Ian Palmer and James Quinn McDonagh Talk Knuckle

A generations old Irish blood feud is settled by bare-knuckle boxing in this new documentary, in select theaters December 9th

James Quinn McDonagh and Paddy "The Lurcher" Joyce. Names that demand attention. Men related by blood but separated by a feud that dates back generations. As the heads of rival families, they train to represent their feuding Irish traveling clans, in their long-standing history of violent bare-knuckle boxing.

With Knuckle, filmmaker Ian Palmer presents a hard-edged portrait of Irish Traveller male culture and explores the bond of loyalty, the need for revenge, and the pressures to fight for the honor of your family name.

Irish Travellers are normally silent about certain parts of their lifestyle and this is a rare chance to step inside one of the world's most vibrant and elusive communities. Never before has such a portrayal of their fighting traditions been committed to film, as Ian Palmer spent years around the clans before they agreed to shoot their secretive world and their way of settling scores: No gloves, no padding, just Knuckle.

We recently caught up with Ian Palmer and his subject James Quinn McDonagh to chat about the film. Here is our conversation.

Should we consider McDonagh and Joyce the Hatfield and McCoys of Ireland?

Ian Palmer: To be honest with you, I didn't know about the Hatfield and McCoy feud until we got over here. At Sundance, people did start taking about our film as a parallel to that. I really don't know anything about that feud, though...

How long were both of you involved in the making of this movie, and how difficult was it to edit down all that footage to what, I think, is the perfect length for this particular story.

Ian Palmer: The first footage I ever shot for the film was on November 24th, 1997. The last fight I shot was 2007. Then the last filming I did was two years after that. This went from 1997 to 2009. Then we had the post-production. It was the best part of twelve years. The hardest part about cutting this down to 85 minutes was not finding the quality of the footage. But in trying to condense twelve years of an experience like this down into a movie. That was the most difficult thing. I had to make a time capsule, where we jumped from 2004 to 2002, and then back to 2000. We had to make that timeline work. I had the luck and the determination, and I managed to hook up with a really good editor, who had worked on a lot of narrative documentaries. This guy named Oliver Huddleston. I worked through it day after day with Ollie. We rented a cottage on the southeast part of England, then we sat side by side going through all of the footage, the whole summer, for about four months. Eventually, we cracked it.

How did this story change and evolve over the course of those twelve years in your own mind? That is such an expanse of time, did you always stay aware of the shifting arcs between these two clans?

Ian Palmer: After that first fight, dipping my toe into the water, getting to know the guys, I thought the deal was, I would be making the James Quinn McDonagh story. As time went on, and I filmed for a long time, I realized this would be the story of a generation within this feud. I began filming with one young man at his wedding, and I finished with this same man, when I discovered that he was having the same fight, ten years after getting married. This was the second fight against his cousin. That became the shape of the film I had. Within that shape, a portrait of three families who were at war, or in a feud, however you want to put it, emerged. You really have this story about these three brothers. I had several different layers. I had the families, I had the feud, I had the brothers. And at the end, they went to settle the whole thing.

How did you go about choreographic the fight sequences in editing, pacing them throughout what we see transpire in the film?

Ian Palmer: Some of the existing boxing films would be two of my favorite films. The two that stand out are Raging Bull and the documentary When We Were Kings. Those films are very different. They have a rhythm that is very different. Knuckle was like that, in that it had to find its own way, and its own pacing. If it was going to work, it had to come from itself. It was a story that was happening to me. It was something that I was experiencing and following. For a long time, it was something that I was experiencing right along with the camera. We add the back-story to flesh out where these people were coming from, and where James Quinn McDonagh is coming from, especially. It was also, to some extent...This isn't something I wanted to do, but I did, in the end, have it not only become about these three brothers and their rivalry in the eyes of those around them, but it also had become about what I'd experienced. As it came closer to the end, my narrative...Because its seen through my eyes and my camera...I wanted to make it within this world, but I couldn't force my experience around that. So I had to merge my experience with this world.

That's why the film is so fascinating. Most of the time, the documentarian doesn't get that involved in the story they are telling. Here,, the movie is as much about the clans as it is your experience with them.

