In America: Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Family (Interview With Jim Sheridan)

There is no other time more perfect for Jim Sheridan’s latest film In America to be released than this year’s holiday season. The story’s themes of magic, faith and hope are wrapped with beautiful performances and photography like little gifts the director is humbly offering his audience. Given our current state of affairs, it comes none too soon.

In America is a semi-autobiographical account of the Sheridan family’s immigration to the United States in 1981. Sheridan, who is most well known for his academy-award-winning films, My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, co-wrote the script with his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, also filmmakers. It’s their voices that end up leading the film, as the family’s story is intimately told through the eyes of the eldest daughter, 11-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger). Together with her younger sister, Ariel (played by Bolger’s real life sister Emma), the two girls set the stage for a family’s hope in the American dream, one that has as little to do with capitalism as it does politics.

Their parents, played by Samantha Morton (nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in Sweet and Lowdown and most recently seen in Minority Report) and Paddy Considine, come to America hoping to start anew after the death of their son. In the end, it is the girls’ innocent and pure belief in love and family that leads them back to a place of promise.

It is clear after meeting Sheridan that he is a man who loves to tell stories. His fatherly demeanor, Irish brogue and true desire to share experiences and ideas, quickly inspires a wish for a few pints in front of a fireplace. It’s his stories that reveal his true nature as a man deeply committed to being a good father, fascinated by his own culture and one grateful for his experiences in America.

On writing the script with his daughters:

I wrote the first draft, I wrote a couple of drafts and it wasn’t going anywhere. I had a load of episodes, all the things that were in the film, but I sensed that I didn’t have any story. So I said to my daughters “Will you try and write it?” I thought they were going to change it, but keep it more or less the way it was, but basically what they did was, they obliterated my character. I disappeared out of this story. All I did was sing the words to pop songs that I didn’t know; pick them up at school with a plastic bag on my head and embarrass them; walk around with my head in the air and say yes to every question they asked, you know? “Dad are we going to jump off the empire state?” – “Yea.”

And then late at night if I had a few too many I’d say, “Ah, you know girls I love yas,” and rub their heads, and that was it – that was my character. That’s all they did. And it was a very humbling experience to suddenly see the kids’ perspective. So I took all the stuff they had…they had the voiceover and the school stuff and heaven stuff and the tone of it. So I took that and put it in my story and then we kind of had a much clearer story told from the children’s point of view, but we still didn’t have a theme. So then I waited and I decide I would do the story of my brother who died and I incorporated that into the story, which was pretty weird. But that’s what I did and made the story.

On shooting during 9/11 and his experience coming to America:

I was shooting when 9/11 happened. And I was in the last week or so and a few of the people on the set, like Declan Quinn (Director of Photography) had family in upstate New York and knew people in the towers and one of the other guys, his sister was on [one of the floors]. My young daughter lived in midtown…so for us, it was kind of like everybody else.

You know, when the family leaves Ireland– it’s basically they’re leaving a country which is the only country in the western world that has had eight hunger strikers. Like David Blane gets up and starves himself for 44 days, well I’m sorry, Bobby Sands did it for 70 and died you know? And ten Irish guys follow them and no other western society would do that, cause we’re kinda close to the Muslims in our feeling of victimization. But I think really, on a small political level, the feeling…you gotta let that go, you gotta get over that. You can’t be death culture, a suicide culture, it’s not actually good for the head. And the 9/11 was the ultimate of the suicide, death culture acts that we’ve seen so far. You know it was shocking.

We thought about calling the film Something About New York but it always felt odd, you know? It just would feel like then I’d be really into the thing of “oh God, it’s really about 9/11.” And 9/11’s too big of an event to either have an opinion one way of the other – it’s just too big. And even if say you know it’s about, it’s a love poem to New York, which it is in a way and my experiences there, I always feel a bit creepy saying it. I don’t want to be trying to pull people into the cinema saying that.

But what America did for me is very interesting. I came from a culture, which is basically English-language-speaking, where the Irish speak English like as if there’s an earthquake under it. ‘Cause the Irish language is much more, much, wilder underneath the English. We’ve lost it gradually, become homogenized like everybody else, but part of the structure of English language is irony and sarcasm and tone so somebody in England can say “I love your pullover” and they mean, “I hate it.” But in America you can’t say that because the tone doesn’t carry any power. So the class-tone of English language, you say to American’s “I love your pullover” and they say “Thanks very much,” ‘cause they think you mean it, so they actually trip you up in your own sarcastic superiority. So in a way I lost all those, what the English call, sophisticated methods of speaking and became simpler, but I believe that the truth is what Einstein said…“when I’m asking simple questions and I’m getting simple answers I’m talking to God.”

