A conversation with Jim Sheridan
The Irish director of ‘My Left Foot’ and ‘In the Name of the Father’ talks about making his latest film, ‘Brothers’, with Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Jim Sheridan, 60, spoke to Time Out just a few hours after he had landed in London for a Bafta screening of his new film, ‘Brothers’, a drama which stars Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire. A remake of Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film of the same name, ‘Brothers’ captures the fallout in one blue-collar family when a young soldier (Maguire) goes missing in Afghanistan and his wife (Portman) becomes closer to his brother (Gyllenhaal) back home in the US.
You’ve just got off a flight from the US. Do you work on films when you fly?
‘Planes are the easy parts ’cos you can just chill. Making films is hard. It’s like being on an escalator and running the wrong way. Sometimes planes are very good for writing. Back in the day when I was younger and I was writing “My Left Foot”, we were on the runway and taking off and if you’re in any way scared it activates something in your mind for writing. There’s conflict and deep fear in the air. It kind of puts you in that space between life and death.’
Does a sense of mortal danger make it harder to concentrate?
‘No, I think it focuses you. I live off adrenalin. It’s only when the adrenalin’s going that I’m clear up top. So maybe that’s a fuckin’ childhood trauma, or something, but it’s only when I’m in a life-and-death situation that I can get really cool and detached.’
Do you ever watch films on planes?
‘No, very rarely. But I saw “The Hangover” on a plane which I loved.’
I liked that film too.
‘The structure is brilliant where they wake up and they can’t remember anything… My life’s occasionally a little like that.’
Are you happy with people seeing your films on planes?
‘Well, hmm. Not really because they cut them down, edit them and take out all the curses. I’m always asked, “Oh, we’re about to do the plane version of the film, do you want to come along and oversee it?” and I’m like, “No.” Someone going “the bleepin’ plane”, “the bleepin’ car”, “the bleepin’ pilot”, you know? It’s ridiculous.’
How were you first introduced to Susanne Bier’s version of ‘Brothers’, which you then remade?
‘Funnily enough, I watched it in my house on tape. I thought it was rather good, and when I heard they wanted to remake it I thought I could do something different with it. I liked the idea of the main character being put in a place beyond life and death, where whatever choice he makes is going to be wrong.’
What appealed to you about the original?
‘Well, the brothers having a fight appealed to me. Sibling rivalry in general – I know a bit about that. The family story too. The ability to say something about post-traumatic stress was interesting.’
Was Susanne Bier on hand to talk about it?
‘No, I couldn’t get in contact with her. I tried. I got in contact with the writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, and any changes I made I ran by him. He was helpful. Anything I said he seemed to like. I heard Susanne liked the movie, but I haven’t heard what Anders thought of it.’
You didn’t write it. Did you ever want to?
‘Of course, but here’s the thing: if you’re a director, you won’t get a credit for writing in the current system. It’s impossible in America. You just won’t get credit.’
I don’t understand. Why?
‘What used to happen was that the producers and directors used to bend the arms of the writers to get a credit. The Writers’ Guild acted the opposite way – they didn’t want credit for directors and producers. So, even if you go in and rewrite everything, they’ll still say it wasn’t your idea. It’s especially tricky in a situation like this where you have an original movie and someone does a version of it – that version then becomes the first script. Even if you copied the Danish movie word for word, you still become the writer. No matter what you change, they’ll say that it’s the same characters and the same story, so you won’t get a credit.’
So here, even if you wrote the film, you wouldn’t be credited for it?
‘No, not unless you go into an arbitration where you produce a fifty page document on what you wrote and what you didn’t write, then three members of the Writers’ Guild say yes or no. Basically, it’s like a court case.’
‘And even if the writer would give you a credit, it’d have to go through that process. People have complained about it, but you know, I kind of understand it from both sides as I’m a writer-director. But I do feel that the director is the main creative force in the movie making process, so it doesn’t really matter.’
So do you feel you’re more of a writer or a director?
