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on Mar 24, 2010

Returning to feature-film directing after a six-year absence, Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The Seafarer, Shining City) drew heavy interest at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival when he unveiled The Eclipse, a subtle, emotionally restrained drama of male grief shot through with lightning-flash bursts of supernatural horror. Based on a short story by co-writer Billy Roche, the low-gear genre mash-up might play as a mere curiosity were it not for Best Actor winner Ciarán Hinds, whose solemn turn as a widower with literary aspirations gives the film a quiet center of gravity. And in coarser hands, McPherson’s abrupt tonal shifts could have overwhelmed or cheapened what’s essentially a minor-key story of post-bereavement reckoning.

Michael Farr (Hinds) is a taciturn woodworks teacher and father of two in the city of Cobh, where he volunteers as a driver for an annual literary festival. Among his charges are an attractive London-based author of ghost tales, Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), and egomaniacal American novelist Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), who hopes to rekindle a brief fling he had with Lena on a previous junket, though she’s clearly moved on. Michael and Lena have a soft, easygoing rapport that develops into friendship after they spend a day touring local sites and chatting, though it stops short of romance. Michael’s still mourning his wife, who died years ago, and is additionally burdened with caring for her ailing father-in-law Malachy (Jim Norton), a nursing-home resident who has been appearing to him at night, in increasingly ghoulish and terrifying forms. Whether these apparitions are otherworldly visitations or shocking manifestations of his unresolved guilt and unspoken psychological trauma, The Eclipse makes no attempt to explain. Instead, McPherson lets us follow Michael, a late-night transcriber of eerie personal experience, through these and more mundane encounters with Lena and Nicholas, allowing a whisper of hope to escape for his future peace of mind.

Filmmaker chatted with McPherson about literary adaptation, the allure of supernatural films, and why the creative-writing life can be a lonely enterprise.

The Eclipse opens Friday in New York.

Director Conor McPherson. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Filmmaker: Ireland has a rich tradition of ghost tales. Which ones were you familiar with growing up and how did they feed into your obsession with the supernatural?

McPherson: I heard a lot of those stories growing up. My granddad used to tell me stories about faeries and things like that, like, out in the countryside, and it all would have been real to a generation before him. So yeah, I was fascinated by those whenever I heard them. And Ireland being a very Catholic country as well, it has a superstitious culture. Supernatural reality seems to permeate everyone’s life. When I was a kid I was always interested in ghosts, zombies, vampires. You name it, I was into it.

Filmmaker: In the U.S., that tradition mainly comes to us through the visual medium. Did you tend to seek out horror films as well?

McPherson: For me, a big part of what I [was] into were American movies—George Romero’s films, The Shining, The Exorcist [all] had quite a lot of influence on The Eclipse. I love the way those movies coincide with the golden age of American moviemaking in the ’70s, and I love that they have a real psychological depth and three-dimensional characters, but at the same time, they have this horror element. To me, that’s the perfect combination.

Filmmaker: In the case of The Eclipse, you’ve adapted a story by your friend Billy Roche. What was the main consideration for you in transposing this into a screenplay? And how did Roche take the idea of “Table Manners” becoming a spook tale of sorts?

McPherson: When we were working on it, we were just going to do a straight adaptation, which was set against the backdrop of a literary festival, and it concerned a teacher who’s becoming obsessed with this woman and how his life unravels over the few days of the festival. When my wife read an early draft, she said, “If you have a guy who’s married with kids and he’s lusting after this other woman, women won’t really like him.” It’s different in the story because you can get inside his head and go on his journey. So she said, “If you can get rid of his wife from the story, he might be more sympathetic. So I realized if he was a widower, we’d be more on his side, and perhaps as a film it would bring in a more interesting dynamic. I also realized then that he could be haunted, which would bring a supernatural element into it. Billy was up for it and he’s really pleased with the film.

