Kirsten Sheridan: An Irish Director Working in Hollywood

August Rush
August Rush

Spring 2004: Richard Lewis, a producer from Southpaw Entertainment in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, sends me a script called August Rush. When I read it the first image that grabs me is a newborn baby’s hand reaching out into the air and conducting the music that plays in the nursery. It reminds me of the first scene of Disco Pigs when newborn Pig and Runt gaze across their cots at each other, and mystically reach out and hold hands. Perhaps my favourite image from my one and only feature.

This would be my first US studio feature with a budget of 30 million. Robin Williams is already attached. But honestly, the only thing I am truly interested in is the story. If you start thinking about the rest of it you’re lost, and to spend time away from my family it has to be a story that is worth it with every line. At the heart of the film is music so it will be a challenge – turning something invisible like emotion and music into imagery.

Richard calls – it turns out he was a producer on Moll Flanders which shot in Dublin years before. Even weirder, I worked on it as a trainee AD and remember handing him a cup of tea (making tea being the most important part of my job!).

‘Do you want to direct this?’ he asks. ‘I will if I can rewrite it’ I reply. A done deal. Happy days it seems.

Summer 2004: Richard calls. He got the script, he read it. A long silence. Finally he takes a laboured breath – he likes a small scene on page 6. Hmmm. What about the other 100 pages? He ‘didn’t connect so much’ with that. ‘Didn’t connect’, I realise, is a LA term for didn’t like! Seems I’ve made it too dark and arty. I guess that’s a very bad thing. Back to the drawing board, we work from the previous draft.

Autumn (or Fall!) 2004: After a slew of financing (‘give us money’) meetings I finally stand at the top of the Aer Lingus queue at LAX airport, looking forward to getting home to my 2-year-old Leyla. The phone rings. It’s Richard. ‘Get out of the queue, we have more meetings’. I turn around to spend another few days doing the rounds.

Off to London to meet Freddie Highmore. I’m not certain he’s right as I didn’t see the sense of wonder and joy we need in either Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Finding Neverland. After the first few seconds I change my mind completely, this is him, we’ve found our ‘August’.

Richard is ecstatic – a studio exec at Warner Brothers loves the script. After a year of re-writing this is welcome news! Sitting now in the lobby of the office belonging to Alan Horn, the head of the studio, preparing for the ten minutes where we make the right impression or we don’t. The studio exec asks me will August Rush be shot in the same style as Disco Pigs. I sense the right answer is no. He reminds me to make sure to tell Alan that. The studio exec has some script notes.

June 2005: At Solas on Camden Street having our going-away party. Lots of friends inside drinking, dancing, having a laugh. I’m outside in the lane on a four way conference call trying to convince someone I’ve never met to keep the film afloat. Our ‘flashing’ green light has turned to a steady orange it seems, there is a scheduling conflict with another Warner Brothers movie, I Am Legend. I’ve never heard of it. A big movie, big bucks, big issues. The next morning I change our flights for the sixth time in two weeks.

I lie in bed in limbo-land wondering will this ever happen. I go downstairs, change the flights to the following morning, wake up a few hours later and, to their surprise, start to pack for a year for the whole family. We all hop on the plane on a wing and a prayer.

July 2005: Two weeks into pre-production and our steady orange turns to a hard red. The scheduling conflict means we can’t shoot this summer. We are told we can re-conceive the story for winter. Even though much of the screenplay happens in the heat and humidity we re-group, re-think, re-write. After all, next summer our ten-year-old main character might be a foot taller and speak like Barry White.

Fly over to London to meet Johnny Rhys Myers. He tells me the script reminded him of being a child, of that delicious fearlessness only a child can possess. He looks great, he can sing, he can act, but it’s his reaction to the idea of playing a father that solidifies it for me – I’m delighted and now have to fight like hell for him.

I consider quitting. Warner want me to hire an actress I don’t want. I don’t mind schedule conflicts, budget cuts, script changes. But when it comes to casting there is just no way I can work with someone I don’t want. It’s my last card to play – her or me. Thankfully, at the last minute the head of the studio has a suggestion – Keri Russell. I don’t know her but when I meet her I thank God for her. We all agree again. Happy days.

December 2005: In heavy prep now in New York. I’m living in Brooklyn when an unprecedented transport strike means thousands have to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge every morning to get to work. My partner is back home in Ireland doing exams, my landlady tells me she doesn’t really want to rent out the house to anyone with children anymore, and Leyla is getting mighty pissed off with an absent mother. She has started to sing a song from the movie called ‘Raise It Up’. She has a very sweet voice as she bounces along on my back, except for the fact that the lyrics are ‘I feel like a motherless child, pain cuts into my soul’. Hmmmm.

