"A Very British Gangster" makes a very Park City connection
Until he watched a screening of a Sundance Film Festival documentary, Park City gallery owner Mike Reachill had not seen his father’s face in 10 years.
Reachill says for nearly 15 seconds the film, "A Very British Gangster," captures his father walking amidst a funeral procession on the streets of Manchester, England — his birthplace and childhood home. The crowd has gathered to honor a slain brother of the Noonan family, an infamous, powerful clan of gangsters who serve as the subjects of the documentary, but also happen to be a part of the original cast in Reachill’s real life.
While admitting he experienced some nostalgia during the screening, Reachill laments little about leaving his family and friends across the Atlantic.
"A Very British Gangster" describes a world Reachill struggled to escape: an existence rife with violence, drugs, crime and abuse. After a court acquitted Reachill of criminal charges that might have earned him to as many as 25 years in prison, he decided to leave the country. "I was kind of released from custody with no charges, and for me, that was a huge relief," he recalls. "Whether you’re religious or not, I’d felt divinely I’d been given a clean slate to do something with myself."
Reachill says he was living in Ireland when he first discovered Utah. After a vacation, he decided to move to the state and open Luna Bronze, a business that sells bronze statues and custom lighting. Since 1999, Reachill and his wife have lived a relatively undisturbed life in Heber City.
But this week, he says strangers have stopped him on the street to ask him questions about a life he would just as soon forget.
"The movie isn’t even about me, I’m not even in it. — other than living in the area and knowing a couple of the people mentioned or that are featured who I haven’t spoken to in 10 years, there’s no connection to me," he says. "As far as I’m concerned, I’m overwhelmed by the attention."
Many of those who stop Reachill recognize him because as soon as "A Very British Gangster" director Donal Mac Intyre heard about Reachill’s connection to his movie, he invited him to speak onstage during the Q and A. The audience stayed well beyond the theater’s scheduled closing, said Mac Intyre.
"It’s the art of documentary it offers a flavor movies can’t: the script, the set, the real players and real consequences," Mac Intyre says. "Extraordinary things happen."
And the pre-production stories are arguably more astonishing than those from the post-production.
According to Mac Intyre, "A Very British Gangster" began in a courtroom, where the subject of his film, Dominic Noonan had just been acquitted of yet another criminal charge. The two immediately recognized one another. Mac Intyre knew Noonan as the notorious doyen of the gangster family that had a stronghold on Manchester’s drug trade; Noonan knew Mac Intyre because he was the undercover journalist who his brother was asked to murder.
"He came and said to me, ‘my brother was asked to whack you," Mac Intyre recalls.
Mac Intyre says he managed to shake hands with Noonan, because despite their differences, they appeared to share certain experiences in common.
"It was a bit of the Al Pacino, DeNiro heat," he explains. "We’re both non-practicing Catholics with Irish backgrounds. But also I’ve been to war zones [reporting on] Iraq and Yugoslavia and I’ve seen terrible and things, and Dom has seen terrible things. The difference is, he’s done them."
The rapport gained Mac Intyre Noonan’s trust and camera access to his inner circle. Prior to filming they made an agreement, the director says: Noonan wouldn’t tell Mac Intyre what terrible and potentially criminal things he planned to do, and Noonan wouldn’t make any judgments.
The result is a documentary about criminals that does not incriminate. Though grim, the movie capitalizes on the uplifting moments.Cameras follow the Noonan as he explains his ethos, which at times, is almost altruistic. He settles disputes amongst neighbors, spends time with his son and provides food for friends.
"There’s a greater truth in this documentary you may be a criminal, but you’re also a father and an uncle, and that’s where documentary triumphs over current affairs," Mac Intyre reflects.
The current experimentation taking place in the documentary genre also appeals to Mac Intyre. "A Very British Gangster" involves a spectrum of film techniques, including the use of cranes often employed in big-budget narrative films, to give a sense of place.
"I was determined that we have a hybrid of a movie and a documentary," Mac Intyre explains. "I feel the tried and true techniques of cinema helps to show the beauty and humanity, and I was keen for the viewer to have time to breathe in the oxygen of this world."
Along the way, Mac Intyre developed a friendship with Dominic Noonan’s 11-year-old son, Bugsy, who has only seen his father for two years of his life (the remaining nine years Noonan was incarcerated). Among the conversations the director has had with Reachill, was the thought to help Bugsy and other Manchester children like him.
"I hope the children use this film to leave the world they come from," Mac Intyre says. "Now they have different role models who grew up and didn’t go to jail to see that they don’t need criminality to live an extraordinary life. They don’t need to do what their parents have done."
"It’s tough for those kids — that’s where I started as one of those children, you know I wasn’t much older than Bugsy — and unfortunately, they’re the true victims of any of the crimes or the lifestyle," agrees Reachill. "Would I have ever envisaged moving to Utah when I was 14? Probably not."
"I was really lucky," Reachill continues. "For me, I always knew that I didn’t want to live the lifestyle I was living [in Manchester.] It really has been nothing more than preparing to leave and become involved in something else and then just seizing that opportunity when that opportunity presents itself. For me, that’s what luck is."
Opportunity, preparation, and maybe a little bit of Park City.
"What is it about Park City? This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Cannes," Mac Intyre mused. "Sundance certainly kicks up some magical stuff."
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Hotel occupancy in the Park City area during Sundance is projected to drop dramatically from a typical year as organizers shift the event online.