Out now in Irish cinemas is Lance Daly’s famine-based western Black ’47. The film has seen the widest release ever for an Irish film in Irish cinemas, playing 100 screens north and south of the border,
Black ’47 is set during the Great Irish Famine and stars Hugo Weaving (Hacksaw Ridge, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix), Jim Broadbent (Oscar® winner for Iris) and the prolific Irish screen and stage actor Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Michael Collins). Joining them are rising international actors James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom, The Drop) and Freddie Fox (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) along with a strong young Irish cast including Barry Keoghan is an Irish actor from Summerhill in Dublin, best known for his roles in Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Moe Dunford (Michael Inside, Patrick’s Day) and Sarah Greene (Noble, Penny Dreadful).
It’s 1847 and Ireland is in the grip of the Great Famine that has ravaged the country for two long years. Feeney, a hardened Irish Ranger who has been fighting for the British Army abroad, abandons his post to return home and reunite with his family. He’s seen more than his share of horrors, but nothing prepares him for the famine’s hopeless destruction of his homeland that has brutalised his people and where there seems to be no law and order. He discovers his mother starved to death and his brother hanged by the brutal hand of the English. With little else to live for, he sets a destructive path to avenge his family.
Scannain caught up with Australian actor James Frecheville, who plays Feeney in the film. Black ’47 is out now in cinemas.
Scannain: How much of the Irish that you learned for the role do you still have?
James Frecheville: I’ve lost it all unfortunately. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve still got it. It’s something that I am very interested in learning. I was studying Ogham a bit at the time. I was trying to get all the way back to the entomology, trying to figure out where it all got back to once upon a time. I had a really fantastic teacher, Peadar Cox, while we were shooting the film. It would be a great language to pick up again, knowing that I’ve got a good teacher. Depending on how this is received then maybe there’ll be room to do more Irish language films.
Your accent speaking Irish never comes across as forced.
That was part of the challenge and also the responsibility. The film is very important given the historical context. For a story that’s never been told before. And as a non-Irishman, though I have Irish stock from however many generations back, there’s a big responsibility to make sure that it’s singing true. Because Feeney is the gratification element of the film. Because he gets to exact the rage, even though it’s deeply tragic and he’s just a sad, sad human being at this point. The idea that he’s been off fighting for somebody else’s cause, maybe to send some money back, for 13 years since he was a boy, and the heinous things that he would have done, and then to desert. It was to hell or to Connaught. There was a whole lot to work with and it was a really rewarding process. Especially getting to grow that beard, because it’s not common to be able to grow something like that. Or at least to get away with one that is not manscaped, for lack of a better word.
Feeney’s beard is a particularly impressive big fiery red beard. Were you aware that it would come out like that?
Oh yeah. It was nothing that I was ever too insecure about growing up as a kid. Because this is my hair colour. I am dark on top and red down here. I remember in high school a friend that I’d known since I was five asking me “oh is your beard red?” and I was like “yeah it is”. I’ve got freckles as well. And she was like “but your hair is not red. How long have you been dying your hair for?”. I mean she’d known me for 15 years.
How did you prepare physically for the role?
I didn’t know how to ride horses before the film, so a lot of the character I found while I was learning how to ride and the physicality of that. Looking like you know how to murder people efficiently, without mercy and without any sort of emotional connection.
And you had some arms training as well…
While I was learning to ride horses, I was also training with a Jeet Kune Do master in Los Angeles where I based at the time. I would do horse riding and then I would go and do knife training, learning how to cut people up. So by the time I got to set Lance is telling me how I should stab or do this, and “I’m like no you should do this” and cutting and carving. One of the big responsibilities to the character was to look like I had been doing this for 13 years and not just 6 weeks or whatever it was.
Feeney is described by Hugo Weaving’s character, Hannah, as one of the very best.
Yeah, and when you say that then you’ve got to deliver on that. You can’t be limp doing a role like this. I had to, physically, get everything to a point where it was just looking really good. I was thinking and working a lot on ambidexterity at the time. I have a compromised pinky from an accident where I smashed my finger in between two half kilogram/one kilogram dumbbells when I was 10. From doing that my grip is compromised a little bit and I’m not thinking that it’s going to be compromised forever. You just have to drill stuff and overcome it up here [points to head] and get it out. So much of the character was found in doing the arms training and in learning how to reload a gun fluidly so that it looks like you’ve been doing it forever.
