Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Jim Sheridan

New York State of Mind

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy In America on DVD.

When Oscar-nominated writer/director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) ran into trouble turning his life story into a film, he called on two of the best experts he could think of to help: his daughters.

Kirsten Sheridan, 27, and Naomi Sheridan, 30, each turned in a full 120-page draft of In America to their father. The senior Sheridan, 54, then used the best parts of all three scripts to create his final draft.

But when he began shooting, two more young women began shaping the film in new, unexpected ways. The real life sisters Sarah Bolger, 12, and Emma Bolger, 8, cast as the daughters in the film, wrested control of the film from the veteran director.

"The two girls thought I was only about 4 years of age in my head, and that they'd better take control," Sheridan says during a recent San Francisco visit. "They said 'action' and 'cut' all the time on the set. Now they say they want the credit for directing."

Sheridan tells about the day in which actor Paddy Considine, who plays the Jim Sheridan role in the film, could not manage to get a scene quite right. So Sheridan stepped in and acted out the scene with Emma.

"I looked at her and she said, 'Cut. Very good, Jim. Much better than Paddy.' And the whole crew laughed. And she said, 'No, I don't mean as an actor, I meant as a dad. You're a real nice dad.'"

Sheridan laughs. "If the film's sentimental, can you blame me?"

In America tells the tale of an Irish family who journeys to New York City to make a fresh start. Samantha Morton plays the mother, while the father (Considine) longs to be an actor but finds his creativity blocked by the death of his son. In real life, Sheridan lost a brother, and so he based part of the Considine character on his own father.

Sheridan eventually decided to tell the film using "magic realism" and go with the young girls' point of view, making everything seem a little more unreal and dreamlike.

The director explains why the Bolger girls work so well in this arena. "As we get older and lose our innocence, we lose our relationship to joy. Joy is the hardest thing for an actor to perform. You can see it in a repressed state like Jim Carrey or a sexual state like Marilyn Monroe, but you rarely see pure joy. And those kids have it."

In the film, the oldest daughter believes that her deceased brother has left her with three wishes, which she uses wisely throughout the film during the family's heaviest trials.

"I love America, the mythology of America. The film itself is a valentine to New York. Everyone asks me, 'Why did you call it In America? No one knows what that means anymore.' I called it that because I wanted to. But they're right. The concept of America is changing."

For his next film, Sheridan plans to move in an opposite direction, telling a tale with a much larger worldview. Much of what he explains is "off the record," but it has a little to do with the way television has influenced the world and the way in which America has divided itself into inner and outer "rings."

As he describes this mysterious next project, Sheridan gets very excited. A change of pace from the autobiographical story seems just what the doctor ordered.

"When you try to write yourself [as a character], you're going to be boring," Sheridan says. "When you look out through your own eyes, everything makes sense. Every action you take makes sense. So when you write yourself, you become one-dimensional. But when you take 2 or 3 people and mash them all up into a cup. And the moment you think that this is completely irrational, contradictory -- that one guy wouldn't do that -- that's a fantastic character."

November 25, 2003

Movies Unlimtied