The actor and his director chat about this quiet romantic ghost thriller from Ireland
Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) is a widower living in a misty Irish seaside town who is struggling to adjust to his new role as the sole caretaker of his two children. Still reeling from the death of his wife, he has been plagued by terrifying apparitions. When he volunteers at a local literary festival, he finds himself drawn to Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), an empathetic author of supernatural fiction. While Lena tries to help Michael with the mystery of his nightmarish visions, she must contend with problems of her own. She's being jealously pursued by a self-obsessed novelist (Aidan Quinn), her one-time lover. As the three adults' lives converge, the turbulence of the phantom world will soon have nothing on that of the living.
We recently caught up with Ciarán Hinds and his director Conor McPherson to chat about this beautifully lush romantic ghost thriller. Here's what they had to say:
When you hear ghosts, you think horror. But this is really a romantic drama with ghost elements added to it. How did you hit upon the idea of merging these two genres to create this rather unique film?
Conor McPherson: The short story that it was based upon had no supernatural elements to it. It was a story set against the backdrop of a literary festival. It was merely about a teacher that volunteers at the festival. He is driving this female writer around that he becomes obsessed with. He is married and he has kids. When we were working on the screenplay, it was my wife who said audiences aren't going to like this if he's cheating on his wife. Especially the women. It might be more sympathetic if he's lost his wife. I realized then that if he were a widower, not only would he be more sympathetic, he could be haunted. That's where the supernatural elements came from. Ghosts are something I am always interested in writing about. I went for it. I felt, as we were working on it, that if what was happening to our main character was truly scary, it would take the audience deeper into his sense of emotional confusion in a very visceral way. They would really understand his journey as he moves into as more open space in his life. Which is what happens towards the end of the film.
Does your wife usually help you write? Or was this just an instance where she felt she needed to step in?
Conor McPherson: She is usually the first person to read something I have written. You need someone to run things by. The down side of that is, you're always expecting to be told, "You're a genius!" But often, when you ask someone to read something you've written, they are going to have criticisms. You have to be very open to take that on board. I saw her point and realized she was onto something.
Where did you find the short story this was based upon, and was the writer okay with the changes that were made?
Conor McPherson: The person that wrote this short story was a friend of mine. His name is Billy Roche. He's also a playwright. He was writing a collection of short stories. He was emailing me these stories as he completed them. He happened to email me this story. He though it might be fun to turn one of the stories into a screenplay. I just started working on that. And when the supernatural element came into this particular story, he was very happy to go there with it. He knew that things tend to change and evolve, and develop. He was very happy with the finished film.
Ciarán, did you know about the changes that were made to the script? Had you read the original short story?
Ciarán Hinds: No. Conner didn't show me the original story. He let me know that the script was adapted from a short story by Billy. He said they were both working on it. But by the time I got it, Connor had already talked to his wife. She knew that we'd have to sympathize a little more with the central character. Maybe if he was alone, we could understand why he is obsessed with this other woman. Because Michael lost his wife, it gave Connor this reason to make the character haunted. I read Billy's short story just as we were about to finish shooting. And I was surprised at how radically different the Michael was in that version. The bones were the same. The location. And the relationship between Michael and this writer played by Iben. But it was more like a Noah Baumbach story. The character was unsympathetic. Not that you need a sympathetic character. But then you go down a different line. Connor's stories usually have some sort of supernatural element to them. It is around us all the time. That is life. He wanted to transpose that feeling in a way. Billy, knowing Connor's work, was very happy for him to take it in that direction.
What element of the script pulled you into the story? Were you more intrigued by the supernatural elements? Or this romance between yourself and Iben?
Ciarán Hinds: It was Michael's family situation, actually. He's a man trying to hold together a family inside these circumstances of dealing with grief and bereavement. The nature of the story? I wasn't sure how much of the horror element Connor might use. He was always talking about the psychological state of Michael. Connor is a great film fan, and he has watched a lot of different stuff. So he handled it differently. Especially in getting the audience to empathize with Michael. How extreme his thoughts could be inside this grief. That was something for Connor to discover. And find out how he would use that. For me, there was something very truthful at the heart of this story. There was a real truth about bereavement. This poor fellow is just trying to understand what he is going through. Yet, at the end of this whole journey, there is a little light. There is this wonderful woman. I'm not sure they've fallen in love, but they have really connected in a way. She brings light into his life. I like the redemption side of it as well.
Do you think Michael would have been less sympathetic had he not had these two kids he was trying to take care of in his life?
Ciarán Hinds: Whether he has kids or not, you put that in there so that the audience has some sort of sympathy for the man. If you say its just an ordinary Joe Shmoe? If you present him as just this guy? If he doesn't have responsibilities? He just lost his wife, but he doesn't have kids? That alters the character. But I think the story would be the same in a way. His intentions are not about them. He is trying to connect with this woman whose book he believes understands faith in a way that he'd like to understand it. It's only through a short period of time that he develops an attraction to her. Why wouldn't he? Especially when she's as beautiful as Iben, and she's the person that she is? Those things are for the writer to say. You don't need to love this character. You need to observe him. I suppose. There's a difference between allowing yourself to be swayed by things rather than pushing the envelope itself and allowing things to happen. In Connor's version of the story, Michael doesn't try to make things happen. They just happen to him.
