SHROUDED LIVES AND HABITATS: AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL AND AIDAN QUINN

I met Paul & Aidan Quinn for an interview in their hotel suite. Paul, very casually dressed, sat on a sofa, while Aidan smoked a fat cigar as he reclined in a comfortable chair, the picture of Hollywood fashion. The two were very at ease discussing their first film, a feature collaboration made with the addition of their brother Declan, a noted cinematographer who worked on such films as “Leaving Las Vegas.”
Their film, “This is My Father,” is a melancholic reflection on a family’s past and present generations, as an American man, ably played by James Caan, seeks to trace his roots in Ireland, the country of his father….
[ What prompted this unusual collaboration? ] ^ Paul Quinn: Well, I finished the script, and I knew if I was ever going to get a chance to direct I would have to use everyone I knew possible, and attach them to something, and maybe money people would give me a chance to direct, you know? And so when I was finished with the script, I sent it to Aidan and Declan first thing, and they responded and said that they wanted to work on it, and my buddy John Cusak threw his hat in without even reading it, and that was the start of it. ^
[ It’s nice to be able to band together for power for your first feature film with a lot of people who are established — and conveniently related to you as well. ] ^ PQ: That’s the great thing about using your family. In my case it was such a benefit — first of all they’re great artists. If they were hacks, I probably wouldn’t have gone to ‘em, for one thing. And if they didn’t like the script, you could have been sure that they’d have been busy. ^
[ The look of it is really amazing. It has a very dark, very rich palate of colors. How did that develop? ] ^ PQ: We talked before we even went into pre-production, Declan and I. I went to his house and just stayed with him a couple of weeks, and every night we just had the script, and we would go through his library of photographs and paintings and painters, and we sort of created a group of paintings and photographs that we thought were right. We started piecing it together, and that was the beginning of the whole palate and design of the film. And we also — something Declan brought me into was the idea of doing this bleach bypass process on the negative, which is what we did, which sort of saturates the color more, and we used that on the 1939 segments to differentiate from modern Ireland, which has a sort of gauche brightness to it, the colors are sort of almost neon. So 1939 really contrasts — you feel you are in a different world. ^
[ It’s also accentuated by the fact that there’s no electric lighting. It looks like you used a lot of natural light for a lot of those interiors, for example. ] ^ PQ: Absolutely. Sometimes it’s just a couple of candles in the kitchen, or a little well-placed little bulb here and there. But we wanted to get an authentic feeling. What was it like to be alive in the 30s? You didn’t have electricity, you lived in an overgrown sort of shrouded place, you know, shrouded lives and shrouded habitats. We didn’t want to over-light it. It wasn’t a Hollywood film. ^
[ I sense also that this is a really personal movie for all involved. Can you talk about that? ] ^ PQ: Well, this is not my father, and this is not our family story. It’s very loosely based on a tale our mother told us about a young man and woman who got into trouble. But the truth of that relationship we’ll never know, because no one would tell us, and she was just a little girl and had only heard of it second hand; it’s almost 60 years ago now. It’s not personal in that respect. I think what I was interested in doing is creating a film where someone truly confronts that pain of the past. And I think that’s where it takes on a lot of personal power. A lot of people have spoken to us and said “This is the story of my uncle you’ve told me,” or “This is the story of my grandfather.” And I think men really respond to the father thing; I know I do, and I wanted to put that into a film, this sort of wanting and desiring connection. And the tragedy is sometimes you can’t have it. People die, and things change. ^
[ I think part of what I mean when I say “personal,” is the connection that Irish-Americans desire to have with Ireland. It’s kind of this mythology that perpetuates itself in this country. And when I say “personal,” I mean how do you feel that, being also Irish-American? What does that connection mean to you? ] ^ PQ: I think it’s more sort of a real visceral connection than your typical Irish-American connection. I think that’s because my parents, when they came here, were not rah-rah Yanks. They didn’t abandon their Irish roots. They actually lived in an Irish community, and passed a sort of cold eye on this culture, so we as kids growing up didn’t feel that we were Yanks completely. We knew that we were associated with this Irish culture, and then having lived over there myself for about four years (other people in my family much longer than that) I feel a real connection to it. It is a part of me. Rather than me searching for it, it’s already a part of me. I’m just trying to respond to it, in a way. I think that’s what makes it different than most Irish-American films. It’s not a sacchariny sort of mirror I’m holding up to Ireland. It’s more, I think, a true mirror. ^
[ Both of you have started your careers very young. Have you felt fortunate with the career track you’ve had? ] ^ Aidan Quinn: I started off acting when I was nineteen. I guess that’s young. Although there were a lot of actors doing it all throughout school. Yeah, I’m glad, because it gave me something to do with my life, something to focus on. ^
