Dónal Foreman takes an unconventional approach to telling Irish stories. In his acclaimed doc The Image You Missed, Foreman cracks into the archives of his father’s own documenting of The Troubles, resulting in a deeply intimate encounter. In Out of Here, he improvised with young Irish actors for whom the film’s exploration of recession-hit Dublin hit hard home. His latest feature, in Irish cinemas now, is no less explorative and experimental.
In The Cry of Granuaile, a grief-stricken filmmaker from the US and her reserved Irish assistant tour the west of Ireland to research for a film about the legendary Gráinne Mhaol, the pirate queen from the 16th century. Played by experienced character actress Dale Dickey, an unsung star from the likes of Winter’s Bone and Breaking Bad, director Maire is an endearing and improvisational figure, sifting through Irish history for meaning. As her assistant Cáit, Judith Roddy goes on an emotional journey, from breaking up with her fella in IFI Screen 2, unpacking her own parental grief and opening up into a process that becomes more abstract and intriguing as it goes on. It unwraps questions and puts them back towards the viewer, about how we tell stories, what elements we keep and why.
Filmed in 16mm with a score to match those dramatic Atlantic views, The Cry of Granuaile is a film that approaches old stories with a new eye, and another interesting effort from Foreman. We spoke to the director to delve further into his insight on this film about directors, connection and collaboration, and embracing Irish stories.
Having worked in documentary before, what was the process like on this film figuring out how you wanted to approach this subject matter?
I think it was always going to be fiction. The setup of having Maire researching and starting to make her own film meant that I let some of my own research feed directly into the film in a way you wouldn’t normally in fiction. I was definitely inspired by The Image You Missed, making that documentary really opened up a lot of new techniques for me, working with voiceover and archival, that very nonlinear approach.
There are elements in this film that verge more into an essay film or a doc, and initially there was going to be more of that. But those characters were always at the heart of it.
The characters are really drawn in by the story of Gráinne Mhaol, what was it that drew you to her as the film’s focus?
I’d had a fascination with Gráinne Mhaol since I was a kid, hearing the stories like anyone else, it was always something in my head. It’s this iconic story that had never really been approached in film. When I started reading more about it, seeing the different interpretations, arguments over which stories are real or not, what they mean and how those meanings changed from generation to generation, that excited me and interested me more than trying to figure out the real story, or recreate ‘what actually happened’.
As I started to develop the story, I started to connect that to these characters and their stories of grief and loss. The same way that we project fantasies onto history, we do that with the people in our lives. When we lose someone, we also are losing what that person meant to us and all the meanings that we that we’ve placed on them.
The relationship between Dale and Judith’s characters in the film is really interesting, they have these overlapping emotions about grief and loss, what was the process like working with those actors, how did you work with those performers to develop their relationship on screen?
I was lucky to have a few weeks rehearsal with them. It was actually a bit similar to my first feature Out of Here because in both, the script was developed in rehearsal with the actors. When I started, I just had a 10-page outline of the story, and the script was fleshed out in working with the actors. When we did that on Out of Here, because it was about young people in Dublin and the actors were very close to their characters, we really improvised a lot. The actors brought a lot to their characters, and had a lot of input in the dialogue. We did a bit of that on this, but it was also quite different because the characters are so specific, and they’re talking about all these historical ideas that you can’t really just improv. The rehearsal was also about helping them get familiar with that history.
It was a really fun collaboration. I would go home and write a scene, then we would try it out the next day, and then I’d go home and rewrite it. There was this very immediate feedback where they could respond and try things out. They brought a lot to it in terms of the emotions of the character. Dale Dickey in particular had a strong emotional connection to the grief her character goes through, so she really brought a lot to that.
Once you had gone into production did scenes change very much, or coming out of rehearsal was it very much ready to go?
We had a full script, ready to go. But we shot it in 20 days and because we were shooting on Super 16mm film, it was a very tight shoot. There wasn’t a lot of room for playing around, but also the nature of a low budget shoot is you’re constantly having to revise things, just because this location falls through and you run out of time here, things get tweaked.
Since the film is structured to begin as a more restrained, linear character drama, that gradually gets more surreal and fragmented, until it basically falls apart – that was something that changed a lot in the edit. The closer you get to the end of the film, the more possibilities for experimentation there are. I was editing it throughout the pandemic on and off for about a year and a half and it did go through a lot of versions. That’s where a lot of the voiceover elements came in for example. Some of that was written beforehand, but a lot of it was revised a lot in the editing, that aspect started to feel a bit more like how I worked on the documentary, in a way you’re writing it in the editing as much as you are in the shooting.
This is a story about a director, one who is a very specific kind of character and director. How much of how Maire works and her creative process is reflected in how you work, if at all?
