Ireland’s Son of Altman: John Crowley Takes No Shortcuts with “Intermission”
by Brandon Judell
John Crowley‘s “Intermission” is a hyperkinetic ride through Dublin’s underside. Just imagine Robert Altman directing on speed. The dozens of characters in Mark O’Rowe‘s cleverly antic screenplay fall in love and hate, cause bus accidents, commit robberies, make fun of a young woman’s moustache, commit adultery, punch each other out time and again, and drink each other under the table.
Starring top thespians such as Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell, Colm Meaney, Shirley Henderson, and Kelly Macdonald, there is not a weak moment on screen. Well, possibly the closing moments are a bit too sweet, but the viscous, highly startling opening more than makes up for it.
Crowley, a highly respected theater director on the Emerald Isle, flew into New York recently to chat up “Intermission,” and indieWIRE was more than happy to listen to this helmer gab on and on. IFC Films released the film on Friday.
indieWIRE: Do you believe the casting of Colin Farrell will give “Intermission” added box-office clout?
John Crowley: Here?
Crowley: Not hugely. I mean it certainly doesn’t hurt, right? But it’s not a Colin Farrell movie, and it’s not being billed as a Colin Farrell movie. It’s an ensemble drama in which he’s very, very good, and he shows a completely different color to anything he’s ever shown from his palette this far. It’s very interesting to watch that in terms of the rest of his work. I’m not so sure that this is necessarily the kind of movie for your mainstream Colin Farrell-type fan. It’s maybe more a serious filmgoers… [Crowley reconsiders.] No, not for serious filmgoers, but for people who love films.
iW: “Intermission” is being compared to “Magnolia” by some critics. What’s the relevance of that film to you?
Crowley: Well, you wouldn’t have had Paul Thomas Anderson if you didn’t have Robert Altman, in terms of the kind of story that he conceives. Altman would be a huge influence on me. I mean I love his movies, and Paul Thomas Anderson would be a huge influence on Mark O’Rowe, the writer. So there is sort of a common territory there.
Mark tells me that he wrote the script with a poster of “Magnolia” over his desk. “Magnolia” hadn’t been released yet in Ireland. Then he went to see it and was disappointed. It must be in some sense because he was writing what he thought was the Dublin “Magnolia,” and when he went to see the real “Magnolia,” it didn’t live up to what he felt he had just written.
But certainly, when I was preparing for this film, I watched “Magnolia” many times, just like I watched “Short Cuts” and “Nashville” as examples of films which juggle multiple plot lines and how you do that. How you try and ensure that the plot doesn’t go off to boil.
iW: Talk about your choice of cinematographer.
Crowley: I was very keen to have a foreign eye on Dublin because of the fact if you’re shooting a movie out on the desert, there’s a reason to use expensive stock and fabulous lenses. There’s a reason to really go for the sort of John Ford epic quality. But if you’re shooting in supermarkets in the middle of Dublin, these are not very glamorous locations. So I wanted to be able to use the sort of grubbiness of the background in a way that would enhance the filmmaking which is to say, using a slightly documentary-influenced handheld style which owes a lot to the filmmaking that was done in the ’70s, again going back to stuff like Altman. Or even something like “The French Connection.” The qualities I wanted I saw in a film called “The Last Resort” which Ryszard Lenczewski, a Polish cinematographer, had shot. It was shot in a small, grim town in England. But he had really shot it beautifully, and it was quite poetic. It was all shot on Super 16 which I wanted to shoot this film on, having been very influenced by Mike Figgis and his “Leaving Las Vegas,” which was almost like a guerrilla-filmmaking tactic: Not having enough money. Getting smaller cameras. Cheaper stock, and going and shooting it and using available light. That notion appealed to me very much as being something that would benefit the heart of this script.
“Intermission” wasn’t a film that I thought if you threw $30 million at it, you’d make a hugely better film. Do you know sometimes actually less money is really better? It’s better for you to think more simply in terms of an aesthetic.
