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John Crowley, Is Anybody There?

MICHAEL CAINE AND BILL MILNER IN DIRECTOR JOHN CROWLEY’S IS ANYBODY THERE? COURTESY STORY ISLAND ENTERTAINMENT.

Along with Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, John Crowley is part of a recent wave of Irish theater influx into film. Born in 1969, Crowley is a philosophy graduate from the University of Cork in Ireland who first became involved in theater as a student, seeing it as a way to get into directing film. He began directing plays in Dublin in the early 90s and was successful enough that already in 1996 he was working in London’s West End. After a few years, he was asked to become an associate director at the prestigious Donmar Warehouse by Sam Mendes, then the theater’s artistic director. In 2000, he directed Come and Go as part of the “Beckett on Film” series and made his feature debut with the boisterous Dublin-set comedy drama Intermission (2003), starring Colin Farrel, Cillian Murphy and Kelly McDonald, based on a screenplay by playwright Mark O’Rowe. In 2007, he reteamed with O’Rowe for the somber BAFTA-winning drama Boy A, about a young man’s return to civilian life after incarceration for a brutal childhood killing, which was made for British television but was released theatrically in the U.S. last year. Additionally, Crowley helmed the hugely successful London and Broadway runs of Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman in 2003 and 2005 (for which he was Tony nominated), directed Neve Campbell and Cillian Murphy in the West End production of Love Song in 2006-7, and in 2007 filmed a television version of Harold Pinter’s Celebration starring Stephen Rea, Michael Gambon and Colin Firth.

In many ways, Crowley’s latest film, Is Anybody There? is a companion piece to Boy A, in that it is another portrait of a childhood overshadowed by death. Edward (Son of Rambow‘s Bill Milner), our young, slightly awkward, death-obsessed hero, is a 10-year-old boy whose home, much to his chagrin, has been turned into a nursing home by his parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrisey). Though he shuns the company of the doddery old fogies who have taken over the house (he’s more interested in trying to locate the ghosts of the recently departed residents), he slowly establishes a relationship with the newest arrival, Clarence (Michael Caine), a grumpy ex-magician. Crowley has elsewhere acknowledged the influence of Hal Ashby, and certainly here there are echoes of that director’s Harold and Maude, a film about another young-old partnership which tackles the subject of death with a similar charm and lightness of touch. Is Anybody There? is old-fashioned in spirit, telling us to embrace life and not fear death, and much of its success lies in the partnership of Caine and Millner, while a chorus of wonderful elderly British character actors, such as Leslie Phillips, Sylvia Sims and Peter Vaughn, provide great value as the supporting cast.

Filmmaker spoke to Crowley about the diversity of his directorial projects, the challenges of working with such an aged cast, and the moment it all clicked for him.

DIRECTOR JOHN CROWLEY WITH MICHAEL CAINE ON THE SET OF IS ANYBODY THERE? COURTESY STORY ISLAND ENTERTAINMENT.

Filmmaker: I wanted to start off by asking how you choose your film projects.

Crowley: I guess I don’t want to make the same film twice so I tend to get drawn to material which, quite naturally, is different to anything I’ve done before. I’m drawn to strong character material and to stuff which is usually quite dark but which you can work towards the darkness through humor. I tend not to want to make films which refer to other films and am more comfortable with films that hover uneasily between a couple of genres. But, other than that, it’s as intuitive as reading something and getting excited about it and thinking, “Yeah, I wanna make this.”

Filmmaker: Was it like that with this film?

Crowley: When I read the treatment for Is Anybody There?, I had that reaction – I knew I was going to make it as a film, and I’ve never had that from a treatment. It chimed very strongly with something I was looking for post-Intermission which was a film through the eyes of a child protagonist, where the world looks slightly topsy-turvy. I was thinking of films like My Life as a Dog and sections of Together, and this felt like it was in that territory, a rather gentle story whose primary interest was not so much the story itself but the emotional depths one would get to within the story and the relationship rather than the freshness of story. I hadn’t seen any films set in a retirement home, probably for obvious reasons, that people tend to shy away from old age on film, it tends not to be something they get excited about. But I quite liked the idea of the casting possibilities and bringing a great ensemble together, and I just felt like exploring the idea of aging and dying through the eyes of a child was quite interesting.

