A director with a lot on his mind


John Crowley seems to move effortlessly from screen to stage on a huge range of projects. His latest film stars Michael Caine as a grumpy, old magician, but he is already looking forward to another raft of work, including supermarket staff on strike and a dog with a dark secret

CORK NATIVE JOHN Crowley is a director who moves with as much ease between genres as he does between working for cinema and theatre. Intimations of mortality loom over his affecting, beautifully acted new film Is Anybody There?, which is set in a retirement home and stars Michael Caine. Mortality might well recur as an element in the new Martin McDonagh play, A Behanding in Spokane,which Crowley is preparing to direct in New York.

“Martin is a phenomenal talent as a writer,” says Crowley, who received a Tony nomination for directing the Broadway production of McDonagh’s last play, The Pillowman,in 2005. Can we expect an elegant drawing-room comedy this time? “Of course,” Crowley laughs. “It’s Martin’s first play to be set in America. We’re casting it at the moment and we hope to start rehearsals at the end of September.”

Casting Michael Caine, a prolific actor who’s always in demand, proved easier than Crowley imagined when he was seeking an actor to play the stubborn elderly magician who reluctantly moves into a retirement home in Is Anybody There?. “The character has a grumpiness and a feistiness,” Crowley says. “Of course, you need somebody incredibly charming to pull that off, and Michael has that in spadeloads.” When the script was ready, it was sent to Caine, and he and his wife read it on a flight to Los Angeles. “They both loved it,” Crowley says. “Michael got off the plane and phoned David Heyman, the producer. I met Michael for lunch when he came back to London two weeks later and we got on famously. He said he wanted to do the film but would not be free for eight months because he was about to do The Dark Knight. So I went away and did another film, Boy A.”

Caine gives one of the finest performances of his career in Crowley’s film, allowing himself to play a man closer in age to himself – he is now 76 – and imbuing the lonely magician with a sensitivity and vulnerability rarely found in his performances. “He’s in great shape,” Crowley says. “We actually had to use make-up to make him look older. It’s interesting that someone who was famous for being a beautiful man and a style icon in the 1960s was willing to trade it in for this film role.

“He turned up ready to work, and he was brilliant. There’s a rawness there emotionally, and a lack of vanity, and he was willing to go there. There were a few older actors I wanted for other parts in the film, but they said sorry, but they couldn’t go there, that this was their future and they were not willing to live in it for eight weeks, even though it was for a film. I totally respected that.” Was it daunting to be telling an actor of Caine’s experience and stature what to do? “Yes, and I am not at all intimidated by actors, but Michael is ruthlessly professional and he has worked with everybody,” says Crowley. “The truth is that he’s just like any other actor. He’s trying to figure out a scene and he’s trying to be as truthful as he can in the scene. Within a few hours of his first morning on the set, we were flying.

“He loves being directed because the more specific you are, the happier he is. He tries to get it right on the first take. He’s never done theatre, so the repetition side of film-making is tedious to him. He won’t keep doing takes unless you haven’t got what you’re looking for, and you have to be able to articulate that. He was happy making it and with the result, which he should be because he’s wonderful in it. He’s very proud of it and said that it’s the best he’s ever been.”

The film is sparked by the appealing chemistry between Caine’s character, Clarence, and Bill Milner as Edward, the friendless 10-year-old boy whose parents run the retirement home. “That was crucial,” Crowley says. “There would have been no film without that. Bill was exceptional. He had made one film, Son of Rambow, but that hadn’t been released yet and none of us had seen it. He’s incredibly instinctive and there’s something melancholy about him and a dry humour – everything I wanted for that character. When you’re casting, it’s always a risk, and chemistry is what comes when you get the casting right in both cases.”

Growing up surrounded by people much older than him, Edward has a morbid fascination with death. “It’s a threshold film in that you have these characters at opposite ends of their lives,” Crowley says. “Edward is a child who’s obsessed with death and who’s not quite able to engage with the world around him. He needs to be pulled into life by someone who is all too close to death and that’s Clarence, who’s racked with guilt and regrets over the life that he didn’t lead.”

