The battle of James Ellis (played by Michael Shea) and Sam Thompson (Adrian Dunbar) to stage the play Over the Bridge in face of censorship in 1950s Belfast: Two Angry Men is one of the short films in competition at the 10th Irish Film Festa (March 30th – April 2nd, Rome).
We spoke to the director Toto Ellis, James’ son.
The story of your father James Ellis and Sam Thompson is a big one: how did you work to make it fit into a short film?
Truth be told, the wider story of their battle to stage Over the Bridge easily merits a feature length telling of the story, as many who have seen the film have commented. Not only is the context of the Harland and Woolf shipyards and the bubbling issue of religious division in Northern Ireland worthy of dramatisation, there’s also the deeper back story behind Chairman McKee (the villain of the piece) as well as a fascinating bust up with Orson Welles in Dublin and the story of Laurence Olivier bringing the play on tour in the UK.
However, for the short film, we sharply focused on the days where Thompson and Ellis battle to stage the play, with a specific focus on their appeals to Chairman McKee (who barred the play in the first place) followed by their attempts to approach the other theatres in Belfast, but to no avail.
We really zoomed in on the meetings in pubs and offices at close quarters where much of the drama played out – we found the intensity of those moments between Thompson and Ellis and between them and the various powers that be to provide the perfect amount of story for a short film, as well as being able to convey the very heart of the story. It was these crucial conversations and negotiations where the main crux and tension of the story lay, as well as of course in the play’s scenes, which were so important for us to factor into the short.
It’s worth mentioning that whilst Ellis and Thompson were having their own battles with Over the Bridge, artists such as John Osborne, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan were fighting their own battles on English and American soil to stage or film difficult but important stories.
How did you cast Michael Shea and Adrian Dunbar as Ellis and Thompson?
Adrian Dunbar was a friend and colleague of Jimmy’s for many, many years as well as a wonderful friend to the Ellis family overall. After Jimmy’s death, just as we were in development with the script, I was at an event Adrian was speaking at, and suddenly I just saw him as the perfect Sam Thompson. Not only is Adrian roughly the age that Sam was at the time, but he also has this big presence that’s so similar to the way Thompson was always described to me – he can fill a room with his intensity, steadfastness and frankly his Northern Irishness. I knew from that moment that I wanted Adrian to play Thompson, and walked right up to him to ask him. He’s been the most incredible partner on the project ever since, actively involved in everything from script development to the surrounding publicity of the film.
Finding a “Jimmy” felt at one point like an impossible task. Firstly because such an actor would have to play someone as unique and as loved in Belfast and the wider acting world as Jimmy. But secondly because I was not only casting someone to play my own father (who’s sadly no longer with us), but moreover a 20-something version of my dad who I’d never witnessed in person. We really lucked out. My godmother has taught actors at LAMDA for many, many years and called up one day and said she had this star pupil who wasn’t only one of the best in his year group, but was also from Northern Ireland. We met up in Soho for a quick screen test and within minutes I felt he captured the intensity of Jimmy. By coincidence, I had lunch with my mother right after, and brought Michael Shea along. He then passed the ultimate test, approval from my mother (Jimmy’s late wife) that this was “our Jimmy”. This wasn’t of course about trying to find a “lookalike” or “impersonator” of Jimmy – more someone who could bring to life the character of Jimmy for the telling of the story in 2017.
Why did you choose to film Two Angry Men in black and white?
Well funnily enough we didn’t film in black and white. We shot in 4k colour, but lit everything for black and white, and then switched it across to black and white in post-production. This gave us a film that’s ostensibly in black and white, but weirdly has a colour and depth to it. The choice was made not just to signal the period (1959), but also to give the film a kind of film noir intensity as we see Ellis and Thompson continually meet in the shadows to try and outfox and outmanoeuvre those trying to halt their progress.