“An t-Inneal Espresso”: A New Gaelic Film from Nova Scotia
Gaelic filmmaking in Nova Scotia takes another step forward in 2019 with the new short film “An t-Inneal Espresso” (The Espresso Machine), which premieres in September 2019 at FIN Atlantic Film Festival here in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The 16-minute film, set in the homes and apartments of (sub)urban Halifax, is a bit of a dark comedy—not exactly a love triangle, more of a caffeine quandary: Ealasaid has loaned her expensive espresso machine to Ailig’s girlfriend Una, and now she needs it back, desperately. Unfortunately, Ailig and Una broke up, so Ealasaid must get them back together, or never drink that heavenly coffee again.
The film features Halifax-area Gaelic speakers Beathag Anna NicEachainn, Ìomhair MacDhòmhnaill (Ed MacDonell), and Cailin Lynk… and Angus MacLeod as the dead grandfather. Just kidding, Angus is not in this Nova Scotian Gaelic film, although he did lend a hand behind the scenes. This month I’m pleased to interview the director and producer of “An t-Inneal Espresso,” Iain MacLeod, about his background, motivations, and journey with Gaelic language and culture.
EM: As a native Nova Scotian, how did you first get interested in Gaelic?
IM: I was born, and mostly raised, in Pictou County: Merigomish (mere miles from the Bard MacLean’s gloomy forests!) and New Glasgow. I’ve always been interested in, or at least aware of, Gaelic. Certainly from my first day of school when I had to start spelling my Gaelic name for people—and I have like the easiest one. Over the years it’s been spelled wrong more than it’s been spelled right, and I’ve had people say Iain spelled Iain is “different” (which is rural Nova Scotia code for “bad”) or “funny” or even “wrong.” And I always explained it was the Gaelic spelling, so I’ve always been aware of not only where the name came from, but also where I did. My father is from Cape Breton and all of his grandparents were first language Gaelic speakers, mostly of Harris extraction. One of his grandparents survived into my childhood (though I doubt that’s how she looked at it!). The language was in serious decline when my father was growing up but there were still semi-regular church services, and he’d have heard the language in the community when he was a kid. So it was always there, but I didn’t really think about it. In the ’90s I began wanting to learn and there were a few, largely unsuccessful, attempts at this. In 2001 I was in the Scottish Highlands and although it was a very emotional experience, I think it actually did the opposite of motivating me and I kind of felt like “what’s the point,” you know, internalizing what the naysayers tell you.
Anyway, two years ago I was working at AFCOOP, the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative in Halifax, on an initiative in which five language communities in Nova Scotia received film workshops and the chance to make a film. One of the languages was Gaelic and it felt like a good opportunity to start learning again (you interviewed Jenny MacKenzie who made the Gaelic film “Slighe Agnais” on the initiative). I’ve been serious about it for that whole time and have become much more involved in the community, which I think is a key factor in continuing—you don’t learn a language to speak to yourself.
EM: You have extensive experience in television and filmmaking already, including writing for the Nova Scotian television export “Trailer Park Boys” which is widely-known and well-loved (at least by some…), directing the feature film “Your Money or Your Wife,” co-writing “Beat Down,” and writing on the film “Relative Happiness.” What have been your influences as a filmmaker and writer, and how did you come to Gaelic filmmaking?
IM: I watched a lot of Canadian and British TV when I was a kid, and also some American sitcoms and soap operas, and by a lot I mean I watched eight hours of TV on a school day. I think that is the biggest influence—in ways I understand, and others I don’t—on both my filmmaking and possibly also my life. And what all of those shows had in common was they were highly structured, and often had fast-moving narratives. Later, I wrote for TV for so long that it really reinforced the importance of narrative. I’m all about plot and high concept. I appreciate beautifully composed shots, but I’m really about story above all.
Also, I grew up in rural Nova Scotia with lots of absurdity and craziness, and felt both completely part of that world but also like a weirdo who was separated from it, so that encouraged a certain perspective about the world, like I was always watching it from some distance and thinking it was preposterous. And so without ever realizing it, I was always drawn to farce and ended up writing a lot of it. A friend once said I wrote mostly crime farce and I thought that wasn’t the case until I actually went through a catalogue of what I’d done, and of course it totally is.
