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The Hollywood interview... Director Jim Sheridan

It's the ultimate rags to riches tale. Born on Dublin's Sheriff Street, subjected to a hand-to-mouth existence in New York's Hell's Kitchen and now the toast of Hollywood, thanks to six Academy Award nominations and 20-odd years of graft.

But there isn't a smidgen of pomposity to film director Jim Sheridan. On the contrary, his common touch is his most endearing quality.

The Dublin drawl hasn't been tempered with even the faintest American intonation, he drags the word "moo-ev-vies" for so long that it sounds like it has three syllables and he delivers our national expletive, "bollox", like an old pro.

His attitude is distinctly Dublin -- old Dublin. In fact, you're more likely to see Sheridan queuing outside the chip van at the Punchestown races than quaffing champagne in some celeb hangout.

His latest offering is Brothers, a faithful remake of the Danish film Brødre. It's the story of a young US Marine captain, Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), who is presumed dead after he goes missing in Afghanistan. His wayward brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) comforts his wife (Natalie Portman) and two children in his absence, and gradually assumes the position of both father and husband.

When Sam returns, crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia, he struggles to regain his place in the family dynamic and come to terms with what has happened in his absence.

The pairing of Maguire and Gyllenhaal is a stroke of genius, not just because of their similar features, but the convincing emotional shorthand they share. It's difficult to fathom that Leonardo DiCaprio was an initial contender for Gyllenhaal's role. "I had talked to Tobey and Leonardo for a few years about making a movie together," recalls Sheridan. "Leo was off doing something and Jake, I had always met Jake at Chateau [Marmont] around the pool, a lot of the time with Heath [Ledger].

"We became friendly; he wanted to do something with me and Natalie was the only one I didn't know. The boys knew her and asked Natalie and that was it."

Also on board are child actors Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare. True to form, Sheridan has elicited extremely natural performances from them. "I kind of get the kids to play in a sense," he explains when I ask him how he does it. "I talk to them like I talk to the other actors, even if it's a very complex idea. I'd say to them 'what's this scene about?' or 'what are we doing?' and they think they're helping me fix it rather than perform."

In a recent HQ interview Jake Gyllenhaal described Sheridan's directing style as a "beautiful mess". He recalled how Sheridan once asked the PA who brought his coffee to get behind the monitor and give her opinion on the scene before changing it, according to her advice. How does that sort of criticism sit with the director and is this informal style his modus operandi?

"The collective mind is smarter than the individual sometimes. All I'm doing is checking as I make the movie that I'm not doing something stupid that an ordinary person wouldn't see. It's like my missus can point out mistakes that Marlon Brando makes acting. I've been on film sets where the director is telling people that they're doing things wrong and then the director does it and it's wrong again. But the director can't be seen to be wrong so everyone claps him and says that he's right. It's all bollox."

Sheridan's all-inclusive style stretches to his family, too. His youngest daughter, Tess (23), helped him with script analysis on Brothers. "I kind of made her the protector of the original." While his other daughters, Kirsten and Naomi, helped him write In America, for which the trio were nominated for an Academy Award back in 2004.

A fastidious researcher, his back study for Brothers included a visit to Camp Pendleton and an investigation into the US military mental health facilities, a service he thinks could be much better equipped.

In a lot of ways the film has echoes of The Deer Hunter. It also explores duty -- in the war zone and in relationships; unemotional father-son relationships and the familial consequences of shellshock.

Maguire's explosive breaking point comes during a dinner-table scene. It was, says Sheridan, the toughest scene to shoot. "If you watch the original, the girl who comes to dinner is a bit ditzy and I just couldn't do it, so I changed her radically. I had to change the whole scene around her so then I had to improvise."

The result is a scene so awkward and intense that it compares to the earlier scenes of torture that Maguire's character suffers in Afghanistan.

It's testament to Sheridan's talent that he can elicit a range of searing emotion from the most ordinary of situations and the sparsest of dialogue. His is a traditional form of film-making, with no bells, whistles, special effects or convoluted narrative. It is master storytelling, plain and simple, exactly what you'd expect from an Irish film-maker. HQ

Brothers is in cinemas from 22 January


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