Jim Sheridan “exists up in the clouds,” says his daughter, Kirsten. “In order to communicate with him, you have to go up into the clouds yourself.”
AND “IN AMERICA,” the latest effort from the acclaimed Irish filmmaker, proves her right.
It’s an amalgam of both his collaboration with his two older daughters and the constant dialogue in his mind — how autobiography, history and politics mingle in his imagination to create something meaningful and new.
On the surface, “In America” appears simple: a story about an Irish family in New York, coping with the death of their young son and adjusting to their new life. Clearly autobiographical, it ends with a dedication to the memory of Frankie Sheridan. Audiences will assume that Sheridan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kirsten and her sister, Naomi, has channeled the loss of his own son.
But that’s not true. The Dublin-born Sheridan never had a son; Frankie was his brother who died of a brain tumor when he was 10 and Jim was 17. “In America” is as much the story of Sheridan’s parents as it is of his own family’s experiences.
“I think we helped my dad,” Kirsten says of her work on the script with Naomi, “but when he decided to put the Frankie story in, I knew I had to step back. I knew that was the heart and soul of the film, and that’s my dad’s heart and soul.”
Asked whether he expects to be criticized for taking the same sorts of liberties with his own life as he did with Gerry Conlon’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment for “In the Name of the Father,” Sheridan gives a long, convoluted answer.
Applying his parents’ loss to a character based on himself is “a bit like cannibalizing your own life,” Sheridan says, but it’s also “a necessary lie,” one that allows deeper themes to resonate. Because of their history of oppression, Irish people feel compelled to honor the dead, and their inability to let go can lead to violence.
“By saying that the husband and wife can get over the dead child, (this film) is saying we can leave the dead behind,” Sheridan says. “And sometimes we have to leave the dead behind, even when it’s difficult. And we have to say although (hunger striker) Bobby Sands and all those people gave their lives for a united Ireland, that the only way to get there is through nonviolence, so we have to let it go.”
“In America” begins with the family entering the United States from Canada — after encountering skeptical border guards. Once in New York, Johnny (Paddy Considine) hopes to find work as an actor. While he’s technically proficient and a whiz at accents, the death of his son has made him emotionally hollow, and he can’t get a job. Still, Johnny and wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) manage to eke out a living for their daughters, 10-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger) and 6-year-old Ariel (Emma Bolger, Sarah’s younger sister).
With the family living in a tenement, the girls befriend Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), an artist with AIDS and an amalgam of several people Sheridan met when he brought his family to New York in the early 1980s — including an artist who lived in their building and the painter Jean Michel Basquiat.
Again, this is where things get complicated. Mateo is a relic from the early days of the AIDS epidemic (he got HIV from a blood transfusion), yet “In America” is not a period film.
“I didn’t want everybody from the art department running around changing the license plates on cars in New York,” Sheridan says. “So I gave (Christy) a camcorder and shifted it into the ’90s, but I kept the tone of the ’80s, so I made it the recent past, like a mythological past, and that’s a lie, yeah. But it’s better than running around like an idiot getting factual truths, which — who cares?”
PASSION FOR STORIES
Playing fast and loose this way might get a younger filmmaker in trouble, but Sheridan, 54, has earned some leeway. After nearly two decades working in the theater, Sheridan finally got his first screenplay optioned and, even better, persuaded the producers to let him direct.
The movie — 1989’s “My Left Foot,” the extraordinary story of the Irish artist and author Christy Brown — won Academy Awards for Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker. Sheridan was nominated for his screenplay and direction, and from that point on he has worked solely in film.
Next was “The Field,” which garnered Richard Harris an Oscar nomination (”That was a mad experience, me chasing him up and down hills in the west of Ireland, arguing,” Sheridan says) followed by “In the Name of the Father” (1993), which was nominated for seven Oscars. He teamed with Day-Lewis a third time for 1997’s “The Boxer.”
“In America” is only his fifth film as a director (he co-wrote two others).
“I’m not so organized and disciplined and professional that I could be doing something that I don’t have 100 percent belief in,” he says. “To do something that you’re kind of doing for the money, you need really great discipline, and you need perfect professionalism and the ability to be like a surgeon. And I’d be a messy surgeon.”
The making of “In America” was certainly messy, Kirsten Sheridan says. It began more than a decade ago, when he commissioned Kirsten and Naomi, then just teenagers, to write a screenplay about growing up in New York. Kirsten, now 27, and Naomi, now 30, worked separately, compiling autobiographical material that never quite took shape.
Several years later, Sheridan introduced Frankie into the script, and from that point on the work became more fluid.
“When Frankie came in, it made it easier for us to be objective, because it was not our brother,” Kirsten says. “He was kind of writing it as my grandfather and not just himself, and he didn’t have to bow down to reality anymore.”
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