Gavin O’Connor, Pride And Glory
As a director who values realistic characters and emotionally resonant stories above all else, Gavin O’Connor is a young filmmaker who is keeping the values of a bygone Hollywood alive. The son of a cop, O’Connor grew up in New York on a diet of classic studio movies from the 30s and 40s then immersed himself in the great films produced by the New Hollywood auteurs of the 1970s. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, O’Connor returned to New York, where he began writing plays (such as Rumblings of a Romance Renaissance) and the short films The Bet (1992), Ted Demme’s directorial debut, and American Standoff (1994), which he also directed. O’Connor made his first feature, the gritty romance Comfortably Numb, in 1995 but only came to prominence in 1999 when he co-wrote and directed Tumbleweeds, a mother-and-daughter drama which won O’Connor the Filmmaker’s Award at Sundance and earned numerous accolades and nominations for Janet McTeer’s lead performance. It was another five years before he made his next film, Miracle, a Disney movie about the 1980 U.S. hockey team, which once again demonstrated O’Connor’s ability to connect with the emotional core of material and proved he could make a film that was both a financial and critical success.
Pride and Glory, O’Connor’s latest film, conceived with his twin brother Greg and written in tandem with fellow writer-director Joe Carnahan, has been in gestation for almost a decade. A richly textured and highly involving picture, it centers on the Tierneys, a family of New York cops made up of patriarch Francis Sr. (Jon Voight), senior detective Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich), withdrawn missing persons detective Ray (Edward Norton) and his high-flying brother-in-law Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell). Following the brutal slaying of four cops who worked under Jimmy and Francis Jr.’s command, Ray is asked to head up an investigation into their deaths and starts to uncover awkward truths that test his allegiance to both the police force and his own family. Pride and Glory works so beautifully because O’Connor – backed by great performances from his entire cast – manages to make the personal and professional dramas in his characters’ lives equally convincing and compelling, so that the film’s quiet, intimate moments play as powerfully as the grand, almost Shakespearian conflicts between cops, criminals and kin. As well as being a gripping police procedural, the film wrestles with big ideas – family, loyalty, power and honor – and uses the microcosm of the police force to examine their relative roles in a modern American institution.
Filmmaker spoke to O’Connor about growing up in a policeman’s family, his personal approach to filmmaking, and drinking raw eggs after seeing Rocky.
Filmmaker: You’re from a family of cops. What was it like growing up in that environment?
O’Connor: My dad was an unorthodox cop in the sense that if you ask him what he’s most proud of, he would tell you that he never had to shoot somebody. He had the same partner for 10 or 11 years, another Irishman, Frank Keating, and they were sort of the oddball cops. My father would be in the squad car in the back seat playing his guitar, and Frank would read [James] Joyce, and he was obsessed with Thomas Jefferson. These were not your typical cops. I remember when we were little kids, Frank Keating, my father’s partner, gave me a copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Beyond that, there was a lot of cops around that my dad was friends with, so I heard a lot of stories around the dinner table. There was a certain spirit to these guys, even the guys who were hardcore, old-fashioned New York City cops. It was my world, so I absorbed it like any kid would the world his dad lives in.
Filmmaker: How much of the darker and more corrupt side of things did you see?
O’Connor: I’d go to visit my dad as a kid and see crazy stuff, crazy things. It was shocking as a young boy to see some old woman who got taken into the precinct who’d just got raped or mugged. Stuff like that got printed on my brain. My dad was a cop in the 60s and the 70s and so there was a bit of a code among cops and criminals, but [New York City] was still a very violent and very corrupt place. There were certain accepted norms within the department that my dad was very uncomfortable with. His first day on the job, he was supposed to be a bag man. The sergeant said, “Go to this address and pick up an envelope.” That was what he was told to do, and that was what he did. He would have lunch with the sergeant and they would finish and he would just get up, and my dad was like, “Well, don’t we have to pay the cheque?” “No, no, no, we don’t pay the cheque here.” Growing up, if I ever mentioned wanting to be a cop, my father reprimanded me because that was not going to be in my future.
Filmmaker: If your father didn’t want you to be a cop, how did he feel about you making a movie about cops?
O’Connor: When my father read the script, he did not like it at all. I tried to explain to him that what the essence of the movie is to me is the celebration of an honest cop and I have to deal with the negative side of that, he’s got to come out of something. I don’t think he ever got it until he saw the film. I screened a rough cut here in New York and I invited my dad, and he responded very positively. The one thing he said to me that was funny was “Am I the Voight character?” I said, “A little bit, Pop.” [laughs]
Filmmaker: How did the idea for the film evolve?
O’Connor: When you grow up in New York, you always hear that cops bleed blue. So you take the department that bleeds blue and then you take a family of cops – a blood family – that bleed red and those two worlds collide – what would happen? That was literally what started swirling in my head and I thought, “That’s an interesting idea for a film.” Then there were things going on in the world, and as the script evolved things started getting informed about institutional corruption, whether it’s this administration, Abu Ghraib, corporate corruption, all these scandals that were going on. I thought, “The institution that I know and am already exploring is the police department and that’s as impenetrable as an institution is.” I thought I could explore these other ideas that had affected me that had gone on in the world that I’m curious about and take those ideas and put them in the blender with this other stuff going on in the department.
Filmmaker: One thing that links all your three movies, which all are very different, is the clear emotional connection you have with the material and how you really bring the stories and characters very vividly to life.