Ian Palmer: It became hard not to impose some objectivity on the story. I tried to be impartial about what I was looking at. If James Quinn McDonagh had of lost his fight, I wouldn't have been happy on a personal level. For James. But it's also something I would have found devastating in terms of making the film. It was that side. That brought an objectivity to where I was at. In the meantime, just continuing with any kind of meaning, just keeping it together...That wasn't easy. This process became very difficult, and I did stop shooting at different times throughout the process. I thought, "I am done with this. This isn't going anywhere." Sometimes, I wasn't sure what the outcome of the story was going to be. It was difficult to keep it going in that sense. I did stop filming. With the exception of two close friends, one guy who would run the camera sometimes, and another guy I would bounce ideas off of...I really made this film by myself. I was traveling by myself, hanging around with the guys by myself. In some ways that's the only way this could have been made. I couldn't have shot for that long on a regular film. The budget would have been fifteen million dollars. That doesn't happen with a documentary. The fact that I didn't have a budget, or a commission, allowed me to go off and say, "To Hell with it!" This allowed me a film that was about a generation. On the other hand, it was really hard to find a place to stop. And I only found a place to stop when James Quinn McDonagh's younger brother Michael Quinn McDonagh tried to fight his cousin for the second time. That rounded up his story, the brothers' story, and it allowed me to finish the film.

What has been the reaction to this film from the clans portrayed in it?

Ian Palmer: Everyone in Ireland has seen the film. It's been in release since early August. It's been on VOD in Ireland since that time, too. So, pretty much everyone in Ireland has seen it. It has been pretty popular. I haven't gone around asking, from person to person, how they feel about it. James might be better at answering that question...

James Quinn McDonagh: The reaction to the movie from all three clans? As we speak, I have gone to different members of each clan...We are not buddy-buddy, but we do speak at different times...From them, I have gotten a positive reaction. When we get together, we are very cordial yet very honest. One guy said to me, he hopes it will open the younger generation's eyes, and that they will be able to move on from this.

You've gone on record, stating that you hope this film brings the end to this decades long feud. Since the movie's release in Ireland, have you seen evidence that the clans are heading in that direction?

James Quinn McDonagh: Anything is possible. I was worried about people's reactions to this film. Me being one of the central characters, I was afraid that the McDonaghs would be perceived as being favoritized. But I think all of the clans got a fair crack at the whip. You are in control of whom you believe in the movie.

People always bring up Brad Pitt and his performance in Snatch when they hear about Knuckle. You guys were shooting this movie when Snatch came out. What was your reaction to Pitt and his take on the traveling Irish in that film?

James Quinn McDonagh: My first thought on Brad Pitt's performance in that movie...It's brilliant. I have no problem with his accent and his take on the traveling Irish. If you look at Ian's movie, the accents are so heavy, even with subtitles, you can't understand what they are saying. It happens. I think Brad Pitt did a good job in that movie, and he portrayed that traveling lifestyle pretty good.

Ian Palmer: To be honest, I have never watched that film. I've never seen it. I've seen clips, and I thought he was pretty good. In reality, what he portrayed, and what Hollywood's interpretation of this world is...It's very, very different from the real world. The fight scenes in a Hollywood movie and fights in the real world are two very different things. These fights aren't choreographed. You are not seeing chiseled people...Sometimes they are very fit, very good boxers. But really, the guys that go to fight, to represent their families, these are real guys. Bare knuckle fighting is about representing your family. Of course, Brad Pitt is doing that in Snatch to some extent. Most often, you are a family guy going out to protect your family.

Because they are not choreographed fights, how difficult was it for you to film them? That had to pose a lot of challenges to you as a camera operator, thinking like an editor...

Ian Palmer: When the guys were fighting, I always wanted to be right in, close. I didn't want to mess around with zooms, or anything like that. I wanted to capture everything in its gritty, bloody reality as much as I could. That was my approach as a filmmaker. Get in tight, and then stay with it. Sometimes I would be in close enough to get pushed back by the referee, or sometimes I'd even get a blow. That was my approach. Close and tight.

Having a camera in the middle of fight had to be something these guys weren't accustomed to.

Ian Palmer: A lot of these fights had been filmed before I started doing it. Before the first fight I filmed, there was another fight I went to with James, and there was a camera there at the time. It was something that had just started, and then more people started to have availability to cameras. Wedding video guys would come and help. That stared happening. Whenever I would show up with a camera, people rarely ever said no to the cameras, or told me that I couldn't shoot. If someone told me no, I wouldn't film it. Sometimes, these fights would happen, and the only people attending would be the two fighters, two referees, and a handful of people to bring the fighters back and forth from the isolated places that these fights would occur. Sometimes, there would be hardly anyone there. Other times, it would be at a traveler site, and there would be a lot of people there. There might be a couple of hundred people. The only complaint I ever heard, someone would shout at the referees to move the cameraman. The referee would say, "Hey, cameraman, step back!"

When members of the various clans sit down and watch footage from five, ten, twelve years ago, do old wounds ever get reopened?

James Quinn McDonagh: There are scenes that I wouldn't have liked to seen again. There were scenes that a lot of people didn't like to see. They were things that were said or spoken in the heat of the moment. You have to live with that. If you talk bad about every one and everything, you're going to have to live with that for the rest of your life.