Filmmaker: I can’t think of another film that creates such a fine balance between drama and horror, although some Spanish-language films, like The Orphanage or The Devil’s Backbone, have tried with some success. Were you concerned that the ghastlier elements might overwhelm Michael’s emotional world?

McPherson: I did worry about it a little bit because my taste in horror can be a little extreme. But what was good about it was that because the audience genuinely gets freaked out and screams, I think they’re really feeling what he feels at that moment. And then when they see, in the following scenes, that he’s not talking to anybody about it, they really experience his strange confusion. It takes us deeper into his journey. And by the time he moves toward a place of more openness in his life by the end of the movie, they’re genuinely relieved. But the funny thing about it, too, is that the people watching The Eclipse are people who probably would never go to a horror film. And suddenly they’re like, “What the fuck am I watching? This is crazy.” So in a sense, they’re like lambs to the slaughter. But I think that’s a lot of fun. A lot of people have commented that they haven’t seen anything just quite like this blend. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: Everything hinges on Ciarán Hinds’s performance. What specifically were you looking for in Michael Farr and why did Hinds fit the bill?

McPherson: First of all, he’s an amazing actor. I wouldn’t be the first director to see that. He’s worked for Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Boorman. Also, he just has that incredible appearance: when the camera is on him, something is always happening. He takes you deep inside a kind of intensity. The camera can sort of read his mind in a way that’s intriguing. Ciarán is actually a very warm, likable, gentle person. That’s the side of him that I know well, and I knew the camera would pick up on that. Although we’re watching him play a character, of course, in another way we’re just watching Ciarán being himself. [Laughs] It’s really sweet, you know?

Filmmaker: On the technical side, I found equally effective the balance between the very plaintive piano score, which helps create an atmosphere of mourning, and then these moments of aural shock that erupt when the apparitions appear. There’s an element of sound design here that sounds almost like a gunshot.

McPherson: Sound and music were hugely important in this film. The music was composed by my wife Fionnuala [Ní Chiosáin], who’s a painter. We play music at home, so it was natural for us to attempt to do the score. I really wanted a choral score. In fact, that scene in The Deer Hunter when De Niro is up in the mountains when he’s haunting – hunting, I said haunting! – this deer, and there’s this choral music. I thought it was so amazing, so cinematic. I thought we could make it work. It was a lot of fun putting that together. We did spend a lot of time getting the sound design right. It’s pretty intricate. You’re right as well that at moments where it’s visually shocking there also needs to be an aural assault, too. It’s loud. I prefer it [that way]. It really freaks out the audience, as much as anything else.

Filmmaker: I think you also found interesting ways to introduce those ghastly figures. The first time that we see the ghost of Michael’s stepfather in the kitchen, for instance, what makes that so eerie to me is partly his behavior: His back is turned to us, he sidesteps twice, and then he darts into the kitchen out of the frame.

McPherson: [Laughs]

Filmmaker: That really wigged me out! Did you try different variations on his behavior?

McPherson: No, it was pretty straightforward. I remember being really shocked during a film called The Sentinel from the ’70s. There’s a bit where the woman moves into an apartment block and she sees this figure who suddenly walks across the room. I suppose I wanted to borrow that moment when you’re looking at something and it suddenly moves. You’re like, oh my God, that’s terrifying! But a really funny thing happened that day with Jim Norton, who’s playing that character. I had him face into the corner and asked him to move his head as though he was talking or something. And then he stepped away. I thought he had rigor mortis or something—he walked quite stiffly. He’s a little bit out of focus and it’s dark, which helps. One of the prop guys said to me, “God, that’s really scary the way that he walks.” And then he said something really weird. He said, “Because that’s what they do!” [Laughs] And I’m like, “That’s what fuckin’ who does?” So I realized in that moment that maybe we’d hit on something quite primal. I was trying to do something fresh. What haven’t I seen before? Well, I’d never seen the ghost of someone who’s still alive. And then with the makeup, when we get a really good look at him, that’s straight out of George Romero.

