Confessions, part 2

John Michael McDonagh, Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd and Joyce Carol Oates on Calvary.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Brendan Gleeson, John Michael McDonagh, Kelly Reilly and Chris O'Dowd  on Calvary at the Explorers Club:
Brendan Gleeson, John Michael McDonagh, Kelly Reilly and Chris O'Dowd on Calvary at the Explorers Club: "I can't go on. I'll go on" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

After Kelly Reilly came three Calvary men - John Michael McDonagh, Brendan Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd. With McDonagh, I voyage through his many literary references, from Samuel Beckett to Herman Melville, from Albert Camus to James Joyce, and from Philip K. Dick to David Gates' Jernigan. James Cagney's Shanghai Lil with Busby Berkeley's choreography in Footlight Parade reveals Angels With Dirty Faces as another influence.

Peggy Siegal used her magic to snare O'Dowd, who is starring with James Franco on Broadway in John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men with Leighton Meester and Jim Norton, directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Joyce Carol Oates, who sat next to me during lunch, elegantly sums up Calvary.

Kelly Reilly as Fiona, reading H.P. Lovecraft's The Dreams In The Witch House
Kelly Reilly as Fiona, reading H.P. Lovecraft's The Dreams In The Witch House

Writer/director McDonagh had told me that the shocking story, told by the doctor (Aidan Gillen) in Calvary about a child trapped inside his blind, deaf, and paralysed body, came from a novel by Philip K. Dick and that I Confess is one of his favorite Hitchcock films. Reilly's Fiona is seen reading The Dreams In The Witch House by H.P. Lovecraft. He chose it partly because of the cover, which shows a Homunculus sitting on his victim's chest.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There are a lot of literary references in your film.

John Michael McDonagh: Yeah. I create characters who are very erudite and literate and they are always reading books or referring to them.

AKT: One character gives a wonderful Moby Dick summary in a nutshell.

JMMcD: And then Dylan Moran, the rich man [Michael Fitzgerald] mentions [Georges] Bernanos, who wrote The Diary Of A Country Priest, the well-known Catholic writer. They talk about those references all the time, these characters. I've been accused that that's not very realistic. Most of the people I know read books all the time and reference something. It's only in movies, where we sort of dumb down and no character seems to be doing anything intelligent.

Aidan Gillen as the doctor: The shocking story, told by the doctor came from a novel by Philip K. Dick
Aidan Gillen as the doctor: The shocking story, told by the doctor came from a novel by Philip K. Dick

AKT: That's a very good point. Speaking of intelligent, you said you had one of the characters do a James Cagney routine. I didn't catch that. I saw him hopping like a rabbit.

JMMcD: It's a reference to Angels With Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938) "What do you hear? What do you say?" he is always saying that to the priest played by Pat O'Brien. It's a reference to that. The gay hustler is kind of re-creating that persona.

AKT: I thought you meant the dance routine with James Cagney singing Shanghai Lil.

JMMcD: Which movie is that?

AKT: Footlight Parade (1933), the musical numbers are directed by Busby Berkeley.

JMMcD: Right, he was a song and dance man as well! And then Owen [Sharpe who plays Leo the hustler] does the dance. I hadn't made that connection. That's a good one.

AKT: I was just talking to Kelly about the Female Holy Trinity. Were you plotting this?

JMMcD: Oh yes. No. The thing is, when you write a script that has lots of metaphorical and symbolic elements, there are always things that the author might not have intended. But that happens when the text is rich enough.

Chris O'Dowd is also on Broadway in Of Mice And Men with James Franco
Chris O'Dowd is also on Broadway in Of Mice And Men with James Franco Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The three women are really holding it together, they form that triangle.

JMMcD: I never thought of it that way. I guess that's right. I always felt sorry for Orla O'Rourke's character [Veronica, the butcher's (O'Dowd) wife]. Basically, she's an intelligent woman in a very small town and her husband no longer has sex with her. What is she supposed to do? She probably should just leave town. She shouldn't stay.

AKT: Her decision is to hook up with Isaach De Bankolé [Simon], who is very attractive. So why not?

JMMcD: Yeah, why not? And obviously, Marie-Josée Croze [Theresa, a French tourist who loses her husband] is one of the most important characters in the movie, though she is only in a couple of scenes. Her spirituality, I guess, is what makes the priest turn back when he's at the lowest point when he sees her again at the airport.

AKT: And she is an outsider. She embodies what I saw as one of the main themes of your film. The appeal to go away to win clarity. It's James Joyce in The Dubliners saying "leave!"

JMMcD: Like all the great writers left Ireland. Oscar Wilde, Beckett...

AKT: Were you quoting Beckett verbatim with "I can't go on. I'll go on"?

JMMcD: Yes, another literary reference. "I can't go on. I'll go on" Marie-Josée says that at the airport.

AKT: You have to leave in order to escape this kind of world. To go on.

JMMcD: But he doesn't.

Brendan Gleeson on Father James with Chris O’Dowd as the butcher:
Brendan Gleeson on Father James with Chris O’Dowd as the butcher: "Yes. The soutane, it's a declaration of intent."

AKT: That's why the ending is like The Stranger? Camus?

JMMcD: Yes. He goes down to the beach. The sun isn't in his eyes. But yes, he goes down to the beach to meet his fate. I do like all those existentialist novels. These are the kind of books you read when you're a 16, 17 year old kid.

