of IFC's HUNGER Directed by Steve McQueen
Story and Interview by Matt Huffman
The AFI Film Festival showcases several films about radical, rebellious acts of resistance, defiance of authority and redemption. With big budget, big name films like Steven Soderbergh's two part story starring Benicio Del Toro, as Che Guevara in Che, and Defiance, the World War II survival epic directed by AFI veteran Darren Aronofsky, closing the festival, it may be easy to miss the one film that represents a living success of the events and ideals it was made about. Of all the film to celebrate at this years AFI festival Hunger resonates the reality, and success of this year's themes on so many levels.
Artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen, directs this inspiring film about the conditions and events of political prisoner Bobby Sands during six weeks of his 1981 hunger strike that drew world media attention to the conditions in Northern Ireland's HMS Maze prison, and eventually to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Parliament floor. And, now, early critical acclaim has quietly given McQueen's dramatic expression the legs to warrant an Oscar™ nomination for the best foreign film.
I caught up with one of the cast members, Liam McMahon, on a rainy evening after rehearsals for the Belfast Theatre Fest, to speak with him about filming Hunger, and the recovery of Belfast in the years since Bobby Sands, The Troubles, and 1981.
McMahon begins - "Nobody can do the rain like we can do the rain, Matt. But, if there's any reason we get disconnected, I've got loads of time, man..." He had just come in from dinner when we set down to talk. Liam has a relaxed tone of voice, one of a humble accomplishment...which sounds very different from the quiet, edgy, young actor I met summers ago reading Shakespeare with Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang Theatre, in Culver City, California. He was good enough to earn a long-term place, and stay within the company, but the Irishman had other plans. Returning to Ireland in 2006, Liam pursued acting in his hometown, Belfast. "It was something I had to do, to start my career as an Irish actor," he recalls."
"It was a chance that could lead to Irish films like Hunger, that I hoped would materialize, if I worked, and trained, and lived in Belfast." His Irish cool breaks for a second, I hear it in his voice. He's excited I'm doing this story. Like many people around Hunger, they know it to be more than just a film. He wants to talk.
He continues, "I was just with David Holmes, who did the music on Hunger. He's the guy that did the music for Ocean's 12 and Ocean's 13. I just met him tonight. I knew he did the music to Hunger, and in typical Irish style I was introduced to him as "Hi, this is David" and then after about a half hour of conversation I realized...this was David Holmes. And then we got talking about Hunger, and the music in Hunger, because it's plenty interesting. The context of the film being what it is lends itself to the stereotypical soundtrack of...pipes, drums and traditional Irish music instruments. But, such as the original filmmaking that goes on in the film that basically, the soundtrack consists of one piano, and one note, and its so minimalistic that it works perfectly with the film. All the stereotypical things that you would imagine would be in the film are not there. And, you kind of go, of course, that's perfect music for the film. It's so minimalistic that it works perfectly with the film. All the stereotypical things that you would imagine would be in the film are not there.
Hunger has had to stay away from stirring the passions that its characters embodied so powerfully and believed so deeply. In a world climate of religious struggle, martyrdom, jihad, and incarceration, the topic of self-sacrifice must be handled delicately, (especially filming in Belfast) about events that still influence the city's landscape.
Liam adds - Hunger was filmed with the greatest respect to both sides of the community there in Northern Ireland in the fact they didn't want to rub it in anybody's faces that this film was being made. It was always going to be controversial. And, during the filming, there was a group protesting about it. It was discussed at the Northern Ireland Assembly, as to different locations that were not allowed to be used. They were trying to stop the locations from being used in the film, and essentially, the film being made. People were up in arms again about The Troubles and the IRA. Why make films about the terrorists if you want to call them that? Why not make films about the victims?
In an interview with Joan Dupont in the Herald Tribune, Hunger director, Steve McQueen explains, "This film is not about right and wrong. It's about the human and unique situation. People on the crew had relatives who were directly related to hunger strikers, to prison officers from that era. So there was a situation going on as we were filming. They were doing something physical about it: they were making the film."
I asked Liam, as a native born in Belfast, and returning as an artist, if he shared these feelings about getting the chance to contribute, to the political climate by playing his role.
"I read the script. I've never seen a script that's come into to Northern Ireland, as engaging, as original, and presented characters that I would have walked to the end of the world to play. Here was a character that I really, really wanted to play. It would have hit me hard not to have a part in the film. I play Gerry Campbell (who's a fictitious name) represented about 400 people who were on the Blanket Protest." (In 1976, Irish Republican prisoners refused to ware the prison uniforms, wrapping themselves in blankets instead.)
"We wanted to be able to represent the ideals and the day-to-day living of those on the hunger strike, and represent, as close to the experience of the group as possible. People seeing this in Northern Ireland participated in the blanket protests. They should recognize themselves in some degree within our character, on some level."
"McQueen wanted to make a film and stay away from the politics of it. Instead, make a film about one man using his body as a weapon of protest. You use your body as the last weapon, and also, as a statement. Using your body as a tool of expression, and crying out and all of that...and that's what basically what the film's is about - about what one human can do to another in the confines of a prison. You don't know why Bobby Sands was in there. You know he's IRA, but you don't know what he's done...because McQueen stayed clear of all those questions. It's more a film about humanity."