And that particular type of gun to…
Yeah we had some amazing weapons. The armourer Boyd Rankin…if the apocalypse comes I know where I’m going! He was a hobbyist and then became the qualified guy for it. He made all of his own gunpowder. I learned all of the ins-and-outs about the kind of kit that Feeney would have had as a soldier, and how he would survive with flip-knives and rations and everything like that. I wasn’t camping out by a mountainside but I was certainly inhabiting that headspace. Because that’s what you need to do to make it authentic. It was a big responsibility , because I’m not Irish.
How does a guy from Melbourne find the west of Ireland and the weather?
I loved it. I absolutely loved it. There was this one day that was a reshoot. We had finished the film in February and then I went on to another job and had shaved off the beard. I’d kept the beard for about a month. I’d spent a lot of time down in west Cork waiting to hear about these possible pickups. They didn’t happen so I shaved it off and started working on something else. Then an opportunity arose where we had to do some reshoots, and that’s a pretty natural thing to happen with films. So I went to a place where they did all of the facial hair for the Harry Potter films and I had this beard made that was quite miraculous as far as the colouring and the shape of it and a slight patch where the hair wasn’t growing in. Maybe only because I was stressing it and picking at it. And then this day that we had in Connemara was maybe the wettest day that they had had there for 20 years. I’d never experienced midges before and they were really aggravating. And the horses didn’t like them either, and I was on a different horse for that reshoot as well. Which was a tragedy because I had built up such a bond with my steed, which was part of why the filming experience was great. I had such a bond with the horse and the horse would do anything for me, because by that point I was completely in-tune and in-sync with it. And this day was probably the hardest day I’ve ever had on any job. Only out of the sense of ridiculousness. It had such heavy content. It was the scene where Feeney returns home and originally we had shot that scene at a stone house out in Wicklow, but it didn’t land right. Lance wanted me to arrive on a horse and be up there looking down for a second. When we shot it Andrew Bennett had to leave, so the next day when they did my coverage they put Craig [Kenny], the first A.D., in Andrew’s costume, with a big hat. I’m doing my lines as gaelige and Craig couldn’t look at me in the eyes because he was too intimated. So Craig was looking off, but he was also moving his lips like a hand puppet, not looking at me, while Lance was feeding the dialogue. And then to revisit that character after a time-break with a glued-on beard, in front of a green-screen house that’s not real, with an A.D. who can’t look at me in the eyes and is pretending to mouth the words while someone else is saying them…and midges. It was a great challenge.
It’s such a rewarding process to do what I do for a living and that’s where the challenge is great. Learning how to roll with the punches. And while that was difficult, as it had a level of absurdity that I’d never quite encountered before, and then to try and centre yourself among all of those midges and trying not to swot at your face to try and get them all off, because that’s your responsibility to try and make that land, to make it look like “God this is what you have done to my childhood home after I’ve been gone all of this time”. And there were moments of levity while shooting it. Because it was just quite extreme conditions and content. There’s just a natural release in things like that. I would have eaten two fistfuls of black pudding every morning. And I could get away with it too because the costume was thick! I was just eating soup and bacon sandwiches. I had to use the energy. It was exhausting, completely exhausting, but it was such a great experience. I’ve never had a better working experience. The challenge, meeting my own perceived skill set…I just felt like I was in a flow state for a few months.
There’s always been a great connection between the Irish and the Australians. Especially given that many were deported from here to there during the famine period.
Including some of my own family. They were from Kinnegad I believe. It’s important. For instance the song that I sing by the campfire was one that was passed down through Peadar Cox’s family. He recorded his mother signing it, and it had been passed down from those times. That song is a children’s song and it’s about a hen and a cockerel that are walking down from Galway to Athenry and are wing-in-wing and in love. Life is good. Then the second verse is about some women coming from over the hill and grabbing the cockerel and wringing his neck and smashing in his head and plucking him and chucking him in a pot for their dinner. Then the third verse is about this hen who is sitting up crying for the love of her life who is dead in a pot with a stone on top. That’s how they would have gotten through a long night by the fire, singing songs and telling stories.That sense of Irish storytelling is still pretty unmatched. I’ve had the best most rewarding time making this movie and it just keeps giving. I’ve made some amazing friends and its great to hear how people are responding to it and what it means to them. I’m just really blessed to have been involved in something like this. Hopefully this opens the market for more films like this. There are lots of stories out there.
Black ’47 is out now in cinemas.