'Making movies is a fantasy job'
Terry George has been accused of making ‘Provo propaganda’, but his Oscar win could earn him wider acceptance at home, writes ÚNA BRADLEY
NOW THAT the fairydust has settled, film-maker Terry George is putting some perspective on his Academy award win. “To be honest,” he says in an accent that flits ear-bendingly between broad Belfast and smooth New York, “it might help a little bit, but it’s not going to have financiers beating a path to my door.
“The kind of stories I look for don’t attract the Hollywood big bucks. It’s still too early to say if the Oscar will have any effect. It might facilitate a few introductions which might eventually lead to a deal, but that’s probably the best you can hope for.”
Despite not being a household name, even in his native Ireland, George is far from a newcomer to the international film circuit. This year marked his third attendance at the Academy Awards, following previous (screenwriting) nominations for In The Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda. He may have been the bookies’ favourite to win in this year’s short-film category, but he insists he was genuinely surprised, for reasons more to do with the logistics of the Academy Awards than any lack of faith in his film The Shore.
“In the bigger categories, all 4,000 members of the academy are sent the films, but in the shorts category, you have to attend a screening in London, LA or New York, so it’s only those members who can be bothered who get to vote.
“I went to the New York and the LA screenings and I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout – they were packed – but I didn’t recognise anyone. The kinds of people there were the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the industry – editors, technical guys – which, to be honest, probably worked in my favour. But it’s impossible to have any sense in advance of how your film is being received because it’s all so under the radar. So yes, I was very surprised by the outcome.”
If it doesn’t dramatically throw open the gilded portals of Hollywood, the Oscar must at least feel like a professional vindication for George, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, where press coverage about his career in the past tended to always prefix his name with “convicted Republican”.
Although he politely declines to dwell on it, he’s open about the bare facts of having been involved, in the 1970s, with the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the political wing of the INLA, being sentenced to six years in prison on an arms charge and securing an early release, in 1979, for good behaviour.
At the start of the 1980s, he left the North with his wife Margaret and their baby daughter Oorlagh – now 31 and co-producer of The Shore – to make a clean break and start a new life in the US.
At first, as an illegal alien, he did whatever work came his way – construction, bartending – but his passion for politics and history (he got his A-Levels in prison and later a degree from Queen’s University) led him to freelance journalism.
After working as a fact-checker for New York magazine – then in its New Journalism heyday – he became a researcher for the prominent NYC journalist and non-fiction writer Shana Alexander, then covering Mafia trials.
George began to find his own voice and to write for a range of publications, among them the Village Voice and Rolling Stone. He also dabbled in drama, which led him to the Irish Arts Centre, where he stumbled upon on a creative partnership with Jim Sheridan that would be life-changing.
Their first project, The Tunnel, was a stage drama, based on a prison escape from Long Kesh – a taste of things to come. When they blithely set about their next project — an ambitious idea for a feature film centred around the Guildford Four miscarriage of justice – it would propel them from community arts to the big time almost overnight.
Starring the still relatively unknown Daniel Day Lewis, In The Name of the Father was a major success and was nominated for seven Oscars, including one for George and Sheridan as co-writers of the script. George also acted as assistant director on the film.
They collaborated on a further two movies, The Boxer, again starring Day Lewis, and Some Mother’s Son, starring Helen Mirren. Although Sheridan shared writing credits on Some Mother’s Son, he didn’t want to direct another “Troubles movie”, according to George.
“When In The Name of the Father had been such a hit, Jim felt he didn’t want to revisit the subject.” George decided to take the helm himself, leaving him utterly exposed when the proverbial hit the fan. The reaction to Some Mother’s Son, about the IRA hunger strikes, was sharply divided. Much of the press, especially in the UK, panned it, dismissing it as “Provo propaganda”.
As a fledgling film-maker, George was unprepared for the scale of the flak.
“I was really floored,” he remembers. “The response was so over-the-top.” When it was screened at Cannes, the late Alexander Walker – a Portadown unionist and the then film critic for the London Evening Standard – staged an operatic walkout.
“The irony was, I had tried so hard to be even-handed.” He still sounds wounded.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, George doesn’t believe his republican past ever worked against him in the film industry. “I think the only way in which it might have handicapped me was in the kind of stories I was attracted to – political stories, prison stories. I’ve never made any bones about that. That was the life I had known, but perhaps I was too close to it for my own good.”
Certainly, recent years have seen George move away from the polemic of his early career to broader themes. The Shore is a thoughtful drama about two friends who go their separate ways as a result of the Troubles. It was filmed around the seaside village of Killough, Co Down, where George holidayed as a child and now enjoys regular family reunions.
His new film, Whole Lotta Sole, starring Colm Meaney and due for release later this year, is a first foray into comedy, about which he’s clearly very enthusiastic.
“It’s a madcap story about a robbery in a fish market, resulting in a siege situation,” he chuckles knowingly. “Dog Day Afternoon – only in Belfast.” His son Seamus (24) is second assistant director.
Despite his irritation at the dumbing-down of the US film industry – “each year they are less prepared to take a risk with drama” – he’s refreshingly un-jaded about what he does for a living.
“Are you kidding? Making movies is a fantasy job,” he chides. “I grew up in a Protestant part of east Belfast. My entire family was forced out. I spent the remainder of my childhood in the infamous Twinbrook estate in west Belfast. Now I have two homes: Sag Harbor, Long Island and the lovely Killough.
“Things are tipping along nicely.”