British filmmaker Ken Loach is back with a new drama called The Wind That Shakes the Barley which explores the Irish War of Independence that started in 1920, as Irish farmers and tradesmen from Cork banded together to rebel against the oppressive occupying British forces, known as the Black and Tan. The story is told through the eyes of two brothers Damien and Teddy, played by Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney, who are divided by the differing methods they take in this battle for freedom. In some ways, the winner of last year’s Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival also explores the origins of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
“Once you start thinking politically, the Irish troubles in the North are a consequence of our imperial connection to Ireland, that it was our colony,” Loach told ComingSoon.net on a recent stop in New York City. “You can’t begin to understand the North unless you know about that and the War of Independence, so one of the reasons for me to want to make this film was to explain what people are fighting about in the North as much as anything. It’s a story that Paul [Laverty] and I wanted to write for some time really, because it is an extraordinary story of how a comparatively small number of farm workers, clerks, shop assistants, people doing ordinary jobs plus one or two ex-soldiers from the British army, led an independence struggle that kicked the most powerful empire in the world at the time out of the country. Then to follow that with a Civil War in which the imperialist power consciously divided the Republican struggle and gave one side arms to kill the other side. It’s just an amazing story. People in Britain hardly know it at all. People in Ireland, a country just a few miles across the water, it’s very vivid to them and present in their minds. So we thought that it was a story we had to tell. It’s our oldest colony, our last colony, and yet we know nothing in Britain of that pivotal moment where it nearly achieved full independence.”
It’s a fascinating story from Irish history, but even more interesting is Loach’s casting, which includes many locals from Cork and a film actor who’s a bit better known in Cillian Murphy. “After the script, [casting] is the next most important choice really, which is who is going to bring this story to life,” Loach said. “I worked with a woman from Cork where the film is set, and we just saw lots and lots of people. I tried little bits and pieces (not from the film) just to see how people get on. I tend to not go on what people have done before, but just on how we get on when we meet and how we talk about things. The key thing for us, because we work at a fairly modest scale, we don’t have to consider the status of the actor at all. We got Cilian because he was the best person, not because he was well known. It may look like that from the outside, from the inside, we just got a group of people from Cork really. They’re all from the same place or just outside and Cillian was just one of them. He’s a very central person so he fit in. That’s a big liberation if you’re making a film, is to be able to choose people you think are right rather than the ones the producers want you to have.”
Murphy told us how coming from that area helped inform his performance in the film. “I think Ken casts people from an area he’s making a film about, because you don’t have to deal with accents because it’s in your DNA, it’s part of who you are. I think what Ken aims for in his films–I don’t want to speak for him–is a certain amount of truth and believability and honesty, and ultimately I hope, humanity. When you cast people who are from the area, non-professional actors also from the area, then you’re well on your way to achieving that, because there’s that familiarity you can’t really fake.”
“We have no trailers. Full stop,” Loach insisted when asked about giving Murphy the treatment he may be used to from working in Hollywood. “They’re very destructive, trailers, and no one in principle would ever have a trailer, because you’d want them to turn up for work like the electrician and everybody. Again, it’s a great liberation for the actors because if you’re stuck in the bloody trailer, when you get out, everybody’s looking at you to do something and it’s real pressure, whereas if you’re just a part of the gang milling around, there’s no pressure. You just come and do your job and it’s easy. You’re not going to watch bloody sports on TV or something.”
“It does highlight the excess that surrounds normal filmmaking,” Murphy agreed, telling us that he wound up staying with his mom in the childhood home, which he had left when he was 19. “Also, in Ken’s films, there isn’t a huge amount of waiting around. He shoots pretty quickly, because there’s none of that baggage around, all that ancillary nonsense that you get on film sets, which is traditionally the way films are shot and will continue to be shot. But it is great to get up and go to work, so it’s very refreshing.”
