The Dan Ireland story is pretty darn romantic. One of four children born into a middle-class Portland, Ore., family, he got bit by the movie bug at the age of 5 when his parents took him to the drive-in to see "Them!," a horror film about killer ants. "I was in awe," he recalls.
Ten years later, Ireland landed a job as an usher in a Vancouver theater and he never really left that world. Now, after three decades of working in movies in every imaginable capacity, he's finally made it to the top of the hill. Ireland's directorial debut, "The Whole Wide World," was picked up for distribution by Sony Picture Classics last year at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently in limited release.
The film, which Ireland also produced, stars Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger in the story of Robert E. Howard, the Texas-born pulp writer who created "Conan the Barbarian," and committed suicide in 1936 shortly after the death of his mother. Based on "One Who Walked Alone," a book about Howard published in 1991 by Novalyne Price Ellis, a woman who dated the writer, the film was shot in Austin, Texas, in 1995 for $1.3 million.
"I starved for this film--I made probably $10,000 for five years' work," the 46-year-old director says by phone from Miami, where he's doing promotion for the film.
Raised in Vancouver, Ireland traveled throughout British Columbia as a child, accompanying his father, who worked as a jukebox installer. "My father taught me to love music," Ireland says, "but I discovered movies myself. By the time I was 8, I was seeing things like 'Room at the Top' and 'The Apartment,' and was obsessed--I had no idea, however, where it might lead. I never considered acting, for instance, because I had such a strong sense of myself as an audience member."
Where it was to lead started to coalesce in 1965, when Ireland got that job as an usher at Vancouver's Vogue Theater. "My first week on the job, I saw 'Thunderball' 150 times--and thus began my dissection of what a film is," says Ireland, an autodidact who never attended film school.
After graduating from high school in 1967, Ireland began working as a manager for the Odeon Theater chain, where he was to remain for seven years. Itching to open his own independent theater where he could program films with a freer hand, he moved in 1975 to Seattle, where, he says, "I stumbled across this glorious old movie palace. I didn't know a soul in Seattle, but me and my best friend from high school, Darryl McDonald, both had $5,000 saved up, so we moved down there and poured our money into restoring this old vacant theater."
Not one to let any grass grow under his feet, Ireland gave himself a crash course in Seattle's film community, and by the end of his first year in town, he'd also launched the Seattle International Film Festival, whch was presented under Ireland'd direction until 1986. Premiering the Paul Verhoeven film "Soldier of Orange" at the Festival of 1978, Ireland handled the U.S. sale of the film, and the following year launched I.M.A., an agency representing Dutch actors and directors in the U.S. which operated through 1981.
Offered a job as head of acquisitions for Vestron Pictures in 1986, Ireland moved to L.A., where he was pleasantly surprised that "two weeks after I got to Vestron, they were pointing me in the direction of producing, which is what I'd always wanted to do."
Ireland's first assignment--a rather daunting one--was to produce John Huston's adaptation of the James Joyce short story "The Dead."
"The idea of getting a film with John Huston off the ground was a dream for me, and working with him was a great experience," recalls Ireland, who subsequently produced 14 more films for Vestron, among them Ken Russell's "The Lair of the White Worm" and Bernard Rose's "Immortal Beloved."
"I'm enormously proud of some films I did for Vestron, but plenty of others convinced me I could do a better job of directing myself," he says with a laugh. "And that's when I started thinking about making my own films."
Before getting down to business, Ireland had one more detour in store, and it took the form of a job as senior vice president of production for Cineville Inc. While Ireland was at Cineville, an actor named Benjamin Mouton, whom he had befriended during the making of the Ken Russell film "Whore," gave him a copy of the Novalyne Price Ellis book.
"I read it and asked him if he was thinking of it as a film, and he told me a screenplay had already been written. He then introduced me to Michael Scott Myers who gave me a copy of his screenplay. The book is essentially a train-of-thought memoir, which is a difficult thing to adapt for the screen, and I didn't see a movie in it. But I was fascinated by the characters, so I decided to help them as a producer."
In fact, Ireland wound up working on the screenplay for the next four years with Myers, Mouton and actor D'Onofrio--who everyone agreed was the only person who could play Howard. By 1993, it had been decided that the film should be directed by Ireland, who would co-produce with Mouton.
"All this was going on while I was working at Cineville, but I was totally in the closet about it. You can't say, 'I'm here to run your production division, and by the way, I have a script'--it just doesn't fly," Ireland says with a laugh. "Then in 1994, the company had a really bad year and I was asked if I had any ideas about a new direction to take. I said, 'Pay me $300 a week and produce my movie.' They read the script and said it's a deal."
The making of the film was such a good experience for all involved that Ireland and D'Onofrio formed a production company that already has several projects in the works.
"The first thing we're going to do is 'Weaponsville,' a black comedy Vincent and I will co-produce for director Tom de Cerchio. Vincent hasn't yet decided on a script he wants to direct, but my next directing project will be 'Mona,' a romantic comedy written by Robert McCaskill that we haven't cast yet but plan to shoot for $3 million next spring in New York. It's kind of a variation on the 'Jules and Jim' story.
"There's also a project I read while I was at Cineville that I'm dying to direct. It's a thing written by James Still called 'The Velocity of Gary,' which is best described as the 'Midnight Cowboy' of 1990s. It's an amazing story about a porno star, a hustler and a waitress in New York.
"I'm also rewriting a script by Peter Goldfinger called 'Maddy,' which is a sweet story about a guy who doesn't know how charismatic he is. It'll be produced by Steve Minsky, who found me. They saw my film and came to me! Isn't that incredible?"