The Cuban con­nec­tion

Viva writer Mark O’Hal­lo­ran tells Tara Brady how he and fel­low Ir­ish­man Pad dy Breath na ch wound up mak­ing a movie about a wanna be Cuban drag per­former – with a lit­tle help from one of Cas­tro’s for­mer trans­la­tors and Panti Bliss’ s wig col­lec­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

Writer, di­rec­tor and ar­guably Co Clare’s most glam­orous ex­port, Mark O’Hal­lo­ran first cap­tured the na­tional imag­i­na­tion as the star and au­thor of Adam & Paul.

The much-ad­mired 2004 drama marked di­rec­tor Lenny Abra­ham­son’s feature-length de­but and seemed to her­ald the ar­rival of a sig­nif­i­cant col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Sure enough, the chaps re-teamed for the 2007 Cannes prize-win­ner Garage, and both were pos­si­ble Os­car-con­tenders ear­lier this year, when Abra­ham­son was nom­i­nated for his work on Room, and Viva, a new film writ­ten by O’Hal­lo­ran, made it onto the Academy’s short­list for Best For­eign Lan­guage Film.

In the years be­tween Garage and Viva, O’Hal­lo­ran has spent more time in front of the cam­era, tak­ing the ro­man­tic lead in A Kiss For Jed and smaller roles in The Guard and

Cal­vary. He has writ­ten sev­eral

plays: Mary Mo­tor­head, The Head of Red O’Brien and Trade. He has co-au­thored oth­ers – no­tably Lippy (with Bush Moukarzel) and Too Much of Noth­ing (with David Wil­mot) – and acted at the Abbey and Gate the­atres in Dublin, the Lyric in Belfast and Druid Theatre, Gal­way. He also penned Pros­per­ity, the 2008 four-part tele­vi­sion se­ries (made again with Abra­ham­son di­rect­ing).

But those of us who, back in 2004, imag­ined that the Ir­ish moviev­erse had found its su­per­hero with a lap­top, have had to wait more than we might have liked.

“I re­mem­ber when my­self and Tom [Mur­phy] sat down to watch Adam & Paul, I turned to him and said: ‘I ac­tu­ally think we’re go­ing to get loads of film work out of this’,” laughs O’Hal­lo­ran. “And then I was un­em­ployed for two years.

“I’m only semi-at­tached to the film world. If you can get a great part in the theatre, then why not? I sup­pose I am at­tached to film by my writ­ing. I like to think of my­self as a gifted am­a­teur in var­i­ous fields.”

O’Hal­lo­ran’s work has been pow­ered along by his not in­con­sid­er­able ob­ser­va­tional skills. To­day, we meet in the Gre­sham Ho­tel – not too far from Moun­tjoy Square, where he watched the drug ad­dicts who would in­form Adam & Paul.

Pale, slen­der, and dressed in a track­suit from a play he’s re­hears­ing, the En­nis-born ac­tor couldn’t look less Havana. And yet, that’s where Viva, a stir­ring Cin­derella story about the hair­dresser who wants to be­come a drag per­former, is set. Such no­tions. But how? “Yep,” says O’Hal­lo­ran. “It’s the mod­ern-day equiv­a­lent to run­ning away to sea.”

Ex­otic cul­ture

The tal­ented ac­tor-writer had wanted to see if he could trans­fer his skills “be­yond what you’d see through a win­dow on Par­nell Street”, but Cuba was Viva di­rec­tor Paddy Breath­nach’s idea.

“He was in­ter­ested in do­ing a film there, so we went over for a hol­i­day in Cuba and hung around with lots of drag queens – the drag queens that would al­low us to hang around with them – and after­wards, I came home and wrote up a story that I heard from one of them.”

He had an idea; now it needed to be de­vel­oped.

In an at­tempt to sub­merge him­self in the ex­otic cul­ture, he lis­tened to ev­ery bolero and bal­lad, read as much of the lit­er­a­ture as he could find and watched the great­est hits of Cuban cin­ema: Soy Cuba, Straw­berry and Cho­co­late, Me­mories of Un­derde­vel­op­ment and even Cor­netto Tril­ogy salute, Juan of

the Dead. Re­turn­ing to Havana, he moved into a gay B&B in the cen­tre of the city.

“It was like liv­ing in the mid­dle of a Mex­i­can soap opera,” he says. “There are all these big char­ac­ters com­ing and go­ing. I be­came fas­ci­nated by the te­len­ov­e­las they watch. Well, not so much the te­len­ov­e­las, which have such steroidal lev­els of soap opera I couldn’t fol­low them at all. But their re­ac­tions to the te­len­ov­e­las. Ev­ery­one has their own one that they love. They’re all called mad ti­tles. So, Pamela across the hall loves Doc­tors and Com­pan­ions. So, you never call over while

Doc­tors and Com­pan­ions is on.” Viva’s charm­ing Cin­derella story de­served a fairy-god­mother. And it got the very best.

