Alexandra McGuinness is the film director daughter of U2 manager Paul McGuinness, and her debut feature film Lotus Eaters opens this weekend. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the young writer and director about the glittering world of sex, drugs and rock and roll (and rich young Londoners) the film follows.
Hell, someone once wrote, is other people. But in director Alexandra McGuinness’ debut feature, which seems painstakingly crafted to divide the critics, hell isn’t just other people -- the other people who live there like to throw loud rock and roll parties and send you multiple invites.
Lotus Eaters, which opens Friday, is McGuinness’ atmospheric and doom laden meditation on wealth and privilege, and the weird, pervasive boredom that can accompany it if you’re pretty, single and in your mid-twenties as you’re struggling to find your own voice.
McGuinness, by the way, is the daughter of one of the richest and well-known men in Ireland, Paul McGuinness, founder of Principle Management Limited. He has managed U2 from the start of the band’s huge career.
It’s the sort of attention grabbing background that can’t fail to help an emerging director get noticed, but Alexandra never refers to it in interviews – not once, ever - for obvious reasons. She wants to be judged on her own merits, rather like director Sofia Coppola, whom she admires, rather than riding her father’s coattails.
Still, there’s no question that she’s the ultimate insider, and Lotus Eaters consciously explores the opportunities and pitfalls of all that fabulous insider access. She certainly has plenty of material to draw from.
Her father’s own background was a blueprint for success. He was sent to boarding school in Ireland in 1961 to the famous Clongowes Wood College, then went on to Trinity College in Dublin where he directed plays and edited the magazine T.C.D. Miscellany, before leaving without completing his degree.
Later McGuinness married Kathy Gilfinnan, who he met while studying in Trinity, and they have two children, Alexandra and Max.
Alexandra grew up in a big house on Dublin’s leafy South Side with the most famous rock and rollers in the world for neighbors, so it’s not surprising the soundtrack to Lotus Eaters is outstanding. When you live and work around people with an abiding passion for music it clearly rubs off.
What McGuinness’ film does very well is to capture the enormously imprisoning little world that her characters live in. Being obscenely rich, the only people they can really talk to or understand are other rare birds like themselves. That means running into all the same faces at parties, country clubs, castles and rock concerts.
It’s a very small word, filled with the same people talking about the same things. It can look like an endless black and white Calvin Klein perfume commercial; it can look like a European classic. It’s usually terrifying.
Lotus Eaters follows Alice (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), a former model who hopes to become an actress, and her would be boyfriend Charlie (Johnny Flynn) as they stumble through an endless maze of cigarettes, booze, heroin and all night parties to the point where all the good times really start to sour. No one seems to connect with anyone.
Is this a horror film, I wonder?
“I suppose it could be seen in that way, maybe by parents,” McGuinness, 28, tells the Irish Voice with a laugh. “Alice is making what she thinks are the right choices, and they aren’t. But she’s trying.
“My point of view on the film has changed since I made it. Since it’s done its festival runs I realized I was more sympathetic to Alice when I was making the film. I suppose I’m now more with the audience and you. I can see she’s making the wrong choices. I have more distance from her now.”
Alice has some pretty bad friends. None of them appear to listen to each other.
The film came about from scrapbooks full of character notes that McGuinness compiled over the years, and it has kept that impressionistic feel. Characters are suggested rather than well drawn. It’s an intentional approach based on the experimental European cinema of the 1960s.
“I have character notes that I’ve kept from cafes and parties and real life people,” McGuinness explains.
“I kind of squished then all together in the film. But it’s really amped up. To a certain extent I’m glad that a show like Girls has come along to give it a different context. A lot of Lotus Eaters is satire and is supposed to be funny.”
Not every critic to date has recognized that claim. Being Paul McGuinness’ daughter has given Alexandra a context of her own, and she’s come in for an earful from some critics eager to take potshots at her film’s top-drawer characters.
