First-wave director comes ashore
After a bruising with 'Ordinary Decent Criminal', Thaddeus O'Sullivan is back on form with his new film, which boasts some terrific performances, writes Hugh Linehan.
'Every time you finish a film, there's always someone there telling you that 'you couldn't have made that film now, you know'." Thaddeus O'Sullivan is musing on the tortuous life of a film director, the long, hard, often frustrating slog through development, financing, production and release. His latest film, The Heart Of Me, has just opened in Ireland and the UK, but it doesn't get any easier, he says, especially if you don't write your own films.
"I'm not the kind of director to whom producers come along and say: 'I have got to have you on this project which I have nurtured for five years, and you're the only director in the world to make it,' " says O'Sullivan. "A producer may come to me with a project dear to their heart, and you work together for years to make it. It's very difficult, because as the director you're doing a lot of producing as well. I can't tell you how many meetings I had about this film.
"I'm quite good at a lot of producing and quite bad at most forms of writing. If it was the other way around, if I were a better writer, I'd be more successful. I'd be doing the projects I really want to do, because I'd be able to write them. What I've been able to do is get writers to work on ideas I really like. And I can get casts, which is why people send me scripts, because it's all actor-driven. I can go into a room with an actor and convince them to do a script, if that script is any good, but where are the scripts?"
The softly spoken 55-year-old, who was born in Dublin in 1947, knows what he's talking about. He's been a working film-maker for almost three decades. Through the 1980s, he was a central figure in the first wave of Irish feature-film-making, as cinematographer on such films as Joe Comerford's Traveller, Pat Murphy's Anne Devlin and Cathal Black's Pigs.
In the last of these, especially, and in other work, such as his ravishing photography for the film version of Bruce Chatwin's On The Black Hill, he demonstrated a forceful eye for composition and colour that was central to their impact. The characters in the films he shot as a cameraman often seemed trapped within landscapes, rural and urban, that constrained or even overpowered them.
O'Sullivan had never made a secret of his desire to move on to directing, having made several shorts and experimental films, and his first feature, December Bride, in 1989, continued that concern with the conflict between the turbulent desires of the individual and the constricting forces of society and nature.
It's a film that's easier to admire than to love, but December Bride, based on Sam Hanna Bell's novel about the socially transgressive relationship between a woman and two brothers in a Presbyterian community in 19th-century Northern Ireland, was that rare thing: an Irish film, recognisably within the mainstream of the European art house, that found a substantial audience and critical acclaim.
A number of dramas and psychological thrillers for British television followed before O'Sullivan's second feature,
Nothing Personal, one of the spate of "Troubles dramas" that followed the first IRA ceasefire. It seemed at first sight like a major change of direction, with its action sequences and 1970s pop soundtrack, but at its core reiterated many of the themes of his earlier work. Its use of gangster archetypes led O'Sullivan in a career direction that few observers of his earlier films would have predicted, however: first to the US, to direct a Robert De Niro-produced miniseries called Witness To The Mob, then back to Ireland to make the sorry affair that was Ordinary Decent Criminal (of which more later).
The Heart Of Me is a welcome return to form and to the type of film-making to which O'Sullivan seems best suited. Based on Rosamond Lehmann's novel The Echoing Grove and charting the course of a destructive triangular relationship in upper-class 1930s London, the film benefits from some terrific casting and performances. Paul Bettany, who impressed with his psychopathic London mobster in Gangster No 1 and his portrayal of Geoffrey Chaucer as a show-stealing chancer in A Knight's Tale, changes gear dramatically again here as Rickie, whose repressed and conventional life is thrown into turmoil when he falls in love with his wife's sister. Olivia Williams and Helena Bonham Carter are both excellent as the siblings competing for his attention. The intensity of these explosive relationships is further heightened by O'Sullivan's acutely observed depiction of inter-war British society and a fraught generation suspended between two catastrophes.
It's the sort of material that in the wrong hands could have ended up as conventional costume drama for a Sunday evening on the BBC or as just another slice of Brit heritage cinema. "It could have been," O'Sullivan agrees. "Especially with Helena Bonham Carter in it." That The Heart Of Me is more complex and thought-provoking than that is due in large part to O'Sullivan's nuanced directing.