My Mam and Dad are helping me and now that we’re homeless they suggest that we move into Bono’s apartment for a few weeks. Grand. I don’t realise his apartment is in one of the most famous buildings overlooking Central Park, where John and Yoko once lived. But we can’t get the heat working and Leyla has taken a notion that the toilets can’t be sat upon cause they’re black marble. My dad suggests we buy a Supercer – I come to the conclusion that we were always meant to be living in the mobile home in Finglas where my eldest sister was born in ‘72. The Penthouse of the Dakota building just doesn’t fit!

February 2006: Someone asks who, in a perfect world, I would like to play Jeffries, the social worker. I say Terrence Howard and decide to write him a letter to that effect for the laugh. I can’t believe it when he wants to do it. Hands down, the script won him over.

February 14th 2006: The night before our first day and we need snow. We are shooting in upstate New York, it’s winter in the script but we can’t afford fake snow. My Mam has started lighting a candle for me every day of the shoot. That night we get the largest snowstorm in decades on the East coast. In his caravan on set Terrence Howard pulls out his guitar and starts singing the most amazing songs he has written. I’m pretty stunned and realise now why he’s here, he loves music.

The shoot is tough, it’s ten times the budget I made Disco Pigs for, but, miraculously, I somehow have less time. I can’t figure out the math and instead spend a lot of time buffering the very strong personalities on set. The first AD and DOP start to save my life on a daily basis. The script cuts get tougher, the restricted children’s hours are impossible, Robin is only available for three weeks, we have to fight the budget for everything – even a small director’s monitor on set.

April 2006: The final three days coming up in Central Park with 500 extras (we will eventually CGI them so there’s 5,000!) and we need great weather. We have no cover, we have four camera crews, two cranes, a ton of extra ADs, it’s the most expensive moment of the shoot, and my mother is still lighting candles. It works. We get the three hottest days on record in April in Central Park.

May 2006: Hopping on a plane again now to do post-production in LA. A new crèche for Leyla, a new house in Venice. This is supposed to take three months, I suspect it will take double that with a total re-structure of the film, adding newly conceived voiceover, audience previews, different cuts, score cards, tears, sweat, etc. Because Warner Brothers usually do 150 million dollar movies, during the shoot we were pretty much a small fish in a big pond – they liked the rushes so we were left alone.

Sept 2006: We do our first preview and score 81% in the top two boxes – everyone is delighted, I figure this means I can do what I want with the cut. But instead, a little spotlight is shone on the film and the studio ‘want to try a few things’. I have a little extended holiday in Ireland, it’s the tensest time.

Feb 2007: After what seems like a long wait and a few phone calls with the head of the studio we get to go with the cut of the film I want. For a first-time director (I’m considered that because it’s my first studio picture) the film is about 75% what I want – this is a very good percentage and I’m damn lucky. I’m three months pregnant and due in July. We are supposed to release at Easter. Warner decide to hold the film back. We don’t know what that means.

We get the news that Warner have decided to release at Thanksgiving weekend. This is good news as it’s a wide release with a big marketing push to compete over such a tough family holiday movie period.

Oct/Nov 2007: We premiere at the Rome film festival in October and at a Times Square theatre in November. Leyla is loving the cameras – uh oh! One of the songs from the film is performed by IMPACT, a children’s theatre group from Harlem, at the after-party. It’s the song Leyla used to sing to me.

22nd January 2008: Shopping in Boots in Jervis Centre for baby food and I get a text from Glen Hansard from The Frames, my favourite Irish band. ‘Kirsten! Mad! We’re both up there! Wow! Brilliant! Congratulations!!!’ Seems ‘Raise It Up’ was nominated along with ‘Falling Slowly’ from Once for Best Song Oscar.

February 2008: August Rush has made good cashola at the USA box office and is going to be released on DVD at Easter. I’m off to LA with the now seven-month-old Séamus to flog the slate of projects I’m producing with Blindside Films, a company I run with Sonya Gildea in Dublin, though the next step for me will be directing a low-budget indie with a group of friends in Dublin! After the whole studio experience I would love to just get a camera into my hands and be free to move and run with it, without dragging behind the dinosaur of a huge crew and unit. Less money, less opinions, less energy spent buffering big personalities, more control. Watching films like Hotel Rwanda, Motorcycle Diaries, Constant Gardener, Battle in Seattle, I am hoping I have the courage to do something on a wider scale in terms of story, something more social, more real, more edge, tougher. To be continued…

Film Ireland – Issue 121 – See more articles here
August Rush – Official website