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“He would berate me if I put down the camera when something difficult was happening;” Director Michael McCormack on capturing the intimacy of Breaking Out
19 Nov 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Breaking Out
Winner of the George Morrison Feature Documentary Award at the 2021 Irish Film & Television Academy Awards and Best Irish Documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh 2019, Breaking Out will release in cinemas this Friday, November 19th.

Breaking Out is the remarkable story of Cork born singer-songwriter Fergus O’Farrell, the charismatic voice of Interference, one of the most compelling and influential bands to emerge from the Irish music scene in the 1990’s. He was best known for his timeless song Gold, which featured in the soundtrack to Once, the Oscar winning film and multi-Tony-award-winning musical.

Despite being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at a young age, through it all, Fergus had to keep singing. His unique talent and love for life inspired a generation of songwriters even as his own was slipping away. Close friend Glen Hansard was one of those songwriters who never forgot that voice, and in one of the many incredible moments in Breaking Out, he performs the ultimate duet as Fergus' greatest gift was failing. 

This film’s intimate journey into the heart and soul of the late Fergus O’Farrell was filmed over ten years by director Michael McCormack. The film is produced by Aideen O’Sullivan and Michael McCormack, with Mick Mahon editing, and the cinematography by Damien Drake & Richard Kendrick.

We spoke with producer/director Michael McCormack ahead the release to find out more about the film’s 17 year journey to the screen, how he started following O’Farrell’s music, making a feature documentary with a limited budget, and bringing Fergus’ music to a new generation of music enthusiasts.

IFTN: How does it feel to finally have what looks like an official release date in sight?

McCormack: “It feels right. It was difficult, very difficult over the last few years wondering of the film would ever get it’s chance to reach its audience. But the response so far has been amazing, I couldn’t ask for more. It looks like the film has touched a chord and there has been wonderful support.”

The film has deservedly earned some significant accolades including the George Morrison Feature Documentary award at the 2021 IFTA Film & Drama awards and Best Irish Documentary at the 2019 Fleadh. How significant an achievement were these for you, particularly as a first time feature director?

McCormack: “Galway was unforgettable. Your first time showing your film and while I knew I’d made the film I wanted to make, you can never be sure if the little twists and turns are going to resonate. When it got a standing ovation it was overwhelming and then to win was off the charts.

“The last two years have been tough for everyone, and for the film to get the boost of recognition from the Academy. I was delighted to be shortlisted, but to win the IFTA in such company and to have your peers respond to the film like that is very humbling.”

IFTN: Filmed over 10 years, Covid has extended what is already a long journey to the big screen. How excited are you for audiences to finally enjoy it in a big screen again and to bring Fergus’ music to a new generation of Irish music enthusiasts?

McCormack: “For me it was always supposed to be a film that should be viewed in a cinema. It’s very much a communal experience. I wanted people to live the story with Fergus O’Farrell and to hear people reacting to the music and the love story has been very moving.

“I made this film for many reasons but one was to spread the word about the music and when people come up to me and say that they’re embarrassed they hadn’t heard his music before I tell them that they are who the film was made for. The music deserves a wider audience.”

IFTN: Can you tell me about how you first got into Fergus’ music and why you wanted to tell his story?

McCormack: “I was 14/15 and I was doing backline at one of the smaller Self Aid gigs in 1986. A lot of Irish bands from around the country and then Interference took the stage with a swagger and confidence that was not usual. They raised the bar for me that day and I went to see them whenever I could from then on.

“I started noticing that the audiences would be full of musicians and we all  knew something special was going on. Years later when they had broken up and reformed in the early 2000’s I went to see them again. At this stage I was making broadcast documentaries. I didn’t know whether there was a market for a niche music doc but I asked Fergus if I could visit him in Schull.

“I put a camera on him and he started talking and I left with bees in my head and realised that this was more than a music doc, it was a great story that needed to be told. Fergus was a very open individual. He had no filter for people, he loved company. Once he realised I was serious he was in 100%.”

IFTN: As a director, what can you tell me about the filming process and how it change over the years? Was there an ideal structure in your head from the outset or was it something that needed to be purely observational?

