In a landscape of movies where actors pretend to beat one another to a bloody pulp, it’s rare – whether or not you see it as a privilege – to watch people on screen actually trade blows. But in Ian Palmer’s Knuckle, audiences watch unflinching depictions of bare-knuckle fights, held in unglamorous locations and shot with unglossy brutality. At the same time, Palmer didn’t merely infiltrate a world of Irish bare-knuckle boxing and milk it of its visceral intensity, but chronicled its emotional underpinnings, as he follows the historic rivalry between two warring clans who can’t seem to resolve differences that began so long ago that the people almost literally have to invent new reasons to keep it going.
Movies.com sat down with director Ian Palmer and fighter James Quinn McDonagh at Fantastic Fest in Austin, where Knuckle played to capacity crowds and received much of its earliest, well-deserved acclaim (the film opens in limited release this Friday, Dec. 9th). In addition to talking about forging the trust that allowed Palmer to film McDonagh and his families’ lives for more than a decade, the duo discussed the narrative that emerged from his footage, and examined how the final film may or may not be the last word in the clans’ longstanding feud.
Q: In the film, the two of you met at Michael’s wedding. But how did you two get acquainted and then decide to make a film about the family?
Ian Palmer: I met the girl who Michael was going to marry, but I didn’t know she was going to marry Michael when I met her. I met her family, and I was talking with her family and the family who lived in the house beside them, another traveler family, about making a film about photographs they had – telling the story of the family with photographs. She was getting married, her wedding was coming up, I had a camera, and they said, “do you want to come along to the wedding and shoot some video?” And I said yeah, if I can use some footage, maybe, in a future film. And that was fine – we went along, and the first time I met Michael was when I saw him walking up the aisle of the church. And the first time I met James was outside when he was getting his photograph taken with Michael and the wedding party. And then the first time I talked to him was at the wedding reception.
Q: What did you two talk about that convinced you Ian was a trustworthy person in your lives?
James McDonagh: Well, it all started at the wedding with Michael. I had a fight coming up a couple of weeks after the wedding, and our usual video guy let us down – he was out of the country. And I remembered Ian from the wedding, and I knew him through a family friend of ours, and I asked him if he would ask Ian to do this. And Ian turned up and said he would, and from then on it got a life of its own and built up from that.
Palmer: I think for them what was more reassuring about me was that there were plenty of journalists knocking around from papers and from radio and TV wanting to get into the bare-knuckle game.
McDonagh: It was all about trust.
Palmer: I wasn’t doing that. I wasn’t chasing them to get in. I was interested, but I was more interested in telling stories about the family, and about family experience. I mean, the sensational side of the bare-knuckle stuff, I didn’t know about, I wasn’t focused on that. I was more interested in people and how they were sorting out their problems, at the very beginning. And I think that probably for them, it made me different to the other people, coming across journalists.
Q: Was Ian’s filming of the fights any different than the filming other cameramen did in the past?
McDonagh: No, Ian just covered what we were doing. We just trusted him and what he was doing, and filming the fight was always the same. Sometimes there were other cameras there, but we let Ian do his job, and we invited him to our homes, and into our lives for ten to twelve years. And we never said, “Ian, don’t do this, don’t do that;” we accepted him and gave him a free role in what he wanted to do and put together. And when I saw the final cut, I was very, very happy with what he has done. It’s given the three families a fair crack of the whip, our opinions, and it’s up to the general public or viewer to judge who’s right or who’s wrong in the feud. But Ian to me did a phenomenal job in the filming, the editing, the cutting, and the final product – it’s perfect. Not to say anything about it, but there’s things on it that I may not like, there’s things the Joyces don’t like on it, but it is a truthful story and it’s got to be told. And if it’s going to be told, it’s got to be told the right way, and let negative and positive things on the three families in on it – and let the people see what’s there. And he’s done a good job.
Q: Did you have any concerns as he started investigating and asking about the history of the feud?
McDonagh: A year or two into what was going on, I had an idea, because Ian has done two other documentaries on my family on different subjects, and I knew this was going places. I used to keep asking him, where is this one going, and he’d say, “you know, we don’t know yet. Let’s see where the fights take us.” And it started with Michael’s wedding, and it finished with Michael’s fight, and I was a character in the center of that. We knew it was always going to finish with Michael’s fight, because if it didn’t finish there, it would have gone on forever, because there have been fights after that, and other things that would have been interesting to the movie and all of that. But where does it stop? So we decided to put a cap on it at Michael’s fight in London and leave it at that.
Q: How early did you see a narrative emerging from this footage, and a good stopping point? As he said, it could go on forever.
Palmer: The feuds continue. I could be documenting this particular feud for the rest of my life, and who knows? Something could happen again. But I’m not planning on it. But early on, I saw the film as like the James Quinn and Mike McDonagh story that focused on one person and his journey through this world [and] where it brought him in his particular life. So I was always focused on character, and I met two big characters at the wedding, Michael and James, his brother, and then I met the other big characters too, so it was going to be a character-based film always, as opposed to an investigative film or a historical documentation. But these characters have an evolving relationship, and different things are happening – unpredictable stuff, time after time, and so really, where the story was going in terms of a particular narrative, I didn’t really know. I was following an individual’s life story, and I thought it was going to be like a story of families in conflict, and I focused on, as it was, three brothers – Michael, James and their older brother Paddy – and using those three as my focus, I was able to weave through the family feuds, and also getting access to the other families was crucial.
In terms of where this was going to end, I did not know, and I had no commission for this film. I almost had a commission fairly quickly from a big broadcaster, but it didn’t work out; they wanted me to do it in a way I didn’t want to. I wanted to follow this evolving, unfolding world, and they wanted a much more structured approach. I didn’t want to do that, and I had no deadline to go with, so I could continue as long as I wanted. And that’s a negative, because you can continue forever, as I almost did, but it’s also a positive too, because you’ve got this opportunity to have this all-embracing generational story. And that’s the way it worked out: after a year or two of knowing this family, Michael had this fight against the Joyce family from Oxford, he lost to his first cousin and disgraced himself in some ways, although he was treated sympathetically by the family even though he lost. And his life story really was about vindicating himself for that, and it came around ten years later, and I happened to be still on the scene, and that was obviously for me a potential to round out this life story.
Q: In the U.S., it seems like we think a little less about the lineage of our families than is evident in the families in the film. Is there a point where someone should just say in one or both of the families, this needs to stop?
McDonagh: People in the three clans should say, “looks lads, get around a table, sit down, negotiate peace, control the younger guys, and leave it at that.” And I think that’s the way things are going at the moment, and let’s just hope it stays that way.
Palmer: But that’s you speaking as a mature-
McDonagh: That’s me speaking as an older person now. Years ago, and even some of the younger guys now, wouldn’t listen to what I’ve got to say – well, they’d listen to what I’m talking about, but they wouldn’t agree with it. They’d go, “no, we don’t give a shite, we want to fight.” They’re young, they’re full of youth and strength, and are full of pride of who they are, and there are a lot of “kids” kids, eight, nine year olds, who if they would watch any other movie, they’d go outside and play with guns or bows and arrows or whatever. The kids now are watching that and they’re going out and sparring with one another, so they’re looking up to me and other characters in the movie. But what I advised them to do was, if they’re going to go on the boxing scene in life, take it inside the ropes, go into the ring, and get a career out of it. Stay off the road – it’s got me nowhere, it’s got me where I didn’t want.