Filmmaker: There’s a real stylistic diversity in your work, and all three features are incredibly different from each other. What are the challenges – and also the upsides – of doing such radically varied films?

Crowley: I guess it means that you’re now branding yourself imaginatively, you’re not trying to do a “John Crowley film” in any way, and I don’t take that credit in films either. I come from the theater and I love working with writers and at the moment the films I’m interested in working on are about trying to not make the same film a second time. I realize that that can sometimes feel like you’re reinventing something each time you do it, but also I’m not the same person I was when I made Intermission. It’s somehow about trying to be true to the nature of the material rather than building a body of work or situating yourself in relation to other filmmakers. In terms of how I approach theatrical filmmaking, really it comes from the theater and is about trying to find the nub, the kernel of the script. When you have your “Eureka!” moment, you know totally how you’re going to build an aesthetic for it. Those things come from the essence of the material, and I don’t think what I do is close to what auteurs do. And yet, material always excites me or not, so that will always be the “me-ness” in it, but you add the dots backwards, you can’t add them up forwards. You just get led by instinct.

Filmmaker: Is it a problem for you that you don’t follow the auteur route, and that people do not think of a particular kind of film when they hear your name?

Crowley: Of course. It’s a style of directing that I favor which is that I’m never very interested in work that screams “Look at me!,” I’m always much more interested in the work itself. Oftentimes, films that say “Look at me!” will get more notice than films which are just films, which are what they’re about. There are times when I think I should do something which is more self-consciously stylish, but then I think “Why?” I’ve never done anything to do it for a career move, I’ve always done it because it’s drawn me and interested me and I’ve thought, “I’d be happy making this for a year.” It took a very long time to develop Is Anybody There?, and I decided it was going to be my next film. After Intermission had opened, I was offered a lot of big films and I think back, “I should have been directing more.” Not necessarily the big films, but I don’t think I would spend the same amount of time not actually putting work out, as I did in the lead-up to this. You know that you can hold out for it, that you’re capable of turning stuff down that might be a lot splashier and a lot more lucrative and might get you in s different place on the chessboard – but what do you do then? Then you’re only going to want to do something bigger and better on that level. Trying to figure a way through who you are and what you can infuse your work with is very hard, but much more interesting to me.

Filmmaker: The relationship between Michael Caine and Bill Milner’s characters is central to the film, and so were you able to gauge if there would be a chemistry between them prior to shooting the film?

Crowley: No. What you do is you trust the piece of casting in itself. I knew that Michael wasn’t a tricky customer, in the sense that he’s constantly professional. When we met for lunch, we talked about the script, we talked about films, about everything, and after about an hour he looked at me and went, “We’re going to be alright, aren’t we?” and I went, “Yeah, we are.” I think Michael can turn up and work perfectly well with people he doesn’t get on with and then go home, so I didn’t think that I was trying to cast two very prickly characters. I knew that if we got [the actor playing] Edward right, there wouldn’t be any reason Michael couldn’t work with him because he didn’t feel like that kind of creature. He just needed to trust that we got the best actor for the role and there was no question of that because, very quickly, they started sparking off each other in a way that was very organic.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that you’d never seen a film set in a nursing home before, and I’d imagine there were unique challenges to working with such a predominantly elderly cast.