“So, Panti gave me 30 or 35 cast-off wigs and a few bits of fe­male at­tire,” says O’Hal­lo­ran. “And then I was able to go to the head of the drags. They can’t get wigs there. So, sud­denly doors opened ev­ery­where.

“I was al­lowed to sit back­stage in the theatre. I was al­lowed to ask the per­form­ers in de­tail about their choice of song. With my wigs, I had my way.”

The fine and no­ble art of lip-synch­ing is a rather dif­fer­ent business in Havana.

“There’s no ironic de­tach­ment. It’s strangely un-camp. High camp. But un-camp. They be­lieve ev­ery sin­gle word of those songs while they’re per­form­ing. And the songs are sim­i­lar to the te­len­ov­e­las: ‘I tore my hair out, I pulled the door off the hinges, I flung you out of the house, but now you’re back!’ So I tried to get that high melo­drama into the writ­ing.”

Line by line

O’Hal­lo­ran – who con­tin­ues to learn Span­ish at the Cer­vantes In­sti­tute and de­scribes his grasp of the lan­guage as “some­times get­ting by, but shit” – wrote some of the screen­play in Ir­ish col­lo­qui­alisms and then went through it line by line. It helped that the film’s as­sis­tant di­rec­tor was once a trans­la­tor for Cas­tro.

“Of­ten you couldn’t do a di­rect trans­la­tion,” he says. “You had to ask and dis­cuss it. Things like: ‘She’s wash­ing her box’. How do you say that in CubanS­pan­ish? They don’t have as many names for fe­male parts as we do.”

But, how do you say that in Cuban- Span­ish?

“We had to go with: ‘She’s wash­ing her ass’.”

The film’s cast­ing di­rec­tor, Libia Batista, would prove an in­valu­able as­set. She was “bril­liant and sen­si­tive” when it came to re­cruit­ing a trans­gen­dered fe­male per­former and she would also in­tro­duce the Viva gang to Beni­cio del Toro, who came aboard as an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. And more good for­tune: the Min­istry of Cul­ture pro­vided a po­lice es­cort to aid the pro­duc­tion as they bat­tled though Havana’s bustling, noisy streets.

Did they raise any con­cerns or quib­bles?

“No. There’s such a need for hard cur­rency on the is­land, they were happy to help. They only asked that the sex scene was done taste­fully.

“So, you just get a bit of side-bot­tom from me.”

’Clapped out’

Ah yes. Mark O’Hal­lo­ran does ap­pear in Viva as an Ir­ish sex tourist who hag­gles with the film’s young hero, Je­sus (the re­mark­able Héc­tor Me­d­ina). He can’t have writ­ten that part with him­self in mind, surely?

“The lads kept say­ing: ‘sure you’ll play Ray’ and I thought this was hi­lar­i­ous. But that’s the kind of part I get of­fered nowa­days. I get: creepy sex tourist who hag­gles over the price of the sex he gets from a young fel­lah. Just not a nice man. The de­scrip­tion in the screen­play was: ‘In his 50s. Clapped out.’ So, no. I wasn’t think­ing of my­self. Not yet.” Hav­ing been only “semi-at­tached” to the film world for much of the last decade, O’Hal­lo­ran is back with a bang.

Stay tuned O’Hal­lo­ran-watch­ers: Next year, his play Trade will be adapted for the screen by Hong Khaou, the Bafta-nom­i­nated di­rec­tor of Lilt­ing.

Be­fore then, he takes the cen­tral role of His­tory’s Fu­ture, the in­com­ing feature from Dutch vis­ual artist Fiona Tan, and also fea­tures in the Sligo-based cul­ture clash com­edy Halal

Daddy, which he co-wrote with di­rec­tor Conor McDer­mot­troe.

“Halal Daddy is more light­hearted than what I usu­ally bring to the ta­ble,” he says. “But it had some­thing that in­ter­ested me. There’s a whole gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple who has grown up in small Ir­ish towns. They or their par­ents come from Bos­nia or Nige­ria or Poland. They joke amongst them­selves: ‘You were born in Gal­way so you’re the refugee in Sligo.’ It’s so un­like the ex­pe­ri­ence I had grow­ing up in a coun­try that was mono­lith­i­cally Ir­ish.” Mean­while, back in Havana,

Viva has found a wildly ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence, cour­tesy of the pa­que­tas.

“There are in­ter­net hotspots all over the city, but very few peo­ple have in­ter­net at home,” O’Hal­lo­ran ex­plains.

“A lit­tle man comes along with two ter­abytes of stuff ev­ery week. You pay him and you down­load box sets, and movies, and even com­plete li­braries of books. So, Viva is re­ally well known over there which is re­ally de­light­ful for us.” Viva opens next week

Panti gave me 30 wigs. I was able to go to the head of the drags. They can’t get wigs there so sud­denly doors opened ev­ery­where. I was al­lowed to sit back­stage in the theatre. With my wigs, I had my way

Out and about in Havana Héc­tor Me­d­ina as Je­sus in Viva. Far right: writer Mark O’Hal­lo­ran

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