Oscars buzz has grown for the Irish-language feature film Arracht (“Monster”) since it was submitted as the Irish entry for Best International Feature. Last week, the Oscars confirmed that this was one of 93 films in the running – and we’ll find out on February 9 if he makes a shortlist of 15 voter-chosen films.
As far as writer / director Tom Sullivan is concerned, personally and professionally, Arracht is already a victory. The praise has been universal for its powerful drama, a thriller set as the Great Hunger looms. He’s thrilled to be in the Oscar conversation, but the experience of making the movie and the reception was special.
“A really good friend of mine once said to me, ‘always be prepared for anything as an artist,’” the filmmaker said with a laugh when asked about awards season gossip. “It’s about applying yourself to what you can control, which is my writing, and trying to kick off the next project. But beyond that, I can’t really think of the Oscars because there are probably 92 very good movies on this list, we have a chance and we are in the race.
“I have always watched foreign language films and foreign language television. And I have always thought that with the Irish language, there was a real opportunity, through cinema and television, for the Irish to reconnect with our language. People who would say to you: “I would like to learn Irish, I wish I could speak it”. I think there is a whole audience in Ireland who are ready to engage with the Irish language, but the quality of the content hasn’t really been there for them. “
Sullivan already feels like he has accomplished something with Arracht. “
“It’s a film that has a very good chance when it hits theaters, especially after all this incredible press we’ve had because of the Oscar race. Even though we don’t get to the 15th, people know it now.
Arracht is a beautifully crafted thriller that focuses on Colman (an excellent Dónall Ó Héalai) fishing and raising to support his family. As rumors of an impending potato plague loom, he has been asked to welcome Patsy (Dara Devany) who has recently returned from Britain. A threat of higher rents by landlords puts additional pressure on people. But following a violent sequence of events, Colman is forced to flee his community and take refuge on a nearby island, where he meets a young orphan named Kitty.
Sullivan’s love for the Irish language was fostered by two young teachers who set up an Irish language school near his home in Tallaght. They were taking students on a trip to Connemara, triggering what has become a long-standing affinity with the West and the language.
After a number of award-winning shorts, Arracht was born and Sullivan spotted several locations including West Cork and Kerry. But when he first arrived at Leitir Mealláin (Lettermullan) in Connemara, he knew he had found Arracht’s home.
“It’s Carraroe’s return island if you come back about 30 or 40 minutes by car. This is where you see on the map of Ireland, everything divides into small islands, and there are bridges across. But once you get past that section, the scenery is even very different from the rest of Connemara in that it’s super exposed. It is as if the bones of the landscape jut out through the bog and topsoil. It was our set designer who said we had to shoot this there, a guy called Padraig O’Neill. He had worked there on Song of Granite.
“When I got out of the car I was completely blown away by the perfection of this place because I knew the scenery was going to be a character in the movie. When we found this place it all started to work. And the people from Leitir Mealláin, they’ve just arrived. It was unbelievable. You know, that’s what’s wonderful about cinema, it’s collaborative.
Sullivan had long established an acting career, starring on shows like The Clinic and more recently, Finding Joy. But acting is a precarious profession, independent by nature, and in his mid-thirties, he decides to turn to writing and directing.
“I just found that the work was not enough,” he said. “I didn’t have enough work. And I wasn’t getting roles that I could engage with, or get my teeth into. Everything was piecemeal. I went through a few years doing only very small amounts of work, and also, financially, it became quite a struggle. So all of that pressure was on me, and I just found out that I wasn’t happy to be an actor anymore.
“In fact, it was a guest of my mother, she asked me why I didn’t write anymore. She said, “You wrote all the time when you were a kid.”
There is a simplicity in Arracht’s writing that makes it all the more powerful. Was that how he planned to approach the script?
“I’m writing another feature film right now. And that seems to be my style – I overload things at the beginning, with the first draft, and I think maybe a lot of writers do that. And then it’s a process of elimination, of getting rid of things.
“I think it’s about the economy, the film is about the economy, and you have to start losing as much as you can. If you can lose it, losing it would usually be my rule of thumb. Also, because it was a low budget movie, we just didn’t have the money to shoot anything that we weren’t going to use. So everything had to deserve its place. I think it was a good discipline. If you get rid of it, it will come back if it’s good enough and needs to be there. These are the kind of films that I would love to do, because I think they leave room for people to engage in then. I think an audience looks at a movie like that.
In less bizarre times, Arracht would have enjoyed a long streak of some of the best film festivals in the world as awards season approaches. Instead, Sullivan ended up on Zoom as most festivals and events go virtual.
“In another era, we would have gone to these festivals. But then, of course, you correct yourself quickly and you go, well, you’re lucky to do all that, you have to make a movie and have it go to festivals.
“It would have been nice to go to LA and maybe have a few meetings and see people. On the other hand, it’s been great in getting my name known as a filmmaker, and I hope it helps make the next one.
- Arracht will be released by Breakout Pictures this year. Oscar nominations will be announced on February 9, while Golden Globe nominations will be released on Wednesday February 3.