Filmmaker Jim Sheridan at home with family dramas | AspenTimes.com

Filmmaker Jim Sheridan at home with family dramas

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Lorey SebastianNatalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, left to right, star in director Jim Sheridan's "Brothers," showing at 8:15 p.m. Friday at Harris Hall in Aspen Film's Academy Screenings series.

ASPEN – Jim Sheridan says that the reason he was asked to direct “Brothers,” a remake of the 2004 Danish film of the same name, is because he works so well with children. There is more than a whisper of truth to this: In “Brothers,” a highlight scene centers around the two young girls in the Cahill family, who, sitting around the dinner table one night, are the lightning rod for the tension caused by the return from Afghanistan of their father Sam, a brave Army captain played by Tobey Maguire.

The bigger truth, though, is that Sheridan excels at family. The bulk of his film work focuses on family dynamics and issues, whether the setting is political conflict in Ireland, immigration to the U.S., or contemporary warfare. In 1993’s “In the Name of the Father,” which earned seven Academy Award nominations, Sheridan examined the thorny but loving relationship between a father and son (Pete Postlethwaite and Daniel Day-Lewis, respectively) who find themselves cell-mates in a British prison for an Irish Republican Army bombing they did not commit. In 2002’s “In America” – which featured an Oscar-nominated script by Sheridan and his two daughters – immigration is seen from the family unit, as an Irish family sneaks into early 1980s Manhattan.

The 60-year-old Sheridan, a native of Dublin, said the idea of the family as a discrete, close unit comes from his own background. “That comes from my own family,” Sheridan said from his production office in Toronto. “We had a lodging house – a house where the nuclear family lived – and one rental house, with the odd lodgers drinking and partying and coming home late at night.”

Sheridan said the reason he took on “Brothers” was a scene in the original film that had little to do with family. It is a war segment that puts Maguire’s character in a no-win, no-way-out situation.

“It was beyond good and evil,” Sheridan, who earned his first Oscar nominations for 1990’s “My Left Foot,” said. “It was like ‘The Deer Hunter,’ where he holds the gun up to his head. It puts the character in a place where God has put him in a moral position that is untenable. He can live, but with terrible consequences.”

“Brothers” spends most of its time on those consequences. Maguire’s Sam Cahill is presumed dead, leaving his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) struggling to keep it together back home. Assistance comes from an unexpected ally: Sam’s brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), a black sheep who divides his time between jail cells and barstools. But Tommy stumbles, literally, into a new life, finding redemption in Grace and her daughters.

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It’s hard to fault Tommy for wanting to spend time with his sister-in-law. Portman is breath-takingly attractive in the role – though Sheridan says her beauty is grounded in what he saw when he conducted research at military bases. “There were some pretty women married to marines,” he said.

The story carries a Sheridan trademark – emotions played up to the extreme. The filmmaker chalks that up to his Irish blood: “You could say that,” he said. “I have a big emotional side. I empathize a lot with people. It’s a bit Eugene O’Neill, a bit part of the Irish history.”

Sheridan’s history is partly based in America, where he lived for seven years before he returned to Ireland. He said he feels equally comfortable telling stories set in Ireland and America: “I think families are the same the world over,” he said. The big issue he faces is the economics of filmmaking. Making an American story like “Brothers” or “In America,” he doesn’t have to think about how it might translate to other countries. Working with Irish narratives, however, he has to keep one eye looking across the ocean. The three million people who live in Ireland are not a sufficiently big audience for large-scale filmmaking. Apart from the economics, the reality is that the whole world is invested in the American point of view.

“Everybody’s engaged in what America does. You can’t avoid that; you can’t say, It doesn’t matter what America’s doing,” Sheridan said. “It’s almost like if a movie doesn’t play in America, it hasn’t been made at all. I think we’re all making American movies, even when we’re making Irish movies.”

stewart@aspentimes.com