One of the movies that really took us by surprise at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival was Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse, a film set in a small Irish seaside town that mixes genres in a flud way we haven’t seen very often in recent years. McPherson, an Irish playwright, essentially adapted the short story “Table Manners” from Billy Roche’s collection “Tales from Rainwater Pond” and took it in a very different for the film.
Ciaran Hinds, who also starred in McPherson’s Broadway play “The Seafarer,” plays Michael Farr, a lonely widower and father of two still not quite over the death of his wife, who is assigned to drive British horror author Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle) around during the town’s annual literary fair. Being that Michael has started having nightmarish visions and seeing ghosts himself, he finds himself confiding in Lena, while she deals with the unwanted advances of another world-renowned author visiting for the festival, played by Aidan Quinn.
Where at its heart The Eclipse is a character piece about dealing with loss, it also features some absolutely shocking scares, a good deal of romanticism as well as a strong sense of humor, mainly in the way Quinn plays the arrogant blowhard jealous of the attention Michael is getting from Lena. But what most will leave the movie with is what an astounding and underrated actor Hinds is, being that his character runs the emotional gamut often without saying very much.
A few weeks back, we had a chance to sit down with McPherson and Hinds to talk about their fascinating and distinctive film.
ComingSoon.net: One thing I really like about this movie is that it’s really hard to pinpoint exactly why I enjoyed it so much, but it’s also hard to describe what the movie is about to people without giving too much away.
Conor McPherson: That’s why it was pretty hard to raise the finances, to be honest with you, as well. It’s like, “What is it?” “Well, it’s a love story and a ghost story and…” “Yeah, but which is it?” “It’s both…” It was pretty hard to explain.
CS: I assume that the project started with your relationship with Billy and that you read his short story, so whose idea was it to take that and make a movie out of it? How did that come about?
McPherson: Well, Billy was writing a book of short stories, he was sending them to me as he was finishing them up, and he sent me this one which was set against the backdrop of a literary festival and had a character who was a teacher who volunteered at the festival, and he was married with kids, and he becomes obsessed with this woman writer he was driving around. Me and Billy are great friends and we worked together a little bit, and I sort of suggested to him, “Let’s work on a screenplay of this, just to see what would happen.” So we spent a bit of time together doing that, but then when we had a draft or two done, my wife read it and she said that in a story we can get into the mind of the character and understand what he’s going through, but in a film, if we’re watching some guy who’s married becoming obsessed with some other woman, women really won’t like him. And I was like, “Well, who cares?”
Ciaran Hinds “I don’t care if there is an audience for this or not.”
McPherson: No, so I took her point and I could see that, so she said, “If you can somehow remove his wife from the equation, it would make him more sympathetic,” and then of course, a lightbulb went in my head, “Yes, and if she’s dead, he can be haunted!” Although it’s still very much the skeleton of Billy’s story is there and the deep structure of his story is there, the emphasis just completely shifted and this character became a person with a whole other set of problems, so we developed it from there as this story which while yes, hopefully it had a deeper psychological roundedness with the characters, it had a very strong horror element as well.
CS: Where were you while this was going on? Obviously, you’d been working with Conor on his play later on. Did he tell you about this movie he was writing?
Hinds: Yeah, actually when we were here in New York was the first I hear about it, we were finishing rehearsals for “The Seafarer” and we were just opening at the Booth Theater, I think we were in previews, and Conor just said, “There’s something I’d like you to look at.” He gave me this very thin script to look at that he was developing and said, “This comes from a short story Billy wrote, and might you identify or be interested? Tell me what you think of it.” Having gotten to know Conor, I looked at him and tried to intuit where it was going to go, because it wasn’t completely finished, it wasn’t a finished work by any means, but you could tell and knowing Conor that this was going to go in some strange and personal place with these elements that I tried to reconcile “How does that happen so quickly?” but I knew that on the adventure we would resolve this, because in Conor’s work, you have the writing and then you have the other, and it’s not as if they’re there for pure effect, they’re developed psychologically through what is actually happening in life. I was thrilled to be asked.
CS: But he didn’t actually ask you to play the role at that point?
Hinds: He gave me the story with the idea that would I be interested and wanting to know what did I think about it and I sort of hoped he would ask me to do it, but the idea that we would work together again and see what transpired.
CS: Between “The Seafarer” and this, you’re working closely together and he’s written these two great roles for you. Can you talk about the relationship between the two of you and how it developed? How you guys first met and how you’ve ended up working together on these two very distinctive projects?
McPherson: Yeah, well we met first through the theater because we were both involved with an evening of one-act plays in Dublin back in about 2000 or 2001. One of the one-act plays was by Brian Freehold which Cieran was performing in with Kelly Reilly, and I had another play in the evening, which was more like an opener for that one. We were working on the same evening…
Hinds: But not together.