‘The weird thing is, I wrote “My Left Foot”, “The Field”, “In the Name of the Father”, “The Boxer” and “In America”, and luckily enough, all of them got nominated for Oscars…except “The Boxer”, which got some Golden Globes. Even then, people still only look at me as a director and not a writer. And when they hear me talking, they think I’m totally inarticulate! Writing is easier. You can slack off. You get up when you want, get a coffee and a paper, then I’ll come back via the bookies, then before you know it, it’s four o’clock in the afternoon, you know?’
What do you look for in scripts?
‘Y’see, I think a lot of movies are about inarticulate people who can speak. So, I have to stop writers from “writing”. I like to get writers who don’t want to write. That writer will do something interesting.’
Is that what you do when you write?
‘I try and get to a place where it’s really difficult. It’s not easy. I try to get to the place where it hurts to write.’
Where did you set ‘Brothers’? It's not obvious from watching it.
‘The weird thing is, I didn’t set it anywhere. When people asked me where it was set, I said “California”, because I didn’t want anyone to do accents. Having a voice coach wandering around the set saying “accent, accent, accent” drives me nuts. Just on a diversion for a second, I saw a voice coach bragging in a magazine about all the people he’d worked with, and I just thought, “Ha, all those accents were wrong!”.’
I think I saw that. Was it in The New Yorker?
‘I’m not saying. There are too many people I know and it could come back to haunt me. The idea of listening to something and repeating it accurately: that’s not how people live their lives. No one thinks, “Oh, am I speaking my accent?”. Who the fuck lives like that? So, when people do accents, even when they’re good, it makes my skin crawl. It takes a really unique actor like Daniel Day-Lewis to take an accent and leave it behind. He’s so good at it that he doesn’t have to think. When he does a movie, his own voice leaves his head for six months. I think he dreams in the accent. It takes a really strong person to do that. You’d have to have a great sense of self as you could easily lose your mind doing that.’
One of the producers of ‘Brothers’ said in a news article that the fact the film involves the war in Afghanistan is not important. He said Tobey Maguire’s character could have suffered in any traumatic situation. Do you agree with that?
‘More or less. He’s saying that for the purposes of, you know, trying to make the story sound more universal and not specific towards Afghanistan. Yet, I don’t think Tobey Maguire would have been as affected if he’d been in a car crash or something. We’re in a war where there are no rules. Choosing heroic suicide or life – it’s a hard choice. Suicide bombers I’m not in to. I think it’s a bit of a cop out.’
Where the Afghanistan scenes filmed on location?
‘No, we had a few shots from people we knew in Afghanistan who’d done them more or less on their phones or a camcorder. We shot the rest in New Mexico.’
What research did you do for your portrayal of the Afghan militants in the film?
‘We just read up as much as we could about the Taliban really. And a little bit on Al-Qaeda. But, at the end of the day, it’s an imaginative thing where you’re taking an idea and just running it. I mean, are they stereotypical Al-Qaeda guys? I dunno. I dunno. Movies are like religion: they’re not logical. You can believe if you want to believe, and you don’t have to believe if you don’t. So, it’s all about what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief”. So, if you want to disbelieve, it’s a very easy process.’
Would it be fair to say that ‘Brothers’ and your last film, ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’’, are very different types of film to all your previous ones? Do you plan to go back and make more small-scale dramas?
‘Right now it’s difficult. I’d say I want to make them, but if I was making them I’d ditch all artifice and make them with a camcorder. In that way, you have a chance for success. But once you’re in the $35 million bracket, you’re in to factory production. We make movies like we’re making Ford cars. We have 300 people on the set, and that’s not sustainable with a business, that’s essentially like a cottage industry. Apart from Working Title, it’s a cottage industry. When we talk about the Irish and English film industry, it’s bollocks. No, there’s only two film industries: America and Bollywood. The French a little bit too.’
I hear you’re set to remake Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’?
‘Yeah, I don’t know if I could do that. I love the movie. It’s difficult because the bureaucracy is different in Japan, a bit more French or English, even. But I don’t know if there’s that level of bureaucracy in America.’
So you’d set it in America?
‘Yes, I think so. Everything now needs to be seen through the prism of America.’
Read our review of 'Brothers' here
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