Lir Mac Cárthaigh talks to Sean Walsh about Bloom, his adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses.
This is your first feature film as a director, why chose to adapt Ulysses, which is notorious for its difficulty?
In ’93 the IPU at RTÉ, God love them and bless them, were looking for ideas for a television series based on books. I was driving home and I thought “Jesus, no one has ever read Ulysses.” I think it’s especially true in Ireland, you know. We all have the book at home, we get to page fifteen or something like that and we give up. Then we’re in pubs saying how wonderful Joyce is, greatest writer of all time, but we haven’t read the damn thing! That idea has driven me and having thought of it I just couldn’t stop.
It’s ten years since you originally began the project?
I began when I was thirty two and finished it when I was forty two so, yeah, ten years. I’m still working on it! That’s eleven years work on it at least. Given that I’m forty three that’s a quarter of my life. We’ve had so many set backs. I mean set back after set back after setback. Every time we got a set back we would just take a deep breath and keep going, because that’s the only way you’re going to get it done.
I couldn’t find a script or adaptation credit on the film itself or on any printed list credits. Was that deliberate?
That’s because it was me! And you know having produced it and directed it I actually didn’t want to put down “and written by” too. The adaptation is mine, albeit that James Joyce wrote the words. All I had to do, though it was difficult, was extract what I wanted. But the original genius is Joyce’s.
So how did you choose your sections?
In the first instance it was a very practical and pragmatic approach because, you know, it’s a big book. I got the book scanned into my computer and I would read and re-read and re-read chapters, and having read a chapter maybe eight or ten times I would extract from that lumps that I liked. I did that chapter by chapter by chapter. So at the end of the day I ended up with a shortened novel which probably ran to about six hours. That was my draft and from there I changed things around, obviously I had to delete many things and then try to move things around to make it work as a screenplay. It took years and years of just trying to make this work – I don’t know how many drafts, four or five hundred at least. I wasn’t tempted to take the book and go in a new direction with it, because people haven’t read the damn book. I was trying to show people what goes on inside this book and therefore it is a somewhat literary film. What else can it be?
Do you see the film as being potentially an entry for people into the book?
I’m not a populariser of James Joyce. It’s not my intent to get everybody to read the book. There is this paradox that here’s the greatest novel of the twentieth century which nobody has read. That was the first thing. So I wanted to just show people what this book is about. Secondly I wanted to try to reveal some of Joyce’s humanity and humour because it’s huge and I wanted to try and sketch – and I can only attempt to do this – some of the literary tricks, the little links he put in. There’s a lot of that in the film that people will see in a second or third viewing.
You’ve juggled some elements of the story so that they’re chronological.
Yeah. In terms of juggling, the first three chapters in Ulysses all deal with Stephen Dedalus; he gets up and does his thing and in then chapter four – hey ho there’s Leopold Bloom. So it happens around the same time so we’ll just do what they’ll do in films, we’ll intercut them. This is Bloom’s day so I wanted to tell it in a chronological way because obviously they get up and they go to bed. We had to juggle other things around and mix styles. I’ve had to cheat slightly here I’ve had to take some sentences out of one chapter and put them in with another section. For example, Bloom visits the church in Westland Row. It’s a great scene in the book but we had to throw it out. But I took some of the sentences and I included them in the funeral scene because I really wanted to hold onto them. I think that’s being fair to Joyce because they’re such great lines, you just couldn’t get rid of them and they relate to the same subject because its about religion and death and all that sort of stuff.
You begin the film with some of Molly’s soliloquy.
Molly’s soliloquy is the last chapter of Ulysses. From a screen point of view that is a disaster because who is this mot appearing at the end of the book? So we put a part of her soliloquy at the beginning, which I think really sets the scene. It’s to frame it. I think people learn some things they need to learn but in a non-educational manner
Did you structure the film so that it is a story with three heroes Bloom, Stephen and Molly?
I would actually see it in a sense as a film with no heroes and many heroes because the thing, especially about Molly Bloom and Leopold Bloom, is that as individuals they recognise their good points and their bad points. They know – when their heads go on the pillow – they have a full picture of themselves. You know the way we all have nasty parts, we don’t like all our characteristics, and a lot of people just shove it away. People like Leopold and Molly know the bad side of their character but they accept it, because the world that goes around all the time, the sun rises and sets -this is the world we live in. Just accept it and get on, just keep going. Dedalus, Molly and Leopold they’re all very much non-heroic heroes. In the same way the audience, I think, are non heroic heroes because what should happen, I’d hope in most cases, or fifty percent of the cases, that people recognise something in themselves and that’s it. Ulysses is the ultimate slice of life. There is no moral, there is no ‘this is what you should do’ and ‘this is how the guy got the girl’, just the way the sun shines.
