Luke McManus on Getting a Full Picture of a Community in “North Circular”

If Luke McManus was in search of a good story to tell for his latest film, he didn’t have to look far.

“Sean is the local busker outside my local store, so if I want to buy bread and milk, I go into that store and I see him outside,” said McManus, who had started filming around his working class neighborhood of Dublin and getting to know people he wouldn’t have had an excuse to talk to otherwise. “And when I started this project, I thought to myself, ‘You never know. That guy might be worth a conversation.’”

There is no doubt that he was, as are all the locals that McManus comes into contact with in “North Circular,” his gorgeous portrait of his hometown in Ireland that is at once transporting in its stark monochrome compositions that have the ability to freeze time while the area itself is experiencing great change, with developers from the city eager to knock down longstanding local haunts such as the Cobblestone Pub to build apartment buildings and hotels and generations weaned on using their phone for entertainment less inclined to carry on the grand musical traditions such as the bagpipes and folk singing. In the midst of such a sea change, it might be easy to overlook someone like Sean O’Tuama, the busker who has no other home but the streets and suffers from mental health issues and deep personal trauma, but he reflects the soul of “North Circular,” staying true to himself and continuing to sing even in a world that threatens to leave him behind.

McManus finds O’Tuama to be one voice of many in a growing chorus keeping the spirit of the community alive when ambling along the road, visiting memorial services for military veterans, football games and protests against the destruction of cherished landmarks, all of which have music as galvanizing, collective force that the director augments with more proper performances set inside speakeasies and concert halls. Just as he finds residents making a home for themselves in long-abandoned flats, there is life teeming out of every nook and cranny of “North Circular,” where the ghosts of the past may still circle within now empty institutions such as the prisons and mental asylums that once incarcerated the innocent and people flood the streets for the promise of the future, whether it’s to rally around saving a communal space or celebrating their Olympian boxer Kellie Harrington.

This week, the filmmaker is turning the Firehouse DCTV in New York into a space just as sacred as “North Circular” begins its U.S. theatrical run, not only bringing the film to America but arriving with singer Annie Hughes, one of the film’s featured performers, in tow for “musical Q & As” after the screenings opening weekend and shortly before making the trek, he spoke about capturing both this time and place that have been so important to him, what he could go out and film at a moment’s notice and his choice to shoot in black-and-white.

How did this come about?

I live in the community — that’s the real starting point. I’ve made my home in this area for a very long time now. 25 years nearly and I was always fascinated by the geography, the history and the feel of it. Then COVID came along and it was that moment where we were all kind of trapped in our neighborhoods and in a way I was delighted because it’s a very interesting neighborhood to be trapped in. I thought if I ever going to make this film, now’s the moment. I can’t go anywhere else.

I wanted to do a project about the North Circular Road for a long time, and I also wanted to do a project that featured this style of music and the black-and-white aesthetic, because I collaborated with Lankum, the most preeminent of the new wave of Irish folk bands, the Velvet Underground of folk music basically. They’re black-clad and cool and I had done a video with them for their first album and it got a huge response, so I knew I wanted to do something longer form in that world, but then I had an epiphany that maybe the North Circular film is the same as the Black and White music film, so I pushed the two streams together and that’s what we ended up with.

You’re able to bring in the past through the present, but was that hard to achieve?

We had this notion that we would use the city almost like a manuscript to read, like an old book, [where] as you walk through the city, it’s the same in New York, I’m sure, you get a very strong sense of certain eras from certain places and buildings. The idea was that our characters were all contemporary living people, but that they all had their lives informed by the past in some way, and we did this quite deliberately — we’d say to ourselves if we’re in the park, we want to see things that are 19th century, and we want to avoid modernity as much as possible, and we were trying to evoke a timelessness.

And at times we were thinking, we would group [certain stories] thematically, but what we always came back to was, this is a journey along the road. If you started the west of the North Circular Road and you walk to the east, [this film follows] the places you go through in order and that was key. I often say this in the introduction to the film, when we completed the film. The movie is 86 minutes long, the movie, and I went onto Google Maps and I put in the first location and the last location and asked Google Maps how long it would take to walk. The answer is 85 minutes, so we were only a minute out and it’s like a real-time, almost pedestrian view of the road.

It really seems like a duet between the sound and image when those things aren’t necessarily aligned. Was one leading you to find the other when you were doing interviews or when you were capturing images?