McPherson: So we got to know each other then, and then I was a big fan of Cieran and I knew he was great and somebody I really wanted to work with, so when an opportunity came along to do “The Seafarer” on Broadway, I asked him if he’d perform in that, so we got to work together properly. Spending that kind of intense time working on something where you’re going into a room with a bunch of actors, you’re working on the same thing every day like that, you really get to know people and get to know their acting and get to know them as performers.
Hinds: And as people…
McPherson: And as individuals and how they interact with others. What I can see from Ciaran was that he had a warmth which if we could get that into the center of this movie, it would hold it together, because the character is very much an everyman who has to do everything. He’s a father, he’s a son, he’s a lover, he’s a grieving widower. He gets to fight, he has longing, he has regrets, so he sort of has everything and I knew that I needed someone who could just hold it all together without ever actually having to say any of it. I had a really good sense that Cieran had a roundedness and an intelligence that I needed ’cause I didn’t have it. (Cieran looks at Conor rather bemused by his response.)
CS: We learn a lot about Michael with very little information. In one scene with almost no words, we learn a lot about him.
Hinds: Well, that’s just the beautiful way that Conor has quietly constructed it. Here’s a man taking his kids home and putting the dishes away, so immediately you know that he seems to be on his own, without saying anything followed by a movement seeing the kids and a woman who doesn’t look very well. The economy of that telling the story is beautiful, because often we don’t know what the camera is doing. Being in a place where I’m not going to look through the camera. I’m there to fulfill and know inside the parameters in which we can work, I’ll offer up the emotional context of what the work’s about.
CS: As far as making this as a film, both you and Billy have the theatrical background, so did you always know this had to be a movie rather than as a play? Because you’ve also made some movies based on plays, so I wondered how you envisioned this as a movie?
McPherson: I dunno. The thing about plays is that they’re so dialogue-heavy, and if people aren’t talking on the stage, it really feels like nothing is happening, and I think with a story like this, it seemed to demand a lot of silence, and lot of just watching…
Hinds: Observation of… as someone said this the other day, “Could you see making this as a play?” and I can’t see making this as a play at all myself.
CS: When you talk about the lack of dialogue, I can understand that, because there’s so much that’s very visual.
McPherson: But I’ve also been a big fan of movies, as well as being a playwright, and movies that I was trying to emulate with this one were movies like “The Shining” and “The Exorcist” and those kinds of movies, which yes, they’re horror movies, but they have a psychological complexity with seemingly very real characters dealing with the unknown and the very real consequence of that. As opposed to… I don’t really like slasher movies where it’s two-dimensional characters just queuing up to be slaughtered one after the other. I knew that if I was going to do this as a film, it probably would demand a lot of preparation and good filmmaking. I relished the challenge of that, so for all those reasons, I wanted to make a film.
CS: We talked about the mix of genres, and it’s interesting, because I thought the movie contained some of the scariest scenes in any movie I’ve seen, but it doesn’t seem like something horror fans would enjoy it for the reason I also enjoy it, which are the character scenes. Can you talk about those genres and incorporating those horror elements into a character story?
McPherson: Yeah, I think those two elements support each other in a sense that when the audience really freaks out and screams and yelp because they’re actually really scared, I think what’s important about that is that they’re really feeling what the character is feeling in that moment. They’re actually sharing the same feeling. They’re shocked and freaked out, so then in the next scene when they see him perhaps unable to tell someone what’s just happened, they’re really identifying with and feeling sorry for him. The shocks though yes, they’re scary and fun in a way, because we like to be shocked in the cinema, I think they actually serve to take us deeper into the drama, because we know that he’s really struggling with something he can’t explain. So when we move towards the end of the film and maybe things have opened up for him a bit, I think the audience feel genuinely relieved. So we get a lot of, when we’re watching it with an audience, they seem to come out quite emotionally drained.
Hinds: Yeah, the image and stillness of the wife finally when the father-in-law says “I saw her last night,” but when she’s finally there for him, that stillness… a couple times I’ve watched it, there’s a sense of absolute shock of “It’s over… no, it’s not.” He’s still in a state of stillness and the silence that ensues as he witnesses it in the cinema, it’s quite extraordinary to go like “This is the moment of something where we don’t know where we’re going to go.” But it’s very pure.
CS: What’s the experience of making a movie like this as an actor? You make a lot of Hollywood movies where you go in, you probably have to wait while they set up lights and you do a couple of scenes, but what about a movie like this where you’re dealing with very different elements and you have to hold it together?
