By Anna Weinstein.
Irish writer-director Kirsten Sheridan has directed three features and five shorts since 2001. Her screenplay for In America (2002), which she co-wrote with her sister Naomi Sheridan and her father Jim Sheridan, was nominated for a WGA award and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Her film August Rush (2007), starring Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Freddie Highmore, and the late Robin Williams, won the Teen Choice Award for Best Drama, and its feature song, “Raise It Up,” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. The film was a commercial success but received mixed critical reviews – primarily due, it seems, to a misunderstanding about audience. As Roger Ebert said, “Yes, some older viewers will groan, but I think up to a certain age, kids will buy it, and in imagining their response, I enjoyed my own.” Sheridan, who now lives in Los Angeles and has more recently been screenwriting full-time, spoke about her childhood in the U.S. and Ireland, her penchant for storytelling, and that often misunderstood word, feminism.
I want to tell you up front that my kids and I are huge fans of August Rush. We own it! On DVD even.
Oh, cool. Thanks. Yeah, I’m glad I made at least one movie that my kids that can watch.
How old are your kids?
Three kids under thirteen, so it’s all crazy.
So are they about the age you were when you were living in New York? Could you tell me about your childhood, in terms of when you were in Ireland versus the States? What was the timing on that?
Right. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen all through the eighties, from age five to twelve. And then I moved back to Dublin. And I only moved back to L.A. about two years ago, so I kind of oddly did what my parents did in the eighties. I just packed up my three kids and got on a plane and moved out to L.A. But when I did August Rush, we shot in New York and edited in L.A., so that was like a little taster for us about what it would be like to live here.
How would you compare living and working in the U.S. today to Ireland?
I think in Ireland, we don’t have Democrat and Republican. We have middle of the road and middle of the road, you know? And those two middle-of-the-road parties have been in power since the start of the state almost. So there’s no extreme – whereas over here it’s almost all extremes.
Was that true back in the eighties, growing up in NYC as compared to Dublin?
New York was fantastic in terms of opening your perspective and seeing all walks of life and all different nationalities. And I think that really stayed with me. Transvestites, junkies, artists, crazy people – a whole mix of really interesting people. Back then, they had the huge ghetto blasters and the Guardian Angels on the subway. And all that stuff really made a big impression just in terms of flavor. But Dublin, it’s a very safe place, I guess, in comparison. You know everyone, and they know what you’re about – and that has huge pluses and huge minuses.
You moved back because of My Left Foot?
When I was twelve. My dad decided he was going to do that movie, so we all moved back. That was my first time on a film set, too, so I really liked it straight away, just because it was so intense – like a family.
I read that you were a teenager when you first started writing In America. What was it like growing up in a storytelling family? Would you say that’s shaped your life in a way?
Well, you already have this kind of storytelling shorthand with each other – the whole family really. And stories actually calm me down a huge degree, too. I feel grounded when I’m writing a story, making up a story – it stops me from panicking about anything. But at the same time, you can also end up communicating through stories instead of in real life, or living in your stories instead of in real life. But once I had kids that changed. You have no other option but to live in the real world when you have kids. And that makes you a better writer, of course, so it’s an interesting kind of circular thing.
Did your dad serve as a teacher at all – with the screenwriting?
My dad is a storyteller constantly. Like if he has to go in a taxi, the taxi driver gets a mini-class on Shakespearean dialogue, you know? Or if he orders in a restaurant, the waitress realizes that if she changed these three things in the “story” of her life, she’d be able to pursue whatever the thing is she wants. That’s what he lives for, storytelling. So he lives it constantly. I guess that’s what I mean. He’s never not saying, what’s the story?
Did you write as a child?
I was more visual as a child – I think I told stories more through photographs when I was young. And even when I was in college, I was really more interested in directing. I actually feel I’ve only become a writer in the last maybe ten years or so, and probably in the last two years I’ve really figured out what I want to say. Until recently, with writing, I think I was searching for what it might be, writing kind of generically a bit.
You haven’t directed a lot since August Rush. Has that been by choice?
Yes and no. The directing really slowed down for me after I did August Rush. All I got offered after that was sweet stories about kids, you know? I wanted to do a war movie, but there was no way I was going to get it.
Meaning the scripts you were getting were family films?
Totally. I guess it makes sense, because my first American move, it’s very sweet, right? So they go, oh, she can do that. I don’t necessarily think my agents were even looking for it – it was just what appeared on their desk, so they passed them on to me. And you know, it was like the Little Red Engine, the Little Red Tractor, the Little Blue – and it’s like, oh, Christ. And I had a bunch of projects I tried to get funded in Ireland that I just found really difficult, just the independent feature world. I got sick of trying to get ahold of the same A-list actors that everyone else in the world was trying to get ahold of. It erodes your confidence and your patience a bit.
Do you think being a woman played a role in making it difficult to get work after August Rush? Or would that have been true for any director?
