‘People told me not to make a film about Travellers. They said nobody wanted to see that.’
Irish director Mark O’Connor talks about his unflinching King of the Travellers and about his ‘manifesto’ for Irish cinema
Mark O’Connor knows no fear. There are few subjects trickier than the status of the Irish Travelling community. Study the comments beneath any article on the subject in this newspaper and – worked within much reasonable, considered banter – you will still encounter staggering degrees of prejudice and ignorance.
O’Connor’s King of the Travellers – an ambitious drama taking in gangster tropes, cross-factional romance and integrated anthropology – does not (literally or figuratively) pull any punches. The young director has set out to celebrate the Traveller community, but he has not made a coy film about jolly pastoral sages. Hanging around a feud between two families, the film includes its fair share of punch-ups and boozing. There is no idealisation at play.
“I didn’t want to show them in a bad light,” he ponders. “It is simply about the story. I felt that there was a lot of negativity. People told me not to make a film about Travellers. They said nobody wanted to see that.”
But he must, surely, have thought deeply about the level of violence in the film.
“Oh, definitely. Yeah,” he says. “I did think: should we show the bare-knuckle fighting? Is it bad to show the whole side? The Travelling community have these issues. I did want to show the discrimination against them. But that stuff is real too.”
O’Connor’s mind works in interesting ways. Nobody watching King of the Travellers could doubt that it comes from a compassionate place. Almost all the actors are Travellers. The picture engages with their music, arcane mythologies and underexplored linguistic idiosyncrasies. But it’s still a frighteningly robust universe.
“The very first spark of the film was that, as a kid, a few things happened to me. A Traveller hit me over the head and split me head open,” he says. He then goes on to hastily clarify that his mother was friendly with Travellers and often had them round to the house.
“I suppose I always had an affinity with Travellers,” he says. “And I just love anything Irish. I feel there’s Irish music that’s never been shown on screen. A combination of those things inspired the film.”
Raised in Killiney – the son of a banker and a mother who was “a frustrated actress” – O’Connor came into film via the unlikely route of martial arts. As a kid, he choreographed some fight sequences, borrowed a friend’s camera and edited the footage into a tidy snippet of action. The bug set in. He remembers cycling five miles every day to pick up that camera before embarking on his latest short film.
Later, he dabbled in theatre and eventually ended up studying at Ballyfermot College. He then moved to New York and, while taking a course at the New York Film Academy, kept himself alive working at demolition in the Bronx. At the turn of the last decade, he wrote and eventually directed an impressive, low-budget feature entitled Between the Canals . The film followed a fractious party of Dublin tearaways on St Patrick’s Day.
“I was working in London and I wrote Between the Canals as I was coming back and forth to Ireland, ” he says. “When I got back I thought: I just have to make this myself. It was the only way to get into directing. I couldn’t get a short film funded. So I just wrote Between the Canals . It took time for the Irish Film Board to get it. I shot five minutes. Then I shot 30 minutes.”
As we said earlier, Mark O’Connor knows no fear. Building on the good buzz for Between the Canals – which demonstrated a true film-maker’s eye – he set forth on King of the Travellers and, while that film was moving towards completion, launched an experimental feature named (with no concessions to modesty) for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker . Both Stalker and King of the Travellers premiered at last year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
Now hold on a moment. He named his film – an often-hilarious, savage urban comedy – after Tarkovsky’s legendary science-fiction puzzler. What’s going on there? (The picture also features pigeons named after Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini.)
“I would never try and match a Tarkovsky film,” he says with an intense laugh. “It was a homage to him. I’d just read his diary and I nearly cried when he was talking about dying. My wife and I would sit in bed and I’d read it to her.”
His fearlessness goes on and on. Shortly before the Fleadh took place, Mark wrote a somewhat puzzling manifesto announcing what he sees as a fresh, less cosy new movement in Irish cinema. Offering Terry McMahon’s Charlie Casanova as a model, the statement – which was read out in full before the premiere of Stalker – stridently proclaimed: “The conventional and generic Irish films of the past are being replaced by what could be referred to as ‘the Irish New Wave’.”
There was more. “Create your spiritual treasure and reveal your feelings in all their unique beauty and our new wave will turn into a cinematic revolution.”
“There were a lot of reasons for it,” he says. “One of them was to try and hit the audience and say: there is something going on in Irish film, so take notice. In France, they take their films seriously. Here, they just take these Hollywood films and they don’t support Irish film. I love Irish film.”
The manifesto attached such film-makers as Brendan Muldowney, Juanita Wilson, Ciaran Foy, Carmel Winters, Lance Daly and Ken Wardrop to the supposed New Wave. There are, indeed, interesting fresh voices in that array. Did he get any feedback from other Irish film-makers?
“No!” he says with a genuine cackle. “But there was a lot of positive responses from the public. But I haven’t heard from any of the lads. I know some of them. But I haven’t heard from them. I escaped to Peru right afterwards.”
O’Connor has, indeed, spent the last few months in that South American country. Married to a Peruvian, he has taken to writing his scripts at his mother-in-law’s place in the mountains. He has set up a production company, Stalker Films, to help other film-makers follow his eccentric pathway. A new film is moving towards production.
For now, we have the brooding, complex, cluttered King of the Travellers . Did we mention Mr O’Connor’s lack of fear? Not content with naming the funkier Stalker for a Russian masterpiece, Mark litters the current film with unmistakable nods to Hollywood classics. Beginning with a wedding, the picture exhibits the shape of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather . In one startling scene, a Traveller, once a promising boxer, paraphrases the famous “contender” speech from On the Waterfront . The film also nods frequently to Romeo and Juliet .
What is going on here?
“I find that, when you are writing something, whatever you’re interested in at the time feeds in,” he says. “I was doing the screenwriting course in Dún Laoghaire and I was reading a lot of Shakespeare and I noted how he had borrowed so much. I decided to do that, but to be very obvious about and not try to hide it. And The Godfather and On the Waterfront are among my favourite films.”
So we are supposed to clock the allusions?
“Maybe I should have tried to hide it a bit more,” he says. “Those things seem to be the things that are getting criticised in the reviews. But I don’t mind. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.”
If controversy does gather around King of the Travellers , however, it is more likely to focus on the depiction of that often-misused community. O’Connor insists that responses from Travellers have been uniformly positive. One wonders how he managed to convince them he was in good faith.
“From the very start, it was about trust,” he says. “When you delve into a community, it’s all about them trusting what you are doing. You have to be completely honest from the start. You want Travellers in the film. And everything in the film is based on something that actually happened.”
He goes on to explain that, immediately after writing a scene involving an eviction, the Dale Farm stand-off – which saw the attempted removal of Travellers in Essex – began occupying the news channels.
“The Travellers were very happy with it,” he says. “I did really want to have a message: that violence breeds violence. That’s a big concern.”
Show no fear, Mark. Show no fear.