JOE meets Mark O'Connor 5 years ago

JOE meets Mark O'Connor

Forget Into the West and Snatch, there's a new king of the traveller films in town and it's called, well, King of the Travellers.

By Eoghan Doherty

It’s a tale of love, betrayal, friendship and revenge between two rival traveller families and the bare-knuckle war that rages between them. John Moorhouse has been waiting to take revenge on the Powers family, the men he believes killed his dad years before. He’s torn between taking revenge on the Powers boys and his love of Winnie Power, the sister of his greatest rivals.

After convincing him to pull over and park his horse and cart by the side of the road, we managed to catch up with director of King of the Travellers, Mark O’Connor, for a quick chat about his latest film.

JOE: Congratulations on the film Mark, as writer and director it must be a relief to finally have a finished product on your hands?

Mark O’Connor: Yeah, it was a long time in the making, a difficult process and a difficult film to get made so it’s great to see it finished and to get it out to an audience.

JOE: Difficult because of the subject matter it deals with?

MO’C: Yeah definitely. I came up against quite a lot of discrimination during the making of the film that the travellers themselves would probably be used to. A lot of people were saying “don’t make this film, no one wants to see a film about travellers or one with travellers in it.”

I just thought it was important because I felt there hadn’t been a dramatic big film about all the issues that are associated with travellers and shown in a realistic way. I wanted the film to be a mosiac of a lot of different issues and everything that’s associated with the travellers like the weddings, the sulky racing, online challenge videos and bare-knuckle boxing. I wanted it to be completely realistic. Pavee Lackeen (2005), for me, was the only real authentic traveller film but that had a very documentary feel to it.

JOE: The portrayal of travellers in films has often been one of comic relief – the one that stands out in particular is Brad Pitt playing One Punch Mickey in Snatch. Did you try recruiting Pitt and give him a call to see if he’d be interested in being involved?

MO’C: No, no! We were looking to stick to casting travellers in this film. We had Peter Coonan though (Fran from Love/Hate), he plays Mickey the Bags, an adopted traveller.

JOE: Coonan was definitely channelling his inner-Joe Pesci as the lovable psychopath alright...

MO’C: Yeah, he’s trying to compensate for not being a real traveller and I was trying to flip the stereotype on its head and, instead of people not wanting to admit they’re backgrounds, he was actually ashamed that he’s not a real traveller.

JOE: Speaking of the cast, you’ve got veteran traveller actor Micael Collins too. Having him on board, did that make it easier to convince other travellers who hadn’t acted before to be involved with the project?

MO’C: Yeah, having Michael there was great because he introduced me to a lot of the Collins family and we were trying to cast different members of different traveller families. Through Michael I went to weddings and pubs and halting sites. We filmed at real traveller fairs at the big one at Ballinasloe and at a smaller one down in Galway. The people there were great and we just shot that completely real, we just had to make sure they didn’t look at the camera!

JOE: Your lead man John Connors plays John Paul Moorhouse the traveller, had he acted before or where did you discover him?

MO’C: He came in and auditioned quite late on when I’d already cast a lot of the roles but, I thought that he was so good and strong, that I recast the lead and that was a very, very hard decision to make. A lot of people didn’t want me to cast him because he doesn’t look like the typical leading man but I don’t go for looks, I go for someone who is real and who can inhabit that character. John is a very internal actor and it’s all about the rage building up inside of him and he really nailed that.

JOE: How did you find the experience of the halting sites? Obviously whenever you set out to make a film you have your own ideas but did other ideas come to mind once you visited the sites and met the travellers themselves?

MO’C: Well, I always had the idea to make the film in my head since certain things had happened to me, then I got in touch with Michael and we built a story around a combination of personal experience and some real-life situations too. And also some source material like the works of Shakespeare.

JOE: Well there definitely are shades of the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet from rival families and also the elements of revenge and the ghostly apparitions of the father from Hamlet.

MO’C: Yeah, I was reading some Shakespeare at the time and I found out that he borrowed a lot of material from other people and I thought it would be interesting to borrow some from him. His work would’ve been one of the influeneces for the film and it was funny to put in things like the witches from Macbeth as the old traveller women. With travellers, the culture is very traditional and has an old feeling to it and I thought that Shakespeare would fit that nicely.

JOE: And there are also modern-day influences like Martin Scorsese tracking shots and the film has been described as “the Gaelic Godfather.”

MO’C: I love old 70s films and they definitely would have influenced me. A third of the material would be based on real life, a third would be inspired by other source material and a third would be from my own life experience.

JOE: You’ve made short films and another feature film before but does the process get easier as you go along

MO’C: You definitely learn a lot from the previous work and can see the mistakes that you’ve made before and I’m very happy with the film now. It was very restrictive as well with time and money and with stunts and horses, especially as the horses take so long to get one shot that you’re looking for and it’s the same thing with the bare-knuckle boxing fights.

With this film, I wanted to bring the traditional elements of story-telling and my personal style of social realism together into this strange mixture of a revenge tragedy.

JOE: Thanks for chatting with us today Mark and best of luck with the release.

MO’C: Thanks and just to say that the central thing that I wanted behind this film is that the travellers community would be less misunderstood and for the film to have a strong anti-violence message for everyone who sees it.

King of the Travellers will be on limited released across the country from 19 April and is available to rent or buy on DVD in the UK now.