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The Ghosts of Conor McPherson’s Past

The Ghosts of Conor McPherson's Past (photo)

The playwright talks about his breakthrough supernatural love story at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Conor McPherson insists it’s his lead Ciarán Hinds who provides “instant soul” to his latest film “The Eclipse,” but it’s the 37-year-old Irish playwright who’s responsible for the ghosts. As has been his habit in his acclaimed plays like as “Shining City” and “The Seafarer,” McPherson once again conjures up the supernatural for a love story about a grieving widower (Hinds) who finds a connection with a writer of ghost stories (Iben Hjejle) when he volunteers at a literary festival in the small Irish town of Cobh, serving as a driver to a loutish bestselling author (Aidan Quinn) who’s equally entranced by her. While the film’s gravitas and unexpected wit has led to that even more elusive spirit — buzz of a distribution deal — McPherson’s preoccupation with ghosts even prompted fellow playwright John Patrick Shanley to finally ask about it during the Q & A that followed the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Following the premiere, McPherson took the time to answer that as well as speak to the ghost of his unreleased-in-America Michael Caine comedy “The Actors,” at the DIRECTV Tribeca Press Center.

How did this film come about?

The whole idea came together when a friend of mine, whose also a playwright, Billy Roche, was writing a book of short stories. He was e-mailing me these stories as he was finishing them, so every few weeks, I’d get one. He sent one which was set against the backdrop of a literary festival, about a guy volunteering who becomes obsessed with this poet, and she’s there because she’s meeting up with this other, famous writer. I thought hey, that could be kind of funny. I didn’t even think of it as a spooky film at that time.

I was talking then to my wife about it and because in the story, the guy is married and he has kids, my wife said, you’ve got to kill his wife because women won’t like him if he’s a married guy with kids and is obsessed with this other woman. I thought, oh God, yeah, I suddenly could see that he could be grieving and haunted and it could be spooky. I’ve always been very interested in the supernatural.

I know you’re a playwright, but had you attended one of these literary festivals yourself before?

I’ve been at film festivals in the past and theater festivals, but I had never really been to a literary festival before we started working on it because as a playwright, in a sense, you don’t really have anything you can read. You could go and act out the parts, it’s a bit weird. But we went to one in Ireland, the Listowel Writers Festival in County Kerry, and to be honest, it was very low key — it wasn’t as crazy as I supposed I wanted it to be, so the festival in our movie is a little heightened, and actually the writers are treated probably way better than they would be in reality. [laughs] It’s a fantasy. Here’s the celebrated writer!

04302009_TheECLIPSE2.jpgOne of the aspects of the film that was particularly striking was the lighting — the use of silhouettes and shadows — and as a playwright, it’s a crucial element on stage. Did you find yourself paying particular attention to it in “The Eclipse”?

When I started writing plays, I was quite young, 17 or 18. I was at college and there was a drama society and to put a play on, you had to direct it — I didn’t know anyone who was a director or anything like that, soI just started directing plays at the same time I started writing. Over all those years, I learned so much about lighting and sound and I love it all. I love the visual aspect. So when it came to doing the movie, I had a very strong vision of what I wanted it to be. I wanted it to have a certain coolness of the way Stanley Kubrick shoots things, a stillness, not too cutty. In terms of lighting, I was very taken with movies like “The Exorcist” — it’s very, very dark and very mysterious, and it was quite daring. There’s a lot of shots in ["The Eclipse"] where the actors are silhouettes.

Because we’d spent so long working on the script over four years, I pretty much knew all the shots I wanted, paid a tremendous amount of attention to those details and visited all of the locations probably three or four times. When I arrived to shoot, I knew exactly where the lights would be, exactly the time of day to shoot at. I remember reading David Mamet talking about film directing, and he [said] films are all in the preparation — on this one, I really felt that. I spent 50 times longer prepping than we did shooting, which paid off because we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot.

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