Category: Archive

The comic North: McEvoy ‘pushes buttons’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Gray

When the writer and actor Barry McEvoy’s family left Belfast and the Troubles behind them in the mid-1980s to settle in Washington, his father kept memories of their hometown alive by regaling the family with hilarious anecdotes from his working life as a barber there. McEvoy saw the cinematic potential in these stories and, with his father’s assistance, developed the script for “An Everlasting Piece,” a new comedy about a pair of hapless wig salesmen trying to corner the market on Northern Ireland’s rug users.

The film was shot in Ireland earlier this year with McEvoy in the lead role, and is currently on release in New York, Boston, Seattle and L.A.

McEvoy’s daring take on Belfast finds laughs in a city invariably presented onscreen as a joyless war zone, and dares to make fun of the paramilitaries on both sides of the fence. The film kicks off with a quick, freehand sketch layered on top of Belfast location shots to explain the divided neighborhoods, the peace wall, and the necessity for putting your house in a cage to deflect petrol bombs.

“It set the tone really well for this film about Northern Ireland: that it’s not going to be a Daniel Day Lewis film where everyone is looking miserable and moping around the joint,” McEvoy said during a recent visit to New York. “At one point we met an English director for lunch to see about him making the film, and he said, ‘I think we need a scene in here where the IRA are kneecapping someone.’ And I said, ‘Check, please!’

“If we’re going to do that, we’re going to need a scene where the SAS are torturing someone, and where the UDA pick up a random Catholic and kill him. And where do we stop? This isn’t a movie about rubbing salt in wounds. I wanted to make a different film about Northern Ireland. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but just not in this particular film.”

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If McEvoy didn’t mention it, you’d never know from his accent the he left his native city in his mid-teens and has spent more than half his life in the U.S. He topped up his Irish side on trips home, and his cousins soon let him know all about it if he showed any sign of an American accent.

“We came back and forth a couple of times when I was a kid,” he said, “and when you’re a kid you lose your accent really quickly. So every time I would go back to Ireland with an American accent I would get my nads knocked in, and then I’d lose my accent, and get a Belfast accent as quickly as possible. Then I’d come back to America with an Irish accent and I’d get my nads knocked in. But the last time I came over I said, ‘[Expletive] ye, this is my accent, I’m keeping it and yiz can all [expletive] off.’ ”

Revisiting Belfast with major studio backing to shoot the film was an exhilarating experience for the young actor, and a lot different from how he remembered the city as a kid.

“It was class,” he said. “There was one moment when they shut down City Hall, and there were all these trucks and a frigging snow machine and my dad was there on the set, and he said, ‘How did you pull this off? How did you get this to happen? To shut down City Hall, we’d be lucky before if we could get a bus on time.’ It was mindblowing.”

The shaky cease-fire may still be in effect in Northern Ireland, but the ground rules at street level remain, and hard men still call the shots in the working-class neighborhoods of Belfast. At one point it seemed like the producers would shoot all the location footage in Dublin, lured by the tax incentives and the perceived lack of hassle in the South. But McEvoy was adamant that Belfast be used, and convinced his director, Barry Levinson, likewise.

“It looked like it wasn’t going to happen, then Barry got involved,” McEvoy said. “I told him that they don’t want to shoot in the North, but we have to shoot it there. He asked me, ‘Does it look that different?’ and I said, ‘Well, it would be like you having to shoot ‘Avalon’ in Dallas. We have to get the smell of the joint.’ Then Barry said, ‘We’ve got to shoot in Belfast,’ and, bang, it happened.”

Shooting was scheduled to begin in both Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, but before the cast and crew arrived, trouble loomed as the loyalists withdrew their cooperation.

“The UDA had read the script and they didn’t like it,” McEvoy recalled. “The Northern Ireland Film Commission had been asking me to try to talk the studio into shooting there. They were sending me pictures and booklets, but they called the night before we were supposed to start to say that negotiations with the UDA had broken down and they couldn’t guarantee our safety. So I get to the train station in Dublin and Barry Levinson and Pat McCormack were there, and they tell me this and I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ And they said, ‘We’re going to shoot the film.’ I would probably have chickened out. But they had this all-out American bravery, and I says, ‘OK . . . you aren’t worried about it?’ And Pat McCormack, one of the producers, said, ‘This is our job, we have to go to work. No one is going to stop us from going to work.’ So I kind of hid behind that bravery, and I said. ‘Good man, I’m in if you’re in.’ ”

The shoot went ahead despite the danger, though it was not without incident. One of the crew was hit by a bottle thrown over the peace wall, an incident McEvoy dismisses as being “just Belfast, nothing to do with the paramilitaries.”

He is proud of the finished work, insisting that “An Everlasting Piece” remains true to his original concept, and staunchly defends against charges that the script may have lost some sharpness in the hands of a major studio and director rather than an indie outfit.

“For me to be able to trust someone to direct the script wasn’t easy, you know,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, a big Hollywood studio is going to ruin this.’ But they [Dreamworks] were really cool, actually, they didn’t [mess] with the script. With the contracts that we had, they couldn’t. We knew that it was going to be really hard to make this film with a big studio, but they were surprisingly cool about the whole thing, they just wanted to make a good film. And when Barry Levinson got on board, it was cool that a Jewish director from Baltimore would have no doubt about having all Irish leads. He didn’t need to pad it by having a star.”

The most that the writer will concede in terms of losing laughs from the original material is a slight slowdown in the Belfast wit and repartee, steered by the American director Levinson to facilitate non-Irish viewers.

“There were a couple of scenes where the pacing is a little slower than it might have been,” McEvoy said. “Unconsciously, we slowed down a little, and there were scenes where flying through it would have been funnier.”

“An Everlasting Piece” is commendable for its comic lack of delicacy on matters that filmmakers usually treat with the utmost solemnity. But McEvoy will have to brace himself for some flak over scenes in which the least popular armed gang of all in the North, the British army, is sensitively portrayed as a group of frightened young lads, their hair falling out from the stress of being in the Six Counties. The wig salesmen, Colm, played by McEvoy himself, and George, played by Brian

O’Byrne, sell them toupees to cover the bald spots, after Colm had refused on moral grounds to sell wigs to the ‘ra. McEvoy explains his sympathetic portrayal of the army in terms of individuals, rather than the organization or what it represents.

“I hope you didn’t take it as forgiving the British presence in Northern Ireland,” he said. “Whether the problems you have are with the British army or the British government, and I’m not forgiving them, some of them are bad bastards, but you don’t have toffs from British public schools joining the British army; these are poor working-class kids from dumps in England. They don’t want to be there. The idea of the film is that you can’t demonize the other side. If that makes it easier for you to shoot somebody, fine, do whatever psychology you need to do whatever you do, whatever. But me, personally, I don’t think it helps Northern Ireland to demonize the other side.”

With a good deal of cajoling, McEvoy reluctantly concedes that he feels comic films about the North that pull the wire on both sides might have a modest part to play in the North’s healing process.

“A really, really modest part,” he said. “But modest little steps are what we need to happen. People might shift a little bit from their intractable views. That’s as much as I can do. I have a few Protestant friends here who’ve seen it and really liked it. But Protestants here in New York and Protestants there are very different, so I’ll be very interested to see how that happens. As for the nationalist community, it was good to think that we were pushing some buttons, and see how far we could get away with it. But the ones I know here who have seen it love it. It’s the first film they’ve seen where the IRA aren’t masked demons.”

To see the grins behind the balaclavas, New York film fans can head over to the Upper West Side, where “An Everlasting Piece” opened on Christmas Day and is currently enjoying a limited run at the Sony Lincoln Square Theater.

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