So Ryszard Lenczewski brought a huge amount of experience of making documentaries and shooting films for really very little money. He had all that great technique of the other great cinematographers from Poland, like all of Kieslowski’s cinematographers who had been trained at the Lutz film school. I don’t know what’s in the water there, but they certainly relish the challenge of having to shoot something with like one light bulb in a dark corner.
And Ryszard works fast. He was always ready first. Usually the lighting takes forever on a set. Not with him. I was rehearsing for much longer with the actors than he was with the lighting. So he was always ready to go, and he would capture the energy of what I was doing with the actors, which was wonderful. Also “Intermission” doesn’t look like any other Irish film because of the stock that he chose. His sensibility was different. He’s foreign. He carries a whole amount of history and aesthetics and artistic, cultural sensibility with him that you wouldn’t get from an Irish cinematographer, no disrespect to them.
The script, by the way, was quite influenced by American models, and Ireland is sort of on an axis between America and Europe, wanting to balance itself on the other side. So I did clearly want my key collaborators, the cinematographer and my editor, to be European. My editor is Italian. I wanted that sort of a sensibility to balance that because you know American films made in America are great. But sometimes when Irish filmmakers try to ape America or English filmmakers try to ape America and make American-influenced films over there, they fall flat on their faces. They just don’t work. I didn’t want this to feel American in that way. So that’s what influenced me.
iW: How did you regroup yourself while making “Intermission”? John Sayles runs each day after a day’s shooting. A certain French director brings exercise machines with him wherever he films. After a day’s shooting, are you wired up or depleted?
Crowley: I wasn’t so depleted. I mean I was, you know, by the time we got to make the film… You know the film collapsed in March, and it looked like it was gone for good. All the actors whom we had set up carefully like a house of cards, they’re all very busy actors, went away doing different things. It looked like “Intermission” had gone forever.
I went and took on a play that I was offered on the West End, which I was directing with Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan. It was a two-hander called “On an Average Day,” written by a young New York writer [John Kolvenbach]. Well, two weeks into rehearsal for that in July, the producers phoned me and said, “Listen! The good news is we’ve secured the rest of the money for ‘Intermission.’ The bad news is you’re going to have to be shooting three weeks after you open the play.” Principal photography began three weeks to the day after my opening night in London. So, you know, normally you would have two-month prep. We had done a few bits of pieces of prep, but it was a bit like jumping off a cliff and just trusting you’d land safely. That’s what it was like.
I did have a sleepless night. I thought, “Should I back out of this film? Can I do this film? Can I do it in three weeks? Am I about to make a terrible mistake?” But actually I had spent over a year and a half storyboarding the film, thinking about it, really wanting to make it, and I thought you know I’m never going to get this chance again. Just go for it.
So to answer your question, was I tired at the end of the day? I don’t think so because some manic sort of energy carried me through it. I would normally unwind an evening with a glass of red wine, and I didn’t even have as much as that during the filming. I was very sort of abstemious and looked after myself, but I’m not a fitness fanatic. I do yoga once in a while, and that’s about it.
But I’ll tell you it was the joy of making the film that actually carried me through it. I don’t know… hopefully, I’ll go on and make other films. Many other films. I don’t know if they’ll ever feel as special as making this one because of the sheer kick I got out of making it. It felt so good to be making it at long last. I waited so long to do it, it was very, very special and very precious.
iW: Although I don’t see it, are you worried about any harsh reactions to the women getting shook up a bit in “Intermission”?
Crowley: No, not remotely. I actually think it’s quite moral in the sense that it’s almost like a fairy tale. The character who goes around smacking women gets shot at the end. It’s as straightforward as that. I don’t think that the film glamorizes violence in way. I think that one’s emotions are always very clear towards the person who’s just done that at any point. So no, I’m certainly not bracing myself. I’d be very surprised if people think the film is misogynistic. I mean it seems to me that the strongest characters in the film are the women.