So that’s the big picture, but as for specific influences, I was massively influenced, again without realizing it, by a Canadian TV show from the ’80s called “Seeing Things” about a clairvoyant Italian-Canadian crime reporter in Toronto. It was a procedural of sorts, but also very funny (and about 20 years ahead of its time), and it also was a very specific Canadian story—emphasis on the indefinite article—which let me know at a very young age that we, meaning Canadians (however you interpret that word), had stories to tell and should tell them. Something I also realized recently, as I was re-watching episodes of “Jeeves and Wooster” on YouTube, was how big an impact it had on me when I was 19 or 20 watching on Masterpiece Theatre—because that level of writing is what I strive for. I’m not saying I’ve ever gotten there, just you know, strived for it. Oh and Jane Austen is my favourite novelist too… so comedy, farce, any story that makes you laugh at the absurdity of life but also kind of celebrates it—that’s probably my worldview. A character in a film I made when I was quite young said “but that’s Nova Scotia for you—most of the time I don’t know whether to laugh or cry”. And I feel that now as much as I did then.
EM: That’s relatable… I can definitely see how you ended up coining the word “shitiot” for the Trailer Park Boys in the process!
IM: Yeah. Anyway, I decided to make films in Gaelic because Gaelic is a big part of my life now, as is filmmaking, so it wouldn’t make sense not to do it, plus I think it’s important to do it for the community, and for the message it sends. A few years ago I stopped focusing on having a “career,” some might say not by choice in this province’s economy and political climate, and I decided I was going to make what I wanted. The downside is that no one really wants to pay for that, and this would be doubly true of Gaelic stuff I want to make. But the upside is that I can do what I like, and tell the stories I want, albeit with not much money… and here we are.
EM: I still can’t believe how the Nova Scotia (neo)Liberal Party cut the Nova Scotia film tax credit in 2015. It was such a blow to the film industry here. You probably weren’t aware of it at the time, but in the same budget they also pink slipped two well-loved, key staff members without warning from the government’s Gaelic Affairs office. That was a really discouraging time.
Speaking of money, you did do a successful crowdfunder for a recent feature film. Is that something you would consider doing in the future for a second Gaelic film? And how did you raise the money for “An t-Inneal Espresso”?
IM: I would absolutely consider a crowdfunding campaign for any Gaelic feature film—in fact if any of your readers have a million dollars they want to give me we can get that rolling now. As far as this film I paid for it myself, which is an option for a two-day short film shoot but much less so when you’re shooting a feature.
EM: You are learning Gaelic right now, as you mentioned already—so how has your Gaelic learning journey shaped your Gaelic filmmaking so far?
IM: In some ways I think it’s more the other way round. By making the film I spent more time with Gaelic speakers, writing Gaelic, listening to Gaelic in rehearsals, on set, and editing the film, and thinking about it. A case could be made that by doing different activities in Gaelic, it helps with language acquisition, and not just the usual “Gaelic” activities but, you know whatever: scuba diving, learning how to weld, Mexican cooking—why can’t all those things happen in Gaelic? I’m an intermediate learner, but there were many times on set when the actors would be chatting and I’d understand what they were saying, and think to myself, “maybe I am making progress.”
EM: I mean you absolutely are. It’s inspiring believe it or not. How did you develop the idea for the new film?
IM: There was an anthology feature film, “Hopeless Romantic,” made last year in Halifax with six different directors. I was asked to write one of the stories and this was actually the story I wrote. We were told to write whatever we liked so long as it had to do with love. I’d had this idea of someone loaning something to a friend’s significant other then struggling to get it back when they broke up. I remember initially it was a mixtape or something (to date myself!). But for the anthology, I made it an espresso machine. But then the funder felt the stories were too different from each other, so some of us were asked to write different ones, including me. After that film was made, I asked for my original story back and the producers gave it to me. I knew I wanted to make it as a stand-alone piece at some point, but didn’t have a plan beyond that. At the same time, I wanted to make my first Gaelic film and had a couple other scripts I was considering. Those stories had too many moving parts though, and “The Espresso Machine” was a three-hander set in a couple of apartments that seemed feasible over two days of shooting, so I picked it instead.
