Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Jim Sheridan

Making Cents

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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The director of My Left Foot may seem like an odd choice for the new film starring rapper 50 Cent and based loosely on his life. But there's a connection.

When Jim Sheridan last visited San Francisco, in 2003 to promote his film In America (which received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay), he talked about an intriguing idea for his next picture. It would be about the strange dual nature of America and its history, the way all developments and movements have split people into two groups.

While working on this idea and trying to find a visual line through the story, he began searching for another "American" project. His friend Bono, from the rock group U2, knew that Sheridan was a fan of hip hop music -- his favorite is Snoop Dogg's "Murder Was the Case" -- and told him about the project that would eventually become his new film Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

In the new film, 50 Cent (a.k.a. Curtis Jackson) plays a character called Marcus who grows up on New York's mean streets with no father and a drug-dealing mother who leaves him orphaned as a boy. He begins dealing drugs himself, goes to jail, gets shot and emerges as a real rapper ("Young Caesar"), ready for his climb to stardom. Though the details vaguely resemble 50's real life, the movie is more myth than reality. And in fact, it's a close kindred spirit to Sheridan's My Left Foot (1989), in which another artistic, working class fellow fought adversity for a shot at celebrity.

Sheridan, who recently visited San Francisco again to talk about his new movie, says that the script was originally a "blaxploitation story" when it came to him. (It's credited to Terence Winter, but Sheridan re-wrote a large chunk.)

The changes he made include an exciting title sequence, which fills the screen with a rear-view mirror on a moving car. The car's inhabitants are listening to hip-hop, and every time the bass thumps, the mirror rattles, and the image inside the mirror shimmers.

From there, the film moves to a robbery sequence, in which Marcus and three pals hold up a lottery headquarters. Sheridan inserts a quick shot of Marcus winking at a young boy. "I felt you needed to be safe with 50 in that scene. He's the center of the world. The kid at the beginning is the innocence," Sheridan says. "And you're not sure where it's going. But when 50 winks at him, it's a promise that he won't be abusive of the inner self."

Sheridan wasn't sure of the film until he met 50 Cent in person and tested him on videotape. He says that 50's trademark slur (a side-effect from his real-life gunshot wounds) was mildly troublesome, but not too much. "He's very charismatic and he has a great smile," Sheridan says. "I knew from working with him for a bit that he could act."

The director was also intrigued by the rapper's natural ambiguity. "You have to keep mystery," he says. "It's the distance between the eyes and the brain, and the thoughts that go on. Acting is really re-acting and listening, and 50's a fantastic listener. If you don't keep mystery you lose a lot. You get overexposed very quickly."

Still, there was the problem of Sheridan coming from a white, Irish culture and trying to interpret a black, working class American story. The director partially solved his problem by casting the large, jowly Bill Duke as a Godfather-like drug lord. A superb character actor (Predator) as well as a director (Deep Cover), Duke acted as a kind of sounding board for Sheridan's ideas.

"I brought him in so I'd have a reality check in the culture," he says. "I did a bit of research, but I didn't really have time, and I didn't really want to approach it that way. I kind of have this perverse idea that I'll be authentic and they'll react to me. I don't have to go, 'am I really black?' I'm not. 'Do I know the black world? No. So I would just push it and say things about black culture and come up with ideas and throw them out and see how he or the others would react."

Ultimately, Sheridan just went with his instincts. He says that subconsciously, every character in the movie is really yourself. "If there's a dog barking in the corner, I see my face in him.' I'm egotistical enough -- or mad enough -- to see my face in the dog."

While working on Get Rich or Die Tryin', the intuitive and ever-exploring Sheridan found several more ideas for "American" movies. "From my research, I found that there was a lot of very dubious questions about how crack came into black neighborhoods," he says. "I think there's a film in it, but you'd probably need a bulletproof vest for that one."

November 2, 2005

Movies Unlimtied