Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Damien O’Donnell’s first feature, East Is East, was a crossover hit in Britain, but the Dublin-bred director can understand why American audiences might not want to see a raucous comedy about a culturally conflicted Anglo-Pakistani family in early-’70s Manchester. “If I wasn’t making this film, I don’t think I’d actually go to see it,” he admits with a chuckle. “I’m not sure this would appeal to me in any way.”
“Ireland is not a multicultural society,” notes the unshaven, jeans- and sweater-clad O’Donnell, in town for Filmfest D.C.’s opening-night showcase of his film. “We’re more used to exporting people than we are to importing them.”
O’Donnell wasn’t planning to export himself to Britain after the film-festival success of his first film, Thirty-Five Aside, a short about a boy who’s unpopular in school because he doesn’t play soccer. “I thought when I did a feature it would be something I wrote, and I’d make it in Dublin with people I’d worked with before,” he says. “Instead, I was working in another country with strangers on a subject I didn’t know anything about.”
The director was recruited after one of East Is East’s producers was dragged out of his bath by his girlfriend to watch Thirty-Five Aside on the BBC. “I think the fact that the story was seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy” was what got him the job, supposes O’Donnell; the 12-year-old character in East Is East is based on the script’s author, Ayub Khan-Din.
“When the producer called me, it sounded like I was the only person that could ever possibly direct their film. I was quite flattered by that,” O’Donnell recalls. “Actually, I was, like, No. 7 on the list. But they’d been through some interesting people. They’d been to Stephen Frears, Gilles Mackinnon. I think they even approached Antonia Bird. It was Frears who said they should get a first-time director. I don’t know what his reasons were, but it ended up being first-time director, first-time producer, first-time writer.
“You know, there’s this thing in the industry,” he adds, “where you could be a director who’s made five feature films, all medium successes, and they’d be less likely to give you a job directing a picture like this than they would someone who’s just directed a short film that’s been very successful. They like the danger of it or something. They like the potential.”
Unlike its director, East Is East was not an unknown quantity. It was written first as a play, which O’Donnell calls “a moderate success in the U.K. It wasn’t anything like a West End, Broadway-equivalent success.”
After taking the job, O’Donnell began to analyze the script and ask questions about Muslim culture, Indian film, and Khan-Din’s life. “I didn’t realize when I was reading it that it was autobiographical,” the director says, but “it was obvious that there was so much reality in there, so much honesty. And it was so original as well that I thought he must be talking about his own background.”
O’Donnell also examined all the characters, especially George, the patriarch (played by Om Puri) who creates a series of family crises by arranging traditional marriages for his eldest sons, who consider themselves more British than Pakistani. “The onus is on the filmmaker to understand the past of every character,” the director says, “even if it never becomes an issue in the film. He has to know why they do the things they do.
“I asked many times: How could George be so forceful in getting his sons married when he married a white woman? We took our lead from the writer’s real father. Ayub would talk about his real father rather than just the fictional character.
“Our conclusion was that it was all right for him to marry a white woman because he raised six good Pakistani sons. As long as they married back into the community, he has enhanced Islam in that part of the world. But had he allowed his sons to also marry English women he would be diluting his culture and diluting his religion.”
O’Donnell was just as interested in George’s English wife, Ella (Linda Bassett), who is beaten after she stands up for her sons’ independence. “Was this the first time she’d ever been beaten up? She’s such a strong woman that she wouldn’t tolerate a life like that. So we came to the conclusion that this was the first time it ever happened. All those things helped us shape the story. Once we felt fully informed, then we could take chances; then we could take minor liberties.”
For a film based on a play, East Is East tells a remarkable amount of its story visually. “If you do a direct translation of a play into a film, I think you’re in trouble,” says O’Donnell, who encouraged the writer to lose some of the more blatantly expository exchanges. “To Ayub’s credit, his play had been a success, and there was no real pressure on him to change it in any radical way. But I felt he had what was a healthy disrespect for the text.”
Despite enlisting some specialized advisers, O’Donnell learned only “enough to make the film that I made,” he admits. “There were places where we didn’t get it right. We cut some scenes out of the film because they were inaccurate.”
In the finished movie, however, “I think I can say that everything is factually accurate, even though the point of view might be disagreeable to some people. That’s the way people lived their lives in Bradford or Manchester in 1971. I was fascinated by that. I had a great education for myself, personally.”
The film is set in 1971, because it was a time of crisis in Britain’s Indian and Pakistani communities. India and Pakistan were at war, and large numbers of Indians and Pakistanis who had just been exiled from Uganda by Idi Amin were arriving in the U.K., where they met a racist backlash. Setting the film in the past “made it harder to do, because it’s expensive to do a period film,” says O’Donnell. “But in some ways it made it easier to get the story across. We came to that conclusion in retrospect.”
One problem was finding locations in the section of Manchester where Khan-Din grew up. “That’s all been demolished. It’s all gone,” the director says. “But we found another part of Manchester that looked just like it. It’s really poor, these little red-brick houses, and people’s lives are absolutely miserable.
“The house that we used for exteriors, a single mother was living there. We’d just film outside in the day, and we’d go home and we didn’t realize what was happening at night. She was being terrorized by her former boyfriend. We turned up one day, and the whole place was covered in blood. There’d been a huge fight the night before. He’d beaten up his girlfriend, and then he’d come outside and been confronted by the neighbors.
“I felt we were here playing games in this society, which was quite grim,” O’Donnell notes. “I remember one day we were looking for [a location], and this van pulls up and these guys get out with swords and a gun and start attacking a house across the road. And we looked at this location a mile down the road from where we actually filmed, which was even more run-down, and I went back to London that night and there was a national TV report on the most run-down areas of Britain and there it was, the street that I’d been on.”
Some 30 years ago, neighborhoods like these inspired a new generation of British filmmakers, like John Schlesinger and Tony Richardson, to explore working-class life. “Ayub was definitely influenced by those films, A Taste of Honey and those,” O’Donnell says. “I haven’t seen too many of them. My influences have been people like Ken Loach and Bill Forsyth. But it’s not that I would try to make something in that vein. I was thinking about Ken Loach when we shot the scenes of domestic violence. But other times, I was influenced by the beautifully composed static images of the Coen brothers.”
Despite that American connection, O’Donnell is unsure about his film’s chances in the U.S. “There’s a cultural gap for American audiences that makes the film a little less accessible,” he concedes.
That’s why O’Donnell accepted Miramax’s ad campaign, which highlights a young blond woman who has only a small part in the film. “I saw that and I was outraged,” he says. “But Miramax has this reputation of being able to sell a film. So I have to trust them. Until they fuck it up, and then I’ll never trust them again.” —Mark Jenkins