Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Short Film Seen at the 2010 Galway Film Fleadh

The Parting, a five-minute virtually silent film by Ivan McMahon, deals poetically with a mother trying to come to terms with the loss of her young son. As is frequently the case in movies like this, she seems to live alone in an ancient house miles from the nearest human being or road. Of course, this mirrors the desolation in her soul. Moving and very sad, it features Dawn Bradfield, familiar to Irish TV viewers as Cara, the meddling receptionist on The Clinic. (Seen 10 July 2010)

Public Interview with Brendan Gleeson

After the Galway Film Fleadh had screened major points of a body of work that included American Beauty, Being Julia, In Dreams and the new film The Kids Are All Right, we got the treat of seeing live on stage… Brendan Gleeson? It was supposed to be Annette Bening and, honestly, after getting a dose of her work at the Fleadh I had come to realize just how under-appreciated she has been—at least by me. (Not by the motion picture academy. They nominated her for an Oscar for Being Julia.) But she couldn’t show for some reason, and Mr. Gleeson was good enough to step in—although the man would deserve his own tribute and retrospective of his work, which has been considerable in a relatively brief acting career. By all rights, his interview should have been followed by a screening of John Boorman’s biopic of Irish crime boss Martin Cahill, The General, instead of Lisa Cholodenko’s American domestic dramedy. But these things happen and it’s no one’s fault.

The interview was conducted by RTÉ radio presenter Sean Rocks (for later broadcast on the radio arts program Arena), as far as I know his first time doing the honors. His style was a bit different from Myles Dungan or John Kelly, who handled this chore in recent years. Rocks (a name clearly made for radio) had the tendency to put out an odd biographical fact, leave it hanging in the air and then let his subject off for as long he wanted to. And in Gleeson’s case, this amounted to long stretches of monolog, as the man is well able to pontificate and expound. Still, one wonders if he wouldn’t have minded a bit more structure. At one point, he described his first meeting with Boorman who, as it happens, was a producer at the time on a movie being filmed in Oughterard, County Galway: Angela Mooney Dies Again, in which Gleeson co-starred with Mia Farrow. As Gleeson recounted, Boorman had picked up the habit (from a South Pacific culture, where he had spent time) of listening and not talking to people he hadn’t gotten to know really well. This gave Gleeson a bad first impression, as he had to keep the conversation all by himself. “Sort of like what you’re doing now,” he added impishly to Rocks.

Despite the rough start, the relationship between Gleeson and Boorman flourished, and the actor sang the praises of the director as both an artist and a human being—calling him a great asset to Ireland. (The English-born Boorman is a longtime Irish resident.) The two went on to make not only The General but also The Tailor of Panama (in which Gleeson appeared along with his future Harry Potter co-star Daniel Radcliffe), In My Country and The Tiger’s Tail. Gleeson spoke at some length of his disappointment that The Tiger’s Tail, a satirical look at the excesses of the economic boom years in Ireland, had not been better received, although he noted with some justification that it had been “prescient” in foreshadowing the ultimate downside of the Celtic Tiger. Gleeson also spoke at length about his frustrations with the current political and economic situation in Ireland but said he couldn’t see that any of the various parties had any better answers than the one currently in power. Instead, he suggested, an emergency should be declared and a national government, i.e. a coalition of all parties, should be formed to solve the country’s problems. He didn’t go into a lot of detail as to what he thought those solutions might be but later, in answer to a question from the audience, he alluded to the fact that both his parents had had unpleasant experiences with hospital accident & emergency services—suggesting that, like many people, he considers the Irish medical system a disaster.

When you listen to Gleeson speak, he sounds pretty much as you expect him to. Like many of the characters he has played in Irish films, he is a bluff Dubliner. The only possible surprise (though it shouldn’t be) is that he is quite a bit smarter than many of the characters he has played, and like most actors can go on at length about the various aspects of the acting craft. He credited his passion for acting and the arts in general to a primary school teacher, a Christian Brother, who had inspired him. (Sadly, the man ended up taking his own life years later.) Gleeson found no such support in secondary school, although he continued to act, becoming part of Dublin’s Passion Machine Theatre Company, and honing his traditional music skills. He became a teacher, married and had children but, approaching a self-determined deadline of age 35 and with the support of his wife Mary, he decided to go for a career as full-time actor. His break came when he was cast as Michael Collins in the Irish TV movie The Treaty. (Five years later he would play a supporting role in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, which starred Liam Neeson in the title role.) He wound up losing his temper at the audition, which may have actually helped him, as director Jonathan Lewis pointed out to him that Collins was known to lose his temper too.

