Set in 1920's Cork, 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' charts the foundations of the Irish Republic from the viewpoint of two brothers, Damien and Teddy, played by Irish actors Cillian Murphy (Red Eye, 28 Days Later) and Padraic Delaney (The Clinic). United in their fight against the British, they join the local Flying Column, a band of guerrilla fighters in a war against the notoriously brutal British "Black and Tan" soldiers. Following the 1922 Treaty and the start of the Irish Civil War, they are divided by their beliefs and sense of duty, finally ending in tragedy.
Shot on location in Ireland over seven weeks, 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' is an Irish/UK/Spanish/Italian/German co-production, photographed by DOP Barry Ackroyd, designed by Fergus Clegg with costumes from Irish designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh.
The film is produced by Rebecca O'Brien of Sixteen Films and Irish producers Redmond Morris and Andrew Lowe, co-producing through the production company Element Films. Additional funding was received from the UK Film Council and the Irish Film Board.
Last month the jury at the world's most prestigious film festival in Cannes catapulted the film onto the international stage by unanimously awarding it their top prize, the Palme d'Or. A stamp of quality was sealed by critical acclaim at home and abroad and distributors plan a nationwide release of over 60 prints this weekend. However, the contentious subject matter has stirred a tirade of abuse from some commentators who accuse the filmmakers of creating IRA propaganda. UK director Loach is no stranger to controversy with his 1990 feature 'Hidden Agenda' dubbed the "IRA entry" to the Cannes festival at the time.
IFTN spoke to the director and his long time screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty before the release of the film.
So what impact has the Palme d'Or had on the film's release?
KL: It's had a big impact, especially in France and in Europe. The French have gone from 120 – 150 prints to 300 prints. The same will be true to a lesser extent in a number of different countries. It's pushed the number of prints in Ireland by about a third.
Is that the most important thing for you, beyond the awards and the hoopla, that audiences have a chance to see this film?
PL: It's such a battle, as you and your readership will know, to have a platform for a film. To go to Cannes is an enormous platform for a film because you have a chance to talk to a much bigger audience. It's a wonderful festival of world cinema and it's a great thing to be part of that and to win the prize just adds to the hype. But obviously that's not what motivates you to do the story. The important thing is the debate, discussion and ideas that flow from the people who have seen it. If it helps for more people to see it then it's something that's very significant. Also, it's very nice when an international jury, from different cultures, finds something in the film that's worthwhile.
KL: It's a fantastic recognition. It's one in which if you get it you take it very seriously, but if you don't get it you poo poo it (laughs), but really, it's hugely important.
Writing a fictional film with a historical backdrop, how difficult is it to maintain a balance between historical accuracy and creating an entertaining story?
PL: I don't think there should be a contradiction really. What is very, very important to both of us is to be truthful to the spirit of the times. A big decision and a key one was to make them fictional characters, so making them fictional gave us a lot more flexibility in the sense that we could focus in on what we thought was the essence of the times. Also, to find a mix of characters in the Flying Column – to put across different point of views over a complex period of time. Even then, it was important to us that everybody in that Flying Column got there by credible means, whether they were partisans, farm labourers, farmers sons…Like Damien who had been to University – the Cork medical faculty was very, very republican, there were at least three students that were part of a Flying Column - he's a fictional character but everything was rooted through a realistic possibility, that was critical to us.
And then if you get that right, and choose the framework, there's always a balance then for the filmmakers to try and mix that with intimacy and human psychology to make rounded three dimensional characters. One isn't in opposition to the other, if we made sacrifices on historical truth to gain popularity or commerciality, if we did that, we'd end up in no mans land. Everything has to be much more organic.
How long did the writing and development process take?
KL: Probably 18 months or so.
PL: It was very quick but we've been talking about it for a long time. There was all this nonsense saying we'd planned it as a method against the war in Iraq. Since I first met Ken we've been talking about it and Ken was very keen to do another story in Ireland and it tapped into very deep roots with me as well.
The film has sparked a lot of negative controversy where you've been called Anti-British and pro IRA etc…are you surprised at the level of reaction to the film?
