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Tuesday 23 January 2018

How the 'Irish connection' has netted Hollywood gold for some of the world's biggest stars

We can hold our own when it comes to the Oscars but the Irish connection has also netted gold for some of the world's biggest stars

Heart of gold: Catherine McCormack and Mel Gibson in Braveheart, filmed in Co Wicklow
Heart of gold: Catherine McCormack and Mel Gibson in Braveheart, filmed in Co Wicklow
On set: Seamus Moran at Slea Head, where Far and Away starring Tom Cruise was filmed
Maureen O'Hara
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

For such a small country, Ireland has punched above its weight at the Oscars. Since Dublin-born set designer Cedric Gibbons won the first of 11 - yes, 11 - Academy Awards for Best Production Design in 1930, the green flag has flown frequently at cinema's most prestigious ceremony.

As art director for MGM, Gibbons had a hand in some of the 20th century's most iconic films, including The Wizard of Oz and An American in Paris, and was nominated another 27 times. He is also credited with designing the iconic gold 'Oscar' statuette, in 1928. A decade later, George Bernard Shaw became the only person to win a Nobel Prize and an Oscar, the latter for adapting his play Pygmalion.

Daniel Day-Lewis made history in 2013 as the first man to win three Best Actor awards. Barry Fitzgerald's 1945 Best Supporting Actor nod was also historic: he was simultaneously nominated as Best Actor for the same role in Going My Way.

We've had Oscars in screenwriting, song-writing, short film, documentary, make-up, visual effects, supporting actress, plus two Lifetime Achievements, for Maureen O'Hara and Peter O'Toole (himself nominated, unsuccessfully, for Best Actor a heart-breaking eight times).

On set: Seamus Moran at Slea Head, where Far and Away starring Tom Cruise was filmed
On set: Seamus Moran at Slea Head, where Far and Away starring Tom Cruise was filmed

Last year saw a record nine nominations for Irish films, including Room and Brooklyn for Best Picture (Brie Larson took Best Actress for the former) and Lenny Abrahamson for Best Director, while Benjamin Cleary took home the prize for Best Short Film. And of course, later this month, Limerick actress Ruth Negga is up for a gong for Loving.

But there's another connection with the Academy Awards, as we discover in the second series of Hollywood in Éirinn, back on TG4 this Thursday at 9.30pm.

Presenter Seamus Moran - you'll probably know him as long-suffering Mike from Fair City - again goes behind the scenes in Irish towns and rural areas that have hosted major Hollywood productions. And of this season's six featured pictures, The Field and Michael Collins were Oscar-nominated, while Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan won big, including Best Director gongs for Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg.

It's a thoroughly entertaining show, especially for anyone with a passion for cinema history and trivia. We hear, for instance, that the man who owned the land on which Saving Private Ryan's famous D-Day scenes were shot had already "struck gold", not long before production began. He discovered a collection of buried Bronze Age treasure, now known as the Curracloe Hoard and housed in the National Museum.

For Braveheart's stirring fight scenes, two Navan carpenters constructed a battering-ram and ramparts to add to Trim Castle, and created rocks using Styrofoam. Tom Hanks tried his hand hurling with a Wexford All-Ireland winner, Tom Cruise's entourage got into a row with the Swiss lawyer who owned their Kerry holiday homes - really - and Brian Friel "pulled rank for the only time" in insisting the Dancing at Lughnasa premiere take place in a converted Glenties school-hall.

The show meets notable Irish talents such as Noel Pearson, Jim Sheridan and Aidan Quinn, but is, as Seamus explains, "mostly to get more of a behind-the-scenes view, with the crew and others who made it possible. It's wonderful when you hear about a Hollywood film shooting here for the beautiful scenery - but that's not the only reason. We try to show that a huge part is the expertise available in Ireland, the experience," he says.

Maureen O'Hara
Maureen O'Hara

"We also found people who had at least a peripheral involvement. For example, the local bar in Curracloe built on a restaurant because they got so busy, with so many to feed, during the Private Ryan shoot. They called it The Omaha Beach Restaurant, and it's still running, 20 years later.

"This behind-the-scenes stuff is crucial in getting a film made; people don't always realise that. And not just the crew: without someone's site and their cooperation with the producers, films run into difficulties."

Take Kippure House Estate in Wicklow, which was used for Braveheart. Now an adventure and team-building centre, it had such a variety of landscapes that Gibson was able to use this one location for a village, castle and several battle scenes.

Seamus identifies other elements as crucial in bringing over major movies: army availability for large-scale battles, our reputation for artistic excellence and appreciation of it in others, the way celebrities don't get hassled by public or paparazzi (Hanks was able to enjoy a 40th birthday party in a Wexford restaurant, happily unmolested.)

And the stars made a good impression in return. Hanks, Seamus says, "seemed game for anything. Very down to earth, everyone said, just one of the guys. Universally, people said he was one of the nicest men they'd ever met."

Cruise, here for Far and Away, "seems to have been very good at avoiding contact with people, unless they were working with him, but he was generous with his time. If an extra wanted a few minutes after shooting and was nice about it, he'd no problem chatting and posing for photographs.

"We also heard a story about how he arrived one morning and came up to all the extras, said 'Hi, I'm Tom, I'll just wait here until it's my turn', and then did it, no big deal. He seems to have been very unassuming, courteous and professional."

Meanwhile, Meryl Streep was said to have had "a great time" filming Dancing at Lughnasa, though not such a good time getting to the premiere. Seamus takes up the story: "For budgetary reasons it was shot in Wicklow, not Donegal, so they arranged the premiere in Glenties, and Meryl Streep agreed to come over for it.

"She got a flight from Dublin to Donegal, one of those twin-engine bone-shakers. Apparently she staggered off the plane, bones rattling, and said, 'I don't care how long it takes to go back by car, I'm not getting in that plane again!' The roads now are bad enough - they must have been horrendous then. But Meryl wasn't getting back on that plane."

Great Irish Oscar quotes

* "I'd like to thank Christy Brown, just for being alive. I'd like to thank Mrs Brown, his mother. Anybody who gives birth 22 times deserves one of these, I think" - Brenda Fricker, accepting the statuette for Best Supporting Actress at the 1990 Academy Awards

* "Sorry, I didn't know these nominations were coming up. I was in the bathroom when I heard it" - Neil Jordan, Best Original Screenplay, 1993

* "Go raibh míle, míle maith agat. This is amazing. What are we doing here? This is mad… Make art. Make art. Thanks" - Glen Hansard, Best Song (with Marketa Irglova), 2008

* "(Thanking) That old devil himself, the great John Ford. Pappy, we finally got an Oscar" - Maureen O'Hara, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2015

* "You've just provided me with the makings of one hell of a weekend in Dublin" - Daniel Day-Lewis, Best Actor, 1990

Irish Independent

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