‘Men at Lunch’ captures the bigger picture

Men At Lunch, the documentary inspired by the iconic photograph taken during the construction of New York’s Rockefeller Center, received its cinematic release in New York yesterday, 81 years to the day since 11 steelworkers nonchalantly posed on a beam dizzyingly high above Manhattan.

Connemara-born director Seán Ó Cualáin was on hand last night for a Q&A that followed one of the screenings ahead of a week-long run before the critically acclaimed film moves to Los Angeles for a week.

“You don’t even dream of this,” Ó Cualáin told the Irish Examiner on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “It started off as an Irish-language film and was well received at the Toronto Film Festival. But the first question that was put to us was if we could put an English voiceover to it. I said we can. Still though, it was great to have an Irish-language documentary at one of the biggest festivals in the world because that’s how I started my career.”

In a canny pre-release promotion push, a never-seen-before follow-up photograph to ‘Lunch Atop a Skyscraper’ — a shot of men waving their hats in the air — which the filmmakers had discovered in an archive was released this week to coincide with the New York run.

Time Magazine was enamoured and it garnered huge online buzz on Wednesday when the picture emerged, the editors deciding to appeal to readers for help in finding out who the other men on the beam were. However, finding out everything about the picture is not something the director himself is aiming to do.

“Deep down,” Ó Cualáin told Time, “I hope that the identities of all 11 men are not found. The mystery adds to the magic of the photo.”

Ó Cualáin and his producer brother Eamon first brought their film to New York a year ago on Thursday when the Irish Consulate screened Men At Lunch (Lón sa Spéir) at their headquarters on Park Avenue.

“It was over 80 minutes long at that stage and I took a few notes from people,” Ó Cualáin said. “It was a bit flabby so we cut it back by a few minutes.”

And the New York public will now enjoy a first opportunity to find out about a picture which is as ubiquitous as it is mysterious.

“In documentary terms, it’s classic, solid and hopefully inspiring,” the director noted. “A million and a half tourists go up there to the Top of the Rock to sit on the beam and get their photos taken.

“Any Irish that come over, they go there. Every time the Irish look up at the New York skyline, this documentary adds weight to the knowledge that we built this place. It’s just another way of keeping the story alive.”

The Irish dominated the steelworkers union to such an extent that Ó Cualáin knew his film would revolve around the families of the men. They found evidence to be able to name two of the workers, Irish-American Joe Eckner (third from the left) and Joe Curtis (third from the right).

They also managed to discover that the photograph had not been taken by Lewis Hine, as always thought. They unearthed pictures of two other photographers present that day and now there is a long-term plan to try and find their descendants and piece together more of the story.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Ó Cualáin said. “Not to get to New York — I would hope to bring other films here. But this particular story is huge here. The interest in that picture is incredible but there had been no huge research done into it. When we came up with the idea, I thought I’d only have to go on Amazon, find a PBS or BBC documentary, get a book and half the research would be done. But there was nothing so we had to start from scratch.

“There was no budget for research so we had to finance all that. In essence, instead of being a nice simple documentary about two Irish families talking about their fathers on the beam, it became the history of a photograph. There’s a big difference.

“We were very careful that the tone and pace of the film would reflect the style of the picture. If you stray too much from the pictures feel and focus and look, you’re straying from what draws people to the picture.

“But it’s not just an Irish documentary. It alludes to the whole immigration story of which the Irish were a big part. You look at the picture and you know they’re immigrants. But the Irish can feel pride in the story. They may not have the city these days but at one time, anything that moved, they moved it, anything that shook, they shook it and anything that was built, they built it.”

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