KL: Yes because a lot of controversy is fake. The far right in Britain cannot tolerate that some of their sacred truths can be challenged. They can't accept that the British Empire was oppressive and was brutal, which it was. So the moment you tell a story that indicates that, they throw their rattles out of the pram and get hysterical. No one has challenged a single incident in the film, no one has challenged a single line of thought, a single tendency, no one has challenged a single event, no one has challenged anything of substance. So the controversy is fake, because that's what happened. What happened in the film is what happened in life, everybody knows it, and what they can't stand is it being told.
I understand that before you began filming there was a week of Basic Training for the cast and crew?
KL: Yes, apart from me, Paul and the producer (laughs). It was good, they were Sergeants in the Irish Army and they gave them, y'know, quite a tough time because they had to learn to be guerrilla fighters.
PL: Also, it was very important for the group to know what would be in their minds at the time. I'd met a wonderful historian in Cork University, Donal O'Driscoll, who spent time talking about the historical background and what the conflicts were, what happened before and what was going on around that time. I think it just gives them confidence for the part.
KL: There were lots of people, musicians came along and sang the songs of the time and a man called Diarmuid Begley, who was the son of the piper of Tom Barry's Flying Column, came to talk about his father and his uncle and about what happened. Just what the sensation was at the time.
And the Irish crew, how did you find them?
KL: They were a great bunch. The best thing about them as a group was the spirit that they engendered was not only very warm but very supportive. Everybody who came in felt they were to do their best work, at the end of the day you can have a good time but it's what's on the screen that matters. Actors would come in for two or three days and they'd be met with generosity and support, which gave them confidence, which makes them good.
What was the biggest challenge you faced during the shoot?
PL: I think Ken's too modest to say it but to shoot in 35 days given there were so many complex scenes every day. From the outside, me sitting there smiling at it all (laughs) I saw them jumping over bogs, covered by midges!
KL: (laughs) Yes, midges was the worst thing.
PL: Because it was damp. When we were
shooting by the house I remember poor ole Ray [Beckett] the sound mixer in the corner, he just had this cloud of midges in the bushes around him. To get all that done in 35 days takes incredibly energy…You'd never think he [Ken] was 85 really would you? (laughs)
Ken, a lot is made of your alternative ways of shooting; like shooting in chronological order or using a lot of improv from the actors. What advice would you offer a director who might apply your methods to his shoot?
KL: Advice is probably out of order. You have to work out very simple questions; what is going to happen in front of the camera? How are we going to ensure that it's truthful, authentic and realistic? In order to get to that position you ask, how have we got to prepare the people for that moment? You just ask yourself basic questions like that and then do it, and don't let the accountants tell you otherwise.
As a writer Paul, what techniques do you employ working on a screenplay such as this?
PL: It's just a state of confusion really. (laughs) I think what's really important is to give yourself lots of creative choices. That means no matter what the subject, no matter what the script is, you try and understand the world of that story. For this particular one, because it's 80 years ago, there's a problem with that because there's no witnesses so you have to depend a great deal on historical material - which is contested. Then you just use good museums, read the letters, read the poems, talk to people who've got memories of it, read the newspapers of the time. And then of course trying to get a grasp of the historical narrative, then a discussion with your collaborators to try to focus on what is the most imaginative approach to it. It's not complex, the approach to it, it's just a long time working that out.
KL: There are no short cuts really.
You received backing from both the Irish Film Board and the UK Film Council. You can understand why the Irish got behind it, but was it a hard sell for the UK Film Council?
KL: It gets sort of complicated and bureaucratic. They [UK Film Council] have an image of the stuff that we do, that it's a non-commerical undertaking, which isn't actually true because the films that we've done have all by and large made money. People go and see them, particularly abroad, so you have to combat that prejudice. Apart from that they were very good.
Finally, any plans to work in Ireland again?
KL: Could be, no immediate plans but who knows.
PL: It was a joy really, a fantastic adventure. Right through from research and looking at locations to the people we met along the way. Making a film like this you really meet some fantastic people, I know I've made friends that I'll keep forever.
'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' is released across Ireland and the UK from the 23rd of June through Pathe.
By Tanya Warren