Filmmaker: On the other side, of course, is the story of a widower. Grief is central here, but it’s also connected to the air of mystery you’ve created. The film resolves the love story in some ways, but doesn’t answer a lot of the questions you’ve raised about the supernatural world you’ve evoked.

McPherson: I don’t really like stories where there’s a ghost haunting the house and they bring in people to figure out why and then they help it “go into the light” or whatever the fuck. I just find that really boring. There’s nothing mysterious about that. For the early apparitions that Michael sees, we’re not sure if they’re a premonition or if they’re manifestations of everything he’s not facing up to. And when he sees the ghost of his wife, is that coming from within him or somewhere else? You want those questions to remain unanswered. I think that allows a movie to stay with people longer.

Filmmaker: Film draws on a different skill set, obviously, than theater. Tell me a little about your learning curve from Saltwater forward.

McPherson: Plays really thrive on dialogue. If people aren’t talking onstage, it really feels like nothing’s happening. And perhaps some of the movies I’ve made before are very dialogue-heavy. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. A lot of classic American movies from the ’40s and ’50s—even Woody Allen’s movies—are fantastic, quite dialogue-heavy. Before The Eclipse, I hadn’t been involved in any films for six or seven years. I just decided to rethink and try to understand how to tell a story in the cinema. I noticed that a lot of directors I really admire—like Roman Polanski or John Huston—don’t cut an awful lot. They’ll shoot a scene in one long take, which I thought was really interesting. I have become so much more interested in the technical and visual aspects of film. So I’ve paid a huge amount of attention to cinematography and also that people don’t have to speak in films. The camera can read their mind in a way that you can’t on stage. And music, of course, allows you enter their thoughts and feelings. It’s a huge luxury working that way. With The Eclipse, I felt more confident to trust cinema as a medium and try to play to its strengths.

Filmmaker: One of my favorite moments in The Eclipse was the fight scene between Nicholas and Michael. And it’s credible because it’s really clumsy and awkward and kind of funny. And it seemed to point directly to your work in theater in terms of staging.

McPherson: Yeah, well, whenever I’ve seen a fight in real life, it’s never like in the movies. It’s usually very messy—people slip and fall and bang into things. It’s kind of horrible. So we discussed that. But it only really works because, as you can see on the screen, the actors totally commit to it. They’re really going for it. There’s no way you can fake that. Iben Hjejle, who plays Lena, broke her toe in the morning when we started. And she continued all day! [Laughs] They really wanted it to be good.

Filmmaker: There have been so many films about authors and playwrights and screenwriters. Sunset Boulevard, Wonder Boys, and Barton Fink all come to mind, as well as Polanski’s latest, The Ghost Writer. In general, what do you find are the most misrepresented aspects of the writing life?

McPherson: In early drafts of our screenplay, Michael was a sort of cliché in the sense that—and you know what I’m going to say—he was an English teacher, which is what [writers] always are in films. There’s always a scene with them standing there reading a poem. I decided to move away from that cliché to make him a woodworks teacher and make him more real. But also we have fun with the writer aspect in that we have two extremes—on one side, Michael meets Lena, who has a lot of integrity. She says she doesn’t have much confidence in her work and doesn’t like to go to festivals. Then you’ve got Nicholas, who’s almost an unfettered, unleashed ego. I remember someone telling me once that when you meet famous people who turn out to be jerks, it’s not that fame and success [has changed them], it’s just that sometimes it can reveal who they really are.

Filmmaker: Even though Michael’s a woodworks teacher, he’s in his garret hammering out ghost stories that he’ll never show anyone. And that’s the reality of the writing life, isn’t it?

McPherson: Yeah, exactly. I think 80 percent of doing anything creative is about self-confidence. You’re in a constant battle with self-hatred and thinking what you’re doing is crap. Is anybody going to like it? And aren’t you a jerk to think anyone would be interested?

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