WASHINGTON -- Irish writer, producer and director Jim Sheridan was born in Dublin and began his career as a leader of that city's alternative theater, but New York is central to his life, too. He had his third daughter there as he tried to make a dent in the stage scene, serving as artistic director of the Irish Arts Center and for a short time studying at the New York University film school. With that experience under his belt, he went back to Ireland and became a world-class moviemaker. His directorial debut, My Left Foot (1989), the poignant and rambunctious story of palsied writer Christy Brown, won an Academy Award for Daniel Day-Lewis.
Sheridan, 54, also happens to be "official" Maryland's favorite filmmaker. Last year at the Maryland Film Festival, guest host Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose and introduced his bristling 1993 drama, In the Name of the Father, starring Day-Lewis as a man wrongly accused of IRA terrorism and Pete Postlethwaite as the father he bonds with after both wind up in a prison cell. During the 2001 festival, Baltimore's Mayor Martin O'Malley expounded on his selection of the haunting Sheridan-written fable Into The West (1992), about two boys who gallop away from a dreary Dublin home on a white horse. O'Malley also spoke at a screening in 2002 of the Sheridan-produced Bloody Sunday, a terrifying docudrama about the killing of 13 civilians and the wounding of 14 others during a civil-rights protest in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 30, 1972.
It's quite a record for Sheridan, a man from a country with a tiny movie industry. But meeting him in person in a Washington hotel room, you realize he has all the gifts to galvanize seat-of-the-pants troupes into crack artistic companies. It takes only a minute to perceive that underneath his twinkling surface he has wells of diverse feelings to draw on for his tender and tumultuous tales. He's a raconteur and provocateur, a psychologist and shaman.
He's just the fellow you'd imagine would create a deceptively casual powerhouse like his latest movie, the semi-autobiographical saga In America, about an Irish family illegally immigrating to New York and finding new resilience as they adjust to Hell's Kitchen. In some ways, it's the movie you'd expect an artist like Sheridan to come out with first -- the one that explains the roots of his restless energy and empathy. But if he'd created it 15 years ago, he might not have had the mature wizardry to make it what it is today: a masterpiece.
While Johnny (Paddy Considine), Sheridan's semi-surrogate, aims to break through as an actor, his former teacher wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), slings ice cream and his two young daughters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), make the best of their drug-infested tenement. Together, they face unresolved feelings of guilt and grief over the death of the one boy in the family, Frankie. Their grimy brave new world, New York, with its crazy cultural electricity, helps them do that. So does a turbulent African artist-neighbor named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou).
Sheridan dedicates the movie to the memory of Frankie Sheridan, who in real life was his younger brother, not his son. "He fell down stairs, he got a tumor and then he died," Sheridan says of Frankie. "And here's the weird thing. When he fell down the stairs, he was all black and blue, and he looked much worse than when he died from a secret tumor in his brain. I came home at dinner hour when he fell and saw my mother upset, looking at him, waiting on the ambulance. Years later, I remembered how afraid I was of what had happened to him, and also how affected I was when my mother was looking at him with the way she had looked at me as a young child. At the time, I thought the two of them were like the Pieta, though I didn't know the name of the statue then. Long afterward, I realized I was the one who had turned into a statue. It was like, you lose your brother, you lose yourself. And you want to be him because he's getting this adored feeling that you remember."
In the opening scene of In America, immigration officers let Johnny into the country because the officers comprehend the family's grief for a dead child. For Sheridan, this emotional wound parallels the persecution and starvation that catalyzed emigrants from Ireland and all over Europe in past centuries. "And if you don't recognize that this is part of the ontology of America -- if you don't believe millions of Europeans came to America because of that -- then you're not going to believe in this scene and this film."
In a sense, it's Johnny's story; his character scrapes psychic bottom, then regains his capacity to feel. But Sheridan tells it from the point of view of Johnny's older daughter, Christy, who has a lot of Sheridan in her, too. And the people who ignite the action are Johnny's wife, Sarah, and Mateo, who becomes a crucial friend. "Mateo is a projection of Johnny," Sheridan explains. "He is Johnny -- or me -- as a would-be artist. When he screams and attacks his own work ... he's doing something the father can't afford to do because he's got two kids."
Like Johnny, Sheridan was floundering in strange waters -- and in desperate straits -- when he hit Manhattan in 1982. For example, he didn't realize that his bank required a minimum balance in his checking account. The fees that resulted from an $8 check drawn on a $64 balance ended up cleaning out his account. And local shopkeepers wouldn't give him a break because of his disreputable address. "When we first came to the apartment, there was a guy outside who did open the door with a hairpin. And there were these guys who sold drugs out of the first floor."
