“The Eclipse,” the new film based on a collaboration between Irish playwrights Billy Roche and Conor McPherson, had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival at the weekend. Word from the festival is that several major U.S. distribution companies were impressed, and the Irish made film will have a general release her later this year.
McPherson, 39, adapted the screenplay from a short story originally written by Roche, adding his own trademark supernatural elements and also directing the finished script.
Among the film’s strengths are its intimate sense of place (the film is set at a literary festival in Cobh, County Cork) and the camera work, which evokes the beauty of the Irish landscape frame after frame.
But there are other aspects of the film that, it has to be said, startled the premiere audience. It’s unusual for a film that explores how the shadow of grief can haunt a family to have a hissing black-eyed corpse turn up out of nowhere to attack the protagonist.
These unexpected and increasingly disturbing horror scenes had the audience jumping out of their seats, then giggling nervously, then wondering if that was the point.
McPherson’s previous ventures into filmmaking – a format he obviously loves – have not met with universal acclaim, and indeed the process of getting them made led him to wonder if they were ultimately worth the effort. Particularly when you contrast their cool reception with the plaudits he regularly wins on Broadway.
“Because of my previous experiences I was not sure if I would ever make another film, to be honest,” he recently told Irish America magazine. “So I took a long time to decide what one I wanted to do. I decided if I were ever going to it would be something I put my soul into and could absolutely stand over. That’s really where I am now with ‘The Eclipse.’”
“The Eclipse” was a labor of love for all involved, he says. With a paltry €2 million budget, which in film funding is less than nothing, and with its top flight Irish cast (including Ciaran Hinds, Jim Norton and Aidan Quinn) participating for very little, it still took McPherson and Roche five years to get from the first draft to the shooting stage.
“The reason it took so long was because first of all we were filming in Ireland, and that’s just not that interesting to the big money people in London and Hollywood. They want to know who’s starring in it and so if you’re not really part of that commercial world and you don’t want to be it can get tricky. But the great advantage for me, because we were completely under the radar, was that we had total freedom," McPherson said.
McPherson’s last foray into filmmaking was what he calls “a sort of Hollywood experience.” The 2003 film “The Actors,” starring Michael Caine, “got developed through DreamWorks and then ended up at Miramax and it took an awful lot of time to get through the people who have to be responsible because they’re paying for it. I realized that’s not the way I work best. I’m not great at the big committee meetings. You can very easily get knocked off course.”
The immediacy of playwriting had spoiled McPherson. He had no patience for the nonstop distractions that accompany trying to get a new script financed and filmed. “Plays are very much a writer’s medium and if you’re a good writer you can get your play on and it will happen. It’s not such a huge financial big deal trying to get the money to do it. When I first started doing plays we started performing them in rooms over pubs, you know? I always had that very kind of can-do attitude, you know? So what if the Abbey Theatre doesn’t want to do my play, we’ll do my play, you know? That was always the way it was.”
Although the plot of “The Eclipse” was conceived by Roche, the supernatural elements that give the new film its occasionally eerie atmosphere were introduced by McPherson. Based in an around an Irish literary festival, the film follows Michael (Ciaran Hinds) a widowed teacher who works as a volunteer. To his surprise he finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with a woman writer participating in it.
Says McPherson: “I introduced a supernatural element into ‘The Eclipse’ because that’s where I felt I would comfortably know where the heart of the film was. In a way it was a mixture of our two writing worlds colliding in a nice way.”
The final edit of the film was completed just in time for the debut screening at Tribeca this week, as the anxious playwright and director told the festival audience before it unspooled. But McPherson needn’t have worried, the majority of the audience members were already familiar with his stage work and “The Eclipse” was one of the most anticipated new films at the festival.
Featuring a sad eyed and deeply affecting central performance from Ciaran Hinds (who confirms he’s one the most intuitive and gifted Irish actors of his generation) McPherson’s story takes its time to unravel, and for once that’s one of the film’s greatest strengths. Atmosphere and finely observed character details create a surprising degree of reality, helping us to root for Hind’s character, a recently widowed father of two.
The tenderness with which McPherson addresses issues of parental love, inexpressible grief, and the fledgling hope that life could one day get better again are so remarkable that when the supernatural elements are introduced they become so jarring that you’re left reeling.
It’s as if a very highbrow version of “Terms of Endearment” had been accidentally cross edited with scenes from “Night Of The Living Dead,” with all the laughs and cathartic screams that implies. For example, we see very little of Jim Norton’s character for most of the film (the man who later becomes a terrifying zombie) except to learn that he lives in a rest home and that he’s aggrieved that Ciaran Hinds character has forgotten to bring him to the literary festival to hear a reading. So when Norton returns as a particularly terrifying undead ghoul, we’re left wondering why he’s scaring the wits out of Hinds (and of course, us). Ghostly hands reach out of wardrobes and even from the ground to hold and horrify. But all the while we’re wondering why, and no satisfactory answer is ever forthcoming.
It’s hard, in the end, to classify which genre “The Eclipse” actually falls into. Its been described as a supernatural thriller, but it’s not really suspenseful; nor is it a comedy, nor is it a love story, exactly, nor is it a horror film – but it does have elements of each. For those reasons it may be a tough sell to American public, but distributors here were jostling to land the rights to release the film later this year, and you have to admire the tenacity with which McPherson holds on to his own artistic vision.