Continuing its festival run this week at SXSW, following its Berlin premiere, is a remarkable Irish film, “Dollhouse,” directed by Kirsten Sheridan. The trippy, pulsing story of a home invasion scenario that is by turns scary, funny and surreal (you can read our review here), the film gained a special mention in Berlin, which is also where we caught up with its director.
Sheridan was previously nominated for an original screenplay Oscar (for co-writing “In America” with her father, Jim Sheridan) and gained a lot of positive notice for her debut feature, the Cillian Murphy breakout “Disco Pigs.” Following that was a perhaps ill-advised foray into Hollywood for the schmaltzy “August Rush” (about which she speaks candidly below). With “Dollhouse” only her third feature, and a startling departure from both of her previous outings, we sincerely hope we won’t have to wait long for the Dublin-based filmmaker’s next film. As our small nod to St Patrick’s Day (prior to getting blitzed on bad export Guinness, of course), here’s our interview in full.
“Dollhouse” lives or dies on its largely unknown cast. So what was the casting process like?
It took months. We did it very non-traditionally I suppose. The casting director….was scouring everywhere. The idea was to just look at everyone from every angle. Shane [Curry] had already been in a film called “Kisses” … and Kate Brennan I had seen on stage and I knew her socially. Jack [Reynor] came in for an audition and was reading for one of the other roles which was good because his character needed to have this kind of quiet edge that was only revealed later. So he was cast literally from the first audition and I think I almost told him as much. And then Seana [Kerslake] and Johnny [Ward] were both from the same place and Ciaran [McCabe] was just completely cast off the street, had never been in a film or on a film set before. So I think he thinks this is the normal way to make films!
But yeah, rather than doing auditions it was more about meeting them and spending a couple of hours together. And asking crazy, intimate, personal questions that I would videotape. Loads of questions about their lives that they could answer in either their character or as themselves. So it was really just about putting together a group [in which] everyone had to be quite distinctive visually as well as in personality.
You’re saying that they could answer in their characters? So had you provided them with back stories?
No, not at all. It was more that knew what I wanted and my job was like clearing a way for them to come through. [For example] Johnny… had this character in his head and wanted to explore the different sides to him and had this backstory, and so he answered fully in character for the whole interview. But I think most everyone else was more answering as themselves. But then of course as the film goes on you start to slowly morph into another character. You’re not playing yourself at all. But there were personal moments, glimpses of moments in the film that are based on a real life reaction. Like [someone] would have told me something and I put it in.
So you mined these interviews for content?
Yeah it’s a very moral balance, you have to be careful because you can go too far. In some cases something would be too close to the bone and [so I didn’t give it] to that character, I gave it to another.
The dialogue feels so natural and you’ve really caught the cadences of how that particular generation speaks in Dublin. How much was pre-scripted?
There were probably twenty lines in the whole thing that were scripted and they were “this is your house?” and some really important stuff like “you’ve been gone for a year.” Some of my favourite things came out of when I sent them all away for a week together (except for Jack because he didn’t get to meet any of them until the day we filmed.) I said “what kind of party games do you do?” and they said “we finish each others’ stories”…and so that developed into [a scene in the film]: “Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to rob her own safe.” So it all came out of games and improvs and meetings with them.
Also, I wanted to give them everything that their characters would know at any moment [and only that] and so when Jack was outside the door just about to walk in, he was walking into this group of people who had been with each other for a week and they’re all completely connected and bonded and he’s a complete outsider and he’s like “What the fuck?” I said “this is exactly how your character feels” so that’s perfect.
Here, actor Jack Reynor joins us for a bit.
So Jack, you’re basically the alien that bursts out of John Hurt’s stomach?
Jack Reynor: Pretty much!
One of the themes of the film is the class divide. That area is tricky, could very easily come across as condescending. How did you avoid those pitfalls?