Often with characters, you can be playing with different parts of your own personality. I definitely put parts of myself in both characters, it was a way of teasing out contradictions I felt in my own thoughts about history and storytelling. But I’m definitely a bit more shy and reserved than Maire, I don’t have that crazy American forwardness!
One of the things with Maire’s character is trying to ride a fine line where on the one hand, she has this kind of brash energy –she tends to steamroll over people, she’s not always sensitive to her surroundings. But she also brings things out of people and makes new things possible. I think it’s good to make films where you’re not even sure how you feel about the characters, or you’re trying to work out your own opinion as you’re doing it. I’m still not sure. Is she totally manipulative, or is she some kind of genius?
It’s a great performance by Dale. How was it that she came to be involved with the project?
Dale was the first person I approached about it, my first choice for the role. I’d really loved her in a lot of films I’d seen her in over the years. I wrote a letter to her that was sent to her agent and then we had a Skype about it. I was all ready to try and convince her to do it and about 10 minutes in she just asked, “so when are we shooting”? She’d already agreed to do it, just based on the story. She also has Irish heritage herself and so I think she was excited to be shooting in Ireland.
Dale has had this great career, but hasn’t always gotten the full range of roles that she deserves. This was a kind of character that she hadn’t played before, but it was something she was really game for. With Maire’s role as a director, one of the fun aspects during the rehearsals was getting Dale to actually direct the other actors. So she would improvise the direction and do a scene within the scene. We even did some of that on set as well – I would have Dale directing scenes with the actors within the story. That was something that was a bit terrifying for her and out of her comfort zone, but she really stepped up.
It’s a great challenge for an actor. And for Judith, there are challenges for her as well because Cáit is so reserved. How did she approach that and how much did she bring to playing Cáit?
It’s a character that’s so different from her as well. With Dale she was able to bring a lot of herself to Maire, because she has that same giddy energy. Anywhere we’d go on the island, she’d make friends, someone walking by on the street would be her friend five minutes later. It was cool, because a lot of the previous roles she’s played tend to be very hard and stern. But Judith is a really fun, gregarious person, she’s a laugh. So it was a real transformation for her and she made really interesting choices with it. I noticed once we started shooting, Judith had a different way of walking for the character, that isn’t how she carries herself normally. We talked a lot about that in rehearsal, about the kind of closed physicality of Cáit.
We were thinking about it in the way that the characters related to grief, because Maire’s mother has just died, she’s a mess over it, swimming in grief, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. But she finds her focus in the making of this film, she discovers some meaning through the process. Whereas Cáit starts very focused, but in a repressed way. Her mother died when she was very young, it’s this suppressed memory that she hasn’t really come to terms with and through making the film, Maire blasts that open.
Approaching these petition texts Grainne supposedly wrote in the 1690s, we had to approach some of it like Shakespeare, breaking it up line by line and analysing it, and it was helpful that Dale and Judith both had strong theatre backgrounds for that. Judith had worked with Pan Pan, the experimental theatre company in Dublin, who’ll take something like King Lear and deconstruct it and attack it from different angles, and that approach was useful.
With films like this that require extensive research for any kind of project, how difficult is it to let go of certain pieces of research that no longer practically fit into the project as you’re making it?
Yeah, it can be hard. It happens during shooting and even more so in editing, but you learn to let go and kill your darlings. At the start, I was so immersed in the research, you want to talk about everything. But I’m used to being brutal with the material. There’s an essay that Cáit writes that is part of the voiceover of the film; Patrick Harrison, my friend who worked on the film as a script consultant, he and I wrote this 3000-word essay, in the end there’s about 10 lines of that distilled in the film!
Your work is really focused on Irish people and our stories and how those stories are told. Are there further areas of Irish life and history at the moment that you’re feeling drawn to for future work?
One of the things I’m most excited to do is start bringing more genre elements into what I do and collaborating with other writers. Because I’ve just done this trilogy of films that I wrote and directed and were very personal to me, I do feel like branching out a bit more and having stronger collaborations, working with other writers.
I have a few ideas in mind, there’s a book set during the Irish Civil War that’s a kind of Western that I want to adapt, there’s a story I’m developing about a lesser-known side of the IRA’s history that I’m working on… I like the idea of playing with genre elements to take a different perspective on history, but I’d also like to explore that in contemporary stories. I’ve been living in New York for 10 years now, and I’ve made three Irish films since then. Moving there almost helped me have a better perspective on it in a way, I started having more ideas set in Ireland since I moved there.
The Cry of Granuaile is currently on release at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork, and will open at the Eye Cinema in Galway on Friday, September 9th, with a Q&A with the director at the 7pm screening.