Set in 1847’s Great Famine in Ireland, Black ’47 is a gritty drama about a battle-hardened soldier Feeney (James Frecheville), who deserts the British army to return home to Ireland only to find his mother has died of starvation and his brother has been hanged by the British. Feeney thirst for revenge sends him on deathwish to get even with those in power who committed these atrocities against his family.
Lorry Kikta spoke with lead actor James Frecheville and director Lance Daly about Black ’47 and the process of making a historical drama along with the motives of making it in the first place.
I love Black ’47. It was incredible. Were you thinking of the current state of the world when you decided to do this film?
Lance Daly: Not when I decided to do it. There’s really no point in making a film if it doesn’t feel relevant in some way. It was about the Great Hunger but it’s amazing how many parallels you start seeing once you start having conversations with people about it.
The film is about two things. Poverty for one. Not just financial poverty, but what happens when there’s a system that has a total lack of human capital, education, and knowledge and everything in that system gets thrown out. It’s also about complacency, which is a thing I think is absolutely relevant now.
I did try to find other ways to keep it more relevant. Particularly in Europe, we have this huge migration of people from Syria and Africa coming across the Mediterranean on boats and sinking. They’re desperate to get out. A massive part of the story in 1847 was the migration of the Irish, particularly to America. It’s the origin story for a lot of Irish communities in America. It’s just funny because it’s the same story but it’s just in a different place. Well, that was a long time ago, but it’s not a long time ago.
“It’s the origin story for a lot of Irish communities in America…”
A big theme in Black ’47 is revenge. Everything that’s going on with your character of Feeney, you empathize with him. How do you feel about revenge as a concept?
James Frecheville: I’m kind of a big believer of the law of the jungle. If you want to carry a big stick and want to show everyone that you’re carrying a big stick, you have to know how to use it. On the other side of that, you have to be held accountable for your actions, so not to say that people should commit crimes or do things that are manifestations of their anger out of spite or bitterness about a situation. If you want to bring about potential repercussions, then that’s on you, not on anybody else. I think that revenge makes a very satisfying feature in a lot of films and stories because it’s a way of people having an outlet in a healthy way.
Lance: It’s a cathartic expression of rage and frustration that a lot of Irish people would have with the history. In that way, it was fitting and really worked. Irish audiences enjoy that, but I was concerned at the same time. You know I do have a problem with murder and killing in movies and the way killing is presented as a solution, which then transfers into the way that someone will rationalize war in real life. I don’t think killing anybody is ever the solution for anything, but it is nice to fantasize about it.
James: I agree with that idea of fantasy and that you’re defined by your actions, not by your thoughts. There’s a lot of people walking around thinking a lot of upsetting things but what keeps us all in line is the common understanding that everyone is all here in the same space, kind of getting along.
James, since you and I are not Irish, but how familiar were you with Irish history before this film?
James: I didn’t have much of an understanding of the breadth of it. You know there’s a potato famine but it was never quite taught in schools and I’m not sure how much it’s taught in Irish schools. I came in and had a great education, especially with the soldiering and weaponry and the language and the setting was fantastic in the film so it was kind of great to be able to have all those different parameters to work within to help do what Lance wanted me to do.
Exactly much is the potato famine covered in schools in Ireland and how is that treated?
Lance: Not so much. You know it’s a while since I went to school now but Ireland since the famine really is the focus. I remember my school curriculum started in the 1870’s and so the Gaelic revival and all these things that began to work towards the foundation of the state.
So it is sort of a pre-history. It goes into the dark period of Ireland. It’s not very well documented. People going back into records and finding evidence about the scale of death, or the food riots, of all these things that weren’t really ever talked about. Education doesn’t really teach a lot of things that are passed around orally in the culture. Certainly none of the things that I learned once I actually started researching.
How in depth…what kind of steps did you take while you were researching for the film?
