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A decade ago, Alan Parker went to Ireland to direct a film based on a popular book, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments. Last year, he went back to direct a film based on a much more popular book, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. The latter portrays a darker, poorer Ireland, but that’s not what Parker found.
“There’s been a huge change,” reports the English director, doing a round of interviews one day in mid-December at the Watergate Hotel before the film’s local premiere at the Irish Embassy that night. “Since they’ve been members of the European Union, it’s become very affluent. Per capita income is higher than in the United Kingdom. So looking for locations was completely different. Everywhere you looked, something had been torn down and some house was being built. The people have changed slightly as well, I think. There was a great deal of charm about the Irish before they got money,” he says, with a roar of laughter.
“The Irish, great writers that they are, don’t have the greatest aesthetic sense,” chuckles Parker, who’s directed such diverse films as Fame, Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, and Evita. “You think of that beautiful row of houses that used to be monochromatic. But they want to brighten things up. So one house gets painted orange, and one purple. And that makes it very difficult for production design. Exterior emulsion paint is the scourge of Ireland.”
Angela’s Ashes recounts a family’s struggles with Depression-era poverty, so orange and purple wouldn’t do. “When you try to replicate a historical period, the references you have are always beautiful black and white photographs,” the director says. “You’re not shooting in black-and-white, so you film it in the colors of memory. It’s in color, but it’s not color. That’s really what we tried to do. You just limit the color palette that you’re dealing with, and that means everybody does it—costume designer, production designer, and, ultimately, cinematographer.
“A lot of that is not about choosing,” he continues. “If you look now, as he will tell you”—gesturing first at the misty river view outside the suite’s windows and then to Washington City Paper photographer Darrow Montgomery—”you have very beautiful soft light. That’s going to come out, whether you like it or not. That’s how it looks most of the time in Ireland. I was only being truthful to what we were looking at.”
It’s a drizzly day in Washington, suggesting the weather of Limerick and Dublin, where much of Angela’s Ashes was filmed—with the help of rain machines. “That kind of rain at the moment is actually quite difficult to photograph,” Parker explains. “Even though you can feel it, you can’t often see it. And also, you want consistency. I’ve got to film all day long—I want the rain all day long. So you end up using a rain machine. And the more efficient the rain machine, the wetter the crew gets. Including me.”
Rain was not the only thing in Limerick that didn’t cooperate with the production. Neither did the local Catholic church, which is depicted unfavorably in McCourt’s memoir. “When we arrived in Limerick, although we were embraced by most people, the churches wouldn’t let us film,” Parker recalls. “They’d all read the book—and the clergy didn’t like the book and they didn’t like Frank McCourt. They didn’t like the way they were portrayed. We thought that was a bit sad, because it was 50 years ago. The bishop of Limerick made the decision, so we weren’t allowed inside churches. The bishop of Dublin was a lot nicer to us. Maybe he didn’t like the bishop of Limerick.”
Even Limerick’s Franciscans, one of whom is portrayed very favorably in one of film’s most striking moments, ultimately didn’t oblige. “They said yes to begin with, and then they got a phone call from above,” the director chuckles. “When I heard that, I said, ‘How far above?’ But it was only the bishop. Middle management.”
In Limerick, people are “kind of divided into two,” Parker says. “There are those who thought that Frank had exaggerated his situation or that, more importantly, you shouldn’t really talk about those things. That’s very Irish. I think Irish-Americans can look at it with a little more open-mindedness. Then the other half of the people were very kind.”
That’s a better ratio than Parker encountered making one of his previous films, he notes. “It was a lot nicer than being in Buenos Aires doing Evita. We’re a huge circus that arrives in town. We spend so much money that they usually embrace us.”
Of course, it wasn’t only the Irish who had a stake in Angela’s Ashes. The book has been successful around the world, including in such unexpected places as Japan. “That’s a mystery to me,” Parker admits. “I think it’s a mystery to Frank McCourt, too. There were busloads of Japanese off-loading, while we were filming even, going into the pub where [Frank’s father] Malachy McCourt used to have his drink. I don’t know why.”
The director attributes the memoir’s universal appeal to “the unique voice McCourt found when he wrote it: the wisdom of a 60-year-old man, seen through the eyes of the child.” And, although the book’s depiction of ’30s poverty may seem remote to many readers, Parker thinks that “it’s relevant everywhere. I read the other day that now in California, one in four kids lives in poverty—which is pretty shocking. In my own country of 52 million people, 15 million people live below the minimum wage.”
The filmmaker admits that he approached doing an adaptation of such a popular text with trepidation. “When you’re doing the script, you get quite nervous that the film that you might make might not be the film that people have in their heads. I gave the script to Frank McCourt, and he liked what we’d done, so after that I felt that rather than be intimidated by the book, we should be inspired by it. The book had a treasure trove of things in it. I used to say to everybody: ‘When in doubt, read the book.’”
The first script was written by Laura Jones, whose other credits include The Portrait of a Lady, but Parker saw the need to rework it. “She’s very good at paring down a quite dense book. I suppose I did the opposite. I put the flesh back on it again. I always like to write my draft of the script anyway. It’s the way I get the finished film in my head. I find you can accomplish that much better if you’ve written a script.”
In writing the film, Parker says, he got a stronger sense of how to deal with a potential problem—the fact that the central character, Frank, would have to be played by three different performers: Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge. “It’s divided into a classic three-act structure. It’s always difficult when you have different actors playing the same part. You want the transitions to be as seamless as possible. I have a young actor the audience might like, and you’ve invested a lot in liking that character. After the first transition, you suddenly realize there’s another kid who’s different and you’re never going to see the young kid ever again. There could be a disappointment in that, so the middle boy has to be better than the young boy. If you get it right, it’s a cumulative thing. If you get it wrong, it’s not a multiplicity but a division.”
The director decided to shoot some of the harshest scenes first, “just to set a benchmark, really. It wasn’t so important to the crew, but it was important to the young kids, to know what was going on. It gave an edge of seriousness to the situation.”
Parker’s first film, 1976’s Bugsy Malone, was a gangster-flick pastiche with a cast of children, and for a time he had a reputation for youth-culture films. The naturalistic vision of Angela’s Ashes, however, is very different from the director’s early work. “You change,” he says. “I’ve grown up making movies. Different things interest me [now] than when I started.
“I always think they look like my movies,” he says of his diverse work. “But I started off doing different things, and I’ve continued that way. In the beginning it was kind of mischievous, because I did it to twist the critics, who like to put you in the pigeonhole. But then it became a way of staying creatively fresh. That’s as important as anything else, to try different things.” —Mark Jenkins