Making John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun into a movie: ‘I remember joking that it’s almost unfilmable’

Director Pat Collins discusses his influences and his award-winning adaptation of McGahern’s final novel

Does “best kept secret” cover it? For the past decade or so, many in the film business have identified Pat Collins as a candidate for the best Irish director currently working. To this point he has been largely concerned with quiet, elliptical quasidocumentaries. Silence was about a sound recordist on the hunt to escape man-made sound. Living in a Coded Land was an alternative biography of the Irish midlands. The closest he came to a conventional drama – not particularly close – was probably Song of Granite, his 2017 study of the sean-nós singer Joe Heaney.

His profile may be about to shift. That They May Face the Rising Sun, which recently won best Irish film at Dublin International Film Festival, adapts John McGahern’s final novel with enormous sensitivity. It is more conventional than Collins’s previous work, but the same sense of calm hangs over it.

“I remember joking with people at the beginning, saying that it’s almost unfilmable,” he says of the book. “When the funder started taking it seriously I changed my tack!”

A conversation with Collins delivers pretty much what you’d expect from watching his films, which is not always the case with directors. He speaks gently and intelligently about any subject raised. He is happy to engage with the most abstract notions, but he does so with an apparently wilful lack of pretention. The most surprising moment comes when we discuss his early film education. Raised on a farm, he didn’t get much chance to go to the cinema – this was before the video revolution properly hit – but, like the rest of us, he watched whatever was on RTÉ television.


“I would have probably seen films on television. I can’t really remember them. Except Bride of Frankenstein was one that stood out,” he says, referring to James Whale’s baroquely camp horror comedy. “I remember being terrified by it. I feel that had a big impact. Seeing it at seven or eight really did have an impact. People look at cinema purely as entertainment. But, though it is in your world, it is also kind of like a dream.”

Later, living in Cork city, he did immerse himself in the auditorial darkness.

“I remember seeing Blue Velvet. Nothing in my life had prepared me for that,” he says about David Lynch’s uniquely disturbing film. “I remember feeling almost drunk after it. There were maybe seven cinemas in Cork at the time. And you’d be going every afternoon.”

You will struggle to find much Lynchian about That They May Face the Rising Sun. Published in 2002, four years before the author’s death, the book details a year in the life of a rural midlands community. Joe Ruttledge, a local who has returned home after living abroad, watches the varied characters interact as the seasons change. With disciplined brilliance, McGahern allowed the texture of the community to form beneath the reader’s fingers.

“Joe in the book was working in advertising,” Collins says. “I felt we were kind of missing a trick if we didn’t make him into a writer. It gave us more possibility to get at his internal life. I could actually use passages from the book.”

That does, however, kick up the unavoidable suggestion that we are looking at a stand-in for McGahern. Barry Ward, who plays Joe with wry intelligence, doesn’t much look like the author, but he appears to be taking on the role of cautious observer and interpreter. Such fine actors as Lalor Roddy, Seán McGinley and Ruth McCabe flesh out various colours of local oddball as the protagonist puts words on the page.

Collins knows this writer’s background; 20 years ago he made a fine documentary called John McGahern: A Private World. That subtitle is worth heeding. I wonder what McGahern’s family made of the project.

“I only really would have talked to Madeline about it,” he says of McGahern’s widow. “Madeline still lives in Leitrim. I would have met her in 2015 to ask her what she thought of adapting the book. I’m not sure if I ever said that to John. I think I would have told him that I thought that was his best book – along with his collected short stories. They were the two books that resonated more strongly for me. But I asked Madeline and she gave me her blessing.”

So has he got any sense that associates see Ward’s character as a version of McGahern?

“Nobody has actually said that to me,” he says. “Nobody has said it is John. I was very adamant to Barry that he is not playing a version. It is, I suppose, unavoidable, thinking about it. I definitely didn’t want anyone to feel it was a biopic. But Barry did transform himself. He’s a very energetic actor. And he was maybe influenced by John.”

