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Conor McPherson on the Hottest Film at Tribeca

Two weeks ago we recommended The Eclipse, co-written and directed by Ireland’s star playwright Conor McPherson, as one of the best films at the Tribeca Film Festival. Now, the Hollywood Reporter writes that it is the only film attracting significant attention from buyers (in this case, Lionsgate, Magnolia, and Roadside). A subtle drama shot through with moments of startling horror, the film takes place in an Irish town, where the excellent Ciarán Hinds (in an awards-caliber performance) gets entangled with the writer (Iben Hjejle) he ferries about town and her egotistical, best-selling stalker (Aidan Quinn). We spoke to the playwright of Shining City and The Seafarer about festival madness and moving between the stage and screen.

In the film, there’s a very egotistical writer who clashes with a less successful one. Are you drawing on yourself?
If the film has that tension within it, it’s probably my divided self in a way, in the sense that there’s always the part of you that of course wants people to love your work. And another part of you thinks that to even think like that is disgusting! I suppose, as writers, me and [co-writer Billy Roach] were able to mine into our own insecurity, our own stupid hopes, our own very secret desires, and to bring that out. I am embarrassed to say, but it’s the truth.

There are many novels set at literary festivals and retreats, but few films. What did you like about the setting?
It allows a sense of a concentrated time frame — and people do tend to go a little bit funny at literary festivals. Film festivals, I’ve found, are probably the strangest. You get film festivals where people go, and they don’t see any films! They just spend so much time trying to network and party too much. And because of the heightened nature of it, they tend to maybe get themselves into sticky situations, which gives a little bit more potential for drama.

Have you ever run into those situations yourself?
Of course I have! In the past. I am a lot more mature now.

So you won’t be causing trouble in Tribeca?
No, I’ve already booked tickets to see the documentary about CBGB, the movie Stay Cool, About Elly, and the French film with Kevin Kline in it. It’s a far cry from the days of old. I’ll be studiously going around like a nerd.

Ciarán Hinds is wonderful in the film.
The intensity of his presence is amazing. But Ciarán himself is not really like that. He’s actually quite warm, very gentlemanly, a very sweet, kind of lovable person. In the film, even though he’s going through a very dark time, that warmth comes out. Like a lot of great actors, he’s doing a performance but he’s also just himself, and he’s keeping it really simple.

The film mixes naturalistic drama with some abrupt supernatural shocks.
You are trying to create credibility in the characters and make the emotions very real, but then because it’s a supernatural element, you are hoping that it’s not gonna tip it into a kind of “Ah, come on … !” kind of feeling in the audience. It’s great fun to lead the audience down this rather expected road where the music is nice, and it feels like a slow daydream — and then, in that moment we go Bang! “Whoa! Jesus Christ!” The shocks are always layered on top of some other emotion. In the editing process, we were ruthless with it. I cut a lot.

Cutting must be hard for a playwright.
Theater is so much a writer’s medium in the sense that the characters are just constantly fucking talking all the time. They have to, otherwise maybe plays are not that interesting to look at. The power of the cinema is the image.

So, visually, what were you going for?
I was harking back to movies like The Exorcist, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Roman Polanski’s films. Very dark, very sure kind of filmmaking. The camera doesn’t cut an awful lot.

You shot the film in five weeks, with a very small budget.
Normally, if you make a film for anything over $3 million, people want their money back, right? And they are gonna be saying, “Why don’t we cut to a close-up of the girl here?” And you have to — of course you do! Because our budget was much smaller, reshoots and such were simply out of the question, so there was a tremendous freedom. It’s slightly like a Russian roulette, but you do think if you get it right and don’t blow your brains out, hopefully you’ve done something which means something to you. At least it’s imbued with passion.

Your plays are filled with ghosts, too. Why are you so attracted to them?
I suppose it just reflects my sense of the mystery of existence, really. When I am trying to tell a story, I need the beyond to frame the story. I need that sense of total mystery to imbue the story with a sense of wonder. When I was a kid, I suppose, I was always interested in ghosts, vampires, zombies, you name it. I’ve always found those things incredibly absorbing. I think we often feel we are making decisions, but a lot of the time that is probably an illusion in the sense that we are driven by forces which we’re probably not even conscious of.

Conor McPherson on the Hottest Film at Tribeca