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Lance Daly on Directing
16 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Director Lance Daly
With the IFTA Awards nominations announced, we continue to shine a spotlight on Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry. 

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

We spoke with Director Lance Daly, who picked up his second nomination in the Best Director category for his work on Fastnet Films’ Famine Western, Black ‘47. The critically acclaimed film, which starred Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings trilogy), James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom), and Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Michael Collins), was the top-grossing Irish film of 2018 and became the first Irish feature to break the €1 million mark at the Irish box office since The Young Offenders in 2016.

"I was delighted to see Black '47 included in this year's nominations,” said Daly, when asked about his recent nomination. “My phone was hopping yesterday morning, and it was great to see the excitement IFTA generates, both within the filmmaking community and in the wider world. Congratulations to all the other nominees and I'm really looking forward to cheering for our B47 team on the night."

Daly first came to prominence as a director with his touching drama, Kisses (2008), which earned him an IFTA for Best Directing, as well as nominations for Best Script for Film, and Best Film. The film also won the Best Irish Feature Film award at the Galway Film Fleadh and Best Feature Film at Foyle Film Festival. Since then, Daly has gone on to direct The Good Doctor (2011) starring Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings), and Life’s A Breeze (2013) starring Fionnula Flanagan and Pat Shortt.

What attracted you to this project and why did you want to direct it? (Black ‘47)
“I loved the pitch. I thought it was a really smart way to tell the story of An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger. And it had a bit of everything - action, drama, spectacle. I was also really interested in what that period in Ireland might have looked like.”

What was your approach to making this project, and where did you take inspiration from during the process?
“The approach was a very careful one because it was such an important Irish story that had never been told in the cinema before. But at the same time it was a revenge movie that was trying to reach a wide audience, so we were always balancing historical accuracy and sincerity against the needs of the genre. This is probably why we pushed the visuals into a more graphic, almost comic book style - to say ‘this is a movie, not a history essay’.

“Inspiration came mostly from paintings and drawings of the time and eyewitness accounts like Asenath Nicholson or the London Illustrated News, but there were also photos by Sebastiao Salgado - we could never match their scale but their sense of apocalypse was amazing - and stark imagery like paintings by Andrew Wyeth or all sorts of graphic novel art. And other movies of course - too many to mention.”

What is your general style of working with the team, cinematographer etc., and what is the most important focus for you during the whole production?
“It's mostly just a conversation, isnt it? Us all figuring out the material and each other's strengths and trying to prepare for the challenges ahead, and then we get into it and work really hard on getting the best out of what we have to work with. There are so many essential collaborators. The DP and production designer are always mentioned, because they are so important, but your producer, your line producer, your costume designer, your first A.D., your locations and, in the case of this film, stunts, armourer, horses, Irish translator, sound, etc. are all really crucial departments that can make or break your film, and that's not even mentioning post. So they all need to be really in synch.

“Honestly, I'm still figuring out how to do that, but mostly it means spending time together I think, and getting out of the way once it starts working. I really like scouting because, as much as I hate being in the van, its one big conversation about what the film is going to be. I would say every single aspect of the film is equally important, except for maybe the casting and the cut, which are the two biggest things to get right, but I'm becoming more focused on overall preparation and efficiency as the films go by - I'm not sure if that makes me more effective or just more boring.”

How do you like to approach working with actors in general to get the best results and what advice would you give to aspiring directors on this front?
“I suppose it's just another conversation. Actors are all so different, so the approach has to be different with each of them. I've tried in the past to get the whole cast on the same page from the start, in terms of what we were aiming for and performance in general, but it didn't really work. Once actors have established the way they like to work, I think you have to let them have that and just learn about them as you go and support them where you can.

“Ideally, for me, the contract is ‘you bring your magic and I'll make sure the audience sees it, or even better, feels it’. I don't know about advice for other directors because we each need to find our own way to it. I suppose if you are at the very beginning, try doing some acting yourself? Read books by directors? There are lots of good ones. Or maybe practise shooting with other people and then look back at the shots by yourself in a quiet room and note how different the performance actually is to how you perceived it when you were in the middle of all the madness.”