KS: I’m from [a particular] area in Dublin so I know a lot of people from that area. So I know things that are a little bit more detailed or human, that kind of help against stereotyping. Jack’s character was the more challenging in a way because I don’t know that world. I knew that I didn’t want to be disrespectful and go “oh, that world is so privileged.” That’s why I cast Jack because I knew there was something very interesting there. Multi-layered as opposed to like “oh, the rich kid.”
I think it was more because they spoke in their own voices and they all got to know each other as a group, quite intimately. So I would find words and lines that they said to each other in improvs or interviews and feed them back to them on set when the cameras were rolling, so that they’d go “oh yeah, I did say that” and it would spark a [authentic] memory.
Read from the social critique angle, the film can be seen as quite pessimistic as the cross-class friendships are ultimately temporary. Is that something that you feel?
KS: Yeah it is actually. I don’t know if Jeanie’s privileged because of the money situation — certainly more then the others are — but I did want it to feel like they had this mad night and then they have to go back out into the cold. And into that world. And that is the reality of it. So I didn’t want to sugar coat it and say “and then they all lived happily ever after,” you know?
As well as class there are potential pitfalls portraying a younger generation. Not that you’re old, but I’m wondering about how you got over the “embarrassing Dad” syndrome.
KS: There probably would have been [a lot of] that if I had written it [from scratch instead] of listening to the language everybody would speak. I was obsessed with this word “random.” It’s amazing and looking at Facebook and just the way lives are lived now it’s all “I met a random guy in a random bar” and I just thought “I want to make a movie about ‘random.’ “
And I learned so much in the casting… I’m sitting there and I get to see it all, you know? And so it just starts to totally get under your skin. [We] would ask them “you tell me the last time you had an amazing night, a mad, amazing night.” If you asked me that I’d go “hm, nineteen ninety-something” …do you know what I mean? They’d all go “last Thursday” and then they’d have this really dramatic story because, fuck, it is very dramatic when you’re that age. You forget. “When was the last time you had a really bad fight?” “Yesterday.” It was so immediate. And then when the group went away together I was like “My God, they all party with the lights full on!” There’s none of the thirty-year-old, candles and nice music — it’s blaring. Those little details were what I witnessed through the improv process.
The scenes of drug taking and of altered states, were they informed by personal experience?
KS: I wish! I made them because I’d never had those nights and I regret never having them.
Music plays a huge role here. Were any of the soundtrack cuts chosen in advance of filming?
KS: They all came afterwards I think. We played [different music] on set.
JR: When we had really intense scenes we used to play a lot of Prodigy and we’d blare it up. The place would have speakers all the way through it so we’d blare Prodigy for a couple of minutes and everybody would get really pumped up.
KS: And I had the mad idea that I was going to meld Prodigy with Irish Traditional. Bizarre. Actually we did one track in prep and it was kind of fun, it kind of worked on a weird level but the visual sequences needed more. I was googling music with kids’ choirs and found Ryan Gosling’s band, Dead Man’s Bones…and loved it. So there’s two or three tracks from him in there. He uses a kids’ choir in LA. The one that’s “You’re Going to Lose Yourselves” [became] a nice kind of flagship song.
That’s weird that it’s Ryan Gosling because one of the films this reminded me of was “Blue Valentine” for some reason.
KS: That is weird because we had the “Blue Valentine” soundtrack as our guide in some places.
“Dollhouse” is only your third feature in over a decade. So seriously, you’ve been slacking off.
KS: I know, three kids, I tell you.
Apart from the kids, are there other projects in the meantime that have maybe not seen the light of day?
KS: Oh yes. I made “Dollhouse” because I spent three years trying to find finance for films between one and three million [euros] and it was just so draining. You spend a year doing meetings about meetings about what you might do if someone ever gave you a camera, you know what I mean? So, actually, I was at the Berlin Festival last year and just said “fuck this, I’m going to make something in a house with just six people and one night and take it all down tiny.” Then I saw a movie called “Buried,” in which the whole movie takes place in a coffin, and I thought if he can do that and I’m on the edge of my seat the whole movie then I have a lot to play with in one house with six people.