AKT: Exactly. And they stay with you to return later.

After lunch, McDonagh came over to my table and filled me in with some more literary references we had not talked about earlier.

JMMcD: One book the old man [M. Emmet Walsh as the Writer] is reading is called Jernigan by David Gates. It's about an alcoholic, so you're implying that the old man escaped in a kind of alcoholic path. There's another great book called HHhH [written by Laurent Binet published in French 2010]. It's about the murder of a Nazi general in Czechoslovakia. [Operation Anthropoid on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich]. It's a great book.

AKT: it is one of the books the priest brings to the writer in Calvary?

JMMcD: Yes, it's one of the few books. The author is writing a book of non-fiction and he is battling with how much of the non-fiction is actually true and how much is received wisdom. You know, how can I tell this story and still be true? It's a really great non-fiction book with the author battling with the subject of non-fiction itself.

During desert, Brendan Gleeson sat with me to speak about garb, faith and magic.

Calvary poster:
Calvary poster: "The sun isn't in his eyes. But yes, he goes down to the beach to meet his fate."

Anne-Katrin Titze: A priest once told me, pointing at his soutane, "I am wearing this to remind me who I am." You are wearing a soutane in all but one scene. Did it affect you?

Brendan Gleeson: Yes. The soutane, it's a declaration of intent. And it's a suit of armor, in a way, for going into battle. It is a uniform. When I was there trying on the various wardrobes, beforehand I put on the vestments for mass. As the stole went over the top, I felt very oddly as if I was protecting something. As if I had taken over the duty to protect something, which is kind of very weird and scary.

AKT: Often actors are helped by costumes but this sounds like a different level.

BG: Yeah, it was. Very strange. I e-mailed John about it and he said it's supposed to be like a samurai. You now are the protector of whatever it is you believed to be goodness at its core, at its essence. You are carrying the staff, the torch for that now.

AKT: Was that something that attracted you? Being such a good character?

Gleeson laughs a hearty laugh.

BG: Frankly, yes, yes. I don't think it's easy to do that. To write somebody like that. I don't think it's easy to be a person like that. He absorbed so much of other people's pain and he doesn't do it without listening. He does it empathetically and that takes a toll. It became a very difficult process. The longer it went on, I could feel it taking a toll, frankly.

AKT: It says something about the world we live in. Evil characters are everywhere and that to see a main character depicted as mainly good and innocent could be unusual.

BG: I'm not sure how innocent he was, actually. That was part of the secret of it. I don't think he is naive. The younger priest [Father Leary - David Wilmot] was naive and had gone in there without ever thinking it through. He [Gleeson's Father James] is somebody who had lived in the world and he had his troubles. He was an alcoholic, he lost his wife, and his daughter is suicidal. So he knew of the world.

Brendan Gleeson with Calvary director/writer John Michael McDonagh at the Explorers Club:
Brendan Gleeson with Calvary director/writer John Michael McDonagh at the Explorers Club: "There is something childlike in the way his delineation of good and evil was so clear. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Innocent and naive are not the same, are they?

BG: No, but I don't think he is innocent, either. I think he had sinned and had been of the world. I get what you mean. What he had was clarity. There is something childlike in the way his delineation of good and evil was so clear. He was very focused on what constituted what was good. He didn't sweat the small stuff. It was about going to the core of it and trying to maintain belief in that. That's where I found him. Yeah, that was clean.

AKT: He doesn't smile, at all.

BG: He did at the dance. When he was dancing with his daughter, he did.

AKT: I noticed it because everybody is smirking around him. All these men in the village display these menacing smiles.

BG: When he is dancing with his daughter, his smile was untarnished with anything other than joy at the moment. I don't think he has a false smile within him. It's a dark story and he could feel the enormity of the battle he was fighting.

AKT: What is your relationship to religion?

BG: To be kept under wraps. Simply because I decided before the film happened that I don't want anybody to colour the character with an agenda of mine. It's not the truth of it.

AKT: That makes perfect sense. Last week, at the premiere of Woody Allen's new film Magic In The Moonlight, I asked people about their relationship to magic. It's a little less loaded question. How about your relationship to magic? Do you have any?

BG: As I'm Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films, of course I have a relationship with magic!

Chris O'Dowd had to rush off to the Longacre Theatre to prepare for that evening's performance of Of Mice And Men. He did, though, show me his T-shirt before he left the Explorers Club, and said when I asked him if he knew Lil Bub, that he was not familiar with the cat. Cats had been a topic of discussion at our table earlier, and I had mentioned my conversation with Swiss director Ramon Zürcher, whose film The Strange Little Cat I recommended to Joyce Carol Oates, while we had lunch. It will be opening at The Film Society of Lincoln Center beginning August 1.

Joyce Carol Oates perfectly sums up Calvary for me:

Joyce Carol Oates: As a consequence of the pedophilia being covered up for decades, the Catholic church in the little town has been burned down and the good priest has been killed. So the community has no church and has no priest. That's the literal consequence of the pedophilia and the cover up. I don't know whether the movie maker meant that but that's what the movie is.

In part 1, I spoke with Kelly Reilly and what started out with Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert and Tippi Hedren's style in Hitchcock's The Birds, turned to themes of forgiveness which brought us to develop a quick theory of a Holy Female Trinity holding Calvary together.

Calvary opens in the US on August 1 and comes out on DVD in the UK on August 11.

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