Tell me about your experience on set, and your favourite moment during production?
“It should have been fun to make this movie, with horses, guns, stunts, and the big ensemble cast, but the whole thing was kind of overshadowed by the weight of the material and the fear of not doing it justice; with no real precedent to navigate by, also by how ambitious the script was against the resources available, and how that physically stretched us all.

“And it was very cold and wet with a lot of continuous days because it was winter. So the experience was mostly one of general despair and just trying to hang in there that, ironically, probably contributed helpfully to that overhanging bleakness that runs through the film.

“Favourite moment was possibly the pickups, when we got to actually shoot in remote Connemara. It was nice to finally get out there on our last few cents after Wicklow and Kildare and Luxembourg. The best moment overall though, was probably the wonderfully bright light at the end of the tunnel when the cut started coming together. I've never been so relieved.

“I do remember one lighter moment - our grip for that pickup shoot, who shall remain nameless, stormed off set and drove straight home to Dublin in protest because he was brought the wrong lunch - I think it was lasagne instead of bangers and mash. That was the end of using our grip gear but it gave us a good joke about the Connemara equivalent of ‘Where's my f*ckin' latte?’ – ‘Where's me bleedin' bangers and mash?’. I wouldn't say he'd have lasted too long back in 1847.”

What was your first role as a director (feature/short), and how has your style changed over the years?
“My first role as a director (excluding music videos) was my first feature film Last Days in Dublin twenty years ago. That's a hard question about style. What's that quote about style being the stuff you do wrong? I suppose we all just get better and clearer and more purposeful as we learn from our mistakes? I'm always trying to worry less about fussing with details but then I do it all over again. Didn't Alexander McKendrick say the real work of the director is directing the audience's attention? I think that's right.”

What do you think of the current state of filmmaking in independent and mainstream cinema? Are there trends you’re excited about or that you like/dislike?
“I think there are always great films, but it's sad how features are becoming less important and TV is taking over everyone's (or most people's) viewing habits (including my own); maybe that's just lockdown. I much prefer the singularity of purpose/aesthetic/essence of the feature film, that each one kind of exists on its own in the world, but the economics of one-offs seems to be really struggling. Hopefully, it'll all regain some equilibrium over time. I miss those midrange movies in the $10m - $40m range, that could be smart AND spectacular.”

What filmmaker or director’s work has influenced or inspired you the most?
“I can't pick one. It's a massive list and it changes all the time. Anyone who found their own way to look at the world.

What other Irish filmmaker have you been most impressed by in recent times?
“Thin ice! There are loads. With a question like this I just worry about who I'm going to leave out. I thought Peter Foott did extraordinarily well with The Young Offenders.”

Is there an Irish film over the last few years that you wish you had been a part of...?
“I would have loved to direct Rosie; just because a lot of that story was close to my heart and to my own personal experiences. There's no way I could have made a better film than Paddy did - I thought it was really perfect - but I would have enjoyed digging into that material. And I wanted to play a part in Sing Street but John Carney wouldn't cast me.”

We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection?
“That's the hardest part of the whole thing for me. My inner critic is of the vicious, relentless, sadistic kind that never shuts up. I have constant recurring nightmares of being chased and assaulted by all sorts of people and I'm beginning to think they are about this same issue.

“The antedote is maybe an obvious suggestion - when looking at the work, instead of thinking ‘what's wrong with this?’, just focusing on ‘how do I make it better?’ and take it one improvement at a time. I think that applies to a lot of things.  Keeping a diary is my single best safety net.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career, which you’d give to aspiring directors?
“Turn back now? As they say, this can only be good advice because if you truly belong in the circus then you won't listen, and if you don't then maybe I just saved you some time finding out. My Granda, Dinny, used to say the only directing I'd do would be waving cars into parking spaces on Drury Street, but that's not advice is it; just motivation.

“Honestly, I can't remember anyone giving me advice. I wish they had. When I was a dough roller at Sal's Pizzeria in San Francisco, the manager always said "K.I.S.S. - keep it simple, stupid." That works for everything.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?
“Writing, taking stock, staring out the window; it’s been mostly very good.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.





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