Director Kirsten Sheridan grew up in the theater, surrounded by actors and fantasy. When she was 12, she was an extra on the set of My Left Foot, directed by her father, Jim Sheridan.
“It was an intense experience. Daniel Day Lewis was always in character, so he was in a wheelchair, and we had to feed him lunch. Then, at the end of the day, I’d be shocked when I saw him walking around. The line between reality and fantasy was very blurred in our house,” she says. “In a funny way, my dad lives in stories. That’s the way he communicates. I guess I followed him.”
August Rush, her first Hollywood film, is about a boy genius who hears the world as though it’s music and tries to use music to find the parents from whom he’s been separated.
“I decided to do August Rush because the first image I read was the baby’s hand coming up, conducting music in the air, and the first scene of the first film I did was two babies who look at each other and join hands. It was this crazy moment, and the two images were totally matched. And because it was a challenge to turn the camera into music—which is the spirit—and to have to visualize the invisible.”
NYPress: You did a marvelous job of that when August (Freddie Highmore) conducts the wheat field, but how’d you achieve that with the other actors?
SHERIDAN: I explained to Jonny [Rhys Meyers] and Keri [Russell] especially that something made [their characters] turn away from life and music, to lose their ability to feel, and it slowly starts coming back. I told them to imagine hearing music that opens them up.
[Also], I’d roll camera when they didn’t know I was doing it—there’s the scene where Jonny finds Keri on the computer and decides to go to her. The camera was slowly pushing in on him, and just for the crack—for the laugh—we turned on the radio. Suddenly it’s the Stones, and you hear “Brown Sugar!” out of nowhere. Jonny, he freaked out. It worked really well. He got a mad whoosh of energy from the music. All the time, we tried to make the acting stem from the music: They’re opening to the music. That’s the invisibility in the film and the spiritual element of it.
There seems to be a kind of balance between genius and madness in your work as well as in your dad’s. Is that characteristic of the Sheridan domain?
Yeah. I come from a mad family. [She laughs]. That’s so funny. You should come around for Sunday dinner!
My dad’s talked about this in interviews concerning In America. When he was a kid and his brother died, they put on a show. My father played the son, so suddenly, from a very real—I mean you can’t get more real than the death of a child, right?—place, they turned that into drama to be able to deal with it. And that’s the only place they could deal with it—to be father and son on stage. That runs very deep with him, less so with me because I didn’t have that kind of tragedy. But that’s kind of mad I think.
How has your father influenced you?
The way he works with actors. Actors always stayed with us; it was the ’80s, and we were in theaterland. So, I got to know them personally, which many directors don’t do. They’re scared of them, actually, because actors can smell bullshit a mile away. They know if you’re pretending to be the director but don’t have a clue. Then they don’t trust you, and you don’t get good performances.
But back to Dad’s influence: I learned his intensity. He works in chaos, courting the organic rather than a controlled pre-thought out situation. He likes that madness, but if it feels fake, he actually feels physically ill.
Have you known anyone who hears the world as though it’s music?
I haven’t, no. I wish. But maybe I’m lucky because I might have had a preconceived notion… There was a kid in Julliard when we were shooting—he was 12—who said music comes to him as a complete score playing in his head, and he writes it. But August heard everything like music—he took it in as opposed to conceiving it.
You’ve mentioned that your dad lives in stories. Does he talk in parables?
Not parables: It’s more communication through stories. We improvised In America, and I’d be Samantha Morton’s character—my real life mother—but he’d tell me I was Granny now, because you’re my mother. Then he’d jump in and play my father. It was a Freudian nightmare [she laughs]—like very strange therapy. So, he lives in stories.
When you’re writing or directing, do you act the parts?
I’d love to be an actress, but I’m not good enough. When I’m on the other side of the camera, I’m not on sure footing. Maybe eventually I’ll be brave enough to flourish in that unsure thing. As a director, I’m learning to have more confidence and be less controlling. Now, I’m more open to let it grow—not force it into a corner. The magic happens when you let go and see what happens.
You mean like accidents in painting?
Yeah, exactly. I suppose accidents in painting are unconscious strokes of the hand, and isn’t that the strongest thing—the unconscious? But it’s a scary void.
But the invisible is really where it’s at. In August Rush, the most important thing is the space between the frames: You see Jonny here and Keri there, and when she looks out a window, the next cut to him shows he feels that—that’s the invisibility between cuts. That’s where the mystery and magic is. That’s the message of the film.