At his interviewer’s urging, Gleeson spoke at length about what it was like, as an Irishman, to have gone from playing Collins to playing Winston Churchill in the TV movie Into the Storm, for which Gleeson won an Emmy. Interestingly, he said that familiarity with the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) gave him the key to understanding Collins and those around him. Churchill, he said, was more difficult to get his head around. Instead of giving the usual actor answer about finding the humanity in or getting inside the head of any character, he spoke quite frankly about how it was difficult for him, as an Irishman, to relate to Churchill, who is remembered in Ireland as an oppressor and longtime foe of Irish sovereignty. In fact, early on Gleeson seriously thought he had made a mistake agreeing to the part. It was during dialect training that he seemed to get his head around what it might be like to be steeped in a culture of belonging to the upper class and having a huge sense of entitlement that a Dublin lad wouldn’t have.

Surprisingly (or not), the hour or so passed without the names or titles Harry Potter, Mission: Impossible or Tom Cruise ever being uttered. A casual listener who had somehow not heard of Gleeson before could have been forgiven for coming out of the interview thinking that he had never worked outside of the British Isles. And clearly, Gleeson’s heart is in Ireland. Asked whether he had any desire to return to the stage, he was fairly definite. He loves working in films and doesn’t want to stop. Even doing a play on Broadway doesn’t interest him because he wouldn’t want to be out of the country for the amount of time that might be necessary. He is also a man who values his private life. Asked by someone from the audience why he didn’t do more press, he spoke at length of his wanting to keep his personal life separate from the work and not wanting to get caught up in the game of celebrity. He looked a bit sheepish when Rocks asked him about heading “a dynasty.” He appeared in his son Domhnall’s short film Noreen which, as it happens, won the award for best short drama at the Film Fleadh, and which also featured another Gleeson son, Brian, in a role. Brian also appeared in The Tiger’s Tail, and Domhnall has co-starred with his father in Six Shooter, Studs and Perrier’s Bounty. He also had the lead role in Tom Hall’s Sensation, which had its world premiere at the Film Fleadh, and he will be playing Bill Weasley in the final two Harry Potter movies.

Prompted to contrast and compare what it is like to work with different directors, Gleeson began by talking about his experience with Martin McDonagh on In Bruges. “There is no question of changing or improvising” with McDonagh’s words, he said, which he described as “exquisite.” The cast read through the script over a couple of weeks, in a process that sounded much like rehearsing for a play. By contrast, his next movie was Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone. He said, in that case, there was improvising and trying out things and selecting what worked afterwards. In other words, the opposite of McDonagh’s meticulous method. The actor didn’t express a preference for either way of working, pointing out that they were different kinds of movies.

On the topic of McDonagh, Gleeson said he actually had reservations about participating in the Oscar-winning short Six Shooter because of some of the dark areas where humor was mined. In the end, the more he read the script, the more he realized the positive nature of the writing. No matter what appalling things McDonagh’s characters do, he said, you cannot hate any of them.

Gleeson will be trying his own hand at directing. Although it sounds as all the details are not nailed down yet, he is slated to direct an adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds, a personal favorite of Gleeson’s in his youth. About characters created by a Dublin literature student who refuse to stay in their own stories (and stories within stories) and who rebel against their author, it is the kind of the story that Gleeson conceded might be considered “un-filmable.” When he said that to someone (sorry, forgot whom), they responded, “Yeah, but it was probably un-writeable.” Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Gabriel Byrne have agreed in principle to participate, which is pretty much your dream cast for an Irish movie. (The IMDB also lists Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Domhnall Gleeson as being cast.) Later, when a young actor in the audience asked how she might go about auditioning, Gleeson said he had already identified whom he wanted for every part. Though nobody mentioned it, this book has been adapted before. A few years ago, the Film Fleadh screened a 1997 German(!) version by Kurt Palm, In Schwimmen-Zwei-Vögel. By the way, the title refers to a supposed place on the River Shannon, called Snámh dá Én, which could also be translated as the river current of two birds.

In a career that spans just two decades, Gleeson has worked with an impressive array of directors. Although he and Rocks did not get into an exhaustive list, it is worth taking a look at it. In addition to Boorman, Jordan, McDonagh and Greengrass, he has worked with Jim Sheridan (The Field), Ron Howard (Far and Away), Mel Gibson (Braveheart), John Woo (Mission: Impossible 2), Conor McPherson (Saltwater), Steven Spielberg (Artificial Intelligence: AI), Danny Boyle (28 Days Later), Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain), Wolfgang Peterson (Troy), M. Night Shyamalan (The Village), Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven) and Robert Zemeckis (Beowulf).

Not bad for a “late” bloomer. (Attended 11 July 2010)