McCormack: “The film started out very observational. Just me and a camera,  but I realised in time that I was dealing with somebody with a lot of energy. And a lot of that energy was hard to capture in a totally observational way. He was a master storyteller and the way he would bring a story to life with his words.”

For example, he would say his wife Li was ‘a bottle tsunami ...a controlled nuclear explosion...she is my happiness’. I knew I needed to let the style and treatment be a reflection of his personality and not allow myself to be influenced by what was current.”

“There were aspects of the story that were there from very early on. I knew I wanted to

tell the love story through 2d animation and I knew that the ditch scene was pivotal 

and at the very core of what the film was about.”

“The budget was non-existent for the entire time I filmed with Fergus, so the approach was often about what could be done and what couldn't until that budget was achieved. I wasn’t willing to compromise how I thought the story should be told. I knew this was the story of a life and that it could reflect the changes that happen in a lifetime in the mix of styles and footage. Fergus was always central to that.”
IFTN: You worked with Mick Mahon in the edit. How did you approach the post and take on what I can only imagine was a colossal amount of film footage?

McCormack: “I worked with Mick for a few very good reasons. I knew he had worked with Fergus many years earlier on two music videos. He knew him back in the day and that connection was important. His approach to the footage was one that appealed to me and I knew that he would challenge me all the way through, and I needed that because of how close I was to the subject. He challenged me but he allowed me to make the film I wanted to make.”

IFTN: The film has a number of incredibly intimate and touching scenes. As a filmmaker and friend, what was it like to witness these vulnerable moments that you captured? (Glen blowing air into Fergus’ lungs / Fergus being cared for by his wife Meng Li).

McCormack: “Filming with someone over that many years meant that there was a huge level of trust, but I never filmed anything until I knew I was welcome. Until I knew it was important for Fergus that that aspect of the story be told. I knew very early on that Meng Li was going to be a huge character. They were very similar in many ways and I’m most proud of the fact that they are very much themselves in this film.

“The muscular dystrophy was not central to the storyline for many years, but when Fergus started to suffer he wanted people to know how he had dealt with it over the years and how it had eventually become impossible to deal with. Meng Li caring for Ferg was part of the everyday, it was something that you got used to.  But when the disease started to get to a stage where that care was no longer able to keep him functioning to the degree he needed to function, that was heart-breaking and I found that difficult to deal with. But he would berate me if I put down the camera when something difficult was happening. 

“It’s clear that of the many themes in the film, friendship is right up there. There are a lot of beautiful relationships in the film with his collaborators from Maurice Seezer, Malcolm MacClancy, James O’Leary, Maurice Culligan, Paul Tiernan, Colm MacCaughey, Camilla Griehsel, Maria Gaynor and Bertrand Galen and all the Interference collective to Glen Hansard, who has become part of that collective.

“He was there in that audience at the very beginning, as a teenager watching this band and he went back to the well again and again and never forgot. I call the scene where Glen blows air into Fergus’ lungs the ultimate duet. He needed to sing and Glen was willing to try anything to help him sing. That scene was filmed at 2am when people were at a low ebb wondering if it was too late and once again Fergus found a way.”

IFTN: What have you been working on during lockdown and what is next for you?

McCormack: “Obviously I would not recommend being in production for 17 years on a project with no budget for the majority of that time. And though at times it was punishing and there were many walls hit, I could never regret it.

“I was able to take two years out to concentrate fully on finishing Breaking Out but my bread and butter for many years has been as a broadcast Producer/Director in RTÉ. It’s where I learnt to be a storyteller from the very beginning and over the years.

“I’ve learnt from some of the very best people on the ground in production and facilities in RTÉ, people who were so good with their time and advice for someone who started as a researcher and worked my way up through the different ranks. I’m still learning ways to tell stories to an audience and I love the many different ways I get to whether that be in Entertainment or in documentary, both of which I was working in during lockdown.

“I’ve also been working on a number of treatments for feature documentaries and other projects. This time I hope I can start with a budget!”

Breaking Out releases in Irish cinemas nationwide on Friday, November 19th.





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