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Bringing It All Back Home
10 Aug 2000 :
It’s a long way from carrying Tom Cruise’s suitcases to trying to beat him at the box-office, and Patrick Clarke knows he’s still got some way to go yet. Paul Byrne talks to the young Irish filmmaker about the long and winding road that led to his debut feature, Beyond The Pale.

Taking heed of the old adage, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’, it took Patrick Clarke almost ten years of walk-on parts, cheesy TV commercials and endless rejections to realise there was probably only one way he was ever going to get the lead part in a full-length feature film. He was going to have to make the film himself.

“Which sounds pretty desperate,” smiles the Dublin-born Clarke, “but it was really the next logical step. And once we wrapped that first day of shooting, I knew I had made the right decision.” Not that Clarke’s debut offering, Beyond The Pale, is about to break any box-office records. Having gained a three-day run at the IFC earlier this month (with a return visit planned later in the year), Clarke knows that small independent films rarely turn a big profit. For every Blair Witch Project or Full Monty, there are a thousand and one low-budget films that flop miserably at the box-office. And quite a large percentage of them come out of Ireland.

“I think it is that little bit more difficult for the Irish filmmaker to break through, because we don’t have a reputation to live up to, so to speak,” offers Clarke. “When you look at our closest neighbour, England, they’ve had enormous success with films like The Full Monty, Four Weddings & A Funeral and even Mr. Bean and Notting Hill. In Ireland, we’re still getting our foot in the door, internationally. Movies like I Went Down help, but we’re still got some way to go before people start going to a film purely because it's Irish.”

Indeed, in Ireland, people have had their fingers burnt and their patience stretched a few too many times to consider taking a chance on a home-grown feature too readily. But that’s got less to do with poor marketing than it does with the fact that many Irish-produced films are, well, crap. Think Crushproof, think Run Of The Country, think Sweety Barrett, Ordinary Decent Criminal, Moondance, An Awfully Big Adventure, Frankie Starlight, Undercurrent, The Disappearance Of Finbar, Snakes And Ladders, The Sun, The Moon And The Stars, This Is The Sea, The Van, Agnes Browne, The Book That Wrote Itself, and a host of others too scary to mention here. There may be children reading this, after all.

“Yeah, there have been quite a few turkeys coming out of Ireland in the last ten years or so,” smiles Clarke. “I’ve been based in New York for years now, and you still get to hear what’s happening and what’s not in the Irish film industry. It’s definitely getting better, but for quite some time, not much had been happening.”

For most of the eighties and nineties, not much was happening for Patrick Clarke either. Having moved from his native Dublin to New York, his desire to become an actor unsurprisingly led him to Los Angeles. Having lived in New York for 11 years, Clarke moved back to Dublin first though to try and catch the film boom of the mid-‘90s.

“It was just at the beginning of this craze, where Ireland became the place to make films,” he muses. “Braveheart was riding high, and there was a real buzz in the air about working here. But all I got was some voice-over work on Michael Collins, and some TV commercials. It was hardly enough to keep food on the table, never mind launch my career as an actor.”

And so, when his friend, Eric Mabius, called from LA with news that he’d just starred in a hit movie – Todd Solondz’s Sundance winner Welcome To The Dollhouse – Clarke was more than happy to take up his buddy’s invitation to join him there.

“There was this sense that Eric was now on his way to fame and fortune, and he was willing to bring me along for the ride, make a few contacts, and maybe get a few lucky breaks. But things didn’t work out quite as planned.”

Instead, Mabius’s career floundered, and Clarke went to work in the exclusive Beverly Hills Hotel. If he wasn’t meeting Hollywood stars on film sets, at least now he was meeting them as he carried their bags to their rooms.

“And after a while, the fact that I wasn’t successful as an actor was kind of being rubbed in my face,” states Clarke. “I was just carrying these people’s bags to their rooms, and I felt that that was as close to fame and fortune as I was going to get. It was great fun, for a while – you know, carrying Tom Cruise’s bags to his $3,000-a-night suite – but then you see the wheels in motion, the power lunches, the meetings, and you feel so removed from all that. Everyone in LA gets up at 6am to read the trade papers before they go to work, and that means they all go to bed really early too. The whole town really revolves around showbusiness, and I was there as a spectator, pure and simple. So I just had to get out and put my feet back on the ground again.”

