DUBLIN — Yahoo and Google recently set up their European HQs in Dublin. Intel has invested $6 million in its plant in County Kildare. All the Viagra for Europe is manufactured in a factory near Cork.
In Dublin, yuppie apartment blocks have sprung up all along the Liffey, and the narrow, boutique-lined streets are gridlocked with expensive cars. The central gathering place may be the pub — the Irish are still Irish, after all — but smoking has been banned and the sawdust-covered floors are being replaced by smartly polished wood.
Welcome to the new Ireland — the fourth richest nation on Earth by GDP per capita, and a far cry from the old stereotype of a mystical Emerald Isle peopled by priests and peasants, poets, patriots and pixies.
No other country in Western Europe has undergone such a dizzying social and economic transformation in the past decade.
The power of the Catholic Church is waning in the wake of pedophile scandals; the Ulster peace process has drained the nationalist intensity out of politics; low corporate taxes are attracting billions of dollars from U.S. hi-tech and drug giants; and the advent of the Euro has brought it closer to the rest of Europe.
After centuries of mass emigration, the young no longer have to leave to find a job. Indeed, the monocultural Irish are for the first time confronting the social challenge of immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe.
In this increasingly secular and cosmopolitan society, every Dublin conversation seems to revolve around two burning topics — the traffic and spiralling house prices. A vast new designer shopping mall in the Dundrum suburb has been nicknamed “the Basilica” by locals, because thousands flock there every Sunday to worship at the altar of materialism.
This year’s uncut release of Michael Winterbottom’s sexually graphic “Nine Songs” was a landmark of liberalization in a country where nuns used to tour schools preaching against “Porky’s,” and where “Summer of ’42” was banned in the 1970s for a scene where three boys buy condoms.
Buoyed by a boom in sleek multiplexes, the Irish public goes to the cinema an average of 4.5 times a year per person — more frequently than in any other nation in the EU. And next year Ireland will become the world’s first digital nation, when U.S. outfit Avica invests $60 million to upgrade the entire Irish exhibition sector to digital as a testbed for its technology.
It is both Ireland’s blessing and its curse to be a land that captures the imagination of foreigners, and one that is romanticized by emigrants and their descendants (who vastly outnumber the Irish themselves).
Outside Ireland, audiences still cling to the auld Celtic cliches that made “Riverdance” into a global showbiz phenom, and “Waking Ned Devine” into a multiplex hit. They find it hard to grasp — or simply don’t want to know — that those days, if they ever existed, have gone for good.
The film biz is a microcosm of the Irish revolution, undergoing changes that are both financial and artistic.
A new wave of Irish filmmakers, weaned on Spielberg more than Synge, are trying to address the new, hi-tech, consumerist Ireland. Crucially, that means moving beyond the old parochial Irish obsessions — parodied by writer-director David Gleeson as “dog collars, tricolors, mist and bog” — and claiming their place in the wider world.
Pics such as Lenny Abrahamson’s poignant junkie comedy “Adam and Paul” and John Crowley’s violent drama “Intermission” are ground-breaking depictions of contempo Dublin that were eagerly embraced by Irish auds.
Abrahamson says, “I see myself as a European filmmaker or an independent filmmaker, not as an Irish filmmaker.”
Gleeson, whose cinematic sensibility was forged as a teenager working as a projectionist in his father’s fleapit, says his modestly successful Limerick comedy “Cowboys and Angels” was primarily influenced by “American Pie” (but without the sex).
“I set out to make a colorful, vibrant, young movie,” says Gleeson. “I wanted to show that we’re not all obsessed with the Catholic Church, not all living in the shadow of the IRA.” His wife Nathalie Lichtenthaeler personifies the new international breed of Irish producer — she’s German, for a start, and met her husband when both were studying film in New York.
“I wouldn’t be interested in making a film set in the 1940s in a muddy field with sheep and goats,” she says. “But when you set out to make films that aren’t ‘Oirish,’ you have a big wall to break through with international audiences.”
The country’s filmmaking community is still small, but increasingly confident and outward-looking. About a dozen indigenous movies are shot each year, with budgets ranging from $500,000 (“Adam and Paul”) to $10 million (“Intermission”).
Room and Board
This community has grown from scratch in only a few years, thanks to the revival of the Irish Film Board in 1993, and tax breaks designed to lure foreign films to Ireland on condition that they employ local co-producers. This has attracted everything from Hollywood blockbusters (Jerry Bruckheimer’s “King Arthur”) to quirky Brit pics such as “The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalyse” and the upcoming “Lassie.”
By this means, producers such as Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe of Element Films, Alan Maloney of Parallel Films, James Flynn and Morgan O’Sullivan of Octagon Films and Rob Walpole of Treasure Entertainment have gradually acquired the skills, experience and international contacts to develop their own projects, exploring fresh angles on local stories and ranging farther afield.
“In the early years of the Board, there was an awful lot of navel-gazing father/son stories set in the 1950s that people needed to get off their chests, a lot of political stories,” says Flynn, who produced last year’s Damien O’Donnell pic “Inside I’m Dancing” for Working Title. “But people are saying now we’re filmmakers, why not make a thriller set in the States, a comedy set in London. Let’s develop it in Ireland but make it wherever it should be made.”
Maloney, producer of “Intermission” and Neil Jordan’s upcoming “Breakfast on Pluto,” says, “We went through our phase of making slow films about two brothers and a horse in 1950s small towns. We have largely exorcised that now, but it might take a few years until we will find something universal but rooted in contemporary Ireland.”
