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In America, The Beautiful: “In America” Director Jim Sheridan’s Oscar Dreams

‘O’Connell,’ asks two-time Academy Award-nominated writer/director Jim Sheridan. ‘Is that a Jewish name?’

So starts our lengthy discussion, one that touches on America, the Irish community, New York City, and my ancestral line before it even swings back around to his wonderful character portrait, In America. Set in Manhattan at an undetermined time, In America follows an Irish foursome chasing the fabled ‘American Dream’ while they struggle to put a devastating emotional loss behind them.

‘Really what it’s about is the Irish leaving death behind,’ says Sheridan. ‘And it’s about coming to the ‘Magic Land,’ which America was. Let’s not beat around the bush. America was the ‘Magic Land’ for us.’

Was and still is. Thousands come to the United States from Ireland each month, and most land in Manhattan. ‘A lot of Irish came over from County Cork,’ he says after learning where my grandparents emigrated from. ‘People from peasants, of which you probably are one, did come from the rural heartland of Ireland. People who had to leave the land, and never wanted to trust the land again (because of the horrible famine) came and lived in the cities of America.’

Perhaps looking forward to a future project, Sheridan goes on to say that this community’s story has yet to be told. When these people came speaking Gaelic, they didn’t have any intellectuals with them and so their story has never been told properly. ‘And there’s a kind of submerged anger in Irish-Americans about it,’ says Sheridan. ‘It’s even angrier than in Ireland, because there’s a submerged shame in Ireland. But blah blah, that’s beside the point.’

Right now, Sheridan has a different story to tell, and he’s doing a lot of flesh pressing to get the message out. The co-writer and director is crisscrossing the country, hosting screenings and conducting Q&A sessions for audiences both large and small. ‘Because [In America] is about myself, I really wanted it to work. I’m proud of it, so I just go out everywhere I can to promote it. I don’t really want to ask actors to do what I don’t do myself. So I’m doing it myself, and they can do it if they want. That’s the kind of place I’m at.’

It’s almost like he’s daring people not to see his film. In truth, Sheridan just loves the preview process. ‘It gives me a way to find out if I communicated properly,’ he says. He acknowledges the fact that his films aren’t necessarily about the American audience. ‘So I feel I need to go to them and ask, ‘How did that strike you?’ And I love to hear back what they say, because it refines what I do.’

As a perfect example, he talks about the scenes he wrote into The Boxer, with Daniel Day-Lewis. Sheridan includes several scenes about the Catholics and Protestants fighting each other, and he pushes hard to explain it before realizing that the audience in America understands it but doesn’t necessarily care about it. ‘Not because they’re inhuman,’ he says. ‘They don’t care because they think we left that behind, and it’s not entertainment. They don’t want to go there. They don’t want to pay money to endorse directly or indirectly that kind of bigotry.’

Sheridan’s main growth as a storyteller comes in his own understanding that his audience needs humor to swallow hardship. His new film, which he calls ‘a long day’s journey into night,’ involves serious poverty, a dead son, parents wracked with grief, and a man dying of AIDS. ‘It’s heavy material, so I have to keep it buoyant,’ he says. ‘I have to bounce the ball a lot.’ Of course, this was his biggest challenge. ‘There are so many things here that are potential trap doors. Death. Ba-Doom. AIDS. Ba-Doom. Children in danger. Ba-Doom. A husband and wife having sex. Ba-Doom, Ba-Doom. But I like walking those fine lines.’

Sheridan is intrigued by the idea that storytelling might be Ireland’s finest export. As a fellow Irishman, I can assure you it certainly isn’t our recipes. ‘We’re very good at language and story. We’re great liars,’ he says. ‘[Storytelling] is a way of putting a cocoon around ourselves from reality,’ he says. ‘When the reality’s really horrible, you invent stories.’

His own story constantly changed as he wrote it. He comments how much New York itself changed since he first started writing the script. The terrorist attacks took place during his writing sessions. ‘I was shooting in Dublin when September 11 happened. My daughter was in Manhattan so I rang her. She woke up to 48 messages on her answering machine.’

Sheridan was pressured to set the film outside of New York. His lead character, Johnny – played by Paddy Considine – harbors aspirations of becoming an actor. Studio executives suggested an L.A. setting for the film, but Sheridan held his ground. ‘I just love New York,’ he said. ‘I do think it has changed. It’s become a little more Disney, a bit more for the family, but I don’t know if that’s bad. I always get those people who tell me that’s bad, and I tell them to go to hell.’

He also gets swept up in the awards race. Right before speaking to me, he interviews with the website OscarWatch.com, which lists In America as a contender in several Oscar categories. ‘I’m delighted that we’re up there. Of all the films that are up there, ours is about half the budget, if not a quarter,’ he said. He was lucky enough to get nominated for My Left Foot, which at the time had no noticeable stars. In the Name of the Father also received a few Oscar noms. ‘If you tell a good story, I do believe people will come. Film is not about pictures or intellect. It’s about emotions. And emotions are essentially invisible. So the sophistication of film is your using a visual medium to capture the invisible and that’s not too easy.’

His thoughts turn to this year’s trophy race. ‘Do you think we’ll get nominated for an Oscar?’ he asks with all honesty. It’s a weak year and the truly good films have a good shot, though competition is stiff as usual. ‘The politically correct answer is that an award can open the film up to a wider audience,’ he says. ‘The truth is I would be over the moon if we were nominated.’

As much as he’d like to, he avoids scouting out the competition? ‘I hate doing that, because I always feel so negative,’ he says. ‘Somewhere in the deep recess of my heart I know it’s the competition and I don’t want to feel like that.’ He did make one exception, though. ‘I did go to see Schindler’s List when I had In the Name of the Father, and we knew we had a film that people liked. I walked out and I thought, ‘Oh my God, just give it to (Spielberg).’ And that’s hard.’

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