In his latest film, Men at Lunch, award-winning director Seán Ó Cualáín tells the untold story of the iconic image, Lunch Atop A Skyscraper. His remarkable documentary attempts to identify the eleven men in the photo who, until now, were merely brave strangers from America’s past.
Seán explores the history of the era and dives into the timeless image that stands for fearlessness and man’s indomitable spirit against the odds in 1920s America. These were the men who built New York, who spoke to the immigrant experience, and who became the quintessential New Yorker.
Seán Ó Cualáín answered a few of our questions about the making of this inspiring film.
CORBIS: How was the idea for this documentary born?
SEAN: My brother, Eamonn, and I were in South Galway, Ireland a few years ago researching another documentary we called into Michael Whelan’s pub in the village of Shanaglish. While there we noticed the famous Lunch Atop A Skyscraper image, but we took real interest in a note beside the picture. The note was from Pat Glynn from Boston, Massachusetts – the son of a Shanaglish emigrant.
On the note he stated that the man on the far right holding the bottle was his father Sonny Glynn, and the man on the far left was Matty O’Shaughnessy his uncle-in-law. We realized very quickly that there was a great untold story here. We spoke to Michael Whelan the owner of the pub who gave us Pat’s contact. From there we built up a good relationship with the two families and both the Glynns and O’Shaughnessy’s are featured in the documentary.
CORBIS: Interviews play an integral part. Were most people eager to answer your questions?
SEAN: During the course of the film we spoke to many contributors, photographers, ironworkers, writers, and filmakers about the power and mystery of the famous image. They all had a deep affection for the photograph, but the power of the photograph can only be realized when you speak to those people who firmly believe their relatives- father’s uncles, grandfathers are on the beam. These people, many of which are not featured in the film wanted to believe, their family was connected in some way connected to this important moment in US history
CORBIS: What sort of research went into getting background on the photo and the day it was taken?
SEAN: Very early in the process of making this documentary, I became aware that this film called for storytelling on many levels. Firstly, in order to set and maintain the theme, there’s the wider context – the glory of the skyscraper age and the building of the iconic Manhattan skyline. Secondly there’s the parallel story of the Irish and other European immigrants who arrived in New York during the roaring twenties and were living there during the Great Depression, which had just begun to bite when the two Irishmen Sonny Glynn and Mattie O’Shaughnessy landed jobs at the Rockefeller Center.
Finally the mystery surrounding the photograph also had to be investigated and told. Was it a fake? Who took the photograph? And who might the men be?
The main challenge for me as director was to interweave these parallel stories to portray a time just as steeped in sweat and misery as it was in glory and grandeur. The Irish families claim to the men on the beam were key to this. They represented the missing link between the famous image and the reality of life for the men it features.
The more research we did on the photograph we realized that there had always been since it first appeared in print in October 1932, accusations that the image was a hoax and the end product of some darkroom handywork. We were determined to find more about this and we spoke to Ken Johnson, Director of Historical Photography at Corbis NY, he was aware of a certain glass negative of the image in their archive, while we were at the Corbis Archive, we asked Ken to examine the glass negative and confirm if it was indeed the original exposure, his verdict was definitive, and it is a remarkable moment in the film.
Research regarding the date the photograph was taken, it’s authorship and identity of the ironworkers was carried out at The Rockefeller Archives in NY. This is an amazing archive, it holds hundreds of images regarding the build of the Rockefeller Center. We spent quite some time there and by cross-referencing various photographs in the archive, we were able to determine the date of its capture and also the positive identity of some of the men on the beam. We have been working on this project since 2007. We are however hopeful that the film like the image itself will take on a life of its own and be seen worldwide.
See a trailer of the film here.
Buy tickets for the US premiere in NYC here.