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Nothing But The Same Old Story?
13 Jan 2000 :
Hollywood has a habit of making the same film again and again, and now Ireland's caught the bug too. As Thaddeus O'Sullivan offers up the third Martin Cahill-inspired biopic of the last 12 months, Paul Byrne met the man behind the name.

It hardly seems like the smartest move for a filmmaker.

You're given the option on a best-selling biography of Dublin's most notorious criminal, you chew it over with your writer and decide that fiction would be better than fact. Then another filmmaker with a much higher profile than yours snaps up the book and starts shooting the film you rejected, long before you've even finished putting yours to paper. You nonetheless plough on.

Which just leaves the question why?

"Well, I felt I had something different to say," offers Irish director Thaddeus O'Sullivan. "We were well aware of the fact that this story was being told elsewhere, but the simple fact is, we knew our story was going to be our story. And it was going to be a very different story."

Er, as it turns out, O'Sullivan's new film, Ordinary Decent Criminal, isn't all that different to John Boorman's The General, released last year. Whereas Boorman's outing stayed very much true to its source Paul Williams' best-selling account of the life and crimes of the late Martin Cahill O'Sullivan and his writer, Gerry Stembridge, wanted the freedom to exaggerate, to "bend and shape" their version of events. Nonetheless, there's no denying that the plot largely remains the same.

"We certainly didn't stray all that far from Cahill's story, but we wanted room to move," offers O'Sullivan. "And by making our central character a fictional one, we could play around with the truth and get closer to a different truth really."

Of course, having one of the world's finest actors on board to play the leading role certainly helps to keep your project and your spirits afloat when there's two similar projects biting at your heels (another Cahill biopic, Vicious Circle, appeared recently on RTE). When Boorman's film debuted at Cannes in 1999, O'Sullivan was satisfied that he was making a film that would stand apart from The General. And that's pretty much all his leading actor, Kevin Spacey, really cared about.

"All Kevin wanted to know was, is The General different enough?" says O'Sullivan. "He didn't care about the political implications of his character, or whether he was sympathetic or not. He just didn't want to make a film that had already been made."

That an American actor should land the lead part in an Irish film about a Dublin criminal, and that the parts of the pair of Dublin sisters that he is romantically involved with should go to an American and a British actress (Linda Fiorentino and Helen Baxendale respectively), is hardly something that's going to impress many in the Irish film industry. O'Sullivan whose previous films include December Bride and Nothing Personal had his reasons though.

"The script had gone to a lot of people," he offers, "and you'd be surprised at how many bankable Irish actors were concerned about doing an unsympathetic Irish part. Now this is not an unsympathetic Irish part, but they didn't know it was going to go that way. Spacey is someone who just wouldn't give a f**k about that, but there are Irish actors out there who would have that attitude. Casting is one of the strangest and sometimes most stressful parts of filmmaking, but we didn't have that problem with this film. I haven't made a film where some of the cast didn't drop out for one reason or another, but it didn't happen here. I was very happy with the casting."

Getting the soundtrack sorted out was a different matter though. Wanting a "modern score", O'Sullivan first tried Belfast DJ David Holmes, who'd made quite an impression with his soundtrack to Steven Soderbergh's Out Of Sight. Things didn't quite work according to plan though. Or time schedule.

"Dave would spend four weeks in a New York studio just working on one sound," muses O'Sullivan, "so we just had to part ways. I didn't have that kind of time, or budget."

And so, at the 11th hour, Damon Albarn, Blur's enigmatic frontman, was drafted in. Having already worked on the soundtrack to Antonia Bird's Ravenous alongside classical composer Michael Nyman, Albarn was more than happy to take on the challenge of providing O'Sullivan with a hip and happening soundtrack. Unfortunately, it's probably the only genuinely worthwhile part of Ordinary Decent Criminal.

"I think Ordinary Decent Criminal stands on its own two feet," finishes O'Sullivan before heading off for another grilling. "We made the film that we wanted to make, and now, well, it's really in the lap of the Gods. Or the lap of the cinema seats, should I say. I think Martin Cahill would have liked our film though. And the great thing is, he wouldn't be able to sue us, because it's all fiction. Well, enough to keep our lawyers happy anyway."

Paul Byrne



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