of pull the colour out of it. Connemara acted as a brilliant muse for that in a way.”

Although tightly intertwined with the Great Irish Famine, Sullivan explained that the origins of Arracht began with the journey of a character, Colmán Sharkey, who had experienced trauma and was searching for redemption. “I never intended to write a famine film,” Sullivan explained. “I wanted to do something along the lines of The Road, Cormac McCarthy's book that's turned into a film - something post-apocalyptic about human contact and relationships, something sparse, something emotive. That's where it began.”

“I started out with a character, as you said, Colmán Sharkey, a man ostracized from his community, living a feral existence on an island. The famine then walked into after that,” explained Sullivan.

“I began with character, essentially. A character with a trauma and in a need of redemption. Then what I discovered was that walking parallel to that was our story of the nation,” Sullivan continued. “Ireland is a young nation. What happened to us during the famine would be akin to a trauma that's happened to a person.”

Though such a significant point in Irish history, Arracht is one of the first major Irish feature film to deal with the Great Famine in detail following Wild Atlantic’s revenge western Black ’47 in 2017. Sullivan however said he was not concerned about the historical weight of the subject matter the film addressed, due to the great work and preparation of the team around him, led by the commitment of lead actor, Dónall Ó Héalai.

“I didn't worry about it because I had faith in all my departments,” said Sullivan. “I knew they were all on it, and I had Dónall.”

“We knew from very early on that we were going to have to depict the famine through Dónall, through one person,” Sullivan explained. “He physically had to change to become what he is in the film. He did that with such discipline.

“When he arrived on set on the first day, we all felt confident that we were doing something special, because Dónall was totally in character when he arrived.

In preparation for his role, Ó Héalai lost four stone to embody his character Cólman Sharkey. “When you have somebody that makes that sacrifice, arriving on set on the first day, I think it just raises the bar for everybody,” Sullivan recounted. “I think being authentic was at the forefront of everybody's mind from that moment on.”

The director was also appreciative of the help and support he received from his native Irish speaking cast who pushed the authenticity of the script to another level. “In terms of the language, the authenticity of all that, again, I had locals. I had Dónall. I had Saise. I had Dara Devaney, I had Siobhán O'Kelly. They are all from down there,” Sullivan explained. “They all helped me with the language, it was all authentic.”

“Then I had the great Padraig O'Neill who did the design on it. Again, I trusted him. He was into it. Look, we just kept it as biographical or as documentarian as we could,” Sullivan continued. “I also had Kate McCullough photographing it, bringing that to life, and everybody else who worked on it was on it with me. I had a lot of help. We just had a great support system, so I never worried about it for a second.”

Sullivan believes that he got lucky with the timing of his film, as he was blessed with the current crop of native Irish speaking actors at his disposal. “I was very fortunate that we seemed to be, timing-wise, in a really purple patch of Irish language talent in this country,” said Sullivan. “I think if we'd have made this stuff 20 years ago or 20 years in the future, we wouldn't have had these talents of that particular age.”

“We happened to have the Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro of Irish acting who happened be from where I shot that film, who happen to be Irish language speakers, and they happened to be in their mid-30s at the moment,” added Sullivan. “I think they are the top performers coming out of this country and they just happened to be down there, they are second to none.”

“It baffles me how these people are not more successful, and they don't work more.”

When asked what he wanted audiences to take away from the film, Sullivan replied: “A pride in who we are, where we're from. If you're Irish that's what I want you to get from it. If you're not Irish and you're living here, that you now belong to an incredible nation of people who are heroes and survivors.”

“Also, what I would like people to take from it is a bloody good evening at the cinema and something that is well worth experiencing and that is entertaining and won't bore you for a second because I'm not in the business of boring people.”

“That they feel something, that's the most important thing.”

Arracht is on release in cinemas nationwide.

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