Lance: Well, really in depth, you know. We read all the books we could, but there’s only so much you can cover in the time you have. We got a lot of accomplished historians who were specialists advising us. We’d call them every day and as James said there were military experts, there were linguistic experts. We also tried to pattern the Irish language as an older version that would’ve been specific to Cannamara in the 19th century.
Also, there’s a Quinnipiac Famine Museum in Canada that has all the visual references there are so that was really helpful, we used them a lot. There are very few paintings from the time, there’s no photography. You know it was really such a tragedy and people didn’t want to speak of it. So whole generations said “there were hard times” and they couldn’t face even talking about it. So it’s kind of buried in the zeitgeist of the Irish national psyche.
“If you want to carry a big stick and want to show everyone that you’re carrying a big stick, you have to know how to use it…”
The cast is just incredible. Are there any stories you want to tell about the rest of the cast, maybe Stephen Rea or Hugo Weaving?
Lance: We had some laughs. We had to hide the laughs because Stephen was so upset with the mule. It’s hard to pilot a mule at the best of the times. To watch him there under the rain machine yelling at the mule as the rains turning to ice as it hits him and the mule stopped and everybody’s waiting.
James: I had probably my hardest day of work ever, when we had to do some reshoots for the film. It was for the opening scene where I’m confronting my cousin and when we picked it up, the actor, Andrew Bennett, had to go back to Dublin. The next day, I had Craig, the first AD, in Andrew’s costume with a big hat and my beard was a constructed beard because I had to shave it off, so I couldn’t grow it back in time. When they were shooting my coverage the next day, Craig couldn’t look me in the eyes and I’ve got these scenes in Irish…
Lance: Why couldn’t he look you in the eyes?
James: Because he was too intimidated.
James: So Craig was doing this with his lips (makes a motion as to someone who’s just opening and closing their mouth quickly but not forming words) while Lance was throwing out the dialogue and he couldn’t look at me. Also, the reshoot took place during midge (biting swamp flies) season. It was hard to do anything with these tiny insects sucking my blood. It was just absurd, but that for me was such a great day as well because you know filmmaking can be really, really challenging.
Ultimately, no one cares if you’re having a hard time when you’re doing a scene, it’s all about what you’ve put in the can. For me, it was rewarding, the process, because you know obviously it’s a lot of pretending–however much you want to dress it up, but obviously it is acting and you have to do the scenes over and over–out on the moors with the midges and the fake beard and the wind and things like that but it’s just for me and exercise in concentration. I learned that on Animal Kingdom because some of the other actors would be (makes some maybe slightly inappropriate gestures that teenage boys might like to make) doing rude things and stuff like that. I corpsed one take and laughed. Lance was like “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” and I was like “Luke was doing that (more gestures) to me” and he was like “Well don’t do it again!” Which is a big lesson because like, if it’s on you, it’s on you. It doesn’t matter what else is going on.
There were moments of levity while we were shooting and have to be because there’s a natural sort of exhaust for how bleak or how furious, at least for me anyway. How much time is spent inhabiting sort of this schizophrenic headspace? Where I’d be just locked in, cold, colder than ice and not maybe immediately after “cut” gets called but we did have a good time making the film. It was a really tough shoot, you know.
“…what happens when there’s a system with a total lack of human capital, education, and knowledge and everything in that system gets thrown out.”
A lot of the Irish history films are sort of a “warm romantic picture” and you have this film with the skull in the water and everything. But what attention do you give to British and American audiences to see this film?
James: I think it’s kind of true of empire as opposed to just the Brits and how they ruled over the Irish at that time and–
Lance: That’s true except for the whole Brexit thing that’s happening at the moment.
James: We were talking about this earlier, it’s not about people being bad people. Like Moe’s character, Fitzgibbon is just doing his job really, really well. You don’t like him because he’s sort of nasty and making these decisions in the moment–
Lance: yeah, but he’s also kissing the arse of–
James: yeah that’s not entirely likable but maybe that’s his “that’s my way out of this stuff”.