We asked Murphy whether not having the trailer and being part of an ensemble cast in this moderately budgeted film helped him get back to his roots. “It wasn’t something I was actively pursuing,” he answered. “It was more about the idea of making a film with Ken about my county where I’m from. It wasn’t a conscious effort to change my method of working or anything. It was a lovely to do a film where I didn’t have to change my accent or my appearance for, and it was also lovely to work with one of the greatest living filmmakers in my estimation.”
The odd thing is that usually Murphy would read a script before taking a part, but as he informed us, “Ken doesn’t give you a script. I knew that I was playing a brother and I knew that it was going to involve the War of Independence. I didn’t know it was going to take us into the civil war. I had a certain amount of backstory about the character, but we shoot everything sequentially and that means that you experience events as the character does and you make choices based on what the character experiences. It was hugely liberating in every way. It was purely based on pure instinct and the knowledge that Ken is a filmmaker is all about truth and is not about a self-indulgent performance or anything like that, it’s just about trying to get a really true and honest performance. I think film acting can become very sort of heady and unnecessarily intellectualized where effectively it’s just about being and that’s very much what he was trying to achieve.”
“There’s a huge amount written about it,” Loach told us when asked about researching the film. “All the people of the time would write their biographies or accounts of the time apart from newspaper accounts. There’s a lot of local historians. Ireland is a very literary nation. People do write and enjoy writing, so there’s a lot of research and we worked with a historian from Cork University who was brilliant. The research is easy in one sense but overwhelming in another, just because of the volume. Every family has a story and everybody loves talking about it ’cause it was their war of liberation. It’s a subject that people will wax eloquent on.”
Murphy added a bit about the character on which he tried to base Damian. “There was a historical figure that was in the struggle, his name was Ernie O’Malley and he wrote a book called ‘On Another Man’s Wound’ and he wrote a second book. He was a medical student in Dublin and got involved and I think Paul Laverty used that book as a resource when he was writing the script and I also read and used it. That classic conflict between being trained to save life or heal and then the act of taking life is an interesting dilemma.”
Loach and Murphy commented on how this film differentiates from movies like “Michael Collins” which also dealt with the Irish war of Independence. “There’s many films you can make about it,” stated Loach. “Think about the second World War, there are hundreds and thousands and you can make many films about the Irish war. One of the problems making films about real historical people is that there always comes a point where you say ‘for the benefit of the narrative, you’d like the character to do this, but in real life, he did that.’ There’s always that tension. That’s a real problem you get when you’re following real historical figures. They don’t always do what would make the film work dramatically. It’s a great relief not to have real historical figures.”
Murphy agreed with his director. “I think this film is about normal individuals. These weren’t extraordinary people, just normal people who found that they had do extraordinary things. I think ‘Michael Collins’ is a film that is more about the mythology that surrounds Michael Collins, and when you make a film about people who aren’t historical figures, you’re not hamstrung by where they were on a particular date or how they looked or spoke. You’re free to explore more without all that baggage.”
“History follows a pattern, doesn’t it?” Loach responded when asked about keeping the film isolated from the current political climate in the world. “There was an army of occupation in Ireland, there was an army of occupation in Palestine, and there is an army of occupation in Iraq. Armies of occupation always fail because the population reacts against them and then the army fights back and there’s more reprisals. It’s a descending spiral. We didn’t bend the Irish story to make a comment about Iraq or the other issues, but if you tell the Irish story, there are parallels, which you can’t avoid.”
Finally, we asked Murphy if he thought that this movie might change people’s perception of him as playing only bad guys. “Since ‘Red Eye,’ I’ve done this movie, ‘Sunshine,’ then ‘Watching the Detectives,” all of them playing the moral center,” he replied about the touchy subject. “I’ve made twelve movies where I’ve played the lead and only two of them are bad guys, but they’re the biggest grossing ones. I don’t care how people perceive my career. If you want to think I only do bad guys than you haven’t looked at my filmography, it’s kind of myopic. I don’t make films to change people’s perception. I make them because I want to challenge myself as an actor and I want to make good work. It certainly hasn’t been an issue.”
The Wind That Shakes the Barley opens on Friday, March 16 in New York City and in the Boston and L.A. areas, as well as on IFC First Take.