Shane Kennedy talks to writer/director Gerard Hurley, the creator, and lead, of this bittersweet new drama.
The relationship between Ireland and the United States is often romanticised. From the hands that built America to the serial loss of some of our finest talent, it is a bittersweet story. In The Pier, writer/director Gerard Hurley plays an ex-pat returning from the States, seeking reconciliation with his ailing father against the stark beauty of West Cork, the land he was forced to leave in search of a better life.
The film reflects aspects of Hurley’s own life, his departure from Ireland taking him first to Switzerland, then northern Italy, where he worked with horses, before emigrating to the States. He spent time in Oklahoma, New York, Connecticut, LA and New Orleans while in the US. It was in the early ‘90s that Hurley began working on film sets, turning his hand to every job he could, as well as completing an internship at Warner Bros subsidiary New Line Cinema.
While Hurley might be new to Irish audiences, he has actually been writing screenplays for about 20 years, and it was the frustration of seeing his work overlooked that pushed him to go it alone with both The Pier and his 2008 debut, The Pride. ‘I’ve written a bunch of [screenplays]. Four of them were optioned and nothing came of them so I started making my own. I got sick of writing things for nothing and on spec. I was like, “I’ve just gotta go and do this myself.”’
Hurley wrote, directed and produced The Pier, as well as playing the lead, although he insists that the film is not autobiographical. ‘I think it’s very important to separate the two. In terms of The Pier, it’s a commentary on the world that I come from. I had to emigrate because I couldn’t get any work here when I was younger. It touches on a lot of different subjects but never dissects my own personal life.’
The story of a returning emigrant seeking to make peace with his sick father might sound straightforward but, like in any relationship, there is more going on in The Pier than first meets the eye. ‘There are certain things I find personally tragic and one of them is the idea that a person can live their life and not expose to themselves and to others who they are and what they are about. A lot of people spend their lives hiding their emotional truth from themselves and the world, both artistically and in their personal lives. I wanted to expose that, when people aren’t honest with themselves.’
The setting of West Cork provides a stunning location for many of the film’s scenes and Hurley sought to use the backdrop to further inform his story. ‘I did want to create a sense of isolation and the landscape does feature in the film. We are all products of our landscape. It sculpts who we are as people. There is a lot of creating the isolation using the landscape and using the characters. It’s very conscious.’
‘I used the landscape in different ways. The son is always shot against the water and the father is always shot against the land. But the father is shot against the water after he confronts Jack on the pier. Some people are into really sexy camera angles, whereas I like to work with the environment a lot.’
‘I never intended to make a high-art movie. I just wanted to make a very honest story that spoke to people like me. From an artistic point of view, I have the capability to go off in all different directions and styles. Stylistically, this film is very different from The Pride. Thematically and story-wise, it’s the same, but the way it’s executed is very different. In this case I wasn’t trying to make an arthouse movie.’
The Pier got a standing ovation at the Galway Film Festival and Hurley was amazed at the number of people that came up to him in tears afterwards. ‘One note I get consistently back on my work is that it is very, very organic. I have various techniques that I have when I work with actors. I love working with actors. It’s awesome. I really respect them for what they do. It’s an amazing practice. There are actors out there who just really go out on a Iimb with their performances and I have so much respect for them.’
One actor in The Pier that will be familiar to audiences is female lead Lili Taylor. Best known for her turn in Mystic Pizza, Taylor has a lengthy CV that includes Born on the Fourth of July, Prêt-à-Porter and High Fidelty. Hurley’s years on the periphery of the film industry have served him well in casting the film. ‘We have been friends for a long, long time and because I lived in New York and LA, I have a lot of friends who are actors. When I wrote this, I thought about her in the role and when I asked her she was down for doing it.’
Although Hurley has set up a production company in West Cork, he is keen to maintain a presence stateside. ‘I moved back with the intention of developing more projects here, but I go back to America fairly often and keep up my contacts.’
The mammoth task of writing, directing, producing and leading in both of his films to date has provided Hurley with exposure to all aspects of the filmmaking process. However, it is the acting side that appeals least to him. ‘I’m interested in all of it although I don’t think I could direct someone else’s screenplay. I’m an open book. I’m probably least interested in the acting, although if a role came along that I was really interested in, I would do it. I just love film, I love making movies. I’m a very co-operative person and I co-operate well with myself. I never wanted to act but I got frustrated with all the rejections. I’d write a screenplay, it would get passed around then nothing would happen.’
‘When I wrote The Pride, I had another actor in mind but he got nervous because I hadn’t directed a movie before. So I thought, “I know exactly what I want, so just do it.” When I started doing it, it brought me to a real place, emotionally, and I just found it amazing.’
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland – The Winter Issue 2011 – Issue 139