There are many cinematic elements in the book. Eisenstein called it “the bible of the new cinema”. So you were able to present that visually, flashback, flash-forward and the fantasy scenes…
Yeah and also the actual structure of it. If Ulysses was published today people would go “wow! This is hypertext taken to a new level.” Joyce invented hypertext. The links are extraordinary, and there are many occasions in the book where you would want to go into special effects mode. Certainly if you’re going to do Ulysses correctly at this point, animation is your only man, but it would take you seventy five years and millions and millions of dollars. I was very happy that we didn’t need a special effect anywhere because the structure of what Joyce wrote is quite intense and quite strange and quite cryptic in its own right. You could take this what I call linear or non-linear journey. I’m not sure if I answered your question but its really just what happens in our heads. I think that’s extraordinary.
You weren’t tempted to use filmic gimmicks associated with cinema from the time the book was written?
No never. Absolutely not. I was really concerned in pre-production saying “God, what is the look of this thing? Because there are flashbacks, flash-forwards, going sideways, there’s fantasy – Janey, how are we going to help the viewer get through this? Are we going to have to put up little markers?” Then you’re on the course of “shall we go soft focus?” Then you go “ah no!” So, having thought of all of these things you could do, I thought let’s just do this straight. If we do it straight then, in a sense, we’re mirroring what happens in the book. The book is just straight. There are no hints in that book, so we just said we’ll shoot it straight. I think we used about four dissolves in the whole thing and I think it works all the better for it. It is just this stream of stuff and it just cuts along merrily. I thought about lots of ideas and lots of the old cliches but I actually think by doing it straight we actually did it in a very adventurous way.
From a technical point-of-view, voiceover is very important for the interior monologue.
When you were editing did you cut the voiceover to the picture or the picture to the voiceover or a bit of both?
As always a bit of both. I’m lucky I’ve worked in this business now for fifteen or twenty years and you get people saying you must only cut to the dialogue or you must only cut to the music… all these different rules. There are no rules. The rule is everything grows together. The music will have an effect on something, sometimes the voiceover will have an effect, sometimes the picture will have an effect. They all have effects on each other, therefore it’s the outcome of all those contributing factors that makes the cut.
There’s a lovely score by David Kahne.
Yes. I’ll tell you a story. I got an email from our website saying: “Hi my name is David Kahne. I’m an LA based music producer. I heard about your film and I’d love to be involved in the soundtrack. By the way I produced The Bangles, Tony Bennett and I’m just finishing off Paul McCartney’s album.” I said: “Yeah, this is a con.” I Googled him, and he was who he said he was, so I emailed him saying: “Dear David we’d love to have you but believe me we can’t afford you”. He emailed back: “I don’t care, this is the biggest thrill of my life.” We dealt with it mainly in MP3s. We set up a virtual server; he’d do something, compress it into MP3, we’d suck it down, have a listen. If it worked it worked and we used that and if it didn’t work, fine. When it came to the final mix that was the only time we actually got the full 24Bit CD tracks over. I thought he did an amazing job.
The casting process must have been a challenge. Did you have any reservations about casting a Belfast man as the archetypal Dubliner?
No, no. The way I work is very simple and this is a very good example of it. casting is very important, like every department. When we looked at the three key roles of Leopold, Molly and Stephen really only three or four names were jumping out at us because we felt they had to be Irish. Ulysses is an Irish story, its also universal, but we thought that to get the story they had to be Irish. Stephen Rea’s name just kept on coming up because he was right for it and proved it. In the same way Angeline Ball. She has such a look, and she’s also a wonderfully talented actress. She has this natural rhythm that’s instinctive and inherent. With Molly’s soliloquy one thing you can’t do is rehearse it. This is not a rehearsable thing. This is something that has to be of the now. I’m sure all the three leads, Stephen, Angeline and Hugh, found the parts attractive because they get to play these big roles. But when you think about it, they are having to give life to literary legends. Everyone in Dublin and around the world has a view of what Molly Bloom should look and sound like and the same with Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. That’s a big challenge. That’s scary for the actors who actually have to bring it to life. They’re putting themselves out there.