O’Connor: Well, with Miracle, what I said to them was, “The movie’s about a man who puts his family on a shelf and chases a dream.” And I did that with my wife and child. It was painful to do, but it was a weird thing, I did it for the movie because it became personal for me. I also said, “It’s about a mad scientist and these kids are his lab experiment.” That’s what I felt like. I felt like, “I’m a retard, I can’t believe the studio’s giving me 40 million fucking dollars – that’s crazy! But they’re doing it, so OK!” I was grateful, and I became Herb [the team coach] to these kids, the actors in the movie. It was weird, I was very tough on them and it became very like life imitating art and art imitating life. That’s the only way to make movies. I don’t know how to do it without making it personal, somehow get my fingerprints fuckin’ buried in the movie. I don’t know how to do it any other way. I find a personal doorway into the movie and then make it personal, personal, personal.
Filmmaker: I can really see your theatrical background manifesting itself in Pride and Glory with the dramatic intensity you achieve in the film.
O’Connor: I believe you make the movie before you make the movie, so I sat down with almost every actor, from Edward on down. I had a six-week workshop just for me and my actors, and as more actors were cast I’d bring them into the workshop. It wasn’t like we were reading the script, we did deep biographical work, connecting the emotional lines between all the characters. [A certain] number of hours a day they’d be out on the streets with cops and would come back and report to me, and that would inform the script. I looked at the script as a starting point and as my actors were getting information and bringing it back to me, we were sitting around carving this thing up like a play. We all just sat in my apartment every day and got into it, and we were there 12 hours sometimes. That’s what we did, and you can feel it in the film. People can like the film or not like the film, but the thing I’m most proud of is just the honesty of it. We were going for the truth at all times and that came out of the [preparation] process. We do a lot of improvs and all the actors loved it. There were no egos, no star bullshit with their trailers and food and they have to have their alfalfa sprouts and Evian. None of it.
Filmmaker: The film very intelligently and coherently deals with some very big ideas like family, loyalty, power, ambition and honor without being reductive or simplistic in any way.
O’Connor: We confront those themes aggressively, and it was born out of writing it. It wasn’t an intentional thing of “I want to deal with these themes,” it was just whatever is going on inside you when you’re writing something is something you want to get out of there. There’s a Greek tragedy quality to the movie and there’s an operatic quality. When I was sitting down with my cinematographer, Declan Quinn, I was explaining to him the look of the movie and I kept saying, “There’s an operatic quality to the film but there’s also a very fly on the wall intimacy in the film and we have to strike that balance because I don’t want it to feel like a movie. My goal is to pull the audience inside so that they’re experiencing the movie rather than sitting there watching it.”
Filmmaker: I think the film also gains a huge amounts from having characters like Abby, Francis Jr.’s wife who’s dying from cancer, and Tasha, Ray’s estranged wife, as they add greatly to the emotional complexity and texture of the movie in a way that’s very rare for a film like this.
O’Connor: I had more in the movie with those characters and unfortunately [I had to cut scenes]. We went deeper into those relationships, but it’s weird when you put a movie together: the movie’s bigger than us and it starts to tell you what it wants to be. When the movie started speaking to my editor and me, I felt “This just feels extraneous,” and as the story’s unfolding colliding and everything’s just elevating, that stuff just kind of slowed everything down. Those are the hardest decisions you make, because you go, “OK, I love this scene – but what’s best for the movie?” It’s like Fitzgerald says, you gotta kill your darlings, and there were a lot of darlings that got chopped up.
Filmmaker: Did you get cooperation from the NYPD for the movie?
O’Connor: I was so scared to give the cops the script for obvious reasons. I thought they’d be like, “Fuck this guy, he’s out to tar and feather us!” It started with this guy Rick Tirelli, who was my technical advisor, and I said, “Look, this is what my movie’s really about and I don’t want the cops to think it’s a smear campaign.” We brought in a lot of cops, and they all got what we were doing and it went all the way up the chain of command, and we got really high up. They believed in what we were doing, and when I screened a cut for them they fuckin’ dug it. They got it. They gave me the stamp of approval, and you know you’re getting the truth when they call and email you later, when they go the extra mile. No one needs to do that unless they’re really enthusiastic.
Filmmaker: The film’s depth and complexity seems to hark back to 1970s Hollywood filmmaking. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
O’Connor: I grew up on films of the 70s, that was my nourishment. When it got to the 80s, there were some good movies but I just kept going back to the 70s. The 70s movies just spoke to me in a way that was alive. I’m not intentionally doing anything but that’s just what’s inside of me. I just love those movies, I love them. They’re the greatest, the best decade of films ever, I don’t care what anyone says. There’s nothing better.
Filmmaker: Which phrase best describes your philosophy on life?
O’Connor: [laughs] I have many philosophies, but I’m going to tell you the first thing that just popped into my head which is “Hope for the best, expect the worst.”
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
O’Connor: Never. I’ve wanted to make movies since I was a little kid. I don’t look down my nose at anybody’s job, but I’ve never, ever questioned what I wanted to do, so I’m living my dream.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was the first film you ever saw?
O’Connor: I don’t know what the first film was, but there were three movies that I can point to that [made a big impression]. When I was seven years old, I begged my father to let me see The French Connection. Rated R, not a seven-year-old’s film, but my dad took me. That made had an indelible fuckin’ impression, like a punch to the gut. I walked out and I was like, “Fuck! Whatever just happened – ‘Pick your feet in Poughkeepsie’ and all that shit – [I love it]. I don’t know what that was, but I wanna do that!” Another movie, that I was allowed to see this time, was The Sting. I loved that movie as a little kid, loved it. And another movie that was a big influence on me as a kid was the first Rocky. When I saw that movie, I came home and did fuckin’ one-handed push-ups, I was drinking fuckin’ raw eggs. Really, I was. I wanted to run down the street and for the kids to chase me. I saw that movie recently and it holds up. It’s a little movie, but the specifics of that film, the characters, it’s fuckin’ great. Great.