2010 marks the 20th anniversary of ‘The Field’. In the year of Italia ’90, the launch of the Hubble Space telescope and Nelson Mandela’s release from jail Jim Sheridan helmed the film which was an exploration of the quintessentially Irish cause for dispute – land. Twenty years down the line IFTN spoke with the director about the project; his memories of making it, what he thinks of it now and the effect it has had his career choices since then.
For the unfortunate few who’ve not seen this Irish classic, ‘Bull’ McCabe's family has farmed a field for generations, sacrificing incessantly for the sake of the land. And when the widow who owns the field decides to sell it in a public auction, McCabe is adamant that he owns it. No one in the village will dare bid against him, but an American with deep pockets decides that he needs the field to build a highway.
John B. Keane’s ‘The Field’ was brought to life through both Jim’s adaptation of it into a screenplay and in his role as director. The Dubliner’s involvement with the film did not play out as expected though, as he explains: “Ray McNally wanted to play ‘the Bull’ in a movie, and I wrote the script and he didn’t like it, but then Richard Harris loved it, that’s how that came about.”
Richard Harris (Unforgiven) came on board as ‘the Bull’ alongside a then-unknown Sean Bean (Troy) who took on the role of Bull’s son, Tadgh McCabe and the pair were further joined by actors Frances Tomelty (Cheri), John Hurt (Alien), Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot), Sean McGinley (Man About Dog), Brendan Gleeson (Into the Storm) and Tom Berenger (Inception). Lead actors duly rearranged production started to get underway.
‘The Field’ came straight after the runaway success that was ‘My Left Foot’, a partnership between Jim and producer Noel Pearson (Tara Road). The pair united their respective talents once again for ‘The Field’ but the creative partnership altered greatly with the coinciding executive role Noel had in Dublin’s Abbey theatre. “On ‘My Left Foot’ it was very close,” Jim tells us, “it was Noel’s idea and he was very involved. With ‘The Field’, he was there at the beginning but as we went on he was more involved with running the Abbey but still involved and available to talk about the film.” They haven’t worked together since.
As mentioned above the film is an exploration of all things Irish – especially when displayed starkly against the world of Tom Berenger’s American would-be field owner, Peter. So Irish is the film in fact that Jim feels this held it back from performing well overseas. “I think it’s a good movie,” he starts. “But I think there are difficulties with it, people in America and elsewhere don’t get the concept of farming the land for somebody else. So ‘The Field’ has a hard time in America because of that fact, because it is medieval to them, a foreign concept. There was no real land war in America so they can’t understand.”
Even those au fait with the film’s background and context can find it hard to truly understand the film, Jim has deduced. “The Field is a story about a land war that is under the surface,” he explains, “it’s about Ireland itself, whether we own the country or not. It could be Iran or Spain, a lot of places have that problem. It does appeal but more on an old-fashioned primitive emotion level.”
A question about working with Richard Harris brings an animated, albeit unexpected reaction: “Me and Harris fought nearly every single day!” He recalls, without a moment’s hesitation. ”Over everything; where he stood, the script . . . I will never forget Harris, he was mad to work with.” As if to back up this point a bizarre anecdote follows suit: “One day I was fighting with him because I wanted him to do a retake on the scene in the river and he ran up a hill. People came with coffee and towels, and first the coffee went flying in the air and then the towels went so I ran up the hill after him.” What follows is the description of a cat and mouse game of the two men running around each other in a bid for advantageous height before calling it quits and returning to flat land for the rest of the shoot.
Was Jim put off by these antics? Not a touch. “I would have easily worked with him again, he was wonderful and mad. He was a force of nature - a crazy force of nature - but he was really committed to doing it. The only thing was that he saw his role in the field like a King Lear, a Shakespearean King Lear and I didn’t really want to get locked into an Irish King Lear. My approach was more like “Ah, fuck it, it’s just the Bull.” I don’t want it to be arty.”
Curiosity piqued, I move in a non-‘Field’ direction to talk more about the acting talent Jim has directed – including Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will be Blood), Ellen Barkin (Ocean’s Thirteen), Emma Thompson (Love Actually), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Jake Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia), Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff) and, in his latest feature, ‘Dream House’, Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Rachel Weisz (The Lovely Bones) and Naomi Watts (Mulholland Dr.) Was anyone difficult to work with? After a pause Samantha Morton, who Jim worked with on the famously autobiographical ‘In America’ is mentioned: “Sam Morton was probably the biggest star in that she was the most, what’s the word for it, I would not say difficult … most personal, most odd,” he says, quick to point out, before adding that “sometimes unknowns are worse. Sometimes you have problems from some small actor which you don’t get from stars. I think the thing with stars and mega egos is that they just want the work to be good in the end. So if you are always fighting them about that it is not really a fight.”
And, despite the glittering variety of international stars he has worked with, it is a home-grown individual who Jim is eager to work with again. “I would still love to do something with Daniel Day-Lewis, if we could find the story. I think me and Daniel were great together.” A beat. “Or maybe I was great with Daniel Day-Lewis.” Asked about the atmosphere on set when working with the Oscar winner, Jim paints an exhaustively passionate picture describing it as one of the most intense relationships he has had.
The theme of intensity raised, I bring up Jim’s film, ‘Brothers’. At an IFTA preview screening of the powerful film, prior to its release in the U.S., Jim had said he was interested to see what the reaction of the American public would be to another film about the war in Iraq. Was it received as expected? “The reaction was really good,” he tells us, “the difficult thing for people to understand is, it’s a movie about Afghanistan and nobody goes to see movies about Afghanistan or Iraq. ‘Hurt Locker’ only brought in $8 million before it was nominated for the Oscars and then it only made $11 million altogether.” In a quite interesting comparison, ‘Brothers’ made approximately $29 million, something Jim brushes off with his ever present dry logic: “You have to put things in perspective. The reason it was more successful in the cinema was the family theme and that there were stars in it.”
A move on to projects he is currently working on acts as a good way for Jim to officially put rumours about certain films to rest once and for all. “Ikiru’ I gave up on about 5 years ago. ‘Emerald City' I have not looked at for 5 years,” he tells me. “Black Mass’ is another one that I don’t think I can do though I think it is a very good script and a very good idea.” The premise of ‘Black Mass’ is an exploration into the very real story behind the disappearance of Whitey Bulger who, to this day, features on the FBI’s list of top ten wanted fugitives. We end our conversation with a question as to Jim’s choice of films – a cursory glance at his filmography (‘Bloody Sunday’, ‘Get Rich or Dir Tryin’ and this recent look into ‘Black Mass’) seems to belie a desire for real-life danger situations when on set. Does filmmaking become more interesting for him if there is a real danger element? Laughter. “Maybe,” he reasons. “I never really felt threatened on set – certain bits of ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’ were odd where we had fellas shooting each other but there were bulletproof vests around the place and there was no real danger.”