'In America' is a Sheridan family affair

Special to The Times

Jim Sheridan is a born storyteller, with a particular knack for stories that examine the human condition. Although the Irish writer-director has told them to great effect in films ranging from "My Left Foot" to "In the Name of the Father," one story he hadn't told on film was his own.

With "In America" (which opened Wednesday at the Monica in Santa Monica and the Grove Stadium 14), Sheridan, 54, has made what he considers his most personal -- and personally revealing -- movie. The semiautobiographical work is based on the seven years he, his wife and their two young daughters lived in New York City.

Sheridan moved his clan to Manhattan from Dublin in 1981 so he could pursue a career directing theater in the drama capital of the world. It wasn't an easy transition. The family struggled financially and lived at one point in the tough Hell's Kitchen district, a since-gentrified Midtown area that had its fair share of drug dealers and prostitutes two decades ago.

While dramatizing the challenges confronting an Irish family in a strange land, Sheridan also infuses his film with touching moments of humor, spirituality, familial love and bonding.

"There were guys selling drugs on the first floor of the building where we lived," Sheridan recalled recently during one of his multiple stays in Los Angeles while crisscrossing the country promoting his film. "There were all those kinds of characters around. But it was also an idyllic period, in a sense that we got closer as a family. It really wasn't that tough of a time. You could always do minimum-wage jobs if you had to eat and survive, whereas in Ireland and England, the unemployment rate was very high then."

The idea of making a film about his family's experiences in New York City dates to 1990, when Sheridan was in Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards. "My Left Foot" -- his debut film about the Irishman Christy Brown, a victim of cerebral palsy who wrote and painted with the toes on his left foot -- had been nominated for a best picture Oscar. Sheridan had also been nominated as best director, while two of his actors, Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker, took home Oscars for their performances in the film.

"I was out buying a tuxedo for the Oscars when I heard a voice going, 'Oh, my God, Jim!' It was a painter who lived downstairs from us in New York," Sheridan says. "He said, 'I made it too!' He showed me his Armani jacket. Then he said, 'That house was blessed. You should make a film about that house.' "

Sheridan not only embarked on writing a script for "In America," but he also asked his daughters to write scripts about their memories of living in New York as small children. Kirsten Sheridan was just 16 and Naomi 19 when they were given this assignment.

Incorporating elements of his daughters' scripts allowed Sheridan to bring a child's point of view to the film. Much of the movie's charm comes from the engaging innocence and intuitive perceptivity of the child characters.

"In a funny way, the film ended up having no main character," Kirsten Sheridan, 27, observed in a separate interview with Naomi. "The family seems to be the main character, which I think came about because we wrote separately at the beginning. Everyone got a distinctive voice. Christy [the film's older daughter] is obviously quite interior and quite soulful. That very much came from Naomi's script."

In one scene based on a real experience, the father, Johnny ("24 Hour Party People" star Paddy Considine), risks the rent money in attempt to win an "E.T." doll for his daughters at a carnival.

"That was a crazy day," remembers Naomi Sheridan, 30, a New York City-based screenwriter. "He actually lost. We originally had that in one of the scripts. But my dad said he had to change it so he wins. We were like 'Oh, really! It's great to be able to rewrite your own life!' But it did have to change or it wouldn't have worked" dramatically.

The script for "In America," which AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival audiences recently voted best feature film, wasn't easy to write, Kirsten said: "There was nothing under the story pushing it." The heart and soul of the story emerged when the elder Sheridan decided to bring in the spirit of his younger brother, Frankie, who died of a brain tumor when he was 11 and Jim was 18.

In the film, Johnny and his wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), struggle to come to terms with the loss of their young son, Frankie, also because of a brain tumor.

Sheridan says he and his father were greatly haunted by Frankie's death. Johnny is an amalgamation of himself and his father. "Personally, I had to overcome [Frankie's death] because I had a great tendency to move towards situations where I didn't mind if I was in great danger. I was almost killed a few times. I had a cathartic need to deal with that issue."

Adds Naomi: "I think he felt an almost parental role with Frankie because Frankie was a much younger brother."

Frankie is responsible, in way, for the Sheridan family's move into drama and film. Jim's father started a theater group in Dublin as away of dealing with grief over Frankie's death, said Kirsten, a director-screenwriter whose film "Disco Pigs" has won critical accolades in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Jim immersed himself in the theater world but eventually found himself in hot water with the state-sponsored Irish drama community when he insisted on directing controversial plays like the comedy "Gay Bathhouse."

Sheridan packed up his family and moved to New York partly in search of artistic freedom. However, he was disenchanted with the Manhattan drama scene.

"I realized that I had nothing to say to anybody on Broadway," he recalled. "There was alternative theater, but that was still kind of upper-class or bourgeois theater." Ironically, Sheridan says he is now considered a conservative director in his homeland because he doesn't possess the hip credentials of a Quentin Tarantino and doesn't make films about "doing cappuccino in modern Ireland."

"In the Name of the Father" was a gripping film about a son and father falsely imprisoned when they were mistaken for IRA terrorists. Sheridan's 1997 film, "The Boxer," also had an IRA subtext.

If "In America" proves appealing in the U.S., part of that credit will go toward the child actresses in the film, Sarah and Emma Bolger. The sisters portray Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan, respectively.

"They have the exact same dynamic that Kirsten and I had when we were that age," Naomi enthuses. "Sarah is pretty quiet and Emma is very outgoing."

To keep their performances as real and spontaneous as possible, Sheridan did his best to keep the atmosphere on the set light and fun.

"On the first day, something went wrong and I cursed," Sheridan said. "Sarah said, 'Jim, it's OK to curse in front of me. I'm 10. But my sister is only 6 and it's rude to curse in front of her. So I'm going to have to ask you to stop.' So I said, 'Why don't you guys direct the film!?' So I let them say 'action' and 'cut.'

"You don't want to tell them to go sit down. If you treat them with love and respect, they keep blossoming. I'm very proud of the kids, and I'm proud of the way it all turned out."

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