Michael seems to be struggling with his emotions. As if he is burying his hurt. Did you feel the ghosts were an outward extension of that guilt and hurt? Are the ghosts really just a representation of Michael's own fears about moving ahead with his life after his wife's death?
Conor McPherson: It can certainly be seen that way. He is locked in when we meet him. He is unable to express what it is that he needs to express. Perhaps these ghosts are the manifestation of what he needs to face. It's festering away. Also, as he moves along, these ghosts seem to be a premonition of things to come. Are they coming from within him? When he sees the ghost he wants to see, which is his wife at the end, I don't know if that is coming from him or if it is coming from somewhere else. I suppose this film wants to keep that question open. The ghosts and the supernatural? They are more interesting to me when they are kept a mystery. Rather than movies where there is a ghost, and it becomes a detective story to figure out what that ghost wants. The main character is trying to put that ghost at peace. To me, that never meets my wants. I like leaving an element of mystery.
Ciarán Hinds: I wouldn't deny that ghosts exist. I don't want to say that there is no such thing. Maybe the idea is that we disagree about this. For me, the horror image of the zombie father-in-law who suddenly appears in the car is just a state of mind. It's a reflection of their relationship that had gone to such an extreme. Michael is feeling guilt, because he cannot look after this man. He is trying to deal with his children, and he doesn't want to show his children any grief towards that. He is bottling it up. The father-in-law's relationship with Michael, which we clearly see in that one scene that takes place in the old folks' home? That guy hates Michael. He blames him for letting his daughter die. Even though cancer took her away. The father thought, "You took my daughter in marriage. You should have somehow saved her." Michael is filled with this man's sense of vile and rage. That's what manifests itself. That is what made those elements of the supernatural so horrible.
Connor, did you study directorial physics before attempting to write the screenplay? Or are you going off your own experiences with the supernatural?
Conor McPherson: Like most of us, I find that life is a supernatural experience. We live in a mysterious environment that we don't understand. We are told that the universe is infinite. Time is relative. If you speed up, time slows down. Those things are bewildering. We don't understand this environment that we live in. We don't know anything about it, really. We live in a giant mystery. When I am working on stories, its attractive to me to pit my characters against the unknown. That's a large experience of life. We should be aware of that.
Billy Roche was not a basis for the character of Nicholas Holden, was he?
Conor McPherson: No! (Laughs) Nicolas Holden is that unfettered egotist in us all that we try to hide the best we can. I suppose that all writers and artists must have, in some way, a very strong ego. To present anything like that to the world is a mad thing to do. Nicolas Holden is not based on anybody in particular. But I have met people like him. You hear certain people say that fame and success don't change you. With him, fame and success revealed who he really was. He is a man who is growing a bit older. He is panicking. He is losing his own virility, attractiveness, and power. He is in pain, and he is trying to deal with all of that. Which is driving him to very extreme behavior. He sees Michael Farr as his adversary.
When Nicholas sees his wife, who is very much alive, its almost scarier than when Michael sees the ghost of his wife, who has been dead for a long time. Were you looking at that parallel between the two characters? That Nicolas' wife was as much a literal ghost as Michael's was?
Conor McPherson: Yes. I never thought about it that way. But you are right. Nicolas is running away from his wife. Michael is trying to find his wife. She is gone forever, of course. In a funny way, they are joined up like that. But they are going in opposite directions. It is kind of funny.
What did you first see in the chemistry between Ciarán and Iben that made you think they were perfect for this on-screen relationship?
Conor McPherson: As actors, they are both very open and intelligent. I was trying to get them to play themselves. Ciaran is a very warm, likable person. I suppose I was trying to get as close to him as I possibly could. And Iben is a very natural, honest person. She is a very intelligent actress in that way. When we were all together, I don't want to say they weren't acting. They were performing on some level. But on another level, they were giving me who they are in real life. There was a natural, easy chemistry between them. Which we were able to capture on film. The audience picks up on that. The audience wills them to be together. People want to see them together, I think.
On that note, why did you choose to end the film in the way you did? Did you not really see Michael and Lena coming together?
Conor McPherson: I didn't want anything about the film to be a cliché. I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. You always get that feeling. The guy is running through the airport to catch the plane before it departs with the girl on it. I didn't want to go there. I thought, whatever way these people are going to be in each other's lives, it has to be good and right. They could meet up again in the future. They could be lovers. That could be good. If they are just going to be friends and communicate from time to time, that is going to be good. If they are going to send each other books from time to time, that is going to be good. I wanted it to be positive. I didn't want it to be like the movies. I didn't want to have to see them kiss and get married. It's just good for both of them. They are glad to have met. That, to me, is a happy ending.
