“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.”