EM: Wait, what is a “three-hander?”
IM: That’s a term that comes from the theatre, though two-hander is more common, and it just means a play, or in this case film, with only three characters. Anyway, I described the story once to someone who said, “that doesn’t sound very Gaelic,” and as soon as they did, I knew I’d done the right thing. So much Gaelic-language artistic content, in Nova Scotia at least, is centred firmly in the past. While it is obviously very important to honour the past, the optics that go along with only doing things connected to history are, “this language lives in a time that is now over.” I’m not saying that is people’s intention, but that is how it is perceived by people outside the community, and even people in the community who aren’t Gaelic speakers, when they see it and hear it. In our movie, we don’t mention the language, we don’t talk about Culloden, or play a fiddle, or do any of that. I strongly believe there has to be room for Gaelic stories that people don’t perceive as being Gaelic in a traditional sense—though there must be room for those stories too. We don’t need to justify our existence. We’re here, we’re speaking our language, this is a movie in that language—deal with it or get out of our way. We have to normalize our language use and not segregate ourselves to museums or multicultural festivals.
EM: Yeah, I agree with that sentiment. There has to be room for all of us to be Gaels in our own ways and our own places, rural and urban and everywhere in between. As a Gaelic speaker living in Dartmouth (only a few miles from the actual SwearNet Studios), I also really appreciate the fact that the film is set around here. As well as it being a thoroughly contemporary story, you also mentioned choosing to make this particular film because the project was a manageable size. How long did it take overall to make it?
IM: The shoot itself was two days in April 2019, but before that the actors rehearsed with me for a few weeks. Before that, I had written the script and tried to translate it into Gaelic myself. Of course my terrible efforts at translation were corrected by Angus MacLeod. He basically re-translated it I think in February, and then Margie Beaton had a look at it as well. Angus and Margie are both fluent Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia and it’s important to have fluent Gaelic speakers involved on the writing side.
After we shot, I edited the film over a couple of months, had the sound edited, the colour graded and so on. It’s now possible with technology to do things much more quickly and cheaply than even ten years ago, but there are still challenges when you have next to no money. I think we did all right though, all things considered.
EM: Was it difficult to cast the film? How did you go about finding Gaelic-speaking actors here? How about locations?
IM: The reality is that there is a very small pool of people in Nova Scotia to draw from. There’s no getting around that. However, since there were only three characters, and they already fit the ages and genders of Gaelic speakers I knew, it was easier than I thought it might be. Cailin has been in a couple of classes with me, Beathag Anna teaches one of those classes, and Cailin was friends with Ìomhair and suggested him. Cailin and Beathag Anna didn’t realize this at the time, but when I was thinking about asking them, I was kind of analyzing their comic timing in Gaelic class! It’s not an easy place to do that, but it’s not impossible, thanks to the occasional dramatic readings from the Teach Yourself Gaelic conversations we’d do in class! I was nervous before approaching them all, but they were enthusiastic, and committed to the process completely. I genuinely can’t thank them enough.
One of the locations was my former apartment. Another was the house of some friends, whose old apartment I’d shot in before, and finally we shot in Nona MacDermid’s house. (Nona produced “Fàire Chaluim MhicLeòid / The Wake of Calum MacLeod,” Canada’s first Gaelic film.) Locations are always tricky. It’s a lot to ask of people, but I try to be respectful of their space and certainly transparent about the realities of shooting. I’ve been lucky so far.
EM: I can relate to that, since we also got very lucky last year when a dear friend offered us the use of her house for an entire day to film a book trailer for the tattoo handbooks. We really couldn’t repay her. But I think the nature of the Gaelic community here helps with those kinds of requests, since we are all committed to promoting the language here in our own various ways, and in general it feels good to work toward that goal together and we are willing to give a lot for the cultural projects in which we see value. Looking ahead, what kinds of future Gaelic filmmaking projects do you have in mind?
