Film in Cork recently connected with Director Pádraig Trehy to chat about his feature film ‘Shem the Penman sings again’: An imagined archive of the actual and much fabled friendship between James Joyce and John McCormack.
|Can you give us some information about your previous work and how you ended up on this project?
I have been involved in theatre and film for over twenty years in a variety of capacities but predominantly as a writer/director. My documentary films have all been about the creative process in a number of different art forms; sculpture (The Headstones of Seamus Murphy & A Quiet Revolution) music (Trying to Sell Your Soul … about the Sultans of Ping) literature (The Genius about Frank O’Connor and Echoes about poetry translation). Shem the Penman started its life as a documentary but as I explored the themes and the subject further it became apparent that any conventional treatment of the material was impossible and inappropriate.
This particular project developed from the simple desire to make a feature film. Rossa Mullin (the producer of Shem and a long-time friend) and I had agreed that we were going to make a low-budget feature in Cork, we had been planning something contemporary but once I pitched the idea for Shem to him we decided to put our energy into trying to make it happen instead. We envisaged a documentary feature originally but were more enthused by the prospect of making something a bit more unconventional and challenging. While I don’t consider myself any type of an expert in the work of Joyce, I have always held him up as an artistic hero and have always valued the level of his ambition.
Tell us more about your personal interest in the subject of the film.
The impetus for the project comes firstly from my love of music, in this case my interest in early recordings from the start of the twentieth-century. The germ of the project came while listening to John McCormack and sonically connecting with a romantic notion of what it means to be Irish. McCormack was most popular in America after all, specifically with the Irish diaspora for whom his voice captured a longing for an idealized homeland. I then started to explore the connection between Joyce and McCormack, and when I realized that there was not only a real friendship between the two men (however briefly it may have lasted) but also that Joyce had fashioned McCormack into one of the main characters in Finnegans Wake, the film started to come alive for me. I then used Joyce’s real connection to the cinema (he opened the first dedicated cinema in Ireland in 1909) to weave in one of my other great passions, that of silent cinema, especially the figure of Charlie Chaplin, who became the inspiration for Frank Prendergast’s portrayal of Shem the Penman.
How did you source the necessary archival footage? And, as a director, how did you work this footage into the piece? Also, can you give us more information about the imaginary radio broadcasts used in the film?
There is only about a minute’s worth of footage of Joyce that survives, which would have been prohibitively expensive to use, but also not much use when you are trying to build a feature film. This was one of the reasons that I imagined Shem from the outset as a series of films within a film, which would comprise an imagined archive of choice scenes from Joyce’s life. These scenes are mixed with episodes from the ‘Tales of Shem and Shaun’, taken almost directly from Finnegans Wake itself. These episodes were graded in post-production to make them look like they had been made between 1910 and 1930, depending on the episode and its placement in the film as a whole. This creation of my own archive footage ultimately made the film affordable but more importantly allowed me to be far more playful with the material.
The idea for the imaginary radio broadcasts comes from a similar place but again grounded in fact. Joyce did make reference to the new technology of radio throughout Finnegans Wake and there is certainly a connection formally between Joyce’s attempt to capture the world in a book and the ability of a radio to tune into a variety of frequencies from a variety of countries in many languages. The radio was increasingly important in the last decade of his life as his eyesight faded it allowed him to stay in touch with the world outside of his Paris apartment.
So what’s next in the pipeline for you?
Up next for me: I have already started production on a documentary which I am directing for Frameworks Films and Cork Community TV under the BAI Sound and Vision scheme, about the Ballyphehane Club Ceoil which nurtures the playing of traditional Irish music in the community. I have a number of features in development which I will hopefully be able to fill you in on the not too distant future – but that will hopefully be for another newsletter.
We’re looking forward to it!
‘Shem the Penman sings again’ is screening in the Everyman Palace on November 13th at 20.00, as part of the Cork Film Festival.