Best known for particularly Irish films like Adam & Paul and Garage, the latest screenplay from Mark O’Halloran, Viva, is set in Havana, and features a tumultuous relationship between a young drag queen and his macho father.
Here Mark O’Halloran, Viva‘s writer, talks to Jarlath Gregory about immersing himself in the Cuban gay scene, his feelings about the rejection of effeminacy in men, and how he laments the mainstreaming of drag culture.
Mark O’Halloran is a gay Dublin-based writer and actor, best known for penning the widely-acclaimed films Adam & Paul and Garage. Having previously explored the darker sides of Irish society in his screenplays, this year Mark invites us on a journey into the life of Jesus, a young Cuban hairdresser who longs to be a drag queen – until his macho father re-enters his life, and forbids his son from performing at the local gay bar.
The result, directed by Paddy Breathnach, is a feel-good movie that never shies away from the more difficult aspects of life in Havana, while showing us how a masculine father and his camp son finally manage to form a bond. I caught up with Mark to discover the inspiration behind the sweet and touching coming-of-age drama Viva.
Why did you set the story in Havana?
Paddy Breathnach asked would I be interested in doing something. He mentioned Cuba, and I thought I might as well see if I could write something completely outside of my own experience.
It was a challenge. Often when these things are done it’s about a foreign person coming in and experiencing it, and I didn’t want to do that. We went over there and the stories were so rich, we hung around with the drag queens, and I wanted to write something about the two extremes of masculinity. I wanted to write a father/son story, possibly to write about my own daddy issues, but to do it in disguise.
The gay scene there is portrayed as quite tight-knit and supportive, but we also see the underbelly of sex work. Is that a fairly accurate portrayal of gay life in Havana?
I think it was as true to gay life in Havana as it could possibly be; it’s a real underground, homemade scene. You cannot get away from the sex work; it’s very present and obvious. You see all the boys clinging to each other. They’re in their early 20s, they’re beautiful looking fellas, but they’re hanging out together and almost hunting in packs.
There’s a lot of drink there but no drugs, and I’ve never heard of a tourist being attacked. So it’s quite a safe place to observe things. I’m fascinated by that financial exchange, what happens when you sell or buy a commodity that involves an exchange of the flesh?
Read on to see what Mark O’Halloran things about drag culture and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
How important is the drag scene in Havana, and is it comparable to Western drag culture?
I would say the drag scene is central to gay life there, and it’s a reaction against machismo. Men act in a very macho way in Cuba. Boxing and sporting achievement are highly prized, and they genuinely are macho guys. It’s from that that the hatred of gays happens. But more importantly, it’s a hatred of effeminacy. An effeminate male is seen as a weak, failed person.
I really reject the idea of male effeminacy as weakness. The drag mother Mama says in the film: “You think I don’t fight my own fight? This is how I fight my own fight!” She’s a warrior. She’s the person who actually cares.
I was asking the question in the film, what constitutes strength? Is macho fist-fighting strength, or is it in a boy who, through self-realisation, cares for his own father and others around him? It’s no accident that the Stonewall rioters were drag queens and bull dykes and people who couldn’t hide their otherness, who would have been laughed at and despised. That otherness should be celebrated more.
Drag seems to be entering popular culture at the moment. Is it in danger of going mainstream?
Ah yeah, it is. I mean, look at RuPaul’s Drag Race and all that – I find it awful. I loved the subversion before that. It was dangerous, and somewhere like Havana it still is dangerous. They still haven’t formulated ideas about it or put it on the television. It’s still seen as being mad. When drag queens in Havana lip-sync a song, they mean it, every romantic notion. Here, there’s an ironic detachment. Havana drag queens sing a song about being hard done by and being screwed around by men, and they absolutely mean it. It’s a glorious thing to look at.
Read on to see what Mark O’Halloran thought about working alongside the lead actor, Hector Medina.
Not only did you write the screenplay, but you had a pivotal role in the film too. Did you enjoy working opposite the leading man, Hector Medina?
He’s very lovely. It was the first sex scene I ever had in a film. It was very tastefully done. He’s beautiful, young, and I felt like this beast who was being launched at him, and it was all very embarrassing! It was an interesting role. You see those men who don’t seem to have any moral qualms about having a boyfriend for a holiday, but they pay them for sex, and that’s fine. I think the exchange robs both parties in ways.
One of the nice things about the film is that it doesn’t feel like the characters are on a moral journey, but rather, that they’re trying to survive on their own terms. Was that a deliberate choice for you, as a writer?
I don’t know what’s moral and what’s immoral. I certainly don’t deal in absolutes and we all live our lives in grey areas. I’m not interested in a character who wants to be good or a moral example to the world.
In Havana, because survival is difficult, life is full of grey areas. A lot of them go to prison, or are sex workers, and they talk quite openly about it. I had a lot of interviews with them, about what it was like, and I don’t judge it. Jesus is a boy doing his best.
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
I have a film that just wrapped called Halal Daddy, set in Sligo. And I have a film called Trade, which is an adaptation of a play I wrote a few years ago, and that’s either going to go into production in November, or we may push it back to the springtime. I’m writing something else for Paddy Breathnach. I’m rehearsing and going on tour. I’m working with Pat Collins on a film. And I’m going over to Havana again in November, to catch up with my buddies and the pace of change. I want to write another film there, so I’ll do a little bit of research when I’m over.
‘Viva’ screened in July as part of the GAZE Film Festival. ‘Viva’ has it’s national premiere on Friday August 19 in IFI, with a Q&A with Mark O’Halloran and Director Paddy Breathnach at 6:30pm.
© 2016 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.