Rebecca Kemp talks to Kirsten Sheridan about In America, making films and dad.
Indy writer, producer, director and daughter of the infamous Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, Some Mother's Son, Bloody Sunday), Kirsten Sheridan has just come through and out the other side of the emotional experience of writing an autobiographical screenplay with her father and sister. In America, Jim Sheridan's latest film, is very different from the political dramas he has previously been associated with, and set against the weight of poverty, disenfranchisement and death it is finally soars as a somewhat magical story of friendship and childhood innocence.
Kirsten and her sister Naomi are established screenwriters and the film is based on real-life events that happened to the family when their father emigrated with them to America. It arose out of the family's collective memories of what happened, with emphasis on those of the two daughters. "This is a true story and resonates on many levels," says Kirsten.
Better known for her debut feature Disco Pigs and her many award winning shorts, Kirsten, who was recently adjudicator for Best International Short Film at the Kerry Film Festival in Ireland, nevertheless had the advantage of growing up with one of Ireland's most famous film-makers: "I was extremely lucky probably due to my dad being who he is. I'm sure It is a lot harder for other people starting out. I went to a college that wasn't hands on and didn't give us loads of help and we used to complain about that but actually it taught me you have got to get off your arse, get a camera and go and film something."
Kirsten also has very strong ideas on creating her own signature style: "When you make a film it still has to be your film done your way. My dad came in and helped me on the edit of Disco Pigs and he did some very good things, but it ended up not being my film and I undid it all. If you just let someone else do it for you you'll never learn. Maybe it would have been more successful if I'd left his ideas in! I probably learnt more stuff from him as a person and that informs how I am on set. My dad works very differently to me and everything is much less structured and chaotic."
Her films have been very much about children or young adults escaping into their own worlds, or creating alternative ones that only they can understand. Disco Pigs concerns two unhealthily inseparable friends and The Case of Majella McGinty a little girl who crawls away into a suitcase when life gets too complicated. So in a way latest venture In America is an extension of this. "I grew up in New York," Kirsten says, "I take from Irish culture a sense of rebellion, of going against the grain and stirring things up. There's a strong Irish tendency to do this, ask questions and change the status quo. I like the Irish qualities of a Pogue song, a mad sense of always being on the edge, heading towards madness, but also with an amazing poetic quality. I'm interested in these two extremes and how they balance."
A truly family affair, In America concerns Johnny (Paddy Considine), his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their daughters Christy and Ariel (played by real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) who cross illegally into the US from Canada to begin a new life in New York. Johnny is an unsuccessful actor and the family struggle against unremitting poverty, the run down tenement block they move in to and the death of their son Frankie.
Desperate to be part of the American tradition of trick or treat at Hallowe'en, woefully banging on doors that no-one opens, dressed heartbreakingly as a little Angel and Autumn, the two girls meet Mateo (Djimon Hounson). A huge glowing African man whose screams and shouts give way to a softer side bought out by the girls who befriend him. Mateo adds a little magic to the story, indulging the children's imagination, Christy's need to talk to her dead brother and the theme of births and deaths, endings and new beginnings that decorate the film.
The film's narrative is split between the eye of the camera, a running commentary from Christy and scenes filmed through her video camera, and in this way the child's point of view is inescapable. The two little girls' way of coping with their unfamiliar and often threatening surroundings is to create their own stories and ideas that turn adult nonsense into sense, in much the same way Jem and Scout do in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Pearl and John in Night of the Hunter. The eldest daughter Christy emerges into young adulthood as the movie progresses finally becoming bossy and clever enough to rival Addie Loggins in Paper Moon.
Whilst the main characters are based on Jim Sheridan's own family, the dead son Frankie was actually based on his younger brother who tragically died at the age of 10. Sheridan needed something to tie the otherwise patchy bits of the film together, and Frankie provided the cohesion needed.
"Before he introduced the idea of Frankie the film was much more episodic and flyaway," Kirsten explains, "That grounded it more. My dad's film is very intimate, he's so used to dealing with huge canvases, huge plot lines with stuff to fall back on, and you can rely on those emotions for cinematic effect. This film was much harder to make." In other words, the autobiographical parameters didn't provide dramatic fallbacks like gunfights or explosions, and Kirsten found they were having to rely on exposing their own emotions which bought them closer: "With In the Name of the Father for example," she continues, "you have a safety net of a high concept film, with someone walking into a room firing a gun and all those kinds of action fallbacks of high concept plot making. With this film he didn't have that kind of thing to rely on. It's funny but it was more cathartic for my dad to make it than me. I got to know him better through working with him and know a lot more about him since I did the film. My dad is someone who lives his whole life in drama rather than reality and you almost have to write a film script to communicate with him!"
A film that frames the narrative of In America is Speilburg's E.T. To escape the heat and humidity of New York the family go and see the film which the girls find reflects the dreams and difficulties they are experiencing. They don't want to be different in their hand-made Hallowe'en costumes, Ariel misses home, and her final scenes with Mateo (the film's Boo Radley) underline the magical world children enjoy that is lost in adulthood.
But this is nothing new to Kirsten: "Disco Pigs wasn't so much about escapism but about living on the edge," she says, "and about people living in their own universe. But it's an unconscious thread to my films. I am fascinated about the minds of children. They don't live in the same world as adults, their world is much more in their heads. They don't have the same concerns, and we lose that as we get older, we conform and don't live inside our own heads. Children's minds are fascinating and it is a strong, individual place. I am interested in adults on the margin of society and a one-off point of view rather than one that is clouded. We are very used to formulaic America films and we tried to tell a different story."
Which they did. In America is a children's story in that the world we see is the little girls', confined almost exclusively to the apartment block and school. Christy singing The Eagles' Desperado: "You better let somebody love you before it's too late ." is the child-adult speaking, in the same way she gives blood to save her baby sister's life and tells her father to "say goodbye to Frankie". The children are ultimately the most resilient and end up carrying their emotionally distraught and exhausted parents. They, like the film, don't shy away from teetering on the edge, but are gently coaxed back by the Sheridan family's quietly confident poetry.