BEST OF 2017: Few films have managed to grip, gouge & garrote the Irish imagination like Cardboard Gangsters!

Writer and director Mark O’Connor talked to Stuart Clark about art imitating life – and vice versa! – in Darndale.

While there are no flashing lights to worry about, anyone with an aversion to axes, machetes, angle-grinders, lump hammers, shotguns and chainsaws should probably give the new John Connors movie, Cardboard Gangsters, a wide-berth.

“John had to get specialist chainsaw training from the stunt guys because it’s hard to cut things if you don’t have the technique,” reveals writer and director Mark O’Connor. “He practiced beforehand, so when we had a live chainsaw in a small little cabin no one’s lives were actually in danger.”

It was a case of art imitating life as Connors, who’d previously worked with Mark on King Of The Travellers, partook of some extreme debt collecting.

“The scene is based on something he’d witnessed first-hand growing up in Darndale,” O’Connor resumes. “This guy went in with a chainsaw because somebody owed him money and sliced through the couch and the cupboards and everything.”

Mark is full of praise for Connors who he describes as “an old style Irish rebel who speaks his mind and is open to ideas. There’s no ego there either, which makes him great to work with. John can get all these different levels of emotion – sadness, anger, grief, rage, tenderness – because, like your Ray Winstones and Gary Oldmans, he’s really lived and experienced all of them. You’re getting this multi-faceted, full of contradictions character, much like Tony in The Sopranos.”

Cardboard Gangsters gives a first cinematic outing to Paulie Alwright, AKA Lethal Dialect who knows a thing or two about wiseguys having grown up in Cabra next to Marlo Hyland, a heroin dealer who was shot in 2006 by what Gardai suspect were members of his own gang.

“Again, he understood the role because he’s been around that stuff,” Mark proffers. “Paulie’s character, Glenner, is like the moral conscience of the gang. There’s vulnerability amongst the toughness, which he has in real life too. On the one hand, you’ve got complete newcomers like Paulie in the film and on the other Kierston Wareing who’s been in stuff like EastEnders and Wire In The Blood. A friend showed me a movie called Fish Tank, which she plays Michael Fassbender’s wife in. I was blown away by Kierston’s performance, so I looked her up and found she’d done Top Boy and The Fall Of The Essex Boys, which both come from a similar place to Cardboard Gangsters. Normally it’d be the casting director’s job, but I sent a copy of the script to her agent, Kierston read it and said, ‘Yeah, I’m in!’ We were very lucky to get her.”

Mark knew that in order to be able film freely in Darndale he’d need the support of the local community who’ve been angered in the past by how they’ve been portrayed on screen.

“If you were casting theatre actors and swanning round the place like you owned it you’d be run out in a flash,” he nods. “We cast a couple of guys who’d settled down there like Stephen Clinch and also had security who lived locally, so in that way we were sorted. The people of Darndale were very cautious and wanted to read the script. When they did, they were happy about it because it wasn’t trying to make them all look like idiots.”

Amongst the mainly positive reviews have been one or two accusing Cardboard Gangsters of glamourising its subject matter.

“It’s interesting that the negative comments haven’t come from Darndale itself,” Mark counters. “The fact of the matter is that you’ve a lot of guys in their 20s getting the big cars and the jewellery and the fancy molls. They don’t get up at 6am to do some shitty job. We show the consequences of that, though, with the brutal murder at the end. The feedback I’ve had on social media is, ‘Jesus, that’s a horrifying lifestyle to get into.’”

A real life morality tale was offered up in March 2016 when Stephen Clinch, who plays a debt collector in Cardboard Gangsters with terrifying aplomb, was jailed for 4 years for holding a pistol to a security guard’s head during a €50,000 hotel robbery.

“I met Clinchy at an after-schools project and cast him in my first feature film, Between The Canals. He was in King Of The Travellers and Stalker too, and got a part in Love/Hate; he’s the guy that sticks the cue up Fran’s hole in prison. He was an ex-armed robber who’d been out of crime for 15 years, but found himself in a really difficult situation and came out of retirement with disastrous consequences. It’s really sad.” Clinchy wasn’t the only member of the Between The Canals cast who ended up rubbing shotguns with Nidge & Co.

“Their casting director got a DVD of Between The Canals and ended up casting about 10 of our people in the second and third season of Love/Hate. Among those were Barry Keoghan who just won Best Film at Cannes with The Killing Of A Sacred Deer; Peter Coogan who played Fran; Stephen Jones who was in Red Rock; Robbie Walsh who’s been in half a dozen films since including this one, and Clinchy…”

Mark O’Connor’s Midas touch extends to UFC fighter Cathal Pendred who, following his blink or you’ll miss him cameo as a security guard in Cardboard Gangsters, bagged himself a starring role in Amazon Prime fantasy epic, Lore.

“He was in Cardboard… for, like 30 seconds, but he put it on his showreel and got not only the Amazon Prime gig, but also a small role in the new Baywatch! He’s obviously got a big agent over there who’s been able to use his UFC fighter past to open Hollywood doors.”

Cardboard Gangsters gets extra marks for its coruscating soundtrack comprising entirely of local rappers like God Creative.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but he’s the guy sniffing cocaine off the samurai sword in Cardboard… He’s about to release his first album, The Takeover, which is fantastic. In my previous films, I’d mainly used traditional music but this had to be much more in-your-face and he set the tone.”

With a first fortnight take of €192,000 – only Transformers: The Last Knight and Wonder Woman performed better – Cardboard Gangsters is well on the way to becoming the biggest Irish film of the year.

“King Of The Travellers sold something like 150,000 DVDs in the UK, but I didn’t get a cent from it,” Mark concludes. “With this, it’s actually going to make money because we’re smarter now and have made the right deals. It’s taken a while, but finally Irish people want to go to the cinema and see Irish films.”


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