Saturday 25 May 2019

'Maybe not to you - but to me, it's the Savoy' - Hollywood director David Gleeson talks being born into the rural cinema business in Limerick

Film-maker David Gleeson was born into the rural cinema business and is now a Hollywood director. He recalls the start of his father's - and his own - lifelong passion for movies

Cinematic tradition: Eddie Gleeson in front of the old Regal Cinema in Cappamore
Cinematic tradition: Eddie Gleeson in front of the old Regal Cinema in Cappamore
David Gleeson on the set of Don't Go

On my birth certificate, my father's occupation is listed as 'harness maker', despite the fact that by the time I came along, he hadn't worked as a harness maker for years (if he ever did at all). I was in fact born into the cinema business.

Ironically, my grandfather who opened the Regal Cinema in Cappamore, Co Limerick never cared much for movies at all. Bane of the Black and Tans, Willie Gleeson was an entrepreneur always on the lookout for a new opportunity. The harness-making shop he owned and operated was one of three in Cappamore in the 1940s and he was keen to branch out.

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Opportunity presented itself with the rural electrification scheme when my grandfather found himself the proud owner of a billet which the ESB constructed at the top of the village to house the German engineers and workers bringing electricity to the parish.

Converting it into a hall, he rented it out for ceilidhs and other community events, but his best customer was a travelling show called Billy Walsh's Talkies. Every Wednesday night, they arrived in town with their own generator, screen and projector, delighting country people starved of entertainment with a programme of The Three Stooges and Little Rascals shorts.

David Gleeson on the set of Don't Go
David Gleeson on the set of Don't Go

It didn't take long before my grandfather saw the money Billy Walsh's Talkies was pulling in and decided to go into the cinema business himself. The Regal Cinema, Cappamore, was a haphazard operation from the start. Projectors broke down constantly, films were hard to come by, shows were limited to three nights a week, and the hall was unheated with no proper seating.

Soon enough, my grandfather lost interest. Moving on to his next scheme, he delegated the running of the cinema to my grandmother and my father, Eddie Gleeson, who at the age of 14 left school to manage the business full-time.

My father had found his calling. He adored movies and was fascinated by the projection equipment. He took great pride in the cinema but was constantly frustrated by the poor quality of films he could source.

None of the film distributors wanted to deal with a tiny cinema in rural Ireland and it was an ongoing struggle to get bookings. When the films did arrive, they were usually in ribbons, worn out from use in countless other cinemas. Often, they had whole scenes missing, sometimes even the movie's ending wasn't included.

The attitude in Dublin to my father's entreaties for better films was cold and indifferent. When he was trying to secure a print of the 1953 Western Shane, one film executive said to him: "Your little cinema is hardly the Savoy."

My father's response was: "Maybe not to you, but to me it is the Savoy."

He got the print. One show. One night only. It was in ribbons.

As times improved, my father and my uncle Willie Joe, partners by now, opened a second cinema. "Luxury cinema of the 70s" ran the advertising blurb for the Curzon Cinema, Kilmallock, which opened its doors in 1973 with The Poseidon Adventure.

The Curzon would be my alma mater and it was here where my film education was completed at a very young and impressionable age. All through secondary school, I spent every spare hour and all my weekends working there.

The programme was constantly changing and at one point I was seeing 14 different movies a week on the big screen - the very best of world cinema, alongside the very worst. Often on the same double bill.

Rural decline

Today, when I hear people say, "That was the worst film I ever saw", I quietly shake my head. They haven't seen some of the movies we showed in Kilmallock. Ever seen the sequel to The Deer Hunter? I have. We had it on a late show with Blue Movie Blackmail. We also had a Bruce Lee double bill including The Man, the Myth.

On the other hand, we had Atlantic City on a double bill with Breaker Morant, The Last Picture Show with The French Connection and Midnight Express with Taxi Driver, just a few of the countless classic double bills we played over the years.

With the death of my uncle in the mid-80s, the partnership dissolved and the Gleeson families went their separate ways. The Regal and the Curzon continued in business for another few years, but by then the rural cinema scene was in decline and both cinemas were eventually shuttered.

In 1986, my father began a new chapter with the Ormond Twin Cinemas, Nenagh, opening its doors with Rocky IV and Spies Like Us. Today, it's a thriving five-screen cineplex.

Now in his seventh decade in the business, Eddie Gleeson holds the distinction of being the most senior member of the film industry in Ireland. A stalwart among exhibitors and a film buff without peer, his knowledge and appreciation of all things cinema is breathtaking.

He has known all the Ireland heads of Columbia Pictures, Disney, Fox, Warner and Universal since they began as office assistants. Over the years, they became his close friends, and he was there too when they all retired. He has seen so many legends of the industry come and go, and still he carries on, an institution in Nenagh where he is to be found most nights of the week, always immaculately attired in a suit and tie, greeting customers in the foyer.

My mother has long resigned herself to the fact that he will never retire, sustained as he is by a passion for movies. A passion which he passed on to me.

My own journey in this industry can be traced back to one drizzling Monday night in March 1981 when I saw Gone With the Wind on the big screen in Cappamore and was blown away by the sheer romance and epic scope of it all. Walking home, I had an epiphany - I could combine what I loved with what my teachers told me I had a talent for; writing. I could make movies!

And so began a quest which has taken me all over the world and through a succession of careers, including five years in the North Sea oil industry followed by another two in the Arctic Circle (hey, no one said it would be easy) to where I am now - in the privileged position where I make a living doing what I love.

I now have films in development at nearly all of the major studios in Hollywood. Right now, I'm writing a movie for Disney and have one film which I directed currently on release (Don't Go starring Stephen Dorff and Melissa George), with another which I wrote, Tolkien, opening worldwide on May 3.

Recently, on a visit to the Warner Brothers studios, I took along a photo of my grandfather and tucked it behind the name plaque on the wall of the famed Studio 7 soundstage where Casablanca was filmed.

I did it because I wanted a part of Willie Gleeson to reside there. I know the gesture probably wouldn't have meant much to him, but it felt important to me.

'Don't Go' is out in cinemas now

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