Made to last

Jim Sheridan, director of My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and In America

By David Hennessy

His films launched Daniel Day-Lewis towards triple Oscar success, he has six times been nominated for Academy Awards himself and he is, without doubt, the main inspiration for a new generation of Irish filmmakers. Jim Sheridan is the acclaimed director of In America and The Boxer among others and two of his two best loved films My Left Foot and In The Name of the Father are coming to blu-ray disc.

The Irish World thought it was the ideal time to speak to Jim and the Dublin director spoke of his delight at seeing two of his earliest films standing the test of time: “It’s great. They’re 25 and 20 years old so it’s very good. They’ve obviously got Daniel Day-Lewis in them. Daniel is currently the most critically acclaimed actor on earth so that probably helps, but I think the movies stand up.

“You don’t think of that (a film’s enduring appeal) when you’re making movies, you’re just making it, you know. I think they’re very structured, they’re very classically written with a good structure to them. I think either they’re movies very specifically about Ireland at a certain time and place, or Ireland and England at a certain time and place in the case of In The Name of the Father.”

Director Jim Sheridan’s debut film, the 1989 biopic of Christy Brown, My Left Foot, landed Oscars for lead male and female, Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker, while also being short-listed for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

A scene from Jim’s debut film, My Left Foot

As he has just returned from Cannes, the director responds to a recent statement made by the president of the festival: “I was reading that eejit Gilles Jacob was saying everywhere that the reason he didn’t put My Left Foot in was Harvey Weinstein (massive film producer and studio executive) was harassing him, but that can’t be true because the same year Sex, Lies and Videotape, which Harvey Weinstein was producing, won the festival so it’s a bit kind of weird for him to say that. That wasn’t the reason, there was some reason but it wasn’t that. It’s just weird, after 25 years he comes out and says he regrets not showing My Left Foot. I don’t think there’s actually been any Irish presence in Cannes. It’s something for them to address.”

The film reached a level of success none of its makers could have expected but Sheridan believes it could have easily been very different: “I don’t suppose it was normal to show disabled people and I think that was off putting for a lot of people. I think without Harvey Weinstein and  a review from Pauline Kael, it could well have slipped under the radar.”

He inspires a new wave of Irish film makers that includes his own daughter, Kirsten, but Jim sees these as hard times for film makers. With the introduction of digital, film making is more accessible than ever but to get a movie distributed is harder than ever: “Independent movies seem to be in a really bad way. For some reason, Irish movies very rarely play in England. It’s also tough for English movies to break through. It’s tough for Ken Loach or Steve Frears,  I think that’s because of the machine of the big, big studios.

“Once or Neil (Jordan)’s movie The Crying Game were released in England and Ireland and they did moderate, not even moderate, and then they became hits in America and they were re-released and did really well. It tells you that unless you get part of the machine, unless you’re promoted as an American movie, the local people don’t want to see it. To release a movie in your home territory before you release it in the States is very difficult and now to get distribution in the states is hard. I think that’s something that needs to be looked at more than anything.

“If My Left Foot hadn’t been a huge hit in America, nobody would be saying ‘we forgot, we never showed that’ in Cannes. It would just disappear and a lot of that (the film’s success) was down to Harvey Weinstein and his genius at distribution. Distribution, publicity and marketing are big or bigger than the making of the movie. Nobody makes any money out of it here, the only money made is from recycling American hits so there’s been no infrastructure of development of a relationship with the audience for independent English or Irish movies so you drift towards James Bond and Harry Potter and away from Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Terence Davies, the true f**king geniuses.

“It’s very difficult to get a foothold now, I feel very sorry for young film makers. I saw a movie, Good Vibrations – amazing movie. One of the great movies and nobody went to see it. Now maybe it wasn’t released right, I don’t know, but that seems to me like a movie that could be put on television but it won’t be. It will take years and years if ever.

