The community of travellers has been thrown into the limelight recently thanks to the immergence of shows such as Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and films such as Knuckle. With his film focusing on the travelling community, writer-director Mark O’Connor spoke to FilmJuice’s Sam Haysom about Shakespearian influences, Johnny Cash and violence.
The community of travellers has been thrown into the
limelight recently thanks to the immergence of shows such as Big Fat Gypsy
Wedding and films such as Knuckle.
With his film focusing on the travelling community, writer-director Mark
O’Connor spoke to FilmJuice’s Sam Haysom about Shakespearian influences, Johnny
Cash and violence.
What inspired you
to make a film about the travelling community?
I’ve always had a connections to travellers. My mother used to be very friendly
with the Moorehouse family in Bray and I had a run in with them when I was a
teenager! They are the true Irish with a very long history and a fascinating
culture. I’m interested in Irish history and Irish stories and I felt they had
never been authentically represented in film. Pavee Lackeen was the closest.
‘King of the
Travellers’ has strong echoes of both Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet – to what
extent was Shakespearian tragedy an influence on the story?
I didn’t set out to copy Shakespeare. I was reading Hamlet and Macbeth at the
time and I thought it would be interesting to pay homage very obviously to
Shakespeare. There are a lot of visual metaphors in this film.
The Moorehouses live up high up in the green valley and wear blue. The Powers
live very low down in the stone quarry and wear red. Rosary beads and holy
water are symbols of the Moorehouse site while Fire and stone are symbols of
the Powers site so it was supposed to represent Heaven and Hell. However the
real evil is not in the Powers site as we later see, it’s within. Ancient
theatre was all about levels. The highest areas of a theatre are
known as paradise. When Romeo watches Juliet she is high up on a balcony.
The film has a
very authentic feel to it – how did you go about choosing the music, and where
did you find the black-and-white footage that features in the opening credits?
I spent a few months assembling the
black and white footage from several different sources. I wanted to give a
complete picture of the past history of travellers showing different families
and different moments making the credit sequence a little film within itself.
The music had been in my head for many years. I used to drive around listening
to Johnny Cash and visualise the montage scene. I was a big fan of traveller
music and musicians like Pecker Dunne and Margaret Barry who are Irish folk
legends who don’t get the recognition they deserve. I was very disappointed in
not acquiring certain tracks due to the companies not releasing the rights or
the price being too high. However I was very happy with the music I was able to
get for the money we had. We got Johnny Cash, Margaret Barry, Pecker Dunne, The
Fureys and other great musicians all for our small budget. Finbar Furey was
especially kind to us.
How did you go about casting?
I spent over a year with travellers going to weddings, spending time on halting
sites and getting to know different families. It was a very tough process as I
was looking to cast a full cast of non-actors. Not only had they never acted
but some of them also found it hard to memorise lines. It started
with finding people who would be comfortable in front of the camera. It was
hard to become friends with so many travellers and only give roles to
certain ones. It was a big learning experience. The travellers did great though
considering they had never acted before and they were extremely kind to me and gave
me full access to their world and they completely trusted me. They
knew I wasn’t out to misrepresent them. It was all about the film and none
of the other nonsense.
To what extent were the actors
working from a script? Was any of the dialogue improvised?
We stuck mostly to the script but obviously certain moments had to feel very
natural so I used different techniques to try and have them learn the lines but
deliver them realistically. Improv is great but it usually doesn’t lead
anywhere and damages your plot. So it was about keeping it under control while
also creating an environment where people could be themselves and perform in
the most authentic way possible.
How challenging did you find it to
create a film that has such strong themes of violence and hatred
running through it?
It was easy. When you see and hear racism towards travellers it
makes you angry. I received a lot of racism from people telling me not to
make a film about travellers to others making remarks and it disgusted me. It
actually encouraged me more to go and make the film. There was also the
whole Dale Farm incident which started to happen after I had finished the
first draft. I wanted to show the racism travellers receive but I also
wasn’t out to sympathise with them. I also showed the violence within the
travelling community. Everything in the film is based on real events. When
Mickey the Bags gets his head split open! That happened to me!
Of The Travellers Is Out On DVD Now.