In an incident he reproduced in the movie, he once found himself a quarter short when trying to buy a plug for a used air conditioner. A cashier refused to let him take the plug with the promise of a quarter the next day -- and Sheridan asked, as Johnny does, "Do I look like a junkie to you?"
Still, says Sheridan, "We weren't exactly starving. Our attitude toward poverty was more an attitude of adventure."
Connecting with folk tales
For In America, he initially "gathered these pearls of anecdotes" but didn't know how to string them together. After the box-office disappointment of his last great film, The Boxer (1997), Sheridan wanted to make sure he could build in a narrative and thematic core that would attract large numbers of viewers. The Boxer is a fiercely noble romance with Day-Lewis at a career high as a Belfast fighter who tries to break his ties to the IRA and win back the love of his life (Emily Watson). Its popular failure was enough to make Sheridan the showman ponder why viewers embrace certain films and ignore others. For example, he sees the popular strength of classic American movies in the way they double as "folk tales. They are tales about the folk, and the audience watches them and goes, 'That's us.' "
When conceiving In America, he finally found elements of folk tales -- and stronger elements of myth -- when he included his dead brother and made him the story's dead son.
Co-writing the script with his grown daughters Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan became a game of psychological Twister: "I had to relive my own life as if I were my father and had to see how much I'm like he was. And then, 'cause my daughters had the emotions I felt towards my father, it was like having the emotions I had toward him myself externalized."
That process allowed him to think things "through and through and through, and come to the idea of America as the land of the living. This family, in leaving Ireland, was leaving the land of the dead. They were getting out of the hunger strike and suicide tradition, getting into the living tradition. I think that strikes a chord with Americans."
Doing a semi-autobiographical story presented unique obstacles. "In your real life, you change when you haven't noticed. One day you say, 'I can't do this job' and you just stop, but the change has been gradually occurring, and it didn't happen 'cause, say, you had a row with your editor. It's usually by denial and evasion that you come to decisions."
His screenplay initially lacked conventional dramatic conflict or any compensation for it. Then he came up with the inspired device of the dead son, Frankie, granting Christy three wishes, one of which she takes at the Canadian border. "I have the girl structure the film a little bit by saying, 'Please, Frankie ... please get us over the border.' " The urgency of the wishes keeps intensifying as the film goes on, helping make the presence of the dead boy palpable and imbuing Sarah's unexpected pregnancy with tension and suspense.
To Sheridan, the finished movie relates less to the literary school of "magic realism" than to a child's "magical thinking -- I'm on a plane, and if I hold the sides of this seat very firmly it won't crash. You know that's a child's way of thinking. But we all do it."
Sheridan, again like Johnny, started out as an actor and was successful and good at it before he turned to directing. The problem was, "Like Daniel [Day-Lewis] in My Left Foot or In the Name of the Father or The Boxer, I could get deeply into the part, but, unlike Daniel, I couldn't come back to myself." When he did, he felt as if his own self had shifted. And the parallels between an actor's art and life could get "freaky." In Sheridan's first stage role, he played Johnny Boyle in Juno and the Paycock, with his father in the role of Boyle's father, the Paycock. "I was attacking my father onstage where I couldn't in reality, although I later did in reality."
Attack your father in reality -- in what way?
"Well, if I tell the story, you will think it is made up, it's so surreal." He says that "on some subconscious level," he blamed his father for his brother's death. The two engaged in goading that never stopped. One day when Sheridan was 21, his father commanded a younger brother to get some coal and Sheridan countermanded the order, saying, "Stay where you are." Sheridan recalls his father "oozing control with a weird castrating laughter." Then, with his father growling and his brother frozen in place, Sheridan stood up to throw a punch. His father hit him in the face as he was getting up.
Sheridan points to his mouth. "One tooth was holding by a string and it fell down and I couldn't speak; my brothers were laughing and crying at the same time. I remember going completely irrational and trying to call the police and my mother and sister hanging onto me and me trying to shake them off. I pulled a mirror off that was screwed into the wall, and I came back downstairs and kicked a door and held it open for my father and said, 'Look at yourself.' Later I said to people, 'That's the difference between an oral and a visual culture. Because I lost the weapon to speak I took the weapon of the mirror.' And that's pretty freaky."
