Director Terry George on Reservation Road, American Gangster and More

The Irish-born director talks film criticism, the Troubles, and balancing drama and thriller elements.

by | October 18, 2007 | Comments

Though there’s never been an Irish New Wave per se,
Terry George‘s
early work shares the two themes characterized in most Irish films steadily
released over the past three decades: the struggle of the working class and the
everlasting tension between Ireland and Britain. After being imprisoned for six
years for involvement with Irish republican organizations, George began his
career co-writing the screenplays to
In the Name
of the Father
, The
Boxer
with
Jim Sheridan,
and writing/directing 1996’s
Some Mother’s Son.
George broadened his scope with
Hotel Rwanda
, which
earned George an Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay and a nomination for Don
Cheadle’s lead performance.

Rotten Tomatoes spoke to Terry George in San Francisco at
the beginning of his press tour promoting his latest film,
Reservation Road
.
An adaptation of the
John
Burnham Schwartz
novel, Reservation Road stars
Joaquin
Phoenix
as a father who loses his son in a hit-and-run accident and
Mark Ruffalo
as the guilt-ridden killer, and opens this Friday in limited release.

Rotten Tomatoes: Given your history and background, it’s
surprising you haven’t directed more movies about Ireland.

Terry George: Well, I’ve done three. I wrote In
the Name of the Father
and The Boxer, and I directed Some Mother’s
Son
. And they covered, certainly, the central section of the Troubles. The
timeframe of In the Name of the Father was 1974; The Boxer would’ve
been 1988. So we covered a 14 year range at the heart of the Troubles.

RT: So for now you’re satisfied with the subject?

TG: There’s a project Jim [Sheridan] and I have
talked about. We want to do what would essentially be three movies, almost like


Lord of the Rings
. [We’d] cover the whole Troubles with real characters
[who] move though it. That’d be divided up between me and Jim and another Irish
director so we’d be making them at the same time. Maybe
Neil Jordan,
or
Thaddeus O’Sullivan
, or
John Carney,
who just did Once. Or
maybe Paul
Greengrass
.

RT: How did you and Sheridan first meet and start
collaborating?

TG: He was the artistic director of a theater called
the Irish Arts Center in New York. And I had wrote a play in Northern Ireland
about a prison escape. I took it to him and he put it on. It ran pretty well,
ran for six months. Then he went off to do
My Left Foot
and
I stayed behind and became this sort of temporary artistic director. [Then] I
encountered Gerry Conlon, the subject character of In the Name of the Father,
and started working [on the screenplay]. So I sort of stumbled into
[filmmaking].

RT: Were you always interested in it?

TG: My interest was primarily journalism. I was
working as a freelance journalist doing some work on research and work on a big
Mafia book. The playwriting was just a way of expressing sentiments I felt about
Northern Ireland, having left it in 1981, 1982. So, no, I never really planned a
career or anything.

RT: For a while, you were attached to direct
American Gangster

with Don Cheadle and
Benicio Del
Toro
. What happened with that project?

TG: I had a perception of a cast, so I rewrote it.

RT: This was after Washington and
Antoine Fuqua
had left the project.

TG: Right. I always viewed it as a team. Me and [Cheadle]
were a package deal. Then the studio wasn’t in favor of Benicio anymore. So I
proposed that we do me and Don and Joaquin. And the cost of the movie didn’t
match up with the perception of what we [could] draw [at the box office]. And
then Denzel became interested again and I couldn’t in all good conscience
abandon Don.

I think what [Universal] ended up with is the product they
were after in the first place. Big stylish movie. I tried to approach it but if
you have a $120 million dollar budget, it’s different from a $65 million dollar
budget. So that was basically it. RT: You’ve worked with Jim Sheridan multiple times, were
going to work with Cheadle again, and have worked twice with Phoenix…

TG: Three times, actually. I was the on-set script
writer for Ladder 49.
That’s where I met him.

RT: Do you seek out these collaborations?