It is easy to slip into platitudes about the film existing outside time. It does no such thing, of course. Period detail doesn’t yell at you, but, observing the cars and not observing mobile phones, one soon grasps that we are in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It is much the same time that Colm Bairéad’s An Cailín Ciúin was set. Collins says that, if another 15 years passed, we might be at “too much of a remove from anyone who’s experienced that”.

Does he believe that life is so different from how it was lived in the early 1980s? With what might younger generations lose connection?

“I think it might be the way people are with each other,” he says. “That has changed. When I was growing up we didn’t have a phone until I was 14 or something. We and our neighbours were continuously in and out of each other’s houses. As a child, you’d have to go to the neighbours with a message or whatever. As soon as the phone came, that started petering off. You’d visit the houses at Christmas. You’d go to help them if there was hay. We’d be sharing it like that. Young people are still communicating, but just in a different way. They might be texting each other 30 or 40 times a day.”

Collins says this with no apparent disapproval. You couldn’t hope to meet a more tolerant man. Looking neat in a black denim jacket, he engages with life’s changes in amiably fatalistic fashion. But, yes, he does come across as a person from a different era. As he told me a few years ago, he never even applied to college. After school he meandered to Cork city and then to Galway, where he engaged with that city’s cultural community. The notion of becoming a film director was still not even a fantasy. What set him on that road was writing for and eventually becoming editor of the well-remembered journal Film West.

“I had started to try to write short scripts and stuff when I was in my early 20s,” he says. “But it was really editing Film West that did it. Everybody who wrote for Film West knew more about cinema than I did. I learned a lot from that. I realised I had to bring the writers out. I’m sure it would have been better if there was a film specialist editing the journalists, who would have been able to creatively commission. The only thing I did propose is that we shouldn’t do any negative reviews. It should be driven by what people loved.”

That eventually led to him programming Galway Film Fleadh in the late 1990s, which made him instrumental in helping that event define its place at the centre of Irish film. Launched in 1989, the festival draws professionals from all over the world to the prime event for launching new Irish features. Taking place in July, it is the fulcrum around which the cinema year pivots.

“I think what happened with Galway really was that was the industry just got into it,” he says. “There was a market there. It was the late 1990s, and Galway had a kind of an energy. It was summertime. So the social side was very important. It was pandemonium. You had a great mixture of people. You’d have Neil Jordan there. Woody Harrelson is having a pint in the rowing club. That was lovely at the time. And everything felt possible in the Irish film industry. In the early 1990s nobody was making films. Everyone was just talking about them.”

Collins has some reservations about how things then changed. The conversations are not what they were.

“It was all about the industry side of it,” he says. “Film is spoken more about as an industry in Ireland than as an art form. You are much more likely to read an article about employment – the industry side of it – than you are to read one written the way people write about books or theatre. I suppose they do talk about books that way now.”

Collins was nearly 30 by the time he made his first documentary, a study of the poet Michael Hartnett. Since then he has plugged on, slowly accumulating acclaim and affection. He made a fine film on the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Henry Glassie: Field Work, his study of that folklorist, played at Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Recognition from the establishment came a year later when he was invited to join Aosdána.

Though That They May Face the Rising Sun is technically his first dramatic feature, it feels in the same tone as his documentary and hybrid films. He even finds space for the sort of traditional crafts – carpentry, beekeeping – addressed in the Glassie film. As ever there is an appreciation of rural beauty.

“It’s a difficult one,” Collins says in his brooding way. “Landscape is a complex business. Because certain people look at landscape as a Bord Fáilte thing, as if you’re selling Ireland. American films do that a lot.”

One more thing I have to ask. The McGahern adaptation is in a humanist tradition that Yasujiro Ozu, director of Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon, would have appreciated. Is it a coincidence that the protagonist’s number-plate reads “OZU 155″?

Collins, a great Ozu fan, smiles.

“It really was,” he says. When somebody said, ‘Did you see his number-plate?’ I was going to change it. Because I thought, That’s kind of ridiculous – it’s going to be distracting. But then I just said, ‘Look, actually, just leave it.’”

Fair enough. Such things happen.

That They May Face the Rising Sun is in cinemas from Friday, April 26th