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Michael Flatley on writing, directing and starring in his spy thriller Blackbird

Riverdance icon Michael Flatley releases his first film Blackbird this week. Forget the story, he tells The Big Issue, it’s all about following your dreams

The name’s Flatley. Michael Flatley. He’s known by other aliases, of course. Lord of the Dance, the Celtic Tiger. The Bostonian who revolutionised Irish dance via the vote-counting gap at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994 (which Ireland went on to win for a third year in a row), broke records by tapping 35 times a second and had his feet insured for around £50 million.

After Riverdance leaped and drummed and pummelled its way into popular culture, a cavalcade of blockbuster Flatley shows followed, which collectively have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, euros, pounds, yen and plenty of other currencies, as they tour and tour again crisscrossing the globe.

And now, Michael Flatley has written a spy thriller, Blackbird, directed by Michael Flatley, starring Michael Flatley, funded by Michael Flatley.

Michael Flatley is Blackbird aka Victor Blackley, a former secret service agent drawn back into his old life for some reason or another. I don’t know the full plot because before the interview I was only allowed to see 14 minutes and 35 seconds of the film.

On a videocall from his home in County Cork (also used as a film location) Flatley, now 64, interrupts my first question with one of his own.

“Wait, did you like it?”

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And I did enjoy the jaunty hats, leisurely foot chases and potential femme fatales because I could relate. If I had millions to spare, I’d cast myself in a self-funded, self-indulgent James Bond-style film too. Why wasn’t I allowed to watch more?

“Well, those aren’t my decisions. Those are the fellas running it. I’d be delighted for everyone to see it quickly.”

In a scene I did see, a character describes Blackley by saying: “There’s no one like him. He’s irreplaceable. No one can do what he does.” That’s a fair description of Flatley as well, right?

“Oh stop taking the piss. That’s movie making. I was watching Tom Cruise in Top Gun [Flatley pronounces it “Tap Gun”] the other day and what a fabulous movie that is. How entertaining. Was that movie perfectly written, directed, the music, the acting, the throwbacks to the old story, everything. But there are all those one-liners: ‘He’s gonna do it’, ”He’s the fastest that ever was!’ It’s just Hollywood. You have to have one or two of them. Come on, you know that.”

So who is Victor Blackley really?

“I think he’s a guy that just wants to jump off the planet and can’t find a way. Like many people in the world he was running from the past. Well, he’s really running from himself. Of course, we can never escape ourselves.

“It’s not autobiographical in any way. But I did draw on past experience when I was writing. Deep in the middle of the night with the candle burning and a gin martini, you rewind the tape. You pull on your own feelings and emotions from the past to try and see how that might translate. Reach deep into what did happen, what might have happened, should have happened.

Michael Flatley and Patrick Bergin in Blackbird Photo: Brian Doherty

“The movie, it’s laced with undercurrent if you look deeply for it. There’s dark versus light, good versus bad. But there’s also love versus lust and the past versus today. How does he reconcile it with so much happening around him?”

The undercurrents were lost on some reviewers this week. “Lord of the awful 007-rip-off”, “a classic of egosploitation cinema”, “memorable for all the wrong reasons”. But Blackbird was a confirmed cult classic long before it was released.

The film premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in 2018, it subsequently disappeared, leaving little trace, and a mythology started to grow around it. Was it even real? And then, Flatley won a best actor award at the Monaco Film Festival (where he lives when not in Ireland).

His jump into filmmaking is not as surprising as it may seem.

“I grew up on Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper and Jimmy Cagney,” Flatley remembers. “I used to follow my mother around the kitchen telling her stories, I suppose a lot of children do that.”

It was his mother, Eilish, who wanted him to swap dancing for filmmaking, and he promised he would before she died in 2016. Dancing wasn’t a career choice though. As his website states, “He doesn’t dance because he wants to; he dances because he needs to.” 

The need may be spiritual but it’s Flatley’s body that’s paid the price. He’s had to “make friends with pain” and tots up a tally of damaged vertebrae, torn ligaments and ruptured tendons.

What happens to a person who can no longer do what they need to do? “He goes off and makes movies,” Flatley answers.

“I’m not gonna lie to you. Walking down the back of that stage, 10,000 people standing up screaming and the noise of 40 dancers tapping as fast as they can. It’s like the concorde taking off in my ears. Of course I’m gonna miss that. Nothing will ever replace that. But that was then and now onto something new. Life is short.”

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He paints too. His website again describes Flatley as “the only person to ever create paintings by dancing on canvas”.

“I don’t use a brush,” he says. “But I have used other things. For instance, I tore up one of my old costumes one time and used the rag to splash paint because it had to have the energy of the costume. One time in a fit, I took the windshield wiper off my ’65 Jaguar E-Type because I wanted to drag the paint and I couldn’t find anything anywhere. It had to have the energy of the car.

“My paintings are all about energy,” he continues. “Imagine, every night when I danced, that’s that particular dance gone forever. I don’t care who the painter is, whether it’s Picasso or Renoir or whoever, they paint their painting once and it lasts forever. Mine has to be done live every single night.

“And so I had this idea, what if I could turn the 3D into a 2D memory with the same energy – and it worked. People loved it. Like this movie, just keep going, keep trying new things.”

Michael Flatley behind the scenes on Blackbird.  Photo: Brian Doherty
Michael Flatley behind the scenes on Blackbird Photo: Brian Doherty

Flatley is charming company. He’s aware of the naysayers but has undeniable passion and earnest belief in his film. The only thing is, I still don’t know the plot.

So what is it about? Turns out the plot isn’t really important.

“Listen, did I make the movie for me? Of course I did. I wanted to prove I could do it. Did I make it for my mother? Of course. I gave her my word I was going to do it. But what really motivates me is all the people out there, especially young people, who have a dream. They want to be somebody in life, but they’re afraid to death of what others might think or what people might say.

“You can’t let that stop you. I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, your nationality or your religion – none of that matters. If you have a dream and you’re willing to work, you’re willing to focus and make the sacrifices, you can have anything in the world. And if Blackbird stands for nothing else, it stands for that.

“Stand up and throw your best shot, mate. That’s what it’s about.”

Interview: Steven MacKenzie

Blackbird opens in UK & Irish cinemas nationwide from Friday September 2

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