Hinds: Yeah, you focus, but when you rest, you keep reading around it and you keep looking at it, and it’s just even as simplistically as saying, “I follow that” and there’s a reason why that is there, to find out the reason and to be open enough to when we come to shoot it, to know to remain as open as possible, so that you could really connect with the people you’re talking to, but from a state of mind that is part of me but also slightly somewhere else. It’s complicated and very hard to define actually how you approach it, because I’m not going to go around for five weeks ashen and leaden with this stuff, because by the time you come to watch something, there might not be anything left, you’d just be a shell, but you need to know when to use more energy, the level of energy, and then you don’t actually scale it but you design it and use it there. It’s trying to be open and see what happens between the actors or what Conor sees. Then try to create it at the time that you’re doing it.
CS: It’s so subtle and it takes a good filmmaker to catch those subtleties on film. Seeing it a second time you realize that there’s a lot going on there…
Hinds: Without it actually being demonstrated or thrown at you. You’ve been allowed in to see it but that’s great filmmaking, at least for my taste.
CS: I also want to talk about the setting. Was the original story also set in this place, in Cobh, or was that a place you found and thought the story would match it well?
McPherson: Yeah, it was originally set in a seaside town, the original story, set in a town called Wexford, but when our location scout went out, he took photographs of lots of seaside towns. We really needed something that had a gothic atmosphere and Cobh, because it’s such an old town had a lot of period architecture, just allowed for that atmosphere. You want in a sense to give people the feeling of a genre rather than a very flat non-descript place. I wanted it to sort of be imbued with a feeling of “ooo…” history and ghosts and all of that and have fun with that, too. So that was why we picked there, but also, just visually, just to frame a film, you need depth, you need scale, you need rooms that are big enough to film in and look like something. I didn’t want Michael to be living…
Hinds: In a little old terraced house… you have to allow the outside in. You show the cathedral, it’s up in the hill, and then you also show the expanse of the sky for example.
CS: You talk about the architecture and the ghosts but then you have this literary festival going on, and people are so buys hobnobbing with authors…
Hinds: It’s the big social event of the year!
CS: Yeah, exactly.
Hinds: And then between that, there’s just this man going around, just driving people from one place to another.
McPherson: Of course, and if he turns to someone and says, “Listen, I’m having these mad experiences,” they’d probably…
Hinds: “Not now for God’s sake!”
CS: I was impressed with how you seemed to make it rain on cue in one scene when they were in the graveyard. Was that just movie magic? ‘Cause I can’t imagine that you had rain machines and all that.
McPherson: We did, yeah…
CS: It looked really realistic, though.
Hinds: Oh, it did, didn’t it?
McPherson: Yeah, well the guys we had doing it did a really good job.
CS: They did, because when I watched it I wondered “How did he just make it rain on cue in the middle of that take?”
Hinds: He said, “Give me the works.”
McPherson: We had great special FX guys for this movie. They’re Irish and they’re very experienced and they really brought a lot to it.
CS: And they know their rain.
McPherson: They sure do… and they love doing the rain.
Hinds: Do you know the shot where they did the wet-down for the night scene when he goes to pick her up?
McPherson: So the lights reflect on the ground, all of that, they’re very experienced guys.
CS: So what’s next for you guys? Do you have anything else you’d like to try to do together?
Hinds: Well, I’d love to say I’m writing a script that I’d love Conor to star in but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.
CS: Oh, okay, but you will eventually then.
McPherson: Oh, I’d love to do something again. I think for me, when you direct things as well as write, you swing like a pendulum from the lonely writing on your own in a room, which is kind of alienating and worrying and all that, then when you finally get to the point where you’re going to bring something to production, you’re with loads of people and it’s crazy and you’re trying to manage your resources, manage your time, and it’s all of that. You swing between these two very extreme states, really, so I’ve been doing a lot of directing for the last year or two now, so I’m just sort of swinging back to the lonely sort of, “Okay, I gotta come up with some ideas.” That’s where we’re at now. It’s like I say, sometimes it feels like you’re back at the bottom of the mountain and you’re going, “Oh my God, how are we going to get back up there again?” That’s where it’s at, that’s it, so we have to figure it out. But absolutely, if Ciaran would have me, we’ll do something again.
CS: I know you’ve been doing a couple big movies with “Harry Potter” and “John Carter of Mars”…
Hinds: I love doing small independent movies, but I’m just going to do BIG BIG… No, you don’t know where the die is cast.
CS: How’s the “Harry Potter” experience been? That’s a machine that’s been going on for 10 years and you’re just coming in now towards the end.