Absolutely, I think it didn’t help. And it probably didn’t help matters that it put me in a box – you know, a very female box. I would have had to have some crazy, edgy, American film ready to go – like a Monster, or a Monster’s Ball – to break out of that box. But I didn’t. I had a baby. And I was just like, oh my God, I’m just through August Rush, I need to go back to Ireland.
You had how many kids at that time?
I had one, and she was four, but I’d been kind of absent for a huge degree for the best part of a year. She was with me all the time, but when you’re making a movie, the hours are ridiculous. So I decided to go home. And I thought I would get some of my Irish projects off the ground – but like I say, they just proved way too difficult.
The number of female directors in the U.S. is extremely small – I think under 10% again last year. Is it the same situation in Ireland? Or is there a more equal spread of male and female directors?
Oh, I think in Ireland it’s probably really similar, which is such a depressing reality. As far as I know, Cannes had a report out and it was just as bad in Europe.
Any thoughts about what we can do to change this?
You know, I think there should be quotas. I really believe in quotas. That’s the only way. All the rest of it is kind of lip service until you put your bankbook behind it.
Are there quotas in Ireland?
No, there are no quotas in Ireland. And I don’t think it’s going to be perfect. I don’t think you’re going to do a quota system and end up having five incredible movies all from women that year. But over a period of time, yeah. I read something recently that in the UK, for ten years they’ve been trying to grow the base of female playwrights, and it’s only coming to fruition now. Everybody’s going, wow, there’s like five new plays by young female writers out, and they’re all incredible! But the people behind it are going, honestly, it didn’t happen overnight, you know?
So you said you found your voice more in the past few years. Do you think motherhood has played a role in that, or what do you think has contributed to that?
I think motherhood is probably 80 percent of it for me, and that’s just my own personal thing. Well, it’s probably motherhood and feminism, to be honest, because I’ve really only woken up to that as well in the last while. And like a lot of people, I wouldn’t have described myself as a feminist ten, twenty years ago. Now I look back and go, what was I thinking? I really had the wrong impression of what that word was, I really did. So yeah, the motherhood thing is a huge part of it, I think – and even giving birth in the first place I just found so difficult. That kind of floored me. In a way, I had to give up all control, and I’d never done that before. So it’s been such a profound experience, motherhood, I think it’s really helped me find my voice.
What was your impression of feminism before you had kids?
You know, when you’re fortunate enough to live in a first-world country that doesn’t have the same kind of repression as other countries, you take it for granted when you’re young. And personally, I’d been very lucky that I hadn’t experienced it firsthand – very blatant discrimination. But over time, you start to realize that it isn’t always blatant, and then it’s much harder to put your finger on. I read somewhere the term micro-aggressions. And then you realize you actually have to stand up and say you’re a feminist, because there are so many people all over the world who are in a horrendous position. They don’t have the same liberties I have. But I think a lot of people still don’t understand the definition. They think it’s aggressive and moaning and bitter and all of these things that it’s actually not.
Right, the angry feminist.
Exactly. Or they think feminists have a problem with men. It’s not a problem with men. It’s literally human rights and equal rights. So I think when people say they’re not for it, they don’t understand what it actually means.
Do you have any sense of responsibility to present female characters in a particular way? Is that something you concern yourself with when you’re writing?
Yeah, I do. For a long time I wrote female characters as if they were perfect – they always had a moral center and were often the backbone of the male lead in some way. And I did an experiment once where I took all the male leads and simply renamed them as women and then read the scripts – and I was floored. It really brought home to me how much I had been writing what I’d seen reflected in movies and TV for the past 20 years – often very safe, but not real. But I think I’ve grown in my writing in that now I’m more interested in the darker sides, the more complex sides. I suppose digging deep into character is more interesting to me now. And the female character, there’s such rich picking there, because there are so few people doing it. I guess TV seems to be the better outlet for that now – for real people who have unlikable traits as well as likable. Very gray-area stuff really. In fact, I think the entire structure of TV writing is more in tune with how women think. It isn’t solely the hero’s journey with one singular goal.
What are you working on now? Something for TV?
I’m actually rewriting Cleopatra at the moment, a four-hour epic. And right, when you research it, you realize that how she’s been portrayed is abominable throughout history. I mean, she led an entire civilization, she ruled her people in peace with no famine for decades, and she’s just described as this bullshit siren manipulator. And she apparently wasn’t even that beautiful. But it’s interesting – I think people were just so afraid of the idea of a woman with intellect. A dangerous, educated woman, they just couldn’t handle it. So they had to say, oh, it was her wild, wicked ways, and she charmed and poisoned people with her sexuality. And it’s like, oh please. So I’m enjoying it, I really am. And yeah, I suppose when I can write female characters like this – strong and complex, human – I do take some pride in that. The real question is – will it get made?!
The Diva Directors interview series has appeared both online and in the print editions of Film International. To date, the series has included interviews with internationally acclaimed filmmakers Gillian Armstrong (Australia), Susanne Bier (Denmark), Isabel Coixet (Spain), Cristina Comencini (Italy), Marleen Gorris (The Netherlands), Caroline Link (Germany), Claudia Llosa (Peru), and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (Pakistan).
Anna Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Film International.