Ireland’s first Western
Fiona O’Brien speaks to An Klondike director Daithí Keane about his first feature film, a western shot in the Connemara hills.
“I had worked in Canada and America on documentaries before, and what struck me is how similar the landscape of these places were to the west of Ireland,” says Keane.
“When the concept for an Irish western came up, I knew it was achievable to shoot on location in Ireland and make it look like the wild wild west of north America.”
An Klondike follows in the steps of last year’s Irish language entry An Brontannas to the London Irish Film Festival, in that the original footage came from a TG4 mini-series.
An Klondike follows the Connolly brothers, played by Owen McDonnell, Dara Devaney and Sean T. Ó Meallaigh, to Dominion Creek where they become embroiled in a deadly feud with Jacob Hopkins, the man who runs the town.
When Séamus Connolly shoots Jacob’s son in a duel, Jacob vows revenge. The Connollys become powerful figures in the Klondike themselves when their claim proves to be a goldmine but their new found wealth leads to a rift between the brothers.
Tom Connolly is slowly corrupted by his lust for power and gold to the point that he turns his back on his own brothers. Jacob Hopkins uses this to his advantage to turn the Connollys against one another in the hope of wiping them all out for good.
Apart from two prominent cast members starring in both films, that is where the similarities end says Keane.
“I was aware of An Brontannas, but it was TG4 who proposed cutting it as a feature after the success An Brontannas had, and I suppose it makes sense for them, it gives them publicity on a different level.
“One in terms of improving coverage on the station itself with these dramatic series, but then on another as the film travels commercially across the world at these film festivals.
“I hadn’t initially imagined it on that scale so I don’t know how similar the two series/films are. I suppose there are some similarities in the cast, but when you look at the roles they play they are reversed so can’t really say that we type cast them.
“In An Brontannas Dara plays an almost rogue off kilter character, whereas in this he is the calm and steady middle child. Whereas Owen plays an unhinged character in An Klondike but was collected in An Brontannas, so they are completely different, I suppose that you can say that they were just the best guys for the job.”
And now the film will travel to London as part of the Irish Film Festival.
“We are really excited about bringing this film to London. We had one opportunity to show it to an overseas audience already, as it was in Luxembourg film festival.
“This was obviously imagined and conceived as a six part series initially. When TG4 mooted it as a feature cut I was initially wary on how it could work.
“That provides its own challenges and instead of butchering and over editing the original episodes, we stepped back away from the editing process and actually went back to re-shoot material so it would work as a feature in its own right.
“We wanted to make its own coherent narrative, and we actually shot a new ending too, so it would exist as its own thing. I hope now that it is its own self-contained feature to give audience members who had watched the show something new, but also so it can exist in its own right, so that an audience would not have to have seen the show in order to enjoy the film. That was important to me.
“The story is straight forward in terms of working as a feature film. It focuses on the lives of three Connolly brothers, and as they settle in this town other characters are slowly revealed.
“But for the feature their story and progression is the main focus and brings it down to the bones of the feature.
“It was all about adapting the structure rather than cutting it down. We changed the pace of the six episodes and didn’t stick at the editing process. We stepped back and re-evaluated it. I had a clear map in place, to create a cinematic 5 or 3 act structure.
“When you think about a feature film, there are clear, sometimes natural breaks, which wouldn’t necessarily be where the breaks came to a natural end of each episode.
“We also found with the changed length that the roles of the characters changed. It wasn’t as natural in the film to fully develop all three brothers, so the story ends up getting told through the eyes of the middle brother Seamus who really comes to the fore.”
And what attracted Keane to the genre?
“I’ve always been interested in westerns, and obviously most people are exposed to the genre from a young age.
“I was always keen to ensure that any story we had would work in Irish, not do an Irish language film for the sake of it. But I thought this would work. The Irish travelled all over the world with emigration
“It came to me from a kind of throwaway scene in Deadwood. There were two Cornish miners conversing at the bar, but they were actually speaking in Irish Gaelic. I assume they were supposed to be speaking Welsh, but it struck a chord with me and I started imagining the Irish in the wild west. And with the gold rush and Irish emigration it is a really feasible story.
“And I think westerns allow you to tell these dramatic stories, of greed, families, big choices and decisions.
“Then a lot of the context we got was after reading a book by Micí MacGabhann’s, a Donegal man who actually moved to Klondike with the Gold Rush in the 1800s. This gave us the inspiration and knowledge of what befell him when he got there in terms of the community, and we know that they used to have sing-songs and tell stories in Irish.
So it turned into really fertile ground for us to plot a drama.”
The film also lent itself to a huge set, which Keane explains had to be built from scratch.
“It needed to be believable. It took months. We travelled to Connemara and were looking at these old mine sites, but none of them could work in terms of practically hosting a fillm crew etc.
“As well as being authentic to the viewers, we needed it to have the right infrastructure and space. So by chance, one of the mines we visited was perfect.
“Then the owner took us around and right next to it was this green site, perfect for trailers and housing extras and serving lunch. And enough room for us to build the set of this 19th century town.
“We wanted it to be realistic, so a lot of the buildings, which may normally just be for exterior shots only, you could walk in and film inside as well rather than moving to another set.”
You can view Behind The Scenes here:
An Klondike screens at the Rio Cinema, Dalston on Saturday 21st November at 3.30pm.
Tickets are available through the Rio website: www.riocinema.org.uk