Director Lance Daly’s latest project, Black 47, which has stormed the Irish box office, is a famine-era western-style blockbuster that brought an Gorta Mor to the big screen for the first time. We spoke with Daly about generational trauma, subverting the Cowboy-Indian genre and British misconceptions about the film.
“It was important to me that the Irish be the Cherokee or the Cheyenne. I loved the idea of painting the Irish as the Indians and giving them a chance to have their say,” an animated Lance Daly says of his new western-style revenge movie, Black 47.
The idea that American cowboys in westerns settled a new frontier, and conquered a natural wilderness, disturbs the young Irish director: these areas were people’s homes.
Visually his new movie is not framed in the sun-scorched, barren desert landscapes of Arizona or New Mexico – but instead in the mostly uninhabitable western regions of 19th century Ireland during the peak of suffering inflicted by the Great Irish Famine.
Flipping the narrative on its head felt important to him during the movie’s inception. “To do a film from the native perspective hasn’t really happened too often,” he says.
Black 47, the very first time that someone has artistically revisited what is considered the greatest catastrophe in Irish history, has proved to be a huge success in Ireland, with record-breaking box office numbers and immediate homegrown critical-acclaim.
Lance Daly, born and raised in Dublin, speaks with the kind of pleasantly unassuming, nonchalant clarity – and healthy sarcasm – that you wouldn’t typically associate with an arthouse director who has struck gold.
Despite seeming level-headed to the point of unfazed, he feared a minor backlash from some British quarters with his latest movie.
Although retaining a sense of calm, his voice rises a register when discussing British aversions to depictions of post-imperial suffering by Irish artists.
“There’s been some views that have said all of the British characters are painted out to be villains. That’s actually just patently not true,” he says, his voice tinged with frustration.
Having already noticed a handful of criticisms from both critics and social media users of ‘unfair caricatures’ – even anglophobia – Daly points to the elementary fact that two of the main British characters (played by Hugo Weaver and Barry Keoghan) have complex stories.
“Some people have come to it and watched it already having made up their mind,” he says of certain reactions, later jestering that the pocket of this negative reaction arose from people who are “probably all Brexiteers”.
Triggered by a blight in potato crops, the Great Irish Famine – an Gorta Mor – upended and ravaged Ireland from 1845 to 1849. What resulted was a humanitarian catastrophe that flummoxed the British government even as Quakers, Native American Choctaws, the Ottoman empire and others sent assistance.
The movie stars Australian actor James Frecheville (with an impressively authentic Irish twang) as an Irish ranger who returns home in 1847 after fighting for the British army in Afghanistan.
He discovers that his mother has died of hunger, his brother has been hanged, and the rest of his family is inhabiting a wasteland of ruined crops in Connemara, Galway.
When the ranger launches a campaign of bloody vengeance against authority, the British draft one of his former comrades, played by Hugo Weaving, to track him down.
It’s not simply a vengeful, bloodthirsty flick in the vein of an Irish Inglourious Basterds, however. Daly approached the movie with the hope of equipping every aspect of the era with nuance, but class structure at the time did play a pivotal, unavoidable role in the destruction wrought.
“It’s not about English or Irish – it’s about a ruling class and a working class. And the working class characters in the movie – whether English or Irish – find out over the course of the movie that they have more in common than with the people that were telling them what to do.”
The dialogue in the movie flits between Gaelic Irish and English, and the Irish exteriors were filmed in Wicklow and Connemara – particularly expansive locations Daly was attracted to using as a backdrop. Some shooting – mostly interior – also took place in Luxembourg.
Eons ago, like many children tend to do in a huff, Daly packed up all of his bags with the intention of emancipating himself from all of the constraints of authority.
Decades later, while driving one night in Dublin with Bob Dylan bleeding from the car speakers, he had a moment of recall where he remembered this long-forgotten moment of momentary liberation.
In 2008, Daly directed a much-overlooked independent Irish movie starring amateur child actors called Kisses. It was only after its release that Daly began remembering how the movie’s premise was born.
This time around, the story of the Famine, and the fact it had yet to be told on a widescreen, compelled him to make Black 47. “The opportunity in Ireland to tell a story that hasn’t been told – because we are storytellers, everything else has been so well explored,” he says inquisitively.
He also had a life-long desire to make an Irish action movie – especially something in Ireland’s more rugged western regions – something the Irish canon decidedly lacks.
The revenge story was something Daly preconceived around the same time he decided to approach the Famine on-screen; being genre-specific, Daly says, helps to unlock the ability to make such a movie.
It was inevitable that the movie lent itself to western movie tropes, too, he says. “A gang of misfits, traveling through an inhospitable landscape, all to stop one man on his quest: that’s very much the western archetype in the frame of a Sam Peckinpah.”
More physiological and less abstract is the ever-fascinating field of genetics. Recent studies have shown that genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors were passed on to their children.
The Irish Famine, then, is hardwired into Irish consciousness. It’s almost taboo to speak openly about what happened and how it might have affected descendants from that era. Curiously enough, Daly recognises something in our modern mindsets and attitudes that seem attuned to 1847-era Irishness. “Between the refusal that many of us have to speak emotionally about things to the complete lack of regard for authority or rules systems.”
Discussions took place between cast members during shooting about the film’s potential to spark dialogue; to heal some wounds from the past, perhaps.
“It’s like therapy. Things get dragged up and people talk about things they haven’t really talked about, he says, before reverting back to his natural state of irony. “It’s all a big psychiatric experiment.”
In order to avoid the polemic and to appeal to the widest possible audience, a genre movie was required to lighten the heavy load of generational trauma. An arthouse audience, Daly says, may engage with a straight historical piece but it was about finding the right balance.
“Find the right night out at the movies but also not shitting on the history because it’s not just my story to tell. It’s not some ghost story I made up,” he says.
“When we started making the film, it got really hard [to do the story justice]. I got more and more terrified of letting everybody – audiences especially – down.”
The sheer size of the cast, the suitably inhospitable weather conditions, and the amalgamation of children, animals, stunts, visual effects, bilingual scripts and shooting locations all posed challenges to the self-described masochist Daly. The greatest challenge, however, remained carefully recounting a nation’s hidden, collective pain, and to avoid being gratuitous or insensitive.
“I think someone else doing it might be freed because there are many really important chapters that this film couldn’t possibly tell,” he argues.
Outside of filmmaking influences such as the use of weather of Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa and the hues of masculinity and violence of western-auteur Sam Peckinpah, Daly gathered some stylistic influence from less-filmic cues: paintings, particularly any he could find dating from the period of the Famine; graphic novels; and comic book art.
“I definitely tried to stylise this more like a graphic novel especially when it came to the colours and the greys. I tried to push it way beyond the photography into comic book art,” he says.
“It was a balance of explicitly doing something punchy and impressionistic that also has a realistic human story.”
Fascinated by the 19th century – an era he feels is seldom explored in film – he hopes another filmmaker follows in his footsteps and overcomes some of the practical challenges he faced with the setting.
Going forward, he feels there is a similar movie to be made about the Irish immigration experience, specifically the Atlantic Crossings and so-called coffin ships – something he is definitely intrigued by.
The resounding success that the movie has seen in Ireland, and the festival-circuit buzz it gathered approaching its release, merely offered Daly a sense relief after a tense wait for its release.
“If it plays well in UK and US, it would be great,” he says quietly. “But Ireland responding to it is what I was nervous about it; that’s what really matters.”