I suggest that this is, well, a much more Thaddeus O'Sullivan-ish film than we've seen from him in a while. "I can't speak for what you saw," he says. "But I think that the thing that gets me going is intensity of relationships. The big things: love, passion and betrayal. And characters who surprise you. That's what really gets actors going, and that's what I like, being in a room with an actor when one line of dialogue is saying one thing but meaning another and that's just a microcosm of the whole journey.
"That's what I found interesting about this, that the characters were very hard to judge. You see what they're doing and say, well, I would do that, but then you think, but that's a really shitty thing to do. How could she do that? How could he do that? With the Olivia Williams character, you think, fuck her, she's such an ice maiden. And then she's the one who carries the film, oddly, in the end of the day. The film feels like it's shifting its interests, but it's not. It's just elaborating on what people do to each other. In the end, it's about forgiveness, and about two sisters, but it's still about the fact that he fell in love with his wife's sister, and the repercussions of that. You want an audiencenot to ponder, because that sounds ponderous, but to contemplate what they've seen from these characters."
It's the deceptive simplicity of The Heart Of Me that makes it so effective, I suggest. "It's quite minimalist," O'Sullivan agrees. "That applies to how we dealt with the sets as well. When we were dressing the sets, they were becoming quite realistic - as in how they were at the time - rather than: 'These are fictional characters, we don't have to have all these paintings.' So we took all the paintings off the wall and left it very minimal. I love architecture, especially Georgian architecture, and this is the class of people for whom that architecture was built. As a director or a designer, you have to have fun with what you do. But you can only have fun if you have confidence, and the whole point is to display character. That's what you're trying to do, and everything contributes to that. It doesn't matter whether the audience picks up those particular things, it's the cumulative effect that matters."
All in all, a refreshing change from Ordinary Decent Criminal, the misbegotten Dublin crime caper inspired by the life of the criminal Martin Cahill. It wasn't just that John Boorman had got there first, with The General, or Kevin Spacey's contribution to the competition for worst Irish accent in a movie ever. It just seemed to be a bit of a mess. Was it a bruising experience? "Very. With this film, when it comes to reviews, you've got Helena Bonham Carter in a period film, and then the reviewer may go with that or they may go on to say: 'But it's not quite what you'd think, and that's why it's interesting.' But with Ordinary DecentCriminal, we gave people so many sticks to beat us with that by the time they got to the third or fourth paragraphs, they'd already finished beating us. Even if they liked the film at any level, it was too late.
"There was the John Boorman thing, there was the Martin Cahill thing, there was the Kevin Spacey accent thing. I mean, I actually like the film. There are some things in there I adore, because I've never really done comedy before and I really enjoyed it. Everybody doing it had a really good time and got on very well. And some of it was funny. But it was a story that didn't quite hang together."
It looked like one of those films in which nobody had quite got round to thinking the thing through, I suggest. "I think Gerry [Stembridge, the screenwriter\] and I should have done a lot more work. When Kevin said he would do it, we fell into the classic trap. If an actor says he's ready to do it, then it must be ready to do. You don't say that, but you wake up in the morning and suddenly you're doing it. And the problems you've always had with the script become less of a problem, even though you haven't opened the script since.
"And, in a sense, that's a lesson you can never stop learning, which is why, on the set, you must never, ever take your eye off the ball. Because you're the only one who's concentrating on the film and what's best for it at any one time. Only you. Sure, there are moments when you're doing a bit of producing and a bit of writing and all of that, and one person isn't capable of doing all that, so you rely on other people. But the point comes, and it should have come then, when I should have said: 'I don't care who's in it. These are the problems I have with it, and they will have to be solved, and Kevin will have to like them.' But it takes so much effort to set up and there are so many big egos involved that if it's going to happen, it's going to happen. It's like a runaway train. If all these people are saying it's going to happen, then who the fuck am I? You're not thinking that, but you're just part of what is now a corporate venture."
Making The Heart Of Me, he agrees, was a quite different experience. "It was interesting on this film, I suppose because I was very comfortable with the material, I was very bullish about things being the way I wanted them to be. When I say bullish I don't mean arrogant, I mean firm and unwavering."
The Heart Of Me is on limited release.