TG: I do. I [enjoy working] with great actors.
Clearly with Don. Obviously Joaquin. I’d love to do something with
Daniel
Day-Lewis
. Jim and I have a couple of projects that we’re talking about.
It’s just that you build up a comfort level with people. Ruffalo I would
definitely work with again.
Jennifer
[Connelly]
and
Mira [Sorvino],
they’re good people. Suddenly you know their strengths and you start crafting
characters that go along with that.

RT: Did you and John Burnham Schwartz collaborate on
Reservation Road
‘s script?

TG: He did his first and then I did mine. Not out of
any decisions by me that that’s the way it had to be. Joaquin gave me the script
in June of last year and then we were shooting by September. We casted in a
couple of weeks. We were going really fast. Everyone wanted to work on the
characters a bit. Basically, out of practicality, I had to sit down and do it
myself. Whereas with Sheridan we have a lot of back and forth.

RT: Have you read the book?

TG: Yeah. I read the script, and then I read the
book. At some point, you have to put it down and make the thing work in terms of
cinema itself. I’m very structure oriented. I need the three act structure. I
like that because I think audiences are attuned to it. You’re not challenging
them to put together a jigsaw puzzle, you’re challenging them to sit back and
get in with these characters.

RT: Reservation Road seems like a challenge to
adapt since a lot of it takes place inside people’s heads.

TG: Books tend to be, and this one in particular,
cerebral, and you have to translate that into the dialogue or the visualization
of the scene. It’s a distillation.

I always knew this movie had to be around 100 minutes. It
couldn’t be longer than that because the subject matter and the weight of it was
such that if you didn’t go fast with the edit and the storytelling it’d become
maudlin, and depressing in not a very cinematic way.

RT: There’s also the thriller aspect of the story to
maintain.

TG: For me, it’s more psychological thriller. I was
more interested in the theme of revenge, particularly demonizing the opposition
where you create a monster inside your head capable of doing violence to. That
seemed like a very post 9/11 theme because that was the mood of the nation at
one stage. Clearly, we’ve learned now the folly of that emotion as a driving
force. The pain and the kind of damage that action does, and the inability to
look beyond the event and try to find a way to come to terms with it is what
interested me.

RT: Was it a challenge to balance the drama and thriller elements? Or to
balance the story of the book and the story you wanted to present?

TG: I had to craft. I had to work at that. You can’t
take a book and then reinvent it completely. There’s a sort of obligation to
stay within the parameter of the book. Maybe change some stuff to make it work,
but the basic events I wanted to keep in there. The small town setting. The fact
that in that small town setting you could have people living in the next street
to each who never meet and then an event happens and suddenly they’re embroiled
in each other’s lives.

I know some critics had problems with what they said were
coincidences [of the plot]. I never had a problem with that at all. And I’m
very, I think, very rigorous about looking for plot coincidences or weaknesses
that pull people out. But there you go.

RT: Do you follow film criticism closely?

TG: I did. [There] are some [reviewers] who are
given credibility that I wouldn’t have.

In a funny way, it’s in the movie as well. I love the
Internet. It’s probably, in terms of the spreading of knowledge, the greatest
thing that’s happened to mankind. [But] there’s an obsession with it, an
addiction. Like, [Phoenix’s character] Ethan goes to the Internet for solace.
That’s a reality. I know a lot of people who find the answer to everything on
the Internet. On the websites that Ethan visits, there’s a fueling, a
reinforcing of this anger and sentiment between bunches of despaired people
around America, around the world. That’s kind of destructive. But as always
happens in Hollywood…

It’s like if
you do a test screening. I love test screenings. I love the comments. But
the studios insist on the score. They’re fixated on the score. "Is it 86? Or is
it 80?" Unnatural decisions are made on that basis. And more and more financial
decisions, or the perception of financial decisions, are made on that score.
They’re willing to take any information in replacement for scholarly analysis.
If executives thought that by sacrificing a chicken and throwing its guts and
bones on the ground would help, there’d be chickens getting slaughtered all over
Hollywood.

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