Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jim Sheridan, Feb. 23, 1990


It's the day before the Oscar nominations are to be announced, and director Jim Sheridan is on the phone from Dublin, Ireland, wondering aloud if his film, "My Left Foot," will get a nod or two.

"I think Daniel (Day-Lewis) will be nominated, certainly," Sheridan says in reference to the film's star. "And the film? Maybe, it has a chance." But Sheridan puts the likelihood of himself snapping up a nomination in either the writing or directing slot as "nil."

The next day, of course, "My Left Foot" received five major nominations: for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and in the adapted-screenplay category. Not bad for a movie made by a guy who had never directed a film before.

Sheridan, a 41-year-old Irishman, knew his film was good before Oscar smiled on it; "My Left Foot" had received numerous accolades, including being named the best film of 1989 by the New York Film Critics. One should note, however, that Sheridan is not without extensive experience as a director on the stage. Between 1976 and 1980, he served as the artistic director of the Projects Art Centre in Dublin, and moved to America in 1982 to take a similar position with the New York Irish Arts Centre, where he remained until 1987.

Then Sheridan shifted career gears, as it were, and teamed with a friend, producer Noel Pearson, to develop a film based on the life of Christy Brown, the late Irish author and painter who excelled at his art despite the severe obstacles presented by cerebral palsy.

As the title implies, the only limb Brown could control was his left leg. Therefore, he used his left foot to paint and type. Pearson had served as Brown's agent for years before the artist's death in 1981, and had acquired the film rights to his autobiography, "My Left Foot."

The movie tells the artist's story in a series of flashbacks, which was Sheridan's idea; he co-wrote the screenplay with Shane Connaughton, another Irish playwright. Sheridan said he found the experience of directing in film a great deal more satisfying than his years of experience in theater.

"I had worked with actors an awful lot," Sheridan explained in his Irish brogue. "And it seemed to go well from day one. It seemed very natural, like my natural place to work. It was a lot more pleasant than the theater, because directors don't have that much control on the stage -- not like film, anyway."

During the filming, though, Sheridan did confront situations stage directors don't often have to bother with, such as actors staying "in character" while on the set. Day-Lewis, who had done fine work in films such as "A Room with a View," "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," did just that -- spending each day on the set in a wheelchair, talking like Brown, moving like Brown and generally requiring crew members to feed and take care of him.

Sheridan said he didn't mind the actor's trick, because he viewed it as "proof of Daniel's commitment" to the performance. "He was like an anchor in the sea," Sheridan continued. While Day-Lewis would break character in the evening, "he told me he used to wake up in (a contorted) position -- as if he had cerebral palsy."

Although Brown's work was never popular or well known in America, Sheridan said he was quite famous in his native Ireland and throughout much of Europe. And the late artist's relative anonymity on these shores certainly hasn't hurt the film, as the five Oscar nominations have proved.

Sheridan said he finds irony in his journey from the stage to the screen. He labored for six years in New York's Irish theater circles trying to no avail to lure critics to see his productions. Now, after returning to Ireland and making a modest film about a relatively obscure artist, critics and audiences everywhere are singing his praises.

"It's great. I make this little film and bam!" Sheridan said. "I'm delighted everything's happening, but you have to be a little careful it doesn't dislocate you in terms of ego."

Because of his success, Sheridan will have the opportunity to continue making movies.

"I'll stay in film for a while," he predicted. "Then go back to the theater" to recharge his batteries.

But he hasn't been waiting around for the phone to ring since making "My Left Foot." He's just completed shooting, and is now in the process of editing, a film titled "The Field" starring American actor Tom Berenger. The story, Sheridan says, is about "a man’s obsession with land."

After "The Field" is completed, Sheridan said he'll return to work on a couple of other screenplays he's written, and see if he can't make movies out of them too.

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