IM: Is there enough space on your server to talk about this? I have a short I want to do about the divide between those in Cape Breton who say “latha” and those who pronounce it more like “watha” owing to a dialect difference brought over from Scotland. I have another couple of shorts in mind, including one that sort of pokes fun at the first Scottish settlers. Mostly though, I’ve been working on a feature that I received a grant to write. It’s an adaptation of Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), which is of course the great epic of Irish pre-history. My adaptation will be set in contemporary industrial Cape Breton, though, with Medb and Ailill being gangsters as opposed to royalty. They will not speak Old Irish or English, but Scottish Gaelic… what do you think of that, Gaelic scholars? Come at me bro!
I don’t want to get carried away, and it’s difficult as Canadian funders don’t fund films that aren’t in English, French or an Indigenous language, but I’m confident, especially given what I’ve done before, that this film is only the beginning.
EM: Well it would be nice if I could try to hook you up with a Gaelic scholar or two for that film, it all depends on your approach I suppose! I do think we need to bridge the gap and make Gaelic and Irish scholarship more accessible in part so that it can feed more into pop culture, instead of going unrecognized, while made-up stereotypes that are totally different from actual Gaelic history, prehistory, and culture get endlessly recycled.
I’m super sad to hear that Canada won’t fund Gaelic-language files. The funding situation for Gaelic films in Canada sounds so similar to the situation of Gaelic in Canadian publishing, where a Gaelic publishing company can’t qualify for relaxed federal funding eligibility requirements like French and Indigenous-language companies can (and even English companies in Quebec). Gaelic has no legal status whatsoever in Canada, and still quite a low cultural profile at the national level, so there are zero priorities for it in the arts—totally unlike the situation in Scotland where you now have BBC Alba, independent Gaelic media production companies, and the FilmG Gaelic short film competition among many other things. Despite those huge hurdles, can filmmaking play a role in revitalizing and promoting Gaelic in Nova Scotia?
IM: I certainly think it can. First of all, the more films are being made, the more Gaelic is being used. I feel like I’m about a year, maybe a year and a half, away from speaking to actors only in Gaelic. I also think the possibility of having a Gaelic-only set isn’t far-fetched. The more contexts in which Gaelic can be used the better. It’s great to use it in a class, but then what happens for the next six days, you know? The other thing making films does is let people know we’re here, it normalizes the language. And whether it’s the classes that are happening now, official Gaelic Affairs programming, cultural events, the Gaelic licence plates or anything else, including films, the more the language is out there the more it becomes this thing that is simply part of the Nova Scotia landscape again. I’m not naive enough to believe that makes the jerks and the bigots go away, but it certainly shrinks their receptive audience. Speaking of not being naive, the language is in a precarious place. We all know that. And no film, whether I make it or Steven Spielberg does, is going to instantly create 50,000 new speakers. But, and I hope I don’t sound like some PR guru, optics do matter. Let’s not forget that optics got us here in the first place. Specifically, the optics of Eastern Nova Scotia in the early 20th century. “You have to learn English to get ahead, and not only that but you can’t do that and continue to speak Gaelic, Gaelic will hold you back, you can’t know both,” etc. Well of course that’s complete nonsense as we now know. But people believed that and it became a self-fulfilling reality. Maybe we can make it work for us in reverse. I don’t know if it will happen but I absolutely know it can.
EM: What would you offer as words of encouragement to anyone wishing to make a Gaelic film?
IM: I would say this to anyone who was interested in making any kind of art, no matter who they were, what they wanted to do or what language they spoke—just go and do it. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t listen to the 95% of your friends and family who will tell you a bunch of BS reasons not to because they’re terrified you might prove them wrong or leave them behind, or whatever. Just go for it. Maybe you’ll fall on your face but who cares. Get up and do it again. Life is short and art makes it better, but it also inspires, and teaches, and comforts, and above all builds community. It can change the world. And even if your film sucks, the world won’t suffer for it. Well… unless your film is “Triumph of the Will”… then… you know… just don’t do it. Don’t make that movie. Please.
In terms of Gaelic film in a Canadian context, please do it. And if you need help reach out to the rest of us. The only way this story has a happy ending is if we stick together, put all our sectarian nonsense and Maritime passive aggression aside and put our language first.
EM: Mòran taing, Iain!