Fresh from his Tribeca Best Actor win for The Eclipse, Ciarán was reunited with Conor for another collaboration: Conor’s new version of The Birds at the Gate Theatre. Film Ireland’s guest editor caught up with them for the low down on the film.
Hugh O’Conor: You’ve known Billy Roche, the writer, for a long time. With The Eclipse, was it a question of trying to find something to work together on, or did you read his short story and think, this could make a film?
Conor McPherson: Well, there is something about Billy’s work that I will always love. From the very first time I read his stuff, the worlds were so real to me, I wanted to go and live there. And so I had that sort of soul connection with Billy and we became friends over the years. He told me he was writing a book of short stories and that it was taking a long time – seven years. He was emailing me them as he was finishing them off and one of them was called Table Manners, set during a literary festival, about a guy who is married and has kids and becomes obsessed with this woman, this poet. He begins to stalk her and his life goes completely out of control for a few days. Billy and I had already worked together before; I directed one of his plays, Poor Beast in the Rain, at the Gate. I said to him, ‘Why don’t we look at turning this into a film?’ So that was how it began. I started getting the bus to Wexford and we sat up in his little office. His kids are grown up and moved away and his wife Patty would be making us dinner. We would be up there…
Ciarán Hinds: Getting cosy…
CMcP: Getting cosy. His dog Ringo was there. Billy sat at the keyboard and we started developing it. And it was years we were doing this, on and off.
HO’C: The supernatural element wasn’t in the short story at all. Was that something that you arrived at together?
CMcP: When Ciarán and I were working on The Seafarer in New York, I decided to introduce a supernatural element. Because at the time we had shown it to a few people, like Film4 and BBC Films, and nobody wanted to know. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to make this a genre film somehow.’ And of course it was staring me in the face, why isn’t there a supernatural aspect to this? But it was actually my wife Fionnuala who said to me, ‘I’m warning you, if this guy is married and has kids and he’s falling in love with this other woman, women are going to find it hard to trust him and like him. Why don’t you kill his wife?’ And I thought, ‘That’s brilliant!’ Because if he is available, we will love him and he can also be haunted…
CH: And in grief, I suppose, as well.
CMcP: Exactly. And everything just fell into place.
CH: I hadn’t actually read the story. The soul of it is radically different. The way the guy was – and I love the story that he wrote – it was quite hard on male attitudes. He was a bit of a chancer.
CMcP: That could be why we were having a problem getting people interested in it. Because they were like, ‘Why should we care about this?’ It was a dirty…
CH: …murky world there.
CMcP: Yes, it’s hard. It’s about a breakdown. They were like, okay, thanks but no thanks. Having said that, even then when we introduced the ghost element, it wasn’t like it got any easier. But something I learned on The Eclipse is to keep the screenplay very short. In films I don’t think there is much room for a whole lot of story. There is no time. The image is so powerful, you’ve got to let it tell the story.
CH: It’s interesting, because when I read it for the first time, we were in New York and I was getting to know Conor. I knew that in between the lines there was a whole different psychology going on that would be developed. So I had this initial faith in what it was, even though to begin with it sort of slipped through my hands. Usually when you get a script, you’re going, ‘Oh that’s clear.’ But with this it was, ‘What is in there?’ I showed it to my agent and he was like, ‘Ummm… uhhh…’ I said, ‘I don’t think you really understand. I don’t really either.’ But there are some things you go on because you have a sense of… something else.
The full article is printed in Film Ireland 131.