Decades-Spanning Black-and-White Film About Singer Joe Heaney is Anything But a Conventional Biopic

Pat Collins’ Song of Granite opens up a world that will be new to most American spectators — in fact, to most of the world outside Ireland: the tradition of sean nós singing (essentially, a cappella versions of traditional folk songs in Gaelic.) It’s a very adventurous depiction of three decades in the life of singer Joe Heaney, who was born in rural Ireland and eventually emigrated to New York, where he worked as a hotel doorman in the 1960s and was re-discovered by folk music fans and wound up playing the Newport Folk Festival. While about 90 percent of Song of Granite consists of fictional recreations of Heaney’s life over 30 years, from childhood through middle age (he is played by three different actors), the film also inserts archival footage of the real Heaney. Song of Granite mixes textures and leaps across time and space in a way that narrative films rarely do. Biopics about musicians can be a deadly stodgy and predictable genre. Collins dodged all of their pitfalls.

StudioDaily: Your film’s cinematography is very striking. A lot of the locations are desolate and rather beautiful without being pretty, if that makes sense. Are they areas where Joe Heaney actually lived?

Pat Collins: Yeah, they are. He was born in a place called Connemara, in West Galway, which is County Galway. And all the scenes we shot were around that area, within a 20- or 30-mile radius of where he was brought up. Not every single location was within a mile of where he was brought up, but it was within 10 to 30 miles. It’s very true to where he was from. We did actually film where he was born.

There’s wall-to-wall music for much of the film. Were you influenced by musicals or other films about music?

Strangely enough, I didn’t think of any musicals. I was thinking about the reality that probably was. There aren’t a lot of musicals about Ireland in the 1930s or the 1960s or about traditional singing. I was thinking more of cinema in terms of neo-realism or Robert Flaherty’s making a film of the islands than musicals. There’s many traces of Man of Aran in Song of Granite. Documentaries and early silent films were an influence, to a certain extent.

You show singing as an element of everyday life. Is that still a part of contemporary Irish life?

In some places, it is. Singing is less open. It’s still performed in homes and parties. Even a lot of children are learning traditional singing. It’s still a very important part of Irish life, but it might not be very visible on television or mainstream radio.

Still from Song of Granite

Lisa O’Neill and extras in a session at Gravediggers Pub

As a narrative film, Song of Granite is fairly experimental. It moves around in time and place without giving the audience a great deal of warning. Was it challenging to write a script and edit it in a way that wasn’t confusing?

From the very beginning, we were trying to make something that was not too narratively driven. He was a complex character, difficult to know. I didn’t invent any reasons why he left his family and didn’t go back to Ireland. I didn’t know what’s behind his actions. I wanted to keep a skeleton of a story and see what came out of that. Geographically, he went from Scotland to Dublin to New York. Those things were difficult to fit, but I had to work with that. My priority was aesthetics.

A scene from Song of Granite

Joe in his 60s was portrayed by Mícháel Ó Chonfhaola in this scene shot in Montréal

How did you find actors who are also extremely talented singers?

The casting for the film began at an early stage. For the middle Joe, set in the 1960s and which required a strong singing performance, I think I spent two years or maybe even more listening to real sean nós singers seeing them sing live etc. And after a long time considering it, I homed in on Míchéal Ó Chonfhaola, who is one of the great singers in Ireland. He also has a great look. He’s not a professional singer — he’s a fisherman, and he used to be an amateur boxer. He had the right personality for the part. But his singing was the main issue. He sings with great intensity, and I think the part needed that intensity. For the young boy, we worked with Amy Rowan Casting and we cast Colm Seoige. He’s a very natural singer. He can dance and, again, he’s got a great presence. We went through a casting process through schools in Connemara and he stood out. It was pretty clear that he was right for the part. The final Joe is a very established and experienced actor in Ireland: Macdara Ó Fatharta.

A scene from Song of Granite

Young Joe was played by Colm Seoighe in this scene shot at Inishark in County Galway, Ireland.

How did you decide on the ratio of narrative to documentary footage?

A lot of the archive footage was actually written into the script, but of course it did change somewhat in the edit. I always felt it was important for us to show the real Joe Heaney alongside our dramatic versions of him. Also, it creates a charge. We never wanted archive to appear in the early part, set in the 1930s. We just felt it wouldn’t right cinematically. We felt once we moved in to the ’60s, the style we filmed in, the echoes of cinema verité, the handheld nature of it, that allowed us to move into archive that was shot at that time — in particular, clips from a film called The Irishmen: An Impression of Exile by the great British documentarian Philip Donnellan. The ratio is purely an instinctual thing. We were aware, though, of the danger of the archive becoming too powerful and taking over from the drama. So it was important that we stayed in control of it.

What kind of camera did you shoot Song of Granite with?

We used an ARRI Amira with Cooke S2 lenses. They were used a lot in the ’50s and ’60s. When we shot in the states, we used Zeiss Super Speeds. Originally we discussed, at length, shooting on film, but because of the reality of the budget and the fact we were shooting in low light a lot, we decided to go with the ARRI Amira. Richard Kendrick is a great DP and I really trusted him on this. I felt he was on top of it and had a good feeling for it. And when I saw the rushes I was just so happy with the look of it.

The documentary footage is instantly identifiable because of the change in texture. Are you satisfied with this mixture of visual tones?