While all Irish movies benefit from tax breaks, Maloney is so far the only producer to tap a significant chunk of private equity from Ireland’s nouveaux riches. He raised $3 million in a single weekend to plug a gap in the $15 million budget for “Pluto,” but that remains an isolated case.
The Irish market alone isn’t big enough to finance anything more than the lowest of budgets, so these producers have cannily exploited Ireland’s proximity to the deeper pockets and talent pool of the U.K. film biz, easily accessed via co-production. Element, Parallel and Octagon are partners in British development franchises backed by the U.K. Film Council.
Veteran Irish showbiz lawyer James Hickey is convinced that Irish cinema is finally reaching the critical mass to achieve that elusive worldwide breakthrough that will catalyze not only the film industry, but also the global perception of the country.
Citing the movie that triggered the Brit film boom of the past decade, Hickey says, “We haven’t had a ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ yet, but I believe our time is coming round. There is an amazingly varied range of production activity, and types of financing, and that variety will produce a success.”
For a nation with such a rich artistic tradition in literature, theater and music, Ireland’s cinema heritage has been threadbare; for decades, there was next to no film industry to attract talent away from the more established arts. Nor was there any investment by pubcaster RTE in TV drama to school filmmakers.
In 58 years of the Cannes Film Festival, only one Irish film by an Irish director — Pat O’Connor’s “Cal” — has ever been selected for competition. (John Boorman, director of “The General,” is a Brit though he lives in Wicklow, and Neil Jordan only competed with “Mona Lisa,” a British film.)
But Ireland now has its own film schools, RTE has started to make homegrown drama, and there’s a burgeoning animation sector to prove the country is shaking off its reputation as, in the words of Fiach MacConghail, “a visually illiterate nation.”
MacConghail is Dublin’s ultimate multi-hyphenate — previously advisor to the arts minister and an organizer of international film festivals for the Irish government, he’s now the director designate of Dublin’s Abbey Theater with a mandate to radicalize this grand old institution. He also produced the upcoming Brendan Gleeson soccer movie “Studs,” directed by Paul Mercier.
“We’re at an enormous crossroads, where Ireland’s expectation of itself is directly opposite to the world’s expectation of us,” he says. “We’re not homogenized any more. There isn’t a single logo or image which represents Ireland.”
Ask most people outside Ireland to name an Irish movie and, depending on their generation, chances are they will summon up “The Quiet Man,” “Ryan’s Daughter,” “The Commitments,” “Waking Ned Devine” or, most recently, “The Magdalene Sisters.”
Problem is, none of those is exactly (or in some cases, remotely) Irish. They all represent a foreign director’s version of the Irish experience — which can bear little relation to how the Irish see themselves.
Ironically, or perhaps predictably, the only film currently shooting in Ireland that looks like one of these old-fashioned, parochial, political pics comes from a foreign auteur: Ken Loach’s 1920s IRA drama “The Wind That Shakes The Barley.”
The career of filmmaker Jim Sheridan encapsulates the evolution of the country’s film biz. Coming from the theater (the traditional route for the older generation of directors), he made his name with movies that dug into the archetypal narratives of the old Ireland: “My Left Foot” (artistic genius overcoming church-blighted poverty), “The Field” (oedipal peasant drama). “In the Name of the Father” (British injustice) and “The Boxer” (the legacy of the IRA).
But “In America” represented the start of something new, the first film in which he followed the Irish story out into the wider world. Sheridan now is in Canada directing a loose biopic of the American rapper 50 Cent, his first film with no obvious Irish theme. His daughter Kirsten, who co-wrote “In America” and made her own directorial debut with “Disco Pigs,” reports that he found his way into the story by equating the black and the Irish experience of oppression.
She herself will direct a Gotham kids fantasy, “August Rush, and is developing a biopic of Russian gymnast Olga Korbut. She acknowledges that she finds the new materialistic Ireland an artistic challenge. “I don’t know what being Irish is any more. We had a bank of emotion, but that got old, and what’s replaced it is a vacancy.”
Not everyone in the Irish film community believes the country has what it takes to become a significant cinematic player on the world stage.
Culture vs. cash
The IFB policy of pushing producers to raise finance from sales agents and distributors is controversial among those who argue that the board should have a more cultural agenda.
Filmmaker Jordan praises the efforts of the IFB, and the impact of the tax break. But he believes Irish cinema is still in its infancy.
“We don’t have a visual culture,” says Jordan. “It’s a consequence of the history of poverty, not having a bourgeoisie that buys art. There’s no great architecture. The word was the only culture that people could afford. If you think of Irish genius, you think of writers.
“Cinema has nothing like the energy or coherence that the literary tradition has here,” he adds. “There’s no equivalent yet in film of Patrick McCabe, Colm Toibin, Roddy Doyle or Seamus Heaney. I don’t know why Irish filmmakers have not engaged themselves more constantly and aggressively with Irish writers.”
Jordan, the exception to this rule, is talking to McCabe about writing his first original screenplay, developing a project with playwright and screenwriter Conor McPherson, and buying rights to “The Speckled People,” Hugo Hamilton’s memoir of an Irish-German childhood.
“It’s a wealthy country; it’s time people started making really punchy, attention-grabbing movies here,” Jordan says.
In a sense, Jordan has blazed this trail alone for 20 years, refusing to be bound by the conventions of nationality, genre or, in the case of “The Crying Game,” gender.
But for most of that time he was out on his own without an industry behind him — to the extent that outside Ireland, Jordan is often mistaken, to his chagrin, for a British filmmaker, despite making movies as unmistakably Irish as “Michael Collins.”