As Carmel Winters’ creation opens the Cork Film Festival tonight, she tells Esther McCarthy why she’s so glad she shot it in locations around her home county
THIS year’s Toronto International Film Festival will go down as one to treasure for Carmel Winters. Not only did her West Cork-shot film Float Like a Butterfly have its world premiere and win the FIPRESCI Prize for the Discovery Programme, she also married her long-term love, artist and production designer Toma McCullim, in the Canadian city.
The womens’ decision to tie the knot following 18 years together was a spontaneous one, made in their Ballydehob home just two days before they arrived in Toronto.
“I thought it was hilarious when she said: ‘It’s non refundable, you can’t change your mind’,” said Winters of the initial contact with Toronto City Hall. “I got off the phone and it was arranged — it was that quick, that impromptu. When I got to Heathrow the next day, there was a nine-hour delay on my flight. We were travelling on different routes to Canada but it looked like I wasn’t going to make the wedding.
Family and community are an integral part of Winters’ life and her work, and she is proud to show off her adopted home of West Cork (she grew up in the north of the county) in all its big-screen glory.
Set in 1972, in the build-up to Muhammad Ali’s fight against Al Lewis in Croke Park, it tells the story of a young Traveller, Frances (Hazel Doupe) who dreams of becoming a boxer and making her idol Ali proud. But Frances has other things to contend with, in particular her relationship with her father, recently released from prison, raised to believe a woman’s place is in the home.
“I’ve never created a play or a film about a hero before,” said Winters of the film.
“Someone who you’d think they deserve to be supported as they are. I think she goes back to the best and truest in all of us in life, before life derails us, before life knocks us off our path.
The film-maker, who first started developing her story in the early days of Katie Taylor’s rise to fame, says that the Irish boxer was very much an inspiration.
“I think there’s so many things in the world that make what you imagine possible, and Katie Taylor is definitely one of them. I think there’s something in the intrinsic sovereignty of Francis. When I saw the Katie Taylor documentary, Katie, I thought: ‘Wow, she reminds me immensely of the character’.”
For Winters, the film is about the underdog in all of us. “Because what that girl is fighting for is not only her own emancipation, she’s fighting for her father to come back to himself. I see nothing natural about a breakdown in relations or the oppression of women. In a healthy society you’ll see men honouring and celebrating women.
“Frances’s plans to overcome her father’s restrictions ultimately bring him back to himself. The only way he’s led into the error of restricting her is being restricted himself, he can’t imagine any better for her.”
She is proud and excited to bring her beloved West Cork to the big screen, with well-known locations like the Ilen estuary, the white sands of Ballyrisode and Levi’s Corner House Bar in Ballydehob all featuring.
“I had the benefit of knowing all the treasures in my area, treasures in terms of landscape, in terms of local talent. The place is just brimming with talent and it was so dear to my heart to put those treasures on the screen.
“I thought the way we’ll carry off this is in an abundance of creativity and goodwill and generosity. I felt I had to put these pleasures on the screen. You should love seeing what you’re seeing. I felt that West Cork could deliver in a big way and the kind of relationships I had locally with people, like the people who run Fastnet Film Festival, they’d move mountains for you.
“I’m a great believer that if you want a certain feeling on the screen, it helps if you can engender that feeling in the shoot itself. I wanted generosity and a feeling of extended clan. Community. We harnessed what was in our local community to make the feeling of this. The intense, bonded community of an extended family.”
Winters also got her family involved in the film. “I come from a horse racing family and they brought me rakes of horses. I just harnessed whatever treasure was available. When those worlds came together there was a real fire. I loved the amount of children locally, travellers and settled, and how they worked together on the set is probably dearest to my heart.”
Winters has just returned from Los Angeles, where she was one of three Irish writers placed by Screen Training Ireland on the LA Writers’ Room placement. Access included Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy and Warner’s The Big Bang Theory. For the film-maker, who wants to develop a TV series set in West Cork — a mockumentary where billionaires tend to go missing — it was a huge opportunity.
“It’s extraordinary — I am basically going around the best writers’ rooms in LA. The large TV series here are written by teams of writers and typically the series will be created by one writer who then manages a room and facilitates a team of writers writing individual episodes, while they take care of the overall shape and intentions of the series. Those people are known as showrunners.
“What Screen Training Ireland has done is create an opportunity for us to go into the top showrunners writers’ rooms and see how they elaborate their series for a team. It’s an unbelievable opportunity. I want to make a TV series set in West Cork and if it runs long enough to be able to showrun it in the way they do over here.”
As well as their ability to make screen gems, Winters was also impressed with the showrunners as people, describing them as “incredibly decent human beings”.
“I’m all fired up now to make it work having seen these people in action,” she says. But first, there’s just the matter of her Irish premiere in Cork tonight.
Float Like A Butterfly screens tonight and tomorrow at the Everyman as part of Cork Film Festival