“Interviewers talk about these terrible young rich people and ask me if I know them in real life,” McGuinness explains.
“They say they’re the worst people in the world, they’re so entitled, they’re awful. And a lot of the audience couldn’t see the humor in the film at first.”
Growing up in Dublin, McGuinness curated what she calls “a few, precocious teenage art shows... they were okay, not great.” Next she started acting, but she realized at some point she wanted to be more involved in the process, so she next moved on to direct some music videos and short films, finally ending up at the London Film School, where she graduated in 2009.
Critics assume that McGuinness lives in the world depicted by her film, but she begs to differ.
“I moved to London to go to film school and for a while when I tried to be an actress (she appeared for a moment in the risible film version of Cecelia Ahern’s novel P.S. I Love You).
“In England I encountered a culture clash,” she confesses. “I was waitressing for a bit and it was a different world. I live in Wicklow now.
“I never felt entirely accepted or at home in London. There was always a certain barrier. The people around me had known each other since school or they were related in some way. I could never quite get in. That’s reflected in the experiences of Alice who never quite fits in.”
Lotus Eaters is a film about a lost girl, some of it self-imposed. Some of it comes directly from her experiences, McGuinness admits.
It’s a particular age (mid-twenties) when a young person can be easily led by the people around them. In the film Alice’s friends tell her where to go and even what to wear, and she consents with a shrug.
But it gets old quick, having it all, the film suggests. If you can afford practically everything you encounter there’s no actual challenges you can’t meet.
Crash a car, you can buy another one. Run away and you can stay in five star hotels. The world is your playground, and the party never ends until you’re completely suddenly sick of it. You can’t ever pay to escape yourself.
What’s unexpected is how funny, intentionally and unintentionally, this world can be. Dreadful things happen in it, including betrayal, deceit, abuse and even early death, but there’s a mordantly funny sensibility directing the scenes and the actors, who sometimes ad-libbed like mad McGuinness reveals.
Charlie, played by the talented Johnny Flynn, is the classic bad romance that almost everyone has in their twenties. He’s beautiful, otherworldly, thoughtful and kind. But he’s also a train wreck with a serious drug habit and an apparent death wish.
Flynn does a note perfect job of presenting him in all his brittle beauty, including finding the impenetrable sadness that no one and nothing can cure.
It’s such a vivid portrait it can only have come from life, I suggest. McGuinness pauses for the first time during our interview, as though contemplating what to conceal and reveal.
“I think everybody has had a relationship like Alice and Charlie have. I think that is the key thing in the film that is taken from my own life,” she says.
“It’s the only real part of autobiography. It’s the part of the film that rings the most true. The rest has a kind of artifice around it and it’s supposed to. Those scenes with people having conversations in cafes around London are ridiculous and funny and they’re supposed to be.”
Flynn owns every scene he appears in and has been noticed for it. McGuinness tells me he’s making a musical with Anne Hathaway next and he’s certain to become a movie star. He’s certainly the emotional anchor of the film.
People in McGuinness’ position often have to work twice as hard to be half as respected, since many people assume it’s her father’s wealth and connections rather than her own talent that has paved her career path.
That thorny complication reminds you that the legacy of spectacular success isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. Becoming a Sofia Coppola is the goal, but the path is often surprisingly treacherous.
“I was never really a part of the world that Alice lives in,” McGuinness reveals. “The film is my record of it, but it’s amped up. I moved back to Ireland and I stayed out of that world. I don’t plan to go back.”
McGuinness’ next film will shoot in the U.K. and Germany in October. It’s a psychological thriller set in Berlin, where she lived for a while. It’s about a female film director who’s married to a more established one.
“She’s making her first film in Berlin,” says McGuinness, who will be doing likewise. “She kind of goes crazy on the set. It’s kind of a murder mystery as well, there’s a lot going on in it.”
McGuinness is playing for keeps. It’ll be interesting to see what her future holds.