Mickybo & Me

Film director Terry Loane's first feature

The year is 1970, and the streets of Belfast have erupted in violence. Despite the Troubles, the battle uppermost in the minds of young rascals Mickybo and JonJo is being fought in a more glamorous location altogether – on the silver screen, by their heroes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Enthralled by the film, the unlikely duo (from opposite sides of the sectarian divide) decide to form their own gang. Playing out their Wild West fantasies, however, triggers an escalating chain of events even their unfettered imaginations could not have envisaged.

In the time-honoured tradition of their alter egos Butch and Sundance, they make for the border, pursued by the police, featured on TV and radio news bulletins, ‘Wanted Men’...

Mickybo & Me is not only a rites of passage tale but also an engaging exploration of the power of masculine myth and fantasy. For all the differences in their backgrounds, the boys have one important thing in common – self-indulgent, preoccupied fathers, one a philanderer, the other a gambler. (Where would Irish stories, in books, films and plays, be without the feckless or authoritarian da?) No wonder Butch and Sundance have such allure.

First time feature director Terry Loane exploits the comic potential of Owen McCafferty’s original stage play, Mojo-Mickybo, which was produced by Kabosh in Belfast in 1998. Loane has a long association with the theatre company, both as chair (for three years) and set designer, and indeed designed a striking set for this ‘challenging, stylistic, difficult piece’.

Struck by the play’s emotional impact, he believed that the drama deserved a much wider audience and that the way to reach it was via cinema. Hot on the heels of having written and directed his first short film, he approached McCafferty and said that he wanted to make a film of Mojo-Mickybo.

Immediately the playwright, on the cusp then of what is now an established, successful career, agreed to Loane directing. Three and a half hours later, he also agreed that he should write the screenplay.

Describing McCafferty as a ‘genius theatre writer’, Loane recalls: ‘From then on, Owen handed it over. He’s never seen a script, he still hasn’t seen the film. I think it shows a great confidence in his own writing because he had made a great complete piece of theatre. He let me do what I needed to do.’

Mojo-Mickybo is a kinetic two hander in which two adult actors play the kids, their parents, the neighbours and every other character meriting a mention. It is a theatrical tour de force which capitalises on the possibilities of live performance. Loane clearly relished the process of transforming the narrative for the purposes of film.

The most obvious change from stage to screen is in the naturalistic approach to characterisation. JonJo and Mickybo are played by children in the film and, to the director’s credit, he draws two convincing performances from the pint-sized tearaways (John Jo McNeill and Niall Wright).

Ciaran Hinds, who offers by far the strongest portrait of any of the four parents, was very impressed with the young leads. After his first take with JonJo, he exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, they’re bloody good, aren’t they?’

The play ran for 55 minutes on stage, which meant Loane had the space to elaborate on scenes, characters, and motives. In the stage-play, the scene when the lads run away to the seaside and come back literally takes a minute. The same episode provides the entire second act of the movie.

‘What the play gave me was great characters, great relationships, great moments of drama, great dialogue and great comedy, and great events. It was liberating because there were great elements and I could put them wherever I wanted to, or throw away or combine characters but also bring an awful lot more to it.’

Loane’s passion for the story was driven by his own recollections of growing up in Belfast in the 1970s. ‘I think often the transferring from stage to screen is really hard because you don’t want to throw away beautiful dialogue. And we threw away beautiful dialogue but hopefully what I was able to bring to it was much more of my personal childhood, my love of film, really boosting the Butch and Sundance thing, the adventure, the friendship.’

He is keen to emphasise that this is a buddy movie that anyone can identify with, and says test screenings in New York and LA have proved him right.

‘I think everybody has had a relationship as a child where you were either JonJo or Mickybo, the follower or the leader. You would die for that person, and you can’t even remember their surname now!’

With a 15 certificate, it may be about children, but it is not a film for them. In Loane’s hands, these are two people on a journey. ‘The tougher one opens up and the thinker and the sensitive one, it’s the beginning of him becoming a man, even though it’s sad and difficult.’

Of course, with Butch and Sundance as heroic role models for the boys, the film at times has the feel of a Western, man dwarfed by the landscape, up against the odds. Loane agrees the homage is intended. ‘It’s all shot in Northern Ireland but there’s a few times when it looks like Wyoming!’

And therein lies the core of Mickybo & Me. As the director says himself, ‘To make a film set in Northern Ireland but not trying to explain the Troubles or delve deep into it was very important.’

He points to the opening track which plays over the credits as a clue.

‘Everybody knows ‘Summertime’, but not too many people know that version, by Billy Stewart. For me, that was always about giving people an unfamiliar view of something they think they know already. That was always the film we were focussed on making, not another Troubles film.’ 

Mickeybo & Me is available on general release now.