Jim Sheridan: In the name of the brother

The director Jim Sheridan took on the British establishment with In the Name of the Father, and has now 'cannibalised' a family tragedy. He tells John Crowley why there's more trouble to come
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The Independent Culture

It is Sunday night in the Black Lion pub on London's Kilburn High Road. Shane MacGowan's "Dirty Old Town" is on the jukebox. The patrons sit in small huddles of two or three, nursing pints and talking animatedly, squeezing the last drops of merriment out of the weekend. Hollywood could not be further away.

Sitting anonymously in their midst is Jim Sheridan, the multiple-Oscar-nominated director behind tough, moralistic films such as My Left Foot and In The Name Of The Father. Dressed casually and talking in hushed tones with friends, his eyes occasionally dart around the pub to record its sights and sounds.

It seems like he has been here for years; instead, he has arrived just five minutes before, having just unveiled his movie, In America, to the public at the Tricycle Cinema across the road...

This scene was played out 18 months ago, and was a memorable moment for the 60 of us who had gathered to see the unfinished feature (then called East of Harlem). All agreed that the movie was a considerable departure from his earlier, polemical work. Sheridan introduced the film with an Oedipal quip: "All the events are true except that it was my brother who died so I made myself my father and my wife my mother - I don't know what that means - and my daughter myself."

Sheridan told me how he had merged his experiences as an illegal immigrant in 1980s New York with his confused emotions surrounding the death of his brother, Frankie, a "shattering" family tragedy which had occurred years earlier. "The biggest question," said Sheridan, "was whether I had the right to cannibalise my brother's life."

Now, on the eve of its release this week, In America looks (like most of Sheridan's films) set to divide film fans and critics. Some have hailed this cathartic tale of a family finding its soul as his best work to date; others have criticised its uneven and saccharine denouement.

It stars relative unknown Paddy Considine, who plays Johnny, an out-of-work Irish actor who emigrates with his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and two children (played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) to Manhattan. Ostensibly, they are there to begin a new life. In reality, they are running away from the death of their youngest son back in Ireland.

The dilapidated tenement block the young family inhabits is filled with drug dealers and oddballs - mostly of them also illegal immigrants - who emerge out of the shadows to fill the screen, acting as a visual counterbalance to Johnny's grief-stricken, ghost-like visage.

When I speak with Sheridan again, it is a different affair. He is at his home in Dublin on a bright autumn morning. Greeting me at his door in a blue "Mets" dressing gown, he escorts me and the photographer through to his kitchen.

He is in fine spirits after his horse, Brian Boru, swept from last to first the day before to win the St. Leger at Doncaster, one of flat racing's blue riband events. "It was a big night," he says with a groan as he munches on a burnt piece of toast.

The Sheridan kitchen is a huge mess. Stacks of videos are crammed into every space and pictures of his three daughters line the walls. Children's toys, belonging to Sheridan's newly arrived granddaughter, Layla, litter the floor. This is very definitely a lived-in home.

As he makes breakfast for his wife, Fran, he notes with a laugh: "I'm surrounded by women. The Freudian possibilities in this film were endless."

In the months that have passed since our last meeting, Sheridan says that In America has provoked reactions across the emotional gamut.

"I have had certain reactions from aggressive men who do not like it," he grins, pointedly refusing to identify them.

He is much more relaxed than before. Time has healed some of the wounds that were reopened during the writing and making of the film.

"I made this movie because Irish people are addicted to the death culture," he says slowly. "We are so like the Muslims in that respect. We are the only Western society that would have hunger strikers.

"The parents in this film are in love with a dead kid more than they are in love with anyone else. But how do they let him go? My favourite work of drama is Hamlet and, of course, the ghost plays a huge role in that play. There are similarities, although I wouldn't claim this is Hamlet! But there is an idea of someone guiding you from beyond the grave."

Sheridan declares purposefully that this is the best film he has ever made. Not one bit of his claim smacks of arrogance: it is a statement born of self-belief. "This film is like a rock face," he says , looking me in the eye. "The others were good, artistic. But you keep chipping away at this film and my feeling and emotions will always be there." Better than your Oscar-nominated stuff, I ask? "Yeah. This has been kind of hard because your life becomes a fiction. You become a malleable character. I always knew about myself but I had never really confronted it."