Yeah, I really think the mixture of visual tones was very important. I didn’t necessarily want to fool people, trying to pass off the footage as our own. I like the notion of showing other filmmakers’ work. It’s like a conversation across time. I think now, too, there is acceptance of that clash between tones. People’s lives are so attuned to different formats now. It’s not something suitable for all films, but once it’s imagined like that from the beginning, then it is more organic.

Macdara Ó Fátharta in Song of Granite

Macdara Ó Fátharta, playing Joe in the 1960s, looks out over New York City in one of the film’s scenes shot in Montréal

How did the Canadian co-financing come together? Did you originally want to shoot the U.S.-set footage in America itself?

Joe Heaney worked and lived in New York so we always wanted to shoot in New York, but the reality of the financing meant we had to shoot in Montreal. Ireland has a co-production treaty with Canada. It’s a complicated system, but it seems to work. But Montreal worked pretty well. There was a great crew, and it’s a nice city to work in. Perhaps more highly regulated than what we would be used to in Ireland, but it was still overall positive. We also mixed there and the sound mix with Bernard Gariépy Strobl was hugely enjoyable.

Mixing fiction and documentary elements has become popular in the past few years. There are even festivals devoted to films like this. Were you influenced by other “hybrid” films?

Not particularly. It comes out of my own experience of working with documentary. I‘ve made a lot of documentaries, and I’ve spent a lot of that time in the Irish Film Archive researching archive and there is of course my own experience of watching TV as a child. A lot of my documentaries have used archive extensively. So it all feeds into how I see film. I’m a little out of touch with documentary in the last few years. I think there is a big difference between documentaries using dramatic elements than drama using archive. My starting point was drama and archive was only to serve the drama. But it’s a false division really for me. I don’t like when archive is used dishonestly. Or used to make fun of the past. I think archive is all part of how you approach it imaginatively. But imagination is tied into reality in any case. It’s all part of trying to be truthful to your own vision for the film. So perhaps this is a growing thing, but I’m not too aware of it. It’s been there for years. I think of Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Larisa Shepitko’s Wings. I think there is an element of archive in Wings too.

A scene from Song of Granite

Rosie (Jaren Cerf) interviews Joe (Macdara Ó Fátharta) on a porch in Montreal

What places do you think Heaney holds in Irish folk music?

The musicologist Lillis Ó Laoire wrote, “Heaney is the single most important individual artist to have emerged from the Gaelic community in the 20th century.” And I think he’s right. Heaney brought this style of singing into public awareness — at the Newport folk Festival, through his performances and recordings and teaching. There is no one who has done more to promote it as an art form. Again, Lillis has said that Heaney created sean nós singing as an art form. It could be seen as a controversial statement, because it is clearly an art form in itself. But in terms of public awareness, no one else has done more to spread the word. Heaney was an artist. No doubt about that. And he faced down a lot of prejudice in his lifetime. And that still exists within Ireland. But now it’s more sins of omission rather than actively setting out to dismiss it. A lot of Irish people have no experience of being a witness to sean nós singing up close. It’s not an art form that is going to shout for recognition. There’s a sense that it is being kept alive by hugely talented singers, and it’s there for anyone who wants to engage with it. But it’s not going to come looking for your attention the way that pop music does.

Do you follow the contemporary Irish folk music scene? For instance, the band Lankum has gotten a lot of attention lately and released an album on Rough Trade, the label that brought the world the Smiths, a few weeks ago.

I do keep up to date as much as I can and the quality of singers of young musicians and singers has never been better. There are some incredible young singers emerging within the sean nós tradition — Neill Ní Chronín, Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde, Caitlín Ní Chualáin and Conchubhar Ó Luasa. And one of my favourites from an older generation is Iarla Ó Lionaird. And then people like Lisa O’Neill and Liam O Maonlaí who have done a lot in a contemporary way with traditional singing in English. They are building on the great singers and artists like who have done a lot to bring the singing into a wider audience — people like Christy Moore and Andy Irvine and back to Joe Heaney. But I’m still drawn to some of the older singers like Sarah Makem and Elizabeth Cronin. And you know it all comes back for me to singers from within your own area. People who are not at all well known outside their own area and will never be but who are no less important to me.

Lankum are an interesting band. In fact Radie Peat from Lankum is one of the musicians playing in the pub scene in Song of Granite. She plays the concertina. I like Lankum’s attitude, I suppose, too. I remember seeing The Pogues in the early ’80s, close to when I also saw the Smiths, and the Pogues were hugely important. Even more so looking back. The energy they had and the attitude and also how they allowed young Irish people to appreciate what was already there within the tradition. You hear interviews with Shane McGowan and you realize the depth of knowledge and appreciation he had for the tradition. But he felt compelled to do something new with it. But singing and music is hugely important still within Ireland — singing in Irish and English. I think Ireland has still a lot to offer because of the rich tradition. And it’s good to try something new, delving deep into the tradition and emerging with something new. But it can’t be done if we are trying to sell something. It has to be kept away from the people who want to commodify it and change it into something that it was never meant to be. I think artistically it’s valid to bend and adapt it — but not if we are doing it just to sell it. I sometimes think it’s even a mistake if we become too conscious of it. But, then again, I’ve just made a film about it, so there’s a contradiction within there. I’m aware of that.

Song of Granite opens today at Film Forum in New York City, December 8 at the Monica Film Center in Santa Monica, CA, and December 29 at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, New Mexico.