Kirsten Sheridan's debut feature, Disco Pigs (2001), made when she was 23, was just the type of low-budget effort you would expect from a young film-maker with attitude: violent, spiky, irreverent, a picaresque Irish folk tale about two adolescent delinquents with a grudge against the world. Since then, she has come up in the world. The Dublin-based writer/director received an Oscar nomination for her contribution to the screenplay of her father Jim Sheridan's In America (2002). Now, barely into her thirties, she has directed her first Hollywood movie, the $30m (£15m) August Rush.
By any rational criteria, it's a preposterous yarn: a modern-day reworking of Oliver Twist in which the central figure, August, (Freddie Highmore) is separated from his parents at birth, escapes from the orphanage, develops a Mozart-like genius for music and tracks mom and pop down by composing a symphony, which he conducts in Central Park.
The mother (Keri Russell) is a Jacqueline du Pré-like cellist. The father (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a Bono-like rock singer. Little August is the result of a one-night stand many years before. Robin Williams is the Fagin figure and delivers one of those scenery-chewing performances for which he has become so well-known.
Sheridan set out to root the film in "the real world," and not to allow the story to disappear under layers of saccharin. "It's a very delicate and frightening line to walk between emotion and romance and falling into sugary sentimentality. I was very conscious of that the whole time," she concedes.
Her solution was to treat the screenplay almost as if it was a case study. Sheridan cites the neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks as her favourite author. She clearly shares Sacks's fascination with conditions like Tourette's syndrome and autism. To some, August might seem like a waif on leave from a Victorian fairy story but to Sheridan , the musical wunderkind is borderline autistic. "I loved the idea of taking a character most people would think is a freak and just trying to get inside his head and see the world the way he sees it. It was that area I was most interested in – a child with no agenda, who is just a clean slate, honest and emotional and vulnerable, and even though he gets hurt, he just keeps on opening himself up more and more."
Sheridan's film-school graduation short was about two brothers, one who is autistic and the other who isn't. Disco Pigs was about troubled youngsters with an intimate but explosive relationship stretching back to birth.
In the build up to the shooting of August Rush, Sheridan had lobbied to cast an unknown as August, fearful that an experienced child actor would bring manipulative tricks to the role. "I just wanted something completely unformed." In the event, Freddie Highmore of Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame won her over. "He had that wide-open, unjudgemental quality about him but he also had this utter fearlessness."
She wasn't daunted at working with a sacred monster like Williams. "I adore actors and I know that underneath it all, if they're good, there won't be any of that ego crap that goes with it," she says. The knack to keeping him in line was expressing her opinions honestly, even when they were negative. "If you don't do that, you're screwed. You're in trouble. They [the actors] will know you are lying."
Williams, she adds, was surprisingly collaborative. "The way we worked it, he would do a couple of takes where he would let all his energy out and go a bit mad. Then, slowly, we'd pull it back and make it [his performance] quieter."
Nor was Sheridan intimidated by working with a huge Hollywood crew. The 31-year-old is determinedly level-headed. Moreover, she has spent enough time on her father' sets to realise that film-making is a craft, like anything else.
She didn't have final cut on August Rush, but didn't expect it either. Even so, she is happy enough with the way that the film turned out. The first preview was held at a cinema in Pasadena with an audience pulled off the street. To her relief, the film played well enough for the studios to leave her version alone.
Other Irish film-makers, notably Neil Jordan, have testified to the amount of backbiting and petty jealousy that exist in the Irish film world. Sheridan takes this in her stride too. "When you live in Dublin, your feet will certainly be kept on the ground... it's a small country, a small community, and you're always going to get people bitching," she muses. Such squabbling isn't found in the US.
"There is a real hunger for success in America. People like to be around it, too much so when you look at the cult of celebrity over there. What I would like to see is Irish people embrace Irish cinema. I don't think that has happened yet. They [Irish film-makers] have to go away and become famous and then they have the green stamp of approval and come back." To illustrate her point, she cites the example of My Left Foot, which did no business at all in Ireland on its initial opening and was only accepted by the Irish once it had proved successful in the US. It was as if the locals needed the film to be validated elsewhere.
She still lives in Ireland with her partner, who is studying to become a forensic psychologist, and her two children: her daughter is at school in Dublin, and she recently had a second child. Ireland is also where her production company, Blindside Films, is based. She has finished a new script called It Could Be You, inspired by a true story about a man who pretended he had won the lottery and hoodwinked both his bank and his family.
"It's this insane lie that snowballs out of control," she says. This is supposed to be a comedy but she promises it will be one with a very barbed edge. The film will be set in a village that has just had its heart ripped out to be replaced by a shopping mall.
Sheridan seems to be putting down roots in Ireland. Nonetheless, she says is "happy to up sticks at any given moment". Her childhood was spent constantly on the move, accompanying her father as he worked on stage productions and on films in the UK, Canada, the US and elsewhere.
She acknowledges that having Jim Sheridan as a father does help to open doors. "I'd be mad to think anything else. It [the film world] is a very closed community." She is close to Jim and suggests that the key lesson that he has taught her is to stay the same, whether you're having dinner, or giving a speech in front of 1,000 people, or speaking to a taxi driver. "There is no delineation. That is what I learnt from him – if he is true to that part of himself, he'll always get the best out of his actors because he is being open and honest and vulnerable himself."
Jim Sheridan's films as producer and director have a fierce political edge. In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, Some Mother's Son and Bloody Sunday all dealt directly with the consequences of the troubles in Northern Ireland. That level of political engagement is something that Kirsten now yearns to emulate.
"That is definitely where I would like to go next. It would be very easy to get put in a box and do kiddy films forever. Maybe because I am a mother and a bit older, I think I would be able to tackle something like that and bring something to it, whereas before I have just been in awe of it. That is where the amazing stories are – in the social sphere."
'August Rush' opens on 23 NovemberReuse content