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Sunday 22 September 2019

'We only really have RTÉ and they never rang me. I never got any offers' - Kirsten Sheridan on leaving Ireland to work

Writer/director Kirsten Sheridan was born into filmmaking, but she felt she had to leave Ireland behind to follow her career path, she tells Tanya Sweeney

Studio hit: Kirsten directing 2007’s August Rush
Studio hit: Kirsten directing 2007’s August Rush

Tanya Sweeney

Long before Lenny Abrahamson, John Carney and Nora Twomey were cutting a dash in the international film industry, Kirsten Sheridan was flying the flag for new Irish filmmaking.

Before landing a Best Original Screenplay nod at the 2004 Academy Awards (for co-writing the semi-autobiographical In America with her dad Jim and sister Naomi), Kirsten burst onto the scene at 23 with her directorial debut, Disco Pigs, in 2001.

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Dubbed the 'Irish adolescent version of Bonnie & Clyde', Disco Pigs was described by its producer Ed Guiney as "Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet meets A Clockwork Orange - but without their budgets".

It was an edgy and assured debut, marking Sheridan as one to watch. She had also prompted stirring performances from newcomers Elaine Cassidy and Cillian Murphy, prompting commentators to note that she had the same sleight of hand with young actors as her father. And by 2001, of course, she was already a dab hand at film sets, after appearing in her father's film, My Left Foot, at the age of 12.

Disco Pigs was released 20 years ago, and since then Sheridan's filmic output has been sparse. A studio feature, August Rush starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Keri Russell, was released in 2007. The low-budget Dollhouse, featuring newcomers Seána Kerslake and Johnny Ward, followed in 2012. Some scripts have sneaked onto the screen, including 2016's London Town, and an Amy Winehouse biopic, starring Noomi Rapace as the late jazz singer, was also in the works for a while. But in the main, fans of Sheridan's assured directorial style have been left wanting.

Was arriving into the business on a huge wave of hype more hindrance than help, looking back?

"I didn't really feel any pressure from that expectation personally," Kirsten notes. "It would be disingenuous to say that I wasn't in a privileged position. I came from a family with a track record. But I'm still in training when it comes to really figuring out what it is I want to say."

It transpires that Kirsten has been working steadily on film and TV scripts in Los Angeles, where she has been based with her young family for the past six years.

"I've got one feature film hopefully on the go, a mini-series with my dad hopefully on the go, I'm pitching my own original TV comedy series hopefully," she explains. "Everything is 'hopefully on the go'!"

It being LA, filmmaking can result in a lot of disappointments and false dawns. It's not unusual to create pilots for TV series that never see the light of day, to be stuck in developmental hell and to be effectively taking meetings after meeting. That said, Sheridan is refreshingly honest about chasing the opportunities to tell the stories she wants.

"I felt like I had to leave Ireland," she admits. "I moved over to LA to get into TV specifically, as I think there's more room for it, and it challenges you and pushes you to find your voice. We only really have RTÉ and they never rang me. I never got any offers. I feel like it's different for young Irish directors, and young Irish female directors to some degree. You can pick up a camera and just do it, but sometimes you do have to leave for the opportunities. That was certainly the situation for me.

"I mean the weather's great here [in LA], but it's kind of a funny one," she continues. "There's a lot of jobs, but you're still in a position where there is so much competition."

Timing is everything in the business, and Kirsten notes that she has seen several brilliant scripts that somehow still got left in Hollywood's limbo.

"It's like lightning in a bottle when the story [you want to tell] is in your bones, but also happens to be riding the wave of the Zeitgeist, but unfortunately that's something you can't force," she observes.

August Rush proved a healthy box office success, and in the usual run of things, a healthy return at the box office opens doors in Hollywood for directors. But as Kirsten notes, the critics were also less than kind.

"Critics sort of rebelled against that kind of sweetness, and all I got offered were sweet family female movies," she recalls. "In fact, I didn't get a lot of offers at all. A woman said to me once, 'Are you telling me that after you did a big studio movie that was a box office success, you got no offers?' And I was like, 'Now that you say it, that does sound kind of f***ed!'"

Fortunately, the opportunities for more female filmmakers to tell their stories is opening. Where the likes of Bridesmaids, Catastrophe and Fleabag have blazed a trail, countless other women are now travelling comfortably in their jet stream.

Recently, the Toronto International Film Festival announced that 50pc of their line-up was projects directed by women. Whether by accident or design, it's a welcome development for Sheridan.

"I'm pro [gender] quotas, and pro ring-fencing money for female filmmakers. I suppose change is hard at first and then it becomes the norm," she adds. "I've flicked through magazine articles of the top 50 writers or showrunners in America, and I often feel no one looks like me. It's just another centrefold full of white dudes."

Waiting for a project to take flight and make it to the screen, Sheridan admits, is frustrating.

"I've had to think of it as, 'If the next one doesn't make it to the screen I'll change careers'," she smiles. "I know for every writer it's painful to leave your project, your baby, on the shelf, but you either end up quitting or getting to a very zen place. I like to think for now I'm somewhere between the two!"

  • Disco Pigs is showing as part of the Dublin Feminist Film Festival on Thursday at 9.15pm at the Lighthouse Cinema, Smithfield Square. For more information, see dublinfeministfilmfestival.com

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