Ciarán Hinds: I'm glad you brought up the ending. Iben and I had a very warm relationship. Just meeting each other and going to work together. There is something about Iben and the quality of her work. There is an honesty and an integrity to it. She is not trying to gain kudos. She isn't demanding to play it a certain way. She wanted to play the character as it was written in the script without embellishment and without flourish. The characters were never meant to know each other. They get to know each other quietly. They then gain an interest in each other. The pair of us never had trouble finding that rapport. There was an honesty, because we were really listening to each other while we were shooting those scenes. The camera and the crew disappeared. We found that connection ourselves. If you can imagine that.
How much of the script changed once it got into the actors' hands?
Conor McPherson: The script changed a lot. I always welcome input from the actors. I want them to be really comfortable with what they are saying. And how they are acting. It seems much more truthful. They had a lot of input. When we sat down and read the script together, we changed it a lot. I was happy to do that, because I knew they were making the script more credible.
Ciarán Hinds: We had a couple of days to talk about the script. There were a couple of scenes between me and the kids that wound up in the editing bin. Connor and I felt they were unnecessary. We wanted the story to unfold very gradually without forcing it. These two people genuinely connected. She was there to help him get through this. That's the way it was made to be. She saw that Michael was really going through something. Through that, they developed a relationship. Maybe at some point in her life, she had a bad relationship. Maybe she decided to cling to Michael because of that. But it was natural. They weren't clinging to each other. They found each other. I don't think it mattered how Connor edited the film. Will they live happily-ever-after? Maybe not. But they will be friends. I think they will be the next time they see each other. They did make this connection. And I think Connor made that obvious by the nature of their good-bye. It became a recognition of each other. Slightly physical. But nothing urgent. I think Connor left the story open. Are these ghosts? Are they real? Or are they self-manifestations? Connor knew enough to leave that as it is. To let audiences take whatever they wanted away from it. Michael has found a sense of redemption. A light has opened up, and he can now move forward with his life. Whatever that life entails? I don't know. I don't think Connor was interested in knowing that. It's about showing people in crisis. And how people connect.
The film is certainly creepy. It's deliberately paced. Where you trying to build the narrative as one long walk down a dark hallway? Such as the journeys we take late at night, when we think we hear something in the other room?
Conor McPherson: I think it is very important to create the right element of suspense. You have to almost hold back, and gradually reveal things for the audience. You want to keep them on the edge of their seats. You have to stay strong in that way. With what you reveal. I was careful with that. It was a pace thing. I found a pace that I liked.
There's a great fight sequence near the end of the film. How did you go about choreographing that? Its more realistic that most of the fights we see in film. How uncomfortable was it to have to grab Aidan Quinn in the rocks. Was that a delicate situation?
Ciarán Hinds: That whole scene is very strange. You have to think, "How did we get to this point?" It's not just a bit of drama. These people are punching the lights out of each other. Its human nature. When they go wild, they go way over the top for no reason. With the jealousy, it goes a bit off the scales. To tell you the truth, at that stage, Nicolas Holden wasn't taking any prisoners. Michal had no other option. It was the only thing he could do, seeing as how he was in a headlock and his arms were pinned. I wasn't sure how Connor filmed that. When you see it, you just see Nicolas' face on the screen. Then you realize Michael has him by the only part that needs to be left intact. It calls a truce for a moment. But this fellow won't give up. The fight was something we had to shoot very quickly. It seems to me, that when I saw it, the fight was a bit messy. And real. It was true action, and all of the characters were emotionally engaged in it.
What about the ghosts in the film? How did you hit upon their look?
Conor McPherson: The ghost of Michael's father-in-law, played by Jim Norton, I wanted him to be really scary. I modeled his make-up after the zombies we see in George Romero's movies. The ghost of his wife, that he sees towards the end, I wanted to change her. She appears sick. She is in a hospital gown with a scarf on her head. When we cut back to her, she looks younger and more vital. She has regained her lovely hair. That kind of change is something I took from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where the character is lying in that strange bed. Towards the end, when everything gets really weird. And he sees himself as a young man and an old man. Those were the inspirations for how I visualized the ghosts.
What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
Ciarán Hinds: We've talked about what genre this falls into. Is it horror? Is it supernatural? Is it a love story? Is it a drama? It is what it is. At the end, there are a few exciting chills. At the end, you would like people to be touched. The characters need to find redemption, and there needs to be an understanding of that little hope for us all. Even when we've lost your equilibrium and your emotional balance. That sometimes, life comes with a little light. With a little opening up, we could all move forward. I suppose it depends on the individual that watches it, really.
The Eclipse opens on March 26th in select theaters throughout the country. If you can't wait to see it in theaters, the film is now available on VOD, Amazon, and XBOX live.