Jim with Hugh O’Connor and Daniel Day-Lewis, who played the young and older Christy Brown, at a 2011 projection of My Left Foot at the Irish Film Institute

“England, Ireland and, to an extent, Europe, we seem like colonies of Hollywood. You get to see things three weeks after they open in America so the opinions about them have been pre-digested, the opinions have all been made up and you’re fed them so you can’t vote. It’s already been voted -‘this is a hit and now you can look at it’ – that seems to me very bad because it stops a conversation between the film maker and the public. That I would like to see re-established in some way.”

After directing Richard Harris in The Field (for which Harris was also nominated for an Academy Award), Sheridan turned his attention to the story of the Guildford Four who had been wrongly imprisoned in Britain for an IRA bomb blast, serving 15-16 years in prison before having their convictions reversed in 1989.

With the same kind of towering performance, Day-Lewis played Gerry Conlon, the innocent man who saw his father Giuseppe (played by the late Pete Postlethwaite in his most moving performance) die in prison, in In the Name of the Father. While My Left Foot saw his character conquering the unfortunate affliction of cerebral palsy, his second collaboration with Sheridan saw Day-Lewis’ character fighting unjust incarceration. Day-Lewis displayed the same dedication and preparation he was to become known for in both early roles, confining himself to Christy’s wheelchair even between takes and subjecting himself to police interrogation to understand its horror.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite as father and son Giuseppe and Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father

In The Name of the Father was very current in 1993 with the Guildford Four only released four years earlier. A lot has changed in two decades but with its powerful themes of injustice and prejudice, does Jim feel it would be more or less powerful if released now? “I think it would be probably less, wouldn’t it? Because The Troubles are over, do you know what I mean? So it wouldn’t have the same… Essentially things were banned on TV so this is a movie that came out of nowhere because American studios funded it.

“I was talking to somebody Irish and saying about Guantanamo (Bay) and the person said to me: ‘Yeah but they got some of them’. And I thought that says it exactly: there could be a lot of innocent people there who have never been charged, they’re just being held and it’s to what purpose? It’s a terrible situation when the president of the US says he can’t do anything about it. In certain regards, things have gotten worse in the world. Keep in all the guilty people but if somebody hasn’t even been charged and there’s no prospect of them ever getting out, what’s that about? And nobody speaks out about it.

“It’s all about the box office: ‘Is it successful? Great. Next!’ You wonder if a movie like In the Name of the Father came out now, would it be ignored? I just don’t know.”

Sheridan’s star received a second Oscar nod for the portrayal of another real person, this time losing out to Tom Hanks for Philadelphia while the film received seven Oscar nominations in all, including Best Picture and two for Sheridan in the Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay categories. While it has been addressed since, does Sheridan feel Day-Lewis deserved the Oscar for his portrayal of Conlon? “Yeah, I do actually,” he answers without hesitation. “The funny thing is you couldn’t take it away from Tom Hanks because he was good. That year Daniel was split because he was also in the Scorsese movie (The Age of Innocence) and the weird thing is if we hadn’t come out the same year, he would have been nominated for The Age of Innocence. He’s a great, great actor and more than that, he’s a great person which is the really interesting thing because people usually think of actors as f**king loons but Daniel has the poet’s soul.”

For the full interview, see the June 1 print edition of The Irish World.

WIN! A copy of My Left Foot on blu-ray

The Irish World has ten copies of My Left Foot to give away.

Freshly released on blu-ray, Jim Sheridan’s debut film set Daniel Day-Lewis on the way to the record breaking three Oscars that has many referring to Day-Lewis as the greatest actor of all time. Day-Lewis collected his first Academy Award for Best Actor for My Left Foot in 1990. He was also nominated for In the Name of the Father and Gangs of New York but added to his collection with one for There Will Be Blood in 2008 and his most recent one for Lincoln this year.

For your chance to win a copy of this classic film on a new format, send your name, address, email, telephone number and answer to the question below to: My Left Foot competition, The Irish World, 934 North Circular Road, NW2 7JR. Standard terms and conditions apply. Closing date: June 10.

Question: Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar for Best Actor for My Left Foot. What two other films did he also pick up the award for?

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