Yeah, we had this idea that it was going to be a musical rather than being a music documentary — the music in the film would tell the story of the film, so if you were talking about armies and war, you’d have a war song and a prison ballad and there was this ongoing conversation. It was an easy idea to think of, but not necessarily an easy idea to execute or achieve, but I was very fortunate to have an incredible editor John Murphy who took my notions and skillfully engineer solutions that made the film work because it could have been a right mishmash of different strands.

You go to a number of community events that seem pretty wild. Were you aware of them in advance?

You need a lot of luck when you’re making films like this, and I had plenty of it making this film. It wasn’t premeditated. The best example was when I was out trick-or-treating with my son and I came home it was a wet night in Ireland. I was cold and a bit miserable and I was sitting on a nice warm sofa with a cup of tea going, “Well, am I really gonna go and look for that bonfire tonight?” Then I thought, “What the hell. I’ll get out for an hour” and I just went down and shot for about 90 minutes at the bonfire and managed to gather all that imagery myself in that short window. And that’s the joy of being embedded in a place — you can do get up off the sofa and just randomly go shoot for a couple hours and get really lucky — so being in the heart of the community and living my life there made a big difference to the texture [of the film].

Speaking of the texture, what went into getting this particular look?

It’s interesting because there’s seven cameras that the film was shot on and there’s five DOPs, including myself and another couple operators. It was a bit all over the place in terms of personnel and camera, and normally that would lead to a quite disjointed visual style. But with this black-and-white economy ratio choice that we made very early on, it did inform everyone’s eye. We had to look for certain things. Like when you’re shooting in black and white, you’re trying to find texture, contrast, hard stark light and shadow and edges of things — strong composition [in general], so that informed it and honestly the new camera technology is so incredible. I bought a Sony FX6 during the production of the film and I wouldn’t have been able to [capture] that bonfire ten years ago on an equivalent camera. It just wouldn’t have worked, so I was very fortunate in that point of view too.

Did anything happen that changed your ideas of what this could be?

A lot of it, truth be told. As a famous director said, “Every day I show up with a plan, but inside I’m praying someone’s going to have a better one.” You have to have a vision, but you have to make sure that that vision is loose and broad enough to encompass what reality throws at you. What really changed the film was probably the Cobblestone [Pub] being threatened, because that was nine months into filming by the time that kicked off as an event. And the film was definitely missing something. That just felt like the storyline that bound together everything — the tension between modernity and the past, and it talks about the community and the solace that comes from being together and the psychic importance of buildings and what they represent to city dwellers. And that Cobblestone story also interlocked with the dominant narrative in Irish society at the moment, which is this housing crisis in Dublin and the issues around property.

And that’s hardly a local issue – most major American cities are dealing with it now as well, so I know how grateful people are going to be that at least it’s a landmark that’s preserved on camera, if the Cobblestone does end up a victim of redevelopment.

Well, it’s still there, and they’ve got a long reprieve that might be an infinite reprieve now, so it was worth coming out for. Those people made a difference, and what I particularly loved about them was I did a whole TV series about street protests and what I loved about that one [for the Cobblestone] is the level of creativity and artistry that was in it. The Halloween costumes and the coffins — they turned it into this Irish funeral for Dublin culture and the fact that they had this ceilidh, this traditional music session, on the steps of the city council offices, was a wonderfully creative way of being a politician or a political activist. I thought that was tremendous.

And obviously so impactful. I really like that the film is being treated like the event it should be with these screenings where it’s accompanied by a performance from Annie Hughes, who sings at the start of the film on screen. What’s it been like going out on the road and making it special in that way?

It’s been incredible. I think it’s a film that warrants discussion and supports debate and people always have questions, but I’m a firm believer in having a certain level of mystery in a documentary. Documentaries that explain everything too boldly are a little bit sterile and inert, so I like to leave questions to be answered afterwards and that was always a big thought around the film, and then we went to Copenhagen [for CPH:DOX] and Annie came, and we came up with this musical Q&A format, a bit like the movie. There’s people talking, and then there’s people singing and then there’s people talking and then there’s people singing, and [Annie] has such an uncannily good voice, it’s quite an experience for a cinema audience. Singing sounds great in the movie theater — it’s a lovely environment for it, so [at the] Firehouse [in New York] as well, it’s a lovely intimate space, so I’m looking forward to doing the chats there starting this Friday.

“North Circular” opens on July 28th in New York at DCTV’s Firehouse. A full list of upcoming screenings and dates is here.

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