Sheridan's father moved the family when Jim was 11 or 12 from a "pretty little house" in a "nice" area to a rougher neighborhood and a bigger house where they could take in lodgers, who became a weird extended family and provided an audience for father-and-son competitions. After Frankie died, his father started working two jobs and organizing entertainment at the parish, where he would direct shows like the production of Juno and the Paycock starring himself and his son. Sheridan's mother took charge of the lodging house.
While writing and directing In America, Sheridan faced distinct similarities between his father and himself, like his dad's "pathological gambling -- pathological in the sense that he had to be right." That came to the forefront of In America when Johnny risks the rent money to win an E.T. doll at a carnival ball-toss game.
" 'Cause we were illegal aliens, I think my own daughters felt a profound affinity with E.T.," says Sheridan. "And the story of trying to win the doll is true. In real life, my daughter wanted it and I lost. With all we had left, we bought two slices of pizza and cut them in four."
So why did you let Johnny win it in the film? "Once I put in the dead child, I couldn't have them lose E.T. as well. As Oscar Wilde might say, it was bad enough to lose a child but to lose E.T. would be completely irresponsible!"
Images are merely props
Making an emotionally saturated movie like In America requires a director who can fill the frame with so much authentic feeling that not a shred of sentimentality can taint it. And it turns out that Sheridan has a theory of motion pictures really being emotional pictures -- which has to do with what he calls their "invisibility."
"If you were really to think about film," he says, "the structure and the blocks of a film are in the invisibility. Why do I love the French director Jean Vigo and the love story he put on a barge, L'Atalante? I love it because there is something else in there besides the images. It's almost like a ghost in the machine."
To Sheridan, a movie keeps registering with a viewer even when its pictures disappear. It's an impression he dates from his childhood watching movies on TV in Ireland. "When I was a kid and television first came in, it would go -- the horizontal hold would go and then the vertical hold would go ... still, I used to be able to keep up with the picture, even when it went. I'd imagine what was happening in the scene where the fugitive gets chased until it would come back 10 minutes later. So I've never thought that cinema has to be just images; I've never really believed in the substantiality of the image. For me as a director, the image is an emotional prop: what I am trying to do, first of all, is to communicate emotion and get responses within a time framework."
He contends that establishing how much running-time your story can sustain may be most important in envisioning a movie. But if time is the crucial challenge for him, emotions are paramount --"and the more you do consciously, the more you interfere with the true play of emotions." Emotions to Sheridan are, again, "invisible" and intrinsic to every bigger point a director might want to make about family life, culture or society.
He picks up a copy of USA Today and jovially sneers: "At the front of this paper, it says, 'Scientists lead search for a better lie detector.' And I say to myself, just get a wife! Women have become so used to detecting men's lies, because they're the ones who have to protect the emotions in the room." Why? "Because men are in a power position all the time. When women are watching the male lie, they are not so much afraid of his infidelity as they are afraid of his superior force. I sometimes get a confused response from In America with men who can't go with it emotionally, because ... they don't like to be taken out of their power position into an emotional place."
As a shortish guy, Sheridan says, he could understand a woman's point of view: "I had to predict the emotional temperature in school. And when my brother died, I became very protective of my other brothers, to the extent that if they ever got into real trouble, I was ruthless beyond anything you could ever comprehend -- so ice cold I scared myself. There were seven children: Five brothers and one sister, and I was the eldest."
From this background and his mother's love, Sheridan got "an insane self-confidence to find chaos." He thinks that's one reason he and Day-Lewis have meshed repeatedly on film. "Daniel is so structured and organized and together ... you have this chaotic counterpoint."
Sheridan being Sheridan, he sees the humor behind his own emotional and aesthetic perspectives. "I actually don't think if I live to be another 100 years, I could do what Hitchcock or Kubrick did -- even if I tried for 100 years and I was reborn again, I don't think I could get their sort of visual organization."
And visual organization was the last thing he wanted for In America, a tribute to the land of the free and the messy. In this movie, Spielberg's E.T. becomes a guide leading the family out of an unhealthy chaos borne of emotional confusion and denial. Sheridan thinks that E.T.'s functioning as "an almost religious symbol in part says something about a world where that's what you've been reduced to: entertainment."
In the end, though, he honors E.T., the United States and American culture when he uses Spielberg's extraterrestrial to signify "the belief in an alternative world which reintroduces emotion." And as an Irish artist ready to address the whole Western world, he returns the favor with In America.