Was this a sentiment shared with Enda Walsh? (He's an Irishman, and writer of the film.)
Enda Walsh, who wrote the film? I knew his style...both by seeing some of his work in the theatre, and seeing some of his work on screen. He is one of the hot contemporary Irish theatre writers. And, he wrote the film and shares with Steve McQueen.
I see I've asked a ridiculous question from his point of view, these are individuals challenging the interpretation and understanding of the modern creative persona. The cross media artist and creator. These guys seem to be able to adapt and work with anything,...so together? The answer should be obvious. For my article, Liam continues...
I was aware that Steve McQueen had won the Turner prize for art a few years beforehand. I knew he was a video artist. And, I knew that his work was all installation art. I Immediately got excited by the prospect of a guy who's very much immersed in theatre (Walsh), breaking into film...combining with an artist who specializes in installation art (McQueen)? I saw that as a fantastic amalgamation.
Hunger (by Hollywood standards) represents huge risk - unknown talent, difficult emotional subject matter, and a first-time director... all making most studio executives and producers head for cover. I had to ask.
Did you have any concerns hiring on to the film?
I was kinda going, well what's it going to be like for an artist to turn into a filmmaker? McQueen? I knew that he hadn't directed actors before. And, I thought...well, this was gonna be interesting to see how he makes the jump. He's got quite a spring board anyway, with the visual art, with the video art, so he knows his way around a camera, But, in terms of directing actors, I wasn't so sure. But...I was ready to take the risk, you know? Because I knew it was gonna be something interesting, and if it failed, it would have been a great experience. Art is all about...well you must embrace failure if you're a true artist, before you can embrace success. Because, ultimately, the two are fifty-fifty. The chance of both happening is very realistic. So, I was delighted that here was a guy, his first film, he had chosen to do it about Northern Ireland - totally and utterly shocking the art world, and shocking the Irish people that this guy has decided, a big black fellow from Brixton in London, you know? An English guy, making this film about Ireland. About, probably, the most politically volatile era of Northern Ireland's history? It was kind of him jumping into the lion's den. All of those variables made me very, very excited.
Where did you shoot? I understand the Maze prison was not available?
It was actually shot in a leisure center in Belfast. It couldn't be shot in the Maze Prison because it's been demolished, but they still hold the hospital wing of the prison - Longkesh. The actual prison was called HMS Maze. It is now a football stadium, that all sides of the community can use. Gaelic football and soccer. That's progress in itself. It's amazing. We could see, and go on tours of the hospital wing. We saw footage of Maze prison, to create the set, they built the whole wing of the of prison in a place in the northeast coast of Antrim, an unused power station. They built the set centimeter by centimeter, inch by inch perfect, of Longkesh. The set is a character in the film. There's a lot going on..."
All that construction must have been good for the economy. Are things looking forwards in the Ireland film industry?
Well, everybody's afraid of the credit crunch and the world economy at the moment, and they think things will slowdown. But, if you take away the south, and just concentrate on Northern Ireland's film industry in the last two years...it has just boomed ridiculously. There's a generator program now and Tom Hanks is involved as well, and they've put money into...like a million pounds into something like ten movies? And so, at the moment tonight, the world premier of City Of Ember with Bill Murray, and Tim Robbins, and a lot of an Irish cast, is being held in Belfast. It was filmed in the Titanic Quarter, in just a few months, just before Hunger was made.
While Hunger was being made, there was another horror film being shoot called Freak Dog, which has got a screening now. So, in the space of this month, you have two world premiers in Belfast and three films about to come out. Another one is Fifty Dead Men Walking, and another one with Oliver Hirschbiegel, who did The Downfall? He's directed another one, with Liam Neeson, and James Nesbitt, called Five Minutes of Heaven. Actors' in Northern Ireland can't believe their luck!
The current success is unbelievable. For so long especially during the troubles, there was no investment in films. During the troubles, few people went to see them and they were a rarity.
These days though, it seems a sustainable peace and lasting ceasefire have taken hold since the St Andrews Agreement of October, 2006. More importantly, in July, 2007, the British Army formally ended Operation Banner, - their mission in Northern Ireland which began 38 years earlier, in 1969.
Hunger, reminds us how far the peace process, and our humanity has had to come. From the unlivable treatment Bobby Sands rose above to be the first member of the Republicans to be elected to Parliament through expressions of protest to the human conditions found under incarceration and inhumane oppression. Even death led to the first meaningful negotiations that, 26 years later, would culminate in the March, 2007, elections, where the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin formed a government together in Northern Ireland.
Currently, Belfast and the northern counties are seeing a nice return on this investment in peace and mutual respect in the form of increased jobs, tourism, and improved infrastructure, including encouragement to develop the Arts, Sports, and Entertainment.
Liam concludes - Now, you just turn on the news and the BBC are covering openings and screenings of films that have been shot in Northern Ireland. I'd say its' just gone through the roof in terms of production. That's gone hand in hand with the amount of investment coming into Northern Ireland. Because of the cease fire, and the new Assembly and stuff... In the space of ten years Northern Ireland's just changed. People who left here, wouldn't recognize it if they came back.
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