I’ve heard a lot of people saying they couldn’t picture Angeline Ball as Molly Bloom, but they should see her do it – she’s quite remarkable.
Absolutely. Angeline, in many ways I suppose, has raised the most eyebrows in terms of will she be any good as Molly? I’ll quote David Norris, who said: “She is simply the best of all the Molly Blooms I’ve ever seen.” And that’s good enough for me. As you said, just see her do it, she has it.
And Hugh O’Conor makes Stephen Dedalus likeable!
Absolutely. Here’s where people get hung up. I think in some ways Hugh has the toughest job, because everyone think, “Oh Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce. Oh, he’s a narky old bollocks.” We decided to go a different way. Yes, Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce’s alter ego and yes, James Joyce said that he was he was a darkness shining in the light but in Ulysses we’re talking about Stephen Dedalus who is a young seventeen or eighteen year old. Now if we put on screen a manic depressive seventeen or eighteen year old going “oh moan, moan, moan, moan” we’re dead in the water. And also I’m not convinced that James Joyce or Stephen Dedalus was like that. There’s this cod perception: “Oh he wasn’t dark enough” – bollocks! Stephen Dedalus was incredibly intelligent and wit and a sense of humour come in. So that’s why myself and Hugh went in that direction.
And Stephen Rea, well it almost goes without saying!
Stephen gives an amazing performance, because the extent to which Leopold Bloom goes in directions is incredible. Stephen confined that and yet still goes in directions. He really just lived and breathed Leopold Bloom. I don’t know if you noticed but even his accent, which he worked on and researched himself. I had no idea what a turn of the century middle class Dublin Jewish accent was. He went off and did that and I think it’s incredible. I always let people go off and invent these characters themselves. Once we’ve established where that character’s coming from, I think its then for the actor to go ahead and invent that person. I think it’s better than me going and inventing it because they come back with a really rounded character. The same way with the crew, because they all had to work hard, and people in all the departments were breaking their hearts for me because they wanted to. We’d agreed what the vision was, I let them off and do it and bring their value to the screen. I think when you let people do that, and you just keep a gentle hand on the tiller, they do amazing things. We had an incredible atmosphere on set because people were allowed do their job.
Obviously Dublin in 1904 wasn’t the same when Joyce wrote about it, and it’s certainly not the same now. Did you feel hampered by trying to avoid the modern?
Well the most important thing about it was the story and the characters, but obviously we wanted to set it within the context of 1904 and the actual look in terms of costume and location was important. We were on a tight budget but none of us were prepared to cheapen the film by letting modernity come into it. So we worked really hard to try and create the atmosphere in 1904 and to set it in the right visual context. I think what’s amazing about the book, and I think it works in the film, is that while it looks period it feels modern somehow. You don’t feel like you’re watching a classic old period costume drama, I think you forget about the look and deal with the people. But was hard work finding locations.
Even in terms of framing, some of those wider shots…
Well again we picked them. Ciaran Tanham did a fantastic job. If we had panned the camera one millimetre left or right we would have been stuffed. But that’s what we did. We found those angles.
Did you use more than one Martello tower?
Yes we used two. For the exterior we used the tower on Dalkey Island. Now, it doesn’t come across as being on an island, it looks like its on the edge of the coast. Obviously it should have been in Sandycove. But Sandycove Martello Tower is a disaster. Its surrounded by new buildings, you’ve got ferries and cars. Also the one on Dalkey Island just looks stranger. These guys were out there. I mean these guys were seriously into anything, so it looks better out there. We did use the room from the Sandycove tower for the breakfast scene.
The novel, and later Joseph Strick’s film version caused controversy and outrage. I saw this film as being earthy, in a Joycean sense, but not vulgar.
I would like to think that the film is, on no occasion vulgar. It is certainly, I hope, earthy and human. This is what Joyce did, for the first time ever he took the wallpaper off and said here’s what human beings do. That’s why there’s farting and going to the toilet and all that sort of thing. This is what we do. Up until then the novel was just the heroic side, the nice stuff. This is warts and all. So its a warts and all movie. If people do think it’s vulgar, it’s not intentional; it’s just because that’s what goes on. We didn’t shoot in such a way to make it: “Ah that’ll get them going,” it’s just there.
Well I know it’s not going to be Finnegans Wake! I do know of one script that’s in development that is just a really straightforward story about two guys. It’s love, intrigue, passion… It’s really straight. So thanks very much we’ll have one of them!
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 96 in 2004.