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Trying to strike the perfect notes

Times Staff Writer

In the new Warner Bros. film “August Rush,” a boy stands in a wheat field conducting a symphony that only he can hear. As the wind picks up, the stalks of wheat bend and sway in rhythmic harmony, each sound of nature becoming a note flying off instruments in the boy’s mind.

But how to translate that cinematically? “The huge challenge for me was to capture something visually that is as intangible as music,” said director Kirsten Sheridan.

Her solution? The boy, played by Freddie Highmore of “Finding Neverland,” not only directs the music, but as with the waving wheat, he seemingly directs the camera as well.

“The camera is the music,” Sheridan said. “He would move his hand to the left and the camera would sweep to the left with the wind. . . . I’m the kind of director who hates films that have plain shots and complicated shots just for the sake of it. In this case, I was able to go a little bit crazy and be able to go with the character and the movement.”

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Sheridan, a 31-year-old mother of two, is speaking by telephone from her home in Dublin, where she spends most of her days caring for her 4-month-old son, Seamus, and ferrying her 5-year-old daughter, Leyla, back and forth to school.

“If you kind of divorce yourself from your own life,” Sheridan said, “what are you going to write and direct?”

Sean McDonald, her significant other, is an accountant who is studying psychology. “We’re Kurt Russell-Goldie Hawn people,” Sheridan says of their decision not to marry. “We plan to spend the rest of our lives together.”

Sheridan said living in Ireland keeps her rooted in reality. “There is no better country to keep your feet on the ground. People tell you quickly if you get airs. I actually live in the same area where I was born in the ‘70s. I kind of moved back to where I grew up the first five years of my life.”

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She has followed in the footsteps of her father, six-time Oscar-nominated writer-director Jim Sheridan, whose films include “My Left Foot,” “In America,” “The Boxer” and “In the Name of the Father.” Like her dad, she both writes and directs movies. Indeed, with her father and older sister, Naomi, she received an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay for 2002’s “In America,” a semi-autobiographical story about Irish immigrants living in a modern-day New York City tenement.

“We all moved to America first in 1981,” Sheridan recalled. “We were in one of those railroad apartments. We lived in each other’s back pockets.”

Although the Sheridan family is scattered today, they remain close. “My dad, at the moment, is shooting a movie in New Mexico,” she said. “My sisters live in New York.” Naomi continues to write, she noted, while youngest sister, Tess, attends New York University, where she studies film and Italian.

In addition to co-writing “In America,” Kirsten Sheridan also appeared on camera in the film, although you won’t see her face in the scene.

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She laughs as she recalls how she was pregnant at the time with Leyla and how her father asked if he could use her pregnancy in a shot?

“My belly is in one of the shots,” she said. “It was my daughter’s first starring role. It’s the scene where Samantha Morton comes out and touches her belly. It’s a close-up. I was a fill-in for a day.”

Sheridan said she knew from the age of 12 that she wanted to become a director.

“I was working as an extra on the set of ‘My Left Foot,’ running around getting tea and got totally caught up being with actors and with the crew,” she recalled. “It was like a very intense bubble. We were almost like a family for a while. Daniel Day-Lewis was Method acting, so you’d see him eating lunch and he’d still be in character (as cerebral palsy-stricken Irish writer Christy Brown). He never got out of the wheelchair.”

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But rather than singling out any nuggets about filmmaking that her father dispensed on the set, Sheridan said she learned much more from simply observing how he treated people on the set -- in particular, the actors.

“He is exactly on the set as he is at home, or giving a speech before 1,000 people, or sitting in a taxicab talking to the cab driver,” she said. “He never changes. When I see him with actors, I see that complete honesty. . . . If he sees that the actors are completely honest and vulnerable, he has to come up to that mark himself.”

Both father and daughter live in a world of stories.

“We like a lot of the same stuff,” she said, although her father gravitates toward stories that are socio-political in their themes. “I guess I’m only slowly getting there myself -- to have the courage to jump into that area myself. . . . I love to make movies that are uplifting in the real dirt of humanity. If I’m going to spend time away from my children, it has to be for a damned good reason.”

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Before “In America,” Sheridan had directed only five short films and in 2000 made her first feature-length movie, “Disco Pigs,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001 to critical acclaim.

It was a scene in that film, in which two infants in separate bassinets reach over and clasp hands, that caught the attention of producer Richard Barton Lewis, who was looking for a director for “August Rush,” a story inspired by the birth of his own son. Nick Castle and James V. Hart received screenwriting credit on the film, while “story by” credit went to Paul Castro and Castle.

What Lewis found in Sheridan was a kindred spirit.

“We made this instantaneous connection,” he said. “She really captured the voice of August Rush, this quietly driven child who hears music in his head and is determined to get it out and find his parents.”

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Unlike many of this season’s dark and depressing films, “August Rush” is a fable about a child prodigy who is raised in an orphanage and then goes into New York City on a quest to find the parents he never knew. Unknown to him, his mother and father are both musicians and the years have been unsettling for each.

The film, which opened Wednesday, stars Keri Russell as a sheltered cellist named Lyla and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an Irish rock band singer-songwriter named Louis, who meet by chance and have a romantic encounter on a moonlit rooftop above New York’s Washington Square.

Years pass with neither of them knowing that the child Lyla thought she lost in a car accident was actually given up for adoption by Lyla’s strict father, who wanted nothing to distract his daughter from a rising career as a classical musician.

Lost and alone in New York, the boy meets a Fagin-like figure named Wizard, played by Robin Williams, who lives in an abandoned theater with homeless children, sending them out each day to play music for the money left at their feet by passersby.

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Although Williams is famous for his comedic, over-the-top routines, under Sheridan’s direction he delivers a more restrained performance, bringing humanity to the character of Wizard along with a sinister side that makes him the closest thing the film has to a villain.

Lewis said that unlike many male directors, who bring a “my way or the highway” approach to directing, Sheridan had “an uncanny ability to communicate. She never lost her temper, never raised her voice. She actually got quieter as we went along.”

Sheridan said the 46-day shoot in New York City went better than expected. There was a coyote scare in Central Park one day, and on another the cops were out in helicopters “the whole bloody afternoon,” but when they needed snow on the first day, “we got the biggest blizzard New York had seen in 40 years. We all arrived on the set and it was just a blanket of white perfection,” she said. “At the end of the movie, when we needed to film a concert outdoors, in the movie it’s supposed to be the height of summer, but it was April and we didn’t want it to be raining. We would have been truly up the creek if it rained. But it turned out to be the hottest four days in April on record.”

Serendipitous, to be sure. Or, just call it the luck of the Irish.

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robert.welkos@latimes.com


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