Hinds: Yeah, I know, it’s strange. They made me very welcome, but I was just there for a specific part that required just one scene and just pop up once with a blonde, but apart from that, it’s just one scene with a little dialogue to give a bit of exposition about Dumbledore’s past life. I had the joy of sharing the scene with three… they’re not kids anymore… Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. They’re very charming, very gracious, made you feel very welcome, and you’re aware that here I am a certain age with all my experience and these kids really know what they’re doing. They know their characters, they know who they are, and here am I saying, “Who the hell am I? Apart from Michael Gambon’s brother…” and how do you get to that state? ‘Cause he’s such a wizard. But no, it’s a lovely experience and David Yates, the director, is a very soft Yorkshire man, he’s not one of these guys, “Come on, come on!” He’s very considerate and thought about. I saw him working very wonderfully with Daniel and Emma, just giving them little pointers, never pushing, just suggesting about development.
McPherson: But those kids, at this stage, it’s like they’ve actually gone to Hogwart’s, haven’t they? They’ve been longer there than they have been in school.
CS: I spoke to Chris Columbus, who did the first couple movies, a few weeks ago, and we talked about how they’ve grown as actors just making these movies, which is pretty amazing. I’ve spoken to a few other actors like Bill Nighy about coming into that well-oiled machine and the force of these three young kids.
Hinds: You really have to say that they’re confident, they know who they are, they know what they’re doing, and we’re still going, “Is this alright?” It’s nice to never quite be sure… there’s still work to be done.
McPherson: I think being cast in the “Harry Potter” films is almost like the imprimatur of the actors now: “You’re now a great actor.”
Hinds: I guarantee those ones that said “Thank you but no thank you” which there must be a few …
CS: Not so much anymore… maybe on the first few movies. Have you been working fairly steadily on “John Carter of Mars” otherwise?
Hinds: No, I’m coming and going. When we finish this, I’m back for about seven or eight days for a big denouement scene where everybody is required, and it’s a heck of a story to make, enormous.
CS: I was supposed to get over to the sets but couldn’t make it.
Hinds: To Longcross, to the studios? Ahh… well, come in two weeks, we’ll be there.
CS: I don’t think it’s up to me, that’s up to Disney.
Hinds: Oh… Well, it’s great. I also get to work with Andrew Stanton who did “Finding Nemo” and “WALLE” ’cause whatever you’re doing, you see his stories smack of feeling without being sentimental, they smack of distress, help, search, find, resolve… whether it’s a robot or a goldfish or a clown fish. Somewhere in that, it just touches you in some way.
CS: Do you ever see yourself getting into that world? Where someone might like the way you made “The Eclipse” and ask you to direct some script they’ve optioned?
Hinds: (making a suggestion) “Terminator 5″
McPherson: Like a big studio movie?
CS: Not even a big studio movie but if someone sends you a script that you hadn’t written and asked you to direct it or do you feel that you would only direct something you’ve written?
McPherson: I suppose… I dunno.. Never say never. I think probably I’m much more comfortable doing something that’s very small, because you kind of have total freedom. Because even if someone says, “We need to reshoot that,” well, we can’t because we have no money. Whereas with a studio… I know directors who have worked on movies for studios where they made them reshoot the ending three different times in three different ways. Keep coming back, do test screenings, and then say, “We need a different ending.” Then they go off for a week and shoot a new ending. To me, I would probably panic at that. I’d be like, “What am I doing? What am I doing?” So as I say, never say never, who knows? After the Oscars next year maybe… (laughter)
CS: I’m sure you were asked about this at Tribeca last year, but your performance in this is just terrific, Ciaran, and you won a well-deserved award for the role. To get nominated for awards, you usually have to go through an entire string of press tours and such. Would you be up for that sort of thing when the time comes?
Hinds: I have to say it was a surprise to us. The joy of making a small film and working together is that you forget, “Will anybody see it?” You commit to the work and then the idea is that you share it with people. I remember when it was at Tribeca, somebody’s seen it and there’s a value for it, and then I got this call, I was working on “Harry Potter,” I was in a hotel room somewhere in Watsford, and I got this bizarre message that I’d been awarded the Best Actor prize at Tribeca for a narrative story. It didn’t completely make sense. It’s a different time, but no, all that stuff is never really… of course, it’s satisfying in an ego way that someone recognizes your work and it’s lovely to see it, but it’s all part of the work that we do. And there is no accounting for taste. (chuckles)
McPherson: When you’re working on a small movie, at first you’re like “Are we going to get it made?” And then you get it made and then it’s like “Is anybody going to see it?” Then someone sees it and then…
Hinds: Will they like it?
McPherson: Will we get distribution? At every point, there’s a hurdle at which the whole thing can just collapse, whereas with this, we were just in a very fortunate position in that we’re still thinking that people may see it.
Hinds: And people we’ve just met are talking about it like they’re genuinely engaged by it.
McPherson: Yeah, yeah, so fingers crossed.
The Eclipse opens in select cities on Friday.