In essence, the forcing into a simplicity forced me to change. And to make films I had to make them really simple so that people would get them. You can get the depth in other ways, you don’t have to have it, “I’m the smartest guy in college.” That’s the worst approach in the world today. Isn’t that true? You know when I guy comes along and he’s trying to prove how smart he is to you- you just want to see an emotional thing you know – you want to see a vulnerability I think.

On casting and working with his onscreen daughters:

I walked into a room and I was looking for my daughters – somebody to play my daughters and so I saw this angelic face and I went “Oh my God” and I gave her the script and said, “will you try it?” Now I don’t know why I thought she could read never mind that and she read it perfectly – she was six, Ariel – and then I thought “Oh my God” – you know, those obnoxious kids that are so good that your skin crawls after like five minutes? I thought that’s what she’s going to be like – so I said to my daughter, “Is there anybody else?” And she said, “That girl over there.”

So I went over to the other girl and gave her the script and she started to read the first sentence and my coat was pulled like this from behind and I turned around and it was Emma looking at me and she said, “Jim?” And I said “yea,” and she’s looking at me as if I crossed the line of etiquette I wasn’t aware of – and she said, “Jim is she reading my part?” And I looked at her and I was like – “how do you answer that to a kid?” Because her belief was so fundamental that it was her part. So I stared at her you know, to try and intimidate her and it didn’t work and she just stared back at me and I found coming out of my mouth, not wanting to say it cause, there were 50 kids still to audition that day and 50 the next day and I said, “Nobody’s reading your part, your cast.” And then I said to myself, ‘That’s weird.” And then she said, “My sister’s downstairs in the car.” And I said, “What age is she?” and she said, “10.” And I said, “Well that’s too young.” “Well you should see her anyway.”

So I traipsed down the stairs and that’s that. I met this 10-year-old and I had written the part for a 13-year-old because I didn’t think a 10-year-old could say, “I’ve been carrying this family on my back.” So I met her and I auditioned her and she was like nearly the opposite of Emma, very serene, like an Audrey Hepburn beauty and it was like “I can’t believe it.” So I cast the two of them…that was the audition process.

So I went to shoot and on the first day I went “Action!” And after about 30-40 seconds something usually goes wrong and I went, “Cut.” And the 10-year-old Sarah came over to me and said – she just came out with it – like imagine a child coming out with the crew and the set and she just stood in front of me and said, “Jim may I have a word?” And I went, “Yea.” And I walked away and she said, “It’s ok to curse in front of me. I’m ten, but my sister’s only six and it’s rude to curse in front of her so I’m going to ask you to stop.” And I’m like [shaking his head in disbelief], “man.”

So I wanted to tell the truth, so I said, “That’s not going to happen, ‘cause I don’t want to disappoint you so I’ll do me best, but I think the only solution is you’re going to have to take over and say action.” So she said, “OK.” So I said to Emma, “And you’re going to have to say cut, and anytime you don’t think what’s going on is right, or you want to say cut, just say cut and we stop.” And that’s what we did.

On working with children:

One day I did a scene with Emma, where Paddy was putting them to bed. And I had done it so many times with Paddy that it was dead by the time I turned on the kids, so I said to Paddy, “Do you mind if I do it with them?” And he said, “No problem.” So I did the scene and at the end of it, Emma said, “Dad what about school uniforms?” And I said, “Don’t worry about school uniforms, leave it to dado-di-bado.” And she said, “Cut – very good Jim.” And I said, “Thanks very much.” And she said, “Much better than Paddy.” And the whole crew laughed and she went like this, “No I don’t mean as an actor, I mean as a dad – you’re a real nice dad.” And I’m like, melting and she says, “You should have more kids.” And I’m like ‘Oh my God’ and then I lie and I say, “Well Fran doesn’t want them,” because my wife did want them, but I didn’t you know? But what am I going to say? So I said, “Well Fran didn’t want them.” And she said, “Well then you should get married again.”

The thing I’m most proud of, of anything I directed are the performances those kids give and I don’t even say I got it out of the kids, cause I think if I said, the performances I got out of those kids, they wouldn’t be the performances you see. It wasn’t a question of getting performances out it was more of a question of following the kids.

So the strange feeling I had was, that the little joy I lost – or the emotional whatever that was taken away when my brother died was reincarnated in these two kids. And it was almost like I followed them around I can’t describe. It’s hard to describe how joyous and unique they were on the set. And you see it in the film.

And you know the saying – that people say, “Never work with children or animals?” What kind of strange people make up sentences like that?

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