And it was back in New York, where he’d worked for six years as an illegal alien, that Clarke got the inspiration to make his own movie. Sitting down one night to watch Kevin Smith’s low-budget debut hit Clerks, Clarke had something approaching an epiphany.

“I thought, hey, if this guy can make his film for thirty thousand dollars, and it’s a hit, why don’t I just go out and make my own film for that too,” he says. “It just seemed to dawn on me; why not make my own movie rather than wait for someone else to offer me one?” Changing Mrs Molloy’s name to Mooney at her own subtle request (“she didn’t say it outright, but I knew she didn’t really want to be in the movie”), Clarke otherwise stayed pretty much true to his early years in New York. The resulting film, Beyond The Pale (co-written and directed by friend George Bazala), is a pleasing if slightly Oirish rites-of-passage tale, with the inevitable sexy colleen thrown in. The fact that said colleen is played by Beverly Elder - Clarke’s real-life girlfriend - sometimes resembles a young Terry Keane doesn’t exactly infuse the viewer with a warm tingly feeling whenever she’s on-screen. Chances are anyway, viewers are going to have their eyes firmly fixed on another supporting player, Malachy McCourt, cast as the amiable old drunk, Mr. Finnegan.

“I actually portrayed Mr. Finnegan an awful lot sweeter in this film than he is in real life,” states Clarke. “I lived in that house for two years, and I can’t remember the amount of times we had to rescue Mr. Finnegan from a bar, or try and stop him inviting strangers – dangerous looking strangers – back to his room for a drink. I remember coming home one night to find him being shaved by this guy with an open razor, a guy Tom introduced as one of his friends. The next morning, all my money was gone, my stereo was gone, and Tom had no recollection of who the guy might have been.”

Looking like a cross between his brother Frank and The Michelin Man, Malachy McCourt was a figure Clarke had long been aware of before he approached him with the idea of acting in his film. “Malachy has always been something of a legend in New York’s Irish-American community,” offers Clarke, “but he wasn’t an item back when I cast him. Angela’s Ashes had yet to hit the shops, but Malachy was already infamous if not actually famous. He was on the Jack Parr Show - which was the original Tonight Show - and he’d come on drunk, and cause a sensation. From Tom and Mrs Molloy, all I heard was stories about Malachy and a few others, like Adrian Flanelly. And I saw a picture of Malachy one day, and I said to Tom, ‘God, you’re separated at birth’. They’re the spitting image of each other.”

With an eventual budget of “about $375,000”, Clarke breaks down the cost as a hundred thousand to shoot his movie, and then, besides travel and publicity, the rest on post-production. So where exactly did a young Irish hustler living in New York come up with that kind of money? “Well, the way I attacked it was that there was a lot of Irish theatre going on in New York,” answers Clarke, “and there was a lot of support, financial support, there too. So I felt that if a filmmaker went to these same people and said, ‘Look, I want to take this to the next level and make a film; will you back me?’, I thought that would work. But I soon realised that this was not the avenue to pursue, because these people don’t like parting with their money at all. Irish people just don’t like parting with their money that way. As it turned out, most of the money came from the Jewish community in New York. The Italian-American section…

”You got money from the mob?

“I wish. That way, the theatres around America would have to take the movie. But I soon discovered that rich people have gotten where they are by investing in bright ideas, and when they saw me come along with my own bright idea, they said to me, ‘You know what, I’m going to help you out here, but don’t give me any bullshit about being an investor or seeing any money back. Just take this and don’t come back again until you’ve made the film’. I think they will eventually make their money back, once it’s been through video, and TV and cable. I don’t think anyone’s going to get hurt.”

But no one’s likely to get rich either. The only real winner will probably be Clarke himself, and anyone else who gets their name on the poster. Neither a disaster nor a gem, Beyond The Pale's most significant achievement will be as an important stepping stone for those involved.

“It’s definitely made a difference to my career,” finishes Clarke. “And now I have a second script, The Lughill Boys, already in motion. So it is a good move for any young Irish filmmaker to make. The trick is making a film that you’re proud of.”

And that millions of people will actually want to get up off their asses and go see.

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