[ Is this the kind of project that you want to continue to do? ] ^ AQ: Yeah, this project has fucked me up big-time. First of all, it’s made me big and fat, and I can’t lose the weight. Secondly, I’ve got a great role that I had a lot of input into, and helped produce, so I was richly involved in a lot of decision that I normally don’t get to be a part of. And now I’m spoiled rotten. I want to be challenged like this more often. ^
[ So you have a taste for it now, so to speak. Do you want to produce more of your projects, write more of your own projects? ] ^ AQ: Yeah. I’m in no great hurry; as you can tell by my body language, I’m not the most burning, career orientated person. I’m ambitious, but then I’m schizophrenic about it. I have a paradox, so I’ll go, “Yes, yes, yes, I’m competitive and ambitious,” then I’m like, “Whatever comes to me is that way it’s supposed to be.” I have a family, I’ve always said to myself that I would make a film, or be on that end of making films, in my forties. So this is the beginning of it, and I just turned 40, so my calculation is that I have nine years and 360 days left to complete it. I’ve given myself a deadline. ^
[ How did you get James Caan interested in this? ] ^ PQ: I told him I would kick the crap out of him if he didn’t do it. (laughs loudly) ^
[ Which is probably exactly the kind of thing I think he responds to. ] ^ PQ: Are you kiddin’? No, he was on a list. I had Declan, Aidan, and John Cusak lined up to do the film, and the money people wanted one more star, and he was on the list. So we went to Jimmy, and he read the script, and he said, “I want to meet this kid.” So I went over to his house, and we had a nice chat, and he ended up turning down a big Hollywood action film that was paying him major money. Because he liked the story, and he responded to it, so he is a great part of the reason that this movie got made. ^
[ What’s it like directing somebody like him. Is it intimidating to work with him? ] ^ PQ: It’s very intimidating. He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. In fact, of the second day of the shoot, he came up to me and he said, “You know, kid, you really know what you’re doing. You got a handle on this whole situation. Keep it up.” I felt like I could just finally exhale; I’d been holding my breath for 48 hours. And that was all for my benefit — it wasn’t true! It was just him trying to relax me, and I’m very grateful for that, because I took it, and I ran with that. I really started to relax and enjoy working with the actors. ^
[ (to Aidan) How was this different for you, since you’ve worked on numerous films, what was this like in comparison to those? ] ^ AQ: Well this was certainly, obviously, nearer and dearer to my heart than most jobs where I’m just coming in to work as an actor and then going home. It was also very intense, because we had a mammoth schedule to do on a very small amount of time and amount of money. So it was very intense, not that we didn’t have a lot of laughs and a lot of enjoyment. But to me it was all about the actual work, there’s real work just getting it done, and to see it all come together like this is has just been fantastic. It’s very gratifying to see Paul’s voice and Paul’s script come to fruition in such a beautiful way. To work with that film like this, you know all of those things. It’s not your run-of-the-mill movie. ^
[ (to Paul) I’d like to hear a little bit about your association with John Cusak. You worked with him previously in a commedia company? ] ^ PQ: Yeah. We started a company in Chicago, a group of us, Johnny being the sugar daddy of the group. And it was loosely based on Tim Robbins’s company in LA, the Actor’s Gang. They were doing commedia dell’arte, and John went and worked with them, and was so impressed with them that he came back, and said, “We’ve got to do this.” So we did — about eight or ten of us. We did a bunch of plays with German expressionist things. The last thing I did, I played Hunter S. Thompson in “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas,” which was a crazy style, and took tremendous energy for a stage play at full throttle — anger, fear, sadness, joy. And it’s an exhausting sort of process, but it’s really rewarding, and it’s an exiting show, it’s real physical. ^
[ (to Aidan) As an actor, how do you feel that you’re reaching your audience? What is that mysterious process that’s happening between film and an audience for you as an actor? ] ^ AQ: That’s interesting, because I don’t even know all the answers to that, but I do like to de-mystify it and not hold it up as some great art form because often times I think it’s not. However, I treat it like a monk. It is a religious thing and you’re entering a sacred space when the camera’s on, and so I don’t like to talk about acting too much with the director unless we’re in trouble, and the scene’s going nowhere, and then we have to rewrite or try something radically different. For example, if you do a take that’s brilliant, and it’s the long shot let’s say, and really the scene is going to play in a close-up or a medium close-up; if a young director tells you, “That moment that you did right there — keep doing it just like that, that’s brilliant,” you will never be able to do it just like that again. Because something happened; he called attention to the magic. It’s like an actor who gets a beautiful review that says, “There’s one moment where he does this thing that just tears up the whole audience,” and in trying