To that end, Sheridan called upon his two eldest daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, to each write a draft for the film based on their memories of New York. And it's a testament to the Sheridan household that they could rake over horrible memories and still come out good friends.

Sisters Emma and Sarah Bolger - both newcomers - are a revelation playing what effectively are Sheridan's screen children. "It was like playing with girls for the first time in my life," he declares. "Martin Sheen said it was the best acting by two kids since E.T., so I must be doing OK." He admits that the two real-life sisters, then aged six and 10, got under his skin. "I let them run the whole show and I turned the set into a kids' paradise.

"We had no girls in my school, you see. My wife said I seemed to like the kids in the film better than my own. Naomi, my eldest daughter, said: 'Of course, with these girls you can rewrite them.'"

Sheridan's emotionally-engaging body of work has solidified his reputation for being an "actor's director". He has worked with Daniel Day-Lewis - this country's closest answer to a method actor - on no less than three occasions.

Born into a theatrical family, Sheridan helped found the Dublin Project Theatre Company in the 1970s with his brother Peter, who is now a writer. In 1981, he slipped into the USA from Canada (an event played out in the film) and took up the reins at the New York Arts Centre before studying film at New York University.

His 1989 debut feature My Left Foot, based on the quadriplegic writer-artist Christy Brown, won Oscars for Daniel Day-Lewis as theChristy and Brenda Fricker, who played Christy's mother. The following year he shot The Field, a bruising feature starring Richard Harris about an Irish farmer warding an American real-estate developer off his land. Sheridan's rich vein of form continued with In the Name of the Father, which won another string of nominations for Best Director, Screenplay and Picture at the 1994 Academy Awards.

The film was a vitriolic (his critics would say biased) attack on the British justice system. It told the story of the miscarriage of justice involving the Guildford Four, who were wrongly jailed for the 1974 IRA pub bombing on the British mainland.

"In the Name of the Father was huge," Jim says with unabashed pride, puffing out his chest. "The IRA were freaked out because for 25 years they had been kept off television. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, told him he liked it when they bumped into each other in an airport lounge. "He is an odd guy," Sheridan says. "He just watches birds and things like that, like some guy who's been inside for a while."

Referring to the British producers who declined to back the film, he says: "I bypassed the British financial structures to say: 'Who gives a fuck about your rules?'."

The Boxer, his last film, in 1997, was a love story set against the backdrop of sectarian Belfast and was not such a critical success, although it did do well around the world.

Sheridan is known for his uncompromising approach to actors, and admits he rowed with Day-Lewis on set. "The Boxer was a hard experience for us both. It was tough." He considered casting Day-Lewis as In America's Johnny, then thought better of it. He says cautiously: "I thought he was a bit old, you know. It did not seem right for him in a way."

As it turned out, the shoot had its own problems. Sources close to the In America set also say that Sheridan found Samantha Morton "incredibly feisty and a bit of a handful". Her co-star, Paddy Considine, apparently agreed.

Two years on, though, any altercations seem mostly forgotten. "Before I had Daniel or Richard Harris standing out," says Sheridan. "But this is an amazing acting ensemble. Samantha is wonderful, as she was in Under The Skin. She is like an edgy Meryl Streep. She's a strong personality and this role will get her noticed more than ever. The studio is pushing it for Oscars. I say Samantha has a good chance.

Sheridan will keep his lens focused on the US for his next film in development, an as-yet-untitled feature on an Irish-American political dynasty. "It will be immediately interpreted as the Kennedys," Sheridan says. "Everyone will say it, but it is not."

His prognosis for the future film industry in the British and Irish Isles is not good. "If you are writing a film with Irish or English subject matter, on the dartboard you are only playing at 25 or 50. You have either got to hit one or the other or you are not in the picture.

Sheridan sighs even as he smiles. "You have to pick a subject matter or theme which is universal these days. Nobody in Hollywood really understands Eng- land, and they certainly do not under- stand Ireland. "

'In America' opens in London on 31 October. It goes on general release from 14 November

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