The film adeptly avoids the easy pitfalls of patronising or sentimentalising the many older people who populate it, opting instead to celebrate their long lives as they are drawing to an end. These disparate personalities are played with wit and dignity by a splendid ensemble cast of veterans, among them Leslie Phillips, Peter Vaughan, Rosemary Harris, Sylvia Syms, and Thelma Barlow, who played Mavis Winton in Coronation Streetfor three decades, along with Elizabeth Spriggs, who died since the film was made.

“I wanted the film to be emotional without being sentimental and at the same not being cold,” Crowley says. “It’s a fine line, juggling the pathos and the humour, and that took a while in the editing to get the balance. It was great having that cast. Some of them are living to act now, and though they can’t do theatre any more, their acting muscles are as fresh as when they were 30.

“The atmosphere on the set was very jolly, like the green room of an old Equity meeting. They all knew each other, although some hadn’t met for decades and a couple of old vendettas were being sorted out. There was one actress who accused another actor of having pinched her ass on stage in a revival of a Noël Coward play in Chichester in the 1950s.”

THE TONE IS low-key compared to the intensity of Crowley’s earlier feature films, Intermissionand Boy A.Scripted by Mark O’Rowe, the Dublin-set dark comedy-drama Intermissionstarred Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Colm Meaney and became a huge success at Irish cinemas in 2003. “That was astonishing,” Crowley says. “I thought it was going to be a small, violent, scuzzy comedy. I was very confident of the humour and the energy in it, but I really didn’t think it would ever find a mainstream audience.” Crowley’s superb second feature Boy Adid not get a cinema release here or in the UK, and it went directly to Channel 4 in late 2007, although it was released in other countries.

“That was disappointing,” he says, “but Channel 4 paid for it and they were absolutely right to put it out when they did. It has done amazingly well in France and in the Benelux countries.” Boy Atackles difficult material, adapted by Mark O’Rowe from Jonathan Trigell’s novel that was clearly inspired by the fate of the 10-year-old Liverpool schoolboys who murdered toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993. The focus of the drama is on one of the boys when he’s in his early 20s and released from prison. Played by gifted newcomer Andrew Garfield, he is given a new identity, relocated and set up in accommodation and a job. The only person he can trust is his care worker, played by Peter Mullan.

Crowley treated the complex themes with maturity, even-handedness and an unexpected tenderness, while fuelling the film with the sustained tension of a thriller because the young man remains haunted by his past and the fear of discovery. “The whole Bulger case haunts the story of the film, but I was very careful never to reference it,” says Crowley. “I wanted it to work as fiction in order for it to shed light on the other case from a clear-eyed perspective.”

As Boy Aends, it’s impossible not to think about the Bulger killers out there in the world somewhere, hiding in plain sight. “I think one of them is in the British army,” Crowley says. “The other one apparently went to an art school. They have their own lives, but they have been turned into our culture’s version of the bogeyman, which is whatever is out there that’s evil and will come and get you in the night. The notion of them being released created such hysteria. When we were shooting, a European magazine claimed they had details of where one of them was living and they were going to publish it, which they could not do in the UK. The Home Office and their lawyers cranked into action right away and stopped it.”

Now 39, Crowley is 18 years younger than his brother Bob, a production designer laden with awards for his work in London and on Broadway. They worked together just once, on Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woodsat Donmar Warehouse in London.

“That was about 10 years ago, and a very happy experience,” says the younger Crowley. As he is about to immerse himself in the new Martin McDonagh play, he has “a bunch” of film projects at various stages of development. He and O’Rowe have been involved for some time on an adaptation of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, set aboard a ship carrying Irish emigrants across the Atlantic during the Famine. And he plans to make a film with Intermissionproducer Alan Moloney on the anti-apartheid Dunnes Stores strikers in the 1980s, written by Lynn Coughlan, an Irish playwright based in London.

He is working on Blackout, “a dark thriller set in the north of England”, scripted by Dennis Kelly, who wrote the TV series Pullingwith Sharon Horgan. And Crowley is looking ahead to his first US production, The Dogs of Babel, based on Carolyn Parkhurst’s novel.

“It’s about a linguistics professor whose wife dies under mysterious circumstances and the only witness is their dog,” he says. “It’s a study in grief cut together with a portrait of a marriage as the husband tries to communicate with the dog to find out what happened.”

Is Anybody There?is now on release