'I live in a middle-class ghetto, nobody thinks that's a bad idea'
After an 18-year hiatus, Roddy Doyle has returned to the big screen with a compelling take on the homelessness crisis. He tells Paul Whitington about the need for social housing, his mixed feelings on the Occupy movement and François Mitterrand's grá for 'The Snapper'
Every Christmas, regular as clockwork, The Snapper and The Commitments turn up on the TV to add to the festive cheer. Those salty urban tales of love and strife are beloved by generations of Irish people, and their creator has become a kind of national storyteller. Who better then, than Roddy Doyle, to take on the rumbling crisis that has replaced health as Ireland's red-button political issue - homelessness?
His new film Rosie just does that. A honed and fiercely focussed drama directed by Paddy Breathnach, it stars a brilliant Sarah Greene as Rosie Davis, a young Dublin mother of three whose days are spent in a car packed with kids and all the family's worldly goods phoning hotels to find a bed for the night. Her husband John Paul (Moe Dunford) has a job as a chef, but that hasn't stopped the family from ending up on the street after their landlord announced he was selling their house.
The children's schooling is suffering as the chaos drags on for weeks and months, and Rosie's day is focused around that desperate and humiliating struggle to find a place for her kids to lay their heads. The film is mesmerising in its simplicity, and really forces you to realise what it would feel like to be without a home yourself.
"Yeah, that's what I was hoping," Roddy tells me, "that it would be a story you couldn't relax into and start thinking, they'll be fine. A few people who've seen it have asked me, are they okay, could you not have given them somewhere to live, and I'm afraid the answer's no. Lady Gaga's in town for a show, and there's no room at the inn."
Roddy's inspiration for Rosie arrived by chance: he was half-listening to the radio one morning when an interview grabbed his attention. "I heard this woman, it was on Morning Ireland I think, and she was describing her experiences the previous day, her routine of phoning, phoning, phoning, going through a list of hotel numbers trying to find somewhere for herself and her five kids to spend the night.
"She was really precise, very impressive, very calm as well, and then when she mentioned that her partner couldn't help because he was at work, that's what really arrested me. Someone was going to work and doing a job and yet they couldn't afford anywhere to live. This phrase underclass has become quite common, where if you can't cope, you're part of the underclass, but this was a working-class couple, living the lives that are almost dictated to them, so I just thought, there's a story.
"I felt from the start it had to be something visual, on the screen, I didn't see it as a piece of prose. I wasn't sure whether it would be big or small, I knew it would be just one event, one episode, because it needed that intensity - if it had been episodes on TV or something, it would let us off the hook somehow.
"The same day as I heard it, I started working on it. I remember choosing a piece of music that I thought would suit, it was James Brown's The Payback, which seemed suitably exhilarating and angry, and just got down to the planning of it really, and I wrote the treatment in about three days."
What's fascinating - and horrifying - about Rosie is watching the two parents working frantically to persuade their kids that everything's okay, that living out of a car is normal. "It's like this very, very distorted, nightmarish version of a lot of people's day when they've young kids," Doyle says. "When I was writing it, it was like remembering what the weekday was like when you had small kids, and then putting it in the mincer." At one point, the family do manage to bunk down in a hotel room together, but their relief is brief, and tempered by the fact that in the morning, they will have to leave, and start their search all over again.
There are lots of bourgeois clichés about who might be homeless, or why, but Rosie panders to none of them. John Paul works hard, Rosie's a very good mother, and neither of them drink much, or smoke.
"I didn't want anybody in the audience doing the calculations to figure out how much they were wasting on 20 fags a day. And we're told that the landlord is selling the house, and then we see the for sale sign so we can't blame him, he's not acting the maggot, he's just doing what he's entitled to do. I didn't want a big confrontation with somebody nasty at the other side of a desk, so we can't blame a bureaucrat, so there's nobody to blame, except ourselves, perhaps."
Roddy hopes the film will provoke debate and add to the growing pressure for concerted, organised action. And the only viable long-term solution, he thinks, is for the Government to get back into the business of building social housing. "If you take a map of Dublin and shade in the areas that are public housing, that's a huge chunk of suburban Dublin right around the northside and then out to the west and then up Crumlin and that. All this was done during the dark conservative times we're supposed to have endured, and yet there was an acceptance that the State would perform that role. And now the State won't.
"They say they have the land," he says, "so the council should be the landlord, and when the house is vacant you get a new tenant. There seems to be this notion that having working-class people living in close proximity to each other is a bad idea. I live in a middle-class ghetto, nobody ever suggests that that's a bad idea!"
How does he feel about the Occupy movement? "I suppose the aul' lad in me would be dismissing it a bit, but if I was their age, I'd probably be doing the same thing or something similar. I mean it puts it back into the headlines... so yeah, I do think they serve a purpose, and it also highlights the fact that there's an awful lot of empty space out there."
Though his work has always been closely associated with cinema, Rosie is Roddy's first produced screenplay since When Brendan Met Trudy way back in 2000.
"Ah, there were loads of plans," he tells me. "They were going to film A Star Called Henry, and Michael Winterbottom was going to direct, and yeah I did four drafts, it was near to green-lit at one stage and then like a lot of these things, bang. There was a television series planned more recently as well, I wrote the first two episodes, everything was going swimmingly and then again, a change of mind, gone. So with these things, it's not embittering as such, but it is disappointing."
Back in the late 1980s, after Doyle had exploded on to the international literary scene with The Commitments, the movies came thick and fast.
"You know it's only when you look back that you realise how much was going on. When you're living it, it seems like a reasonable length of time, but in retrospect, the years between writing The Commitments on a table in a bedsit in the summer of 1986, and The Snapper coming out in 1993, that's just seven years. But so much happened: by the end of 1993, I'd four novels, I'd been involved in two films, a TV series was on the way, I'd won the Booker Prize, I'd met my wife, we'd had two children at that stage, I'd given up teaching, so an awful lot happened in those years, you know, well-lived years, really terrific."
Does he have a favourite screen adaptation? "I haven't seen them since they came out, but it's hard not to love The Snapper because of the way it's been taken by Irish people generally. It would always be a bit precious to me for lots of reasons. Stephen Frears [director of The Snapper] was over in Paris one time, and he was getting some sort of award from François Mitterrand, and there was a translator saying, this is Stephen Frears and he is the director of Dangerous Liaisons and all the rest, and Mitterrand says 'ah yes, but my favourite is the little Irish one'!"
Read Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage in Weekend Magazine, page 6