ScreenFish sat down with screenwriter, director and star Bill McCann to discuss his biopic The Liberator about Daniel O?Connell, the nineteenth century political leader whose faith shaped the actions he fought for in court and in the countryside of Ireland.
Bill McCann admits that when it comes to Daniel O?Connell, he?s obsessed. Spending a year at the University College Cork in Ireland, he saw streets, monuments, money, and more named the man who fought for equality for Catholics in Ireland and for Irish representation in the British government. When he took a history class at Cork, he discovered that O?Connell had shown commitment, faith, and desire to resolve the conflict peacefully, and realized that more people should hear O?Connell?s story.
?He gave voice to Irish identity, as courageous, faithful, quick witted, eloquent, and sharp-tongued if necessary – a quintessential Irishman,? shared McCann. ?As an attorney, he never loses a case, realizing that the courtroom was as much a stage as a legal argument. I felt he should have a film that told his story.?
Over a decade ago, McCann read a dozen books on O?Connell, and set out to learn how to write a screenplay, relying on the books of screenwriter Hal Ackerman and taking classes to hone the skill. He started writing and rewriting, submitting to contests, getting reviews, and trying to tell the story in two-hour film. McCann married, had children, and worked a full-time job but continued tightening the screenplay.
?At one point, I thought I was ready for Spielberg or Gibson to take it on, but I realized it?s difficult to even get anyone to notice,? admitted McCann.
O?Connell showed character that McCann wanted to emphasize. Here was a man who could have lived a comfortable, successful life but who followed his conscience to make a stand. ?He felt he had more to use his gifts for, and moved from looking out for himself to looking out for his people. Wherever there was injustice, he needed to do what he could to address it regardless of its negative impact on him.?
?Abolition ran counter to his own interests because he was often criticized for it, because it jeopardized relationships and funding with sympathetic folks in the US who would have otherwise supported the causes. But he didn?t want that support if he couldn?t have spoken out against slavery. Frederick Douglass so admired O?Connell, he traveled to Ireland to meet him. Douglass said, ?I knew I would love Daniel O?Connell because my master hated him so much.? Douglass really looked up to O?Connell and was moved by him.?
The other thread running through the film, quite intentionally, was highlighting how O?Connell?s faith informed his politics rather than vice versa. McCann points out that this was also true of Gandhi and Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. ?In the place of King and O?Connell, it was ?I?m a man of God and a Christian.? They always inform everything else, including political life. I hope that the film raises people?s minds to think about it.?
?We?ve twisted that now, the political ends are the goals, not the human and religious ends. A character like O?Connell, his faith is informing him politically, that?s obviously Christian, with the faith that God is in control, giving me gifts, and giving me challenges, and he?s going to support me, and I need to do my level best, to bring about change that is beneficial to everyone. I can work hard, and be aggressive and determined about that, but God is in control. I need to do it with humanity, with God?s perspective and God?s big picture that we?re all children of God and that God wants everyone to be saved.?
?These issues are beneath that, and we want to promote change that is going to be beneficial to everyone, including their salvation. It doesn?t mean you?re not in the moment, and addressing injustices, and passionate about the change, but it gives you that perspective. It?s going to set limits. You?re going to be respectful, no matter how hard you?re pushed. You?re going to have that centeredness, and respond in the right way.?
In 2012, McCann?s family moved to Lancaster, MA, where they became involved in the Trivium School, which focuses on providing a Catholic education to students in seventh through twelfth grade. McCann had his own experience in that, having attended Portsmouth Abbey School in the 1980s, receiving a Catholic education of his own, under the watchful eye of the Benedictine monks who were part of the priory.
Talking with the theater department at Trivium, McCann showed his adaptability, turning his cinematic screenplay into a three-act stage play, which debuted in 2017. With forty actors, the team delivered a well-received theater version and McCann realized the possibility of a ?scaled back Hollywood version? that he could film himself. With support from his Clinton, MA, parish, McCann assembled a team and filmed for six weeks in 2021.
Cinematographer Jacob Schmeideke, who McCann met through Thomas Aquinas College, moved to Lancaster to live with the McCanns for the six weeks of shooting. They rented a high-powered camera and other equipment, investing heavily in costumes and locations, including at Trivium. With the timely background, they were able to give the illusion of an 1820s/1840s period piece shot on location. The team has been working to prepare the home media versions (out November 15 through the website at https://www.theliberatormovie.com/.?
McCann says that he was ?extraordinarily blessed? to make the film. He realizes looking back that he once prayed for a big Hollywood production, but realizes now he was always praying ?not my will but God?s will be done.? ?As usual, it worked out as a much better plan,? he said. ?The experience of making the film with several hundred parishioners and friends was extraordinary. All of the things have to line up correctly, especially when you don?t have a large budget and you have so many volunteers. God was so watching over this project, from the costumes to the food to the locations to the weather!?
One memory sticks out for McCann: when filming a crucial dock scene toward the end of the film. The Columban fathers allowed the filmmakers to use their property, and on the day that they were scheduled to film, one of the historic Tall ships was parked in the harbor. The day was ominous, and they completed filming moments before a deluge hit, washing everything out. McCann shakes his head, grinning as he recounts that story. ?What I wanted wasn?t what God had in mind, and it was a much better experience.?
In filming a movie about a Catholic man who focused on trusting God, McCann?s own growth becomes obvious as well. He?s thankful for the direction God led him through, for the prayers that weren?t answered the way he expected, and for the way that he was forced to be creative.
From Rhode Island, to Ireland, and back to New England again, McCann?s journey reminds him of God?s providence and grace, sometimes where we least expect it. It?s an encouragement that God can use to provide others hope and direction for their own futures: both the story of an Irishman who chose the harder, more faithful route to reform, and an American who saw a story that deserved to be told, with a reminder that the way forward will always be faith over politics and fear.