In a Climate of Fear, Her Story Is Told

David Gritten is a London-based writer and frequent contributor to Calendar

When a film is shot here these days--a common occurrence in this economic boomtown, where the Irish movie industry is enjoying a golden age--it tends to be a public event. The media are invited on set; passers-by are not discouraged from lingering to watch scenes being shot on city streets. But one film now being shot here is an exception.

The scene: A drab industrial estate in a nondescript north Dublin suburb, not a pedestrian in view. Policemen in civilian clothes hover discreetly by an ugly building that looks like a converted warehouse. Nothing indicates a film is being made inside. This is one set that (except for this reporter) remains firmly closed to the press.

This hush-hush approach isn't surprising, given the nature of the film. "When the Sky Falls" is about the last two years in the life of Veronica Guerin, a crusading, award-winning Irish journalist slain in 1996 by gangland drug dealers about whom she had written a series of fearless exposes in her newspaper, the Sunday Independent.

Guerin, whose reporting had made her a celebrity in Ireland, died when she stopped her car at a red light and was shot by an assassin on a motorcycle . Her death sent shock waves throughout Ireland. It triggered one of the biggest crime hunts in the nation's history, one that was widely criticized because police allegedly violated the civil rights of suspects. Guerin's killing even ushered in legislative changes, making it harder for organized crime figures to avoid prosecution.

Though everyone involved with her slaying is behind bars--either convicted, charged or in Britain awaiting extradition to Ireland to face charges--a climate of fear lingers around the Guerin case. So naturally, Nigel Warren-Green, one of the two producers of "When the Sky Falls," wanted filming to proceed as discreetly as possible.

Apart from possible danger from disaffected criminal elements, Warren-Green has other reasons to feel defensive: "The obvious charge against this film is that it's opportunistic and exploits a tragic tale," he said. "But we've been unbelievably faithful to the story while trying to tell it dramatically."

He even saw fit to issue a statement about "Sky Falls," which reads in part: "When making a film of this nature, there will of course be much speculation as to the morality, authenticity and motivation behind the project. We are, however, fully confident that the film will speak on its own merits in volumes when completed." (Guerin's husband maintains a distant neutrality toward the film, refusing either to endorse or condemn it.)

"Sky Falls" boasts a literate, thoughtful script, written initially by Irish journalist Michael Sheridan (who worked with Guerin on an early film script about Dublin drug gangs) and completed by Colum McCann, an Irish writer living in New York, whose novel "This Side of Brightness" won rave reviews upon its publication last year.

The film also has a fine assemblage of talent. Veronica Guerin (or Sinead Hamilton, the name having been changed in the script for legal reasons) is played by American actress Joan Allen, who had a distinguished stage career with Chicago's Steppenwolf Company, starring in such popular productions as "Burn This" and "The Heidi Chronicles" before turning to film and winning Oscar nominations for roles in "Nixon" (as Pat Nixon) and "The Crucible." The film is directed by John Mackenzie, whose 1980 film "The Long Good Friday," with its strong sense of place (in London's Docklands), remains one of the finest British gangster movies.

Yet "Sky Falls" might have been a Hollywood studio product. Action-flick producer Jerry Bruckheimer, attracted by the story's thriller aspects, tried to adapt it for film. Winona Ryder offered to star in the film for a fraction of her normal fee, so enthusiastic was she about an early draft of the script that portrayed Guerin as a young lone-wolf female journalist investigating crime kingpins. In reality, Guerin was married, with a 5-year-old child (whom she sometimes took along with her on stakeouts), at the time of her death.

"My fear was if the Americans got their hands on it, the story would be sanitized and sentimentalized beyond belief," Sheridan said. In 1995 he was encouraged to write a script about gang crime in Dublin, and agreed on condition that Guerin would collaborate with him.

"I knew her slightly from office parties and having a few drinks with her in a crowd," Sheridan said. "She agreed to help on the script, which she could do without writing anything, so it wouldn't take her away from her work. We started from the premise of constructing a story from crime characters. But after a couple of months I told her: The real story is about a woman journalist investigating crime in Dublin, based on you. She said, 'Oh, really? Am I that interesting?' She was quite modest, self-effacing and down-to-earth about her job, which she saw as straightforward.

"She agreed but said, 'Don't call her Veronica Guerin in the film, and don't glamorize those bastards,' meaning the criminals. So we moved on from there."

Guerin, then, knew what was in Sheridan's script right up to her own murder. After her death he continued rewriting, even though his own family, fearing for his safety, urged him to stop.

Finally he hit a creative brick wall, and could not meet the demands of producers Warren-Green and Michael Wearing to flesh out Guerin's domestic life. "I was too close to the subject," Sheridan admitted. "I wasn't willing to deal with the family situation. I'd met her husband a couple of times. I felt inhibited and sensitive."

Enter Colum McCann, who started writing his version of the story a year and a half ago. "As it stood, it was much more gung-ho, about a single woman without a child," he said. "I felt we needed to go closer to the real thing. I wanted to discuss the contradictory elements of the human spirit. I mean, here was a woman who sometimes took her child with her to work. In her line of work, that's a complex moral decision for a mother to make.

"So now this Sinead exists, warts and all, rather than painting her as a saintly figure who kicked down doors and had a wonderful family life. It was hard to write. Everyone in Dublin has an opinion about her. Some want to claim her as a saint; some see her as a journalistic demon who made wrong choices; others think she wasn't such a good mother. I never met her or her husband. Maybe there's a freedom in not knowing."

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Joan Allen, who has assumed a soft Irish accent and does a half-hour "speech drill" each day with a dialect coach, sees things similarly. She mused about Guerin before going into the studio to shoot a poignant scene in which she meets an elderly Irish woman who witnessed a coldblooded gang killing.

"I don't think she was a saint. I think she was driven by getting the word out," she said. "I've seen, read and heard interviews with Veronica Guerin, and she'd say, 'There's a job to be done.' Crime reporters on other newspapers would swallow the line the garda [police] gave them, but she went out, met these criminals, wooed them, talked to them. She said herself her best quality was persistence."

Noting that Guerin had once been shot in the leg, and subsequently beaten up by crime figures she was investigating, Allen added: "I don't think it was inevitable in her mind that she would be killed. After all, it was unthinkable at the time that a journalist would be murdered.

"This is a dream role for an actress. I felt here was a proactive character who gets right in the middle of things, rather than other people I've played who were acted upon by husbands or events."

Director Mackenzie sees a "Long Good Friday"-ish flavor about "Sky Falls": "The hero's a woman, but the spectrum of the movie--gangsters, crooks, drugs--is similar. It's also done with a specific time, era and city, which is what I tried to do with 'The Long Good Friday.' When I come to Dublin now, it reminds me of London in the '80s--all those new buildings and affluence."

"We all feel passionate about this film," said Warren-Green, who recalled having met Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, who enthusiastically endorsed the making of the film. "He said of all modern Irish stories, this is the one that must be told. It strikes at the very heart of Irish society." *

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