Can you tell us what were the projects?
KS: Yeah there were a few. I still might go back to them at some point. There was an Irish project called “Back to Jack” which had Peter Mullan and David O’Hara [attached] and you go “how come I can’t get the money?” So I might go back to those things but I kind of fell in love with this way of shooting, where everything is a surprise everyday. It just made shooting much more interesting but it makes editing really painful — there’s always a trade-off somewhere.
You edited this film as well so that was its own challenge.
KS: Yeah that was like giving birth, it was a year-long process.
Tell us about your experiences on “August Rush,” how did that color your view of Hollywood?
KS: I mean, it wasn’t a bad experience. Well, it was and it wasn’t. It wasn’t my baby because it was literally inspired by the birth of the producer’s son so he came to me going “will you make this?” So I was, to some degree, walking a line between trying to put my own stamp on it and being true to his story. I probably would have been a bit more edgy or art-house or indie, I suppose. And Robin Williams was already cast before I was on board, so there were certain things that already existed. But [after] I kind of wondered what did we spend 30 million on? You don’t have the freedom to just go “the shot’s actually better over there,” because we’ve parked forty trucks here. So it’s a big monster and you have to think on your feet and drag this monster with you. But we were completely left alone for the shoot and the whole edit until we had an audience preview and it went quite well. Then the light went on for the film and it got a bit tougher in the editing because different personalities [got involved] and all of that. But I was able to have a direct line of communication with the head of the studio. So as a first-time director over there I was really lucky and he was really respectful, actually. So it was a good experience, but just in terms of arriving everyday to execute a script, a shot list and a storyboard and that’s what you do and then you go home…
So do you have any particular desire to go back and to do more Hollywood stuff?
KS: Only if there was a story that blew me away. Unless it’s like “Alien.” You go “oh the main character’s a woman, that’s a new twist.” But it totally depends on the movie. This movie needed to be shot this way. And other movies will need to be, you know, composed Chinese still lifes, you know?
And how close do you feel that your features in general have ended up being to the films that you envisaged before you actually shot them?
KS: Probably this is the only one where it was more then I thought it would be. I didn’t want to put any expectation or weight on the film, so it was a tiny story set over one night. The other ones you think about them for a year and you have so much weight and expectation on them, it’s impossible to live up to it, honestly.
There seems to be a certain kind of thematic similarity between your films, a sense of the miraculous. Is that something that you’re particularly drawn to?
KS: I think so, yeah. Probably in “Disco Pigs” and more so in this one.
And “August Rush” as well.
KS: There’s a lot of magic in that, yeah. I think in “August Rush” it’s in the sweetest way. It’s a family film and it’s probably the most nicely packaged and the easiest. I think the older I’m getting I’m trying to find [the miraculous] in the everyday.
In “Dollhouse” specifically, how did you walk the line between the real and surreal elements?
KS: I think the most surreal moment actually was a reshoot — the scene where Jeanie freaks out. …This is the great thing about having a tiny crew and a tiny budget. You just go back with two people and shoot a whole sequence, so all the more dreamlike shots that jump into her head during that ten-minute sequence were all reshoots. We did some special effects where we projected the film we already shot into a bowl of water…so those were actually considered a little bit more afterwards. I’d seen “Hunger” and I was so impressed by the physicality of it, and also, you know, these dissolves into the sequences where he’s a kid and the deer is dead — just kind of amazing. So I was inspired by that and I wanted to try and do something in that realm.
So what’s next?
KS: I have no idea. I just said to someone I want to do a film about working with prisoners and he said “have you seen ‘Cesar Must Die‘ [the film that went on to take the top prize in Berlin] it’s about…” and I was like, “that’s my movie!” So I’m not doing that now. I don’t know actually. [There’s a project set] in a classroom which could be fun. But anyway, something more extreme, whatever that is.