By Michael Gray
"Dancing at Lughnasa" director Pat O’Connor ranks among Ireland’s pre-eminent filmmakers. He’s had critical and commercial successes with "Cal," "Circle of Friends" and "Inventing the Abbotts." In an industry notorious for its outsize egos and clashes of the will on set, he has a reputation for completing projects with consummate professional ease. On a recent visit to New York to celebrate the U.S. launch of "Lughnasa," the County Waterford native spoke to the Echo about the making of his films, and how he gets them done without losing his composure.
"I just don’t like to play the heavy all the time, it’s too much of a strain," he said. "But you have to be resilient, you have to be tough. You have to stick with it.
"There was a fair bit of pulling and tugging to get ‘Dancing With Lughnasa’ off the ground. But the rest of it is easy for me. I love preparing to shoot, I love working with scripts, I love filming. It’s not stressful for me at all."
O’Connor is perceived as being a director who prefers to work from scripts by other writers rather than from source material of his own. But since early in his career, he has taken an active role in reshaping the dialogue before shooting starts. He worked closely with author Bernard MacLaverty on the text for "Cal" in 1984, and with Andrew Davies on his adaptation of M’ve Binchy’s book "Circle of Friends" four years ago.
Close work with writers
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O’Connor is typically modest when it comes to claiming a writing credit for his work on these scripts, and Frank McGuinness’s "Lughnasa" screenplay is no exception.
"As long as I get to work on the screenplay with the writer, it’s enough; I don’t have to feel that the text belongs to me," O’Connor said. "It’s a very personal business. I almost never work on a film without having worked on the script with the writer, otherwise I don’t feel that the film belongs to me. I worked on the script in conjunction with Frank McGuinness but got no co-credit. Why should I? I don’t need to take a co-credit from any writer — once I’m working on the script, it’s fine by me if they get sole credit. They do the majority of the work, and I get to turn it into a script that I’m comfortable with. I’m very comfortable with writers, but it’s a parallel discipline."
Before his international career took off, O’Connor came to prominence in Ireland in the early 1980s with "The Ballroom of Romance," a made-for-TV drama of life in rural Ireland written by William Trevor.
The film dealt with loneliness and longing for love in the 1950s in the West of Ireland. It was shot in the beautiful but desolate Mayo countryside.
"I wanted to film it in a very remote location, so I filmed it in Ballycroy in County Mayo, up toward Blacksod Bay," O’Connor said. "It was wonderful up there. We shot it in about 20 days. I brought a whole lot of stuff from my own background in Ardmore, in Waterford. There’s a banner we used to dance under in Ardmore that said ‘Happy Homes For Ireland and for God’ and I got it remade for the film. In the ballroom itself, we even did the dark line along the wall from the Brylcreem in the men’s hair."
"The Ballroom of Romance" was critically acclaimed at the time, and went on to win numerous awards. O’Connor still rates this film as his best work.
"Lughnasa" in South Wicklow
Finding appropriate locations for "Dancing at Lughnasa" proved more difficult than for "Ballroom," because rural Ireland had changed so much in the 17 years since the earlier film was made.
"There are so many bungalows in so many places in Donegal that it was hard to get a suitable location," he said. "We ended up making it in South Wicklow, which is very convenient to Dublin and the airport. A location scout had seen the house that we used. There were no telegraph poles, or anything modern. It’s on government land, so it’s not developed in any way. I knew straight away that it was right. I wanted the house to be isolated, so that we could concentrate on the family more."
The strongest scenes in "Dancing at Lughnasa" all occur in that isolated farmhouse involving the five Mundy sisters. O’Connor was working for the most part with an experienced cast, but in his earlier films he has drawn equally strong performances from relative newcomers.
Indeed, Chris O’Donnell and Minnie Driver drew sufficient critical acclaim in "Circle of Friends" to launch them to stardom, and Liv Tyler did likewise after appearing in "Inventing the Abbotts." But again, O’Connor shies away from credit for his part in their rise to fame.
"I try to find people who interest me; and they have been talented enough to make their own way," he said. "I’m glad if I have the eye to see what they might be capable of. And I’m happy for their success as long as they have a happy life, which is not always the same thing."
McCormack’s star shines
Another young actress who is likely to find her role in a Pat O’Connor film leading to greater fame is Catherine McCormack, who plays Christina, the youngest of the five sisters, in "Dancing at Lughnasa."
She also spoke to the Echo about her involvement in the film and her upcoming work.
"I saw the stage play in London seven or eight years ago," she said. "Bríd Brennan [who plays Agnes in the film] was in the cast at the time. Years later I heard that they were making a film of it, and the casting director introduced me to Pat. He wanted me to read for Christina, and I asked him if I could read for Rose as well. He said you can if you like, but you’re not going to get cast in that role. But they’re all very strong characters and I was very happy to play Christina."
McCormack first made her mark as the lover of Mel Gibson’s character in "Braveheart," and her poise and striking good looks in that film soon gave her the pick of roles that were more ornamental than challenging. Keen to be taken seriously as an actress, she has tended to accept roles that favor substance over glamour. In her biggest role to date, in the movie "Dangerous Beauty," she played a Renaissance courtesan in Venice who writes poetry and has modern ideas about women’s role in society. As Christina in "Dancing at Lughnasa," she stoically endures the disapproval of her community in raising her child out of wedlock, and flouts convention by having an ongoing affair with the child’s wayward father.
"When I was up for a part in ‘Lughnasa,’ I thought I’d love to play any of these characters, but I actually wanted to play the Rose character, for that very reason, that I didn’t want to get cast yet again as a romantic figure," McCormack said. "People like to typecast you, but you also typecast yourself by accepting those roles. Fortunately with the things I’ve picked, I’ve loved as soon as I read the script. There’s a lot of rubbish out there. So, hopefully, I’ve gone for strong women roles, even if they are still romantic."
"The Debtors," with Caine, Quaid
Her latest project diversifies her resume still further to include comedy. She recently finished shooting "The Debtors," with Randy Quaid and Michael Caine, made on location in New York at the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue.
" ‘The Debtors’ is about the three of us, me, Michael and Randy, on a road journey to live out our addictions and our obsessions," McCormack said. "I play an over-the-top woman, shown with warts and all, and I didn’t want to be seen as the romantic figure. I’m trying to veer away from that. That’s why I want to do more theater. There’s a broader diversity of roles available for women. It’s a good career move to play the romantic leads, and I’m glad that I’ve done it, but I don’t want to be limited to that."
The young actress said she feels that she learned a lot from working opposite colleagues with decades of screen roles behind them. A recurring feature of her description of the experience is the fact that they were such good fun to work with, particularly the two Michaels, Caine and Gambon, who stars in "Lughnasa" as her brother the priest.
Both O’Connor and McCormick seem genuinely pleased with the way that "Dancing at Lughnasa" turned out, above and beyond the call of duty for press interviews. O’Connor particularly welcomes the chance to work with the same team again. He sees a rich dividend to be had in the close rapport that follows from working repeatedly with the same actors.
"Life is a bit too fragmented to achieve it, but if I could I would work with the same people all the time," he said. "That would be ideal. That’s the best way to do it. Ingmar Bergman got it right — he had the same actors over and over and it just gets better all the time, if it’s cast right.
"You get to know each other better, and the relationship becomes more becomes more perceptive, more confident, more open, each time."