Interview with Irish playwright, filmmaker Conor McPherson

Staff artist Patterson Clark created the sketch of Conor McPherson using the Brushes app on the iPhone. See a time-lapse video of the sketch's development.
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

The other visitors can have their museums and their memorials. What Conor McPherson finds captivating in Washington is a steep stone conveyance.

Yes, those 97 steps in Georgetown made famous by "The Exorcist" make up the tourist destination at the top of McPherson's must-do list. On his previous trip to the city, the Irish playwright and film director, who lives with his wife in a seaside cottage outside Dublin, took in the killer staircase -- prized mostly these days for its aerobic workout possibilities -- and indulged his horror-movie fixation.

"It really speaks to my makeup," McPherson is saying as he digs into his stew at Martin's Tavern, the popular pub on Wisconsin Avenue. And, of course, if you know anything about the 38-year-old writer, the irresistible quality of that cinematic staircase for him is completely comprehensible. This is a guy who can't get ghosts out of his head.

Well, actually, that's not exactly true. He's quite successfully lifted the spectral world out of his imagination in a series of plays that have placed him at the front of a pack of wordsmiths who over the past decade have restored Ireland to the top rank of dramatic hotbeds. Three of his works -- "The Weir" (1999), "Shining City" (2006) and "The Seafarer" (2007) -- have made it to Broadway, a startling achievement for a serious young playwright in the age of "Wicked" and "Jersey Boys."

The special McPherson touch is an ability to endow characters with the gift of lyrical confession and his stories with audience-pleasing whiffs of the supernatural. Ghosts always seem to be hovering in the wings of his plays, and death is a lively preoccupation. Raised a Roman Catholic but no longer religious, he says that his fascination with mortality and the afterlife intensified at University College Dublin, where he became absorbed in dramatics and philosophy. He writes to indulge his curiosity about questions that can't be answered.

"I'm asking, why are we here, and what's beyond?" he says. "We know so little of the why, what the universe is, what infinity is. The veil around us is very fragile."

With his warm gaze and placid features, the redheaded McPherson has the aura of an unflappable English professor, the kind who would keep long office hours and a sympathetic ear for the troubles of his students. No trace of the more tightly wound fellow he once apparently was can be detected as he picks at the pieces of chicken and sips a non-alcoholic beer. (He's previously disclosed that in his 20s, he had a serious drinking problem, for which he eventually received treatment; "Shining City," in fact, revolves around a therapist-patient relationship.)

He's in town on this occasion in his less-celebrated role as a movie director: His modestly budgeted indie film "The Eclipse," which he wrote with Billy Roche, is trying to find an audience. Not to be confused with the similarly titled, forthcoming third installment of the blockbuster "Twilight" franchise, the movie -- which opened Friday -- proved to be a hit entry last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. Set at, of all things, a literary festival in the Irish village of Cobh, near Cork, it's a feature of offbeat pace, starring Ciaran Hinds as a taciturn shop teacher who's recently lost his wife, and Aidan Quinn as a visiting blowhard of an American author. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the critical reception has been mixed.

But McPherson is buoyed by the interest America has shown in the film -- "The first place that it has gotten distribution is in the U.S.," he says -- and by the idea that he's allowed to follow his artistic bliss, even in the wake of some middling past results. (His 2003 screen comedy, "The Actors" with Michael Caine, was a financial bust.)

"It's not that there are limos pulling up outside my house," he says jokingly of the odd corner of renown he occupies, one that mercifully allows him to live his life free of celebrity encumbrance. He can even attend his plays unrecognized. For him, a lifelong love of movies turned filmmaking into a logical side step, though he says he has no ambition to apply a talent for conjuring things that go bump in the night to more marketable kinds of Hollywood entertainment.

No, at this point, he'd rather forge his less predictable path. Shot in Cobh in the fall of 2008 on a budget of about 2 million euros ($2.6 million), "The Eclipse" is told mostly from the perspective of Hinds's Michael, after he's recruited to chauffeur one of the festival's star attractions (Iben Hjejle), a comely writer in the midst of breaking off an affair with Quinn's philandering Nicholas. In distilling the story for the camera, the playwright says he was entirely in his element.

"When I'm looking through that lens, I'm looking into that world, and it's real. It's such a meditative and transporting thing. The more complete the film, the more real the world became."

Is it possible that the project felt so authentic to him because he'd added his own dash of the unreal? He explains that it was his idea to inject into Roche's original story an unsettling dimension, the visitations on Michael of a series of apparitions. These occur only sporadically in the movie, and materialize in ways that are truly terrifying. When you mention to McPherson that you feel the adrenaline coursing through your body, he brightens considerably. The remark is music to an "Exorcist" lover's ears.

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