Lance: It’s about a broken system, you know what I mean, it’s not about anything specific. It’s not about one nation. I didn’t want to make it about national identity, I didn’t want to make it about English/Irish. It’s about a broken system but also the broken mindset that leads to that. I think it is definitely relevant now with the Brexit thing.
In terms of America, I do think it’s more of an origin story. Somebody was talking about last night that there’s a lot of these people doing these DNA tests now and people are finding there’s a lot more Irish blood in the heritage of this country because a lot of us came here. We were at the film festival in Toronto, there were 20,000 people in the 1840’s, and 40,000 Irish arrived on the shores of that city, so it was that big of a boost in terms of population, New York as well, all these cities, So I think people are like..oh there’s a link to it. Then you see this story and you’re like “Oh, that’s where we come from, that’s why we came here.”
When you were writing this, what was the basis for Lord Kilmichael?
Lance: The basis, well the character, I didn’t create the character. There was always, in the original story (written by Kenny Leigh, who wrote the screenplay from the 2013 short film that Black 47 is based on), a goal, there was a final destination who was the big landowner and he was the final target and sort of bore the ultimate responsibility so I suppose, I know that Jim Broadbent certainly played the character with a mind to portraying a certain sense of entitlement which he sees still exists in the British political establishment now, but there had to be someone who would voice a particular perspective of a ruling class at the time and that does fall to him in the end, so he kind of gets all the best lines as a result.
There’s some stuff that he says that’s just awful…but with the writers of the original film and you all worked together for making this one, or writing it at least, do you think, because you said you felt that it wasn’t supposed to be a nationalistic sort of thing, do you think that they shared that—
Lance: No, do you know what, I just stayed away from it because the politics is in the story, all that stuff is in the material and I felt like for the director to have a horse in that race would invalidate the history. It’s like here’s somebody with an ax to grind, so actually I tried to stick to some sort of factual balance and concentrate on the individuals and just not be someone with a dogma who’s trying to encode that into the story because I think the story is ultimately more powerful if it seems to have been told from a place of objectivity.
“…what I’m looking for moving forward is just prep time because it just means there’s no time wasted on set..”
And it’s usually obvious if someone does have an ax to grind.
Lance: Exactly, yeah. So some extreme, maybe with someone with a more extreme political perspective might even now say this. You know, I did read one review today that said all the British are villains in it, which just isn’t the case because Hugo’s character, he is and he isn’t, I mean he travels from one extreme to another. You know Barry Keoghan as Hobson, his character is British and he’s certainly not a villain. I’d certainly say that the rich are more villainous, you know and the Irish collaborators kind of come out worse than the British characters, so even with me trying to remain balanced, there’s definitely suspicion from some quarters. “Oh this director has political motive,” which isn’t the case, honestly, I’m completely apolitical.
When you were building this character, did you have any influences, characters from books or movies or anything like that that you built on?
James: I think when I was building the character I was concentrating on lots of different things: speech tempo, tempo of movement, and sort of not approaching it from any one particular direction but just trying to build it all economically, just have a really big base of my own objectives for what I wanted it to be and then just with that time that I had to start working on it and knowing that it wasn’t rushed and feeling that and understanding that I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing because I’d already done all the thinking. So there was no exertion of doubt about “Am I doing this right?” You know there was no questioning.
I guess that’s the beauty of rehearsals and prep. I’ve done a lot of films that are quite mercenary and on short notice. I think what I’m looking for moving forward is just prep time because it just means there’s no time wasted on set. You’re not trying to have like a moral conversation or an aesthetic conversation with the director about what you think it should be. What a waste of time. Everything costs on a film set and I’m here to serve Lance and that was an interesting and rewarding process. When I finally saw the film, I couldn’t fault my objectives for what I wanted to do for the part and then how it turned out. You don’t always have that foresight to know what the framing’s gonna be, what the music’s gonna sound but you know I was hyper-focused and my concentration skills at that time were pretty honed and sharpened and so that was just amazing and that’s what I’m looking for next, just time to be engaged in that sort of laser zone.