Crowley: Things moved very slowly in between set-ups. The minibus would arrive on set every morning and disgorge these gorgeous but rather slow-moving actors who would all begin talking at me simultaneously (“Hello, darling, how are you?!”) and that would be the way it was. It was great fun, but yes, there were challenges. The insurance was quite scary, and especially when we were going to stand all of them out on a freezing cold November afternoon and rain on them. We had a sea of people standing by with pneumonia blankets and heaters to leap on them after this one take. I love being around actors and I love being around older actors, and I find their dignity that comes with people who have raised children and grandchildren in one of the most precarious professions in the world is incredible. And that they’re still able to do it. The amount of experience and the stories and the 50s in the theater, I’m a sucker for all that kind of stuff, so it was amazing, it was quite special. They all sort of knew each other – there were a few old spats that hadn’t been sorted for many a year that were solved on that set, so it was good fun.

Filmmaker: You had an incredibly successful run with Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman in between making Intermission and Boy A. How integral is theater directing to your artistic identity at this point?

Crowley: Well, I’m sort of in a luxurious position where if Martin McDonagh comes to you and says, “Here’s a new play, have a look at it,” it’s amazing. Filmmaking excites me beyond belief, and growing my own projects from scratch and developing them with writers is the thing that I want to do. Theater and film complement each other in an odd way: what you do is still directing actors but it’s to very different ends. I do love the filming process – I love the length of it, the fact that meaning gets fundamentally turned on its head and pulled apart and distilled in the editing process. But then you have the preview process in the theater: two of the most thrilling nights of my life were the first previews of The Pillowman in London and here on Broadway. You’ve got an audience who knows nothing about it, and every beat is unfolding for them for the first time. There’s a charge in the air which is incomparable, and that’s written on the wind. If you weren’t there, you weren’t there. There’s no record for it, and that’s quite sad because with film if you get it, if you nail a performance and the camera’s in focus, you’ve got it. I think that I quite like doing the two, but film has more focus for me really.

Filmmaker: I believe you were at the Donmar Warehouse in London under Sam Mendes.

Crowley: Yes, Sam was the one who brought me in there for the first play I directed there, and then he asked me to become an associate director there, which meant basically having a desk there and doing one or two plays a year there. We were quite different and I think that’s what drew him to me, because we had quite different tastes and different styles and aesthetics as directors. When he went to make films, it was amazing that he leapt straight in with American Beauty – and quite inspiring – but he was on a very different path from what I knew would be the truthful one for me to start making films. He’s carried on on that level and it’s just a sort of different approach to doing what you do, but it’s no less true to who each of us are. What was interesting was that in one film he put paid to the notion that theater directors can’t make films, even though you can point at countless examples since the invention of cinema. [laughs] Some directors are more cinematic than others, but it’s not a race, it’s “Is it any good or not? Is it truthful or not?”

Filmmaker: What’s the strangest experience you’ve had during your time in the film industry?

Crowley: The very first thing that I did was a Beckett film, Come and Go, as part of the Beckett on Film series, and it was a one-day. I was terrified because I was the only person on set who hadn’t been on a film set before. It was on a soundstage and at 8 o’clock the actors turned up and were ready to go, and the second I got on the soundstage I felt an eerie calm come over me. I suddenly felt, “Oh, my God, I’ve never felt this relaxed in the theater.” It was weird.

Filmmaker: What was your dream job as a kid?

Crowley: When I was very young, it was a fireman because I wanted to be like my old man. Then, actually, I got interested in films, but in that way that you love films and you don’t quite distinguish that somebody directs them and somebody acts in them, you just want to be in them. Somewhere around 17 or 18, the idea of directing films appealed, but it felt so miles away from anything you could do in Ireland. It was pre-camcorders, and getting your hands on the actual resources to do it felt akin to joining NASA. So I stumbled into the theater that way but, if I’m to be honest, the desire to make films was always there.

Filmmaker: What’s the smartest decision you ever made?

Crowley: I’m still waiting for it to happen, to be honest. [laughs] I can’t look back at one and say, “Oh, that was really smart,” I’ve just sort of stumbled blindly from mistake to mistake and somehow it works out OK in the end. [laughs] It works out, but it never looks that way when I’m pointing forward. It looks like chaos.

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