By Michael Gray
The stresses and pressures that filmmakers undergo to create a full-length feature film can sorely test the strongest friendships. And if the creative team involved in making the final work comprises members of the same family, then sibling rivalries, clashing egos and accumulated years of emotional luggage can cause havoc on the set and adversely affect the quality of the finished work.
But the four Quinn siblings — director Paul, cinematographer Declan, and actors Aidan and Marian — weathered a five-week shooting schedule and the usual financing problems that afflict independent filmmaking to complete Paul’s film "This Is My Father" without punching each other’s lights out.
Two of the brothers, Aidan and Paul, were in New York recently to discuss with the harmonious process of making the film in Ireland. Actor Aidan, star of "Benny and Joon" and "In Dreams," has already made several films there, including "The Playboys" and "Michael Collins," and works there as often as he can.
"Working in Ireland is something I love, but because it’s with the script that Paul wrote and directed, and Declan shot it, it’s extra special," Aidan said. "We also helped him shape the script by giving him our feedback, and are much more involved with the film than we would be otherwise. But it gives the process an extra pressure. It’s not just a job where you show up or something."
In his role as screenwriter as well as director, Paul devised the film script from a true story his mother had told the Quinn boys when they were kids. She had heard the story when she was a child herself, growing up in rural Ireland, about a romance that ends in tragedy, sabotaged by class differences and interference from the church, in the years before World War II.
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"There was a story of a man and a young girl who had this ill-fated love affair and the girl’s mother turned against him," Paul said. "And there was a curse put on her by the family that had adopted him.
He was from an orphanage, and he was older, and from the wrong class. I went back to Ireland in 1985 to find out more about it, and no one would talk about it. So I put it aside and said, what do I care about a 1939 story?"
Aidan interjected with the typical response from the locals whom Paul asked about the story, speaking in the West of Ireland accent he used in the film" "Ah . . . now don’t be rakin’ up that oul’ stuff!"
But Paul persevered over 10 years to bring his tale to the screen, despite misgivings that a film about pre-war priests meddling in their parishioners’ affairs might send cinema punters stampeding for the exits.
"There was a general sense of relief in Ireland when it came out," the director said. "There was great concern from both the reviewers and the public that it was going to be an old ‘Oirish’ story."
"But," Aidan added, "it has done incredibly well there. It made six times what they thought it would make, and it’s still running in some places."
Cameos equal success
"This Is My Father" has made more than $1 million in Ireland after long runs on two dozen screens in the country. This may seem modest when compared with the gate for successful films in the American market, but it’s an impressive feat in an island of four million people in which indie films are routinely sidelined by Hollywood blockbusters.
This success can be attributed in no small part to outstanding cameos by a cast of top Irish and U.S. actors who give substance to this modestly scaled feature. Aidan’s personal connections to the acting community helped to get Stephen Rea, Colm Meany, and Brendan Gleason on board. John Cusack, a friend of the Quinn brothers since their early days in theater in Chicago, was involved from early on.
"I was lucky enough to know these guys, and get the script to them, past the agents," Aidan said. "But they wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t love the script. . . . They’re small parts, God knows. But to see the way Stephen and Brendan and Colm ate up those small parts. Brendan Gleeson really did it as a favor — he took the best part [as a rural Garda] that was left after Stephen and Colm had been cast."
The film also features veteran American character actor James Caan, as the jaded Chicago schoolteacher who travels to Ireland to find out the truth about his father. Paul was delighted to get Caan involved, especially at a time when the financing for the film was in jeopardy.
"We had Aidan and John attached, and the money people wanted one more star," Paul said. "After James met me, he turned down a big budget action film to appear in ‘This Is My Father.’ He was very gracious, and we were grateful to him. The money people were about to walk away at the last minute."
At the other end of the acting spectrum in terms of experience, but not talent, is newcomer Moya Farrelly. The young Irish actress gives a superb performance as the feisty schoolgirl who falls in loved with Aidan Quinn’s character, the orphan farmworker.
"Moya Farrelly was wonderful," Paul said. "An Irish woman would have that sense of shame that is a part of the role. An American actress would have to learn it. And there just wasn’t enough time or energy to learn these things."
Aidan agreed. "We were very lucky," he said. "Our idea for Moya’s character was not to have to deal with an American star. [We wanted] a real Irish country girl who would have that breathtaking brazenness."
Aidan’s own performance as the awkward, uneducated farmer is characterized by a lack of Hollywood narcissism that is rare among major movie stars. Quinn had no qualms about the possibility of losing an audience that prefers to see him as a blue-eyed hearthrob.
"None at all," he insisted. " It was always a pleasure to go through that for the role. The make-up artist came up with this idea to half-close one eye, and I had false teeth. I would have gone further in that direction but I was held back, not by Paul, but by the producers. I would have almost closed the eye. Paul insisted that I gain weight, which I was glad to do, courtesy of Guinness and lots of fries.
"Sometimes, between takes, I would go up to the Sally Gap and cut turf for an hour — a guy up there had taught me how to do it."
Another performance worth mentioning is Colm Meany’s cameo as the owner of the B&B in which James Caan’s character stays while he’s investigating his father’s story. Paul wrote the character as a flamboyant Traveler, and Colm Meany took it from there.
"He took it and ran with it," Paul said. "I definitely wrote a momma’s boy character. The costume designer, Consolata Boyle, put these garish costumes on him, and he was transformed as soon as he came to the set. I loved it! He was the first gay settled Traveler."
"He added that extra layer of swishiness," Aidan added.
Both Aidan and Paul profess such enthusiasm for the process and the results of their filmmaking in Ireland that they’re both keen to do work there again. But Paul’s immediate plans are to shoot a film in the U.S. about a group of old people facing the final curtain.
"I’m working on a film called ‘Wilbur Bloom,’ about a bunch of people in their 80s facing the last swing of their lives, and some of them are falling apart, and some of them are making discoveries about themselves," Paul said. "The producers are talking $3-to-5 million — it’s a simple script, no fancy effects: just walking, talking, interior shots. If Declan’s free, he might shoot it."
"I don’t know if you can afford him any more," Aidan said, joking.
Aidan himself is cagey about a possible shoot in Ireland later this year, and avoids putting the hex on it by giving any details.
"There’s a kind of a ‘maybe’ thing for this summer," he said. "They don’t have the money yet. I was hoping to do this thing in Sligo, but I don’t know if it’s going to turn out for real. Every two years I need to get my fix of Ireland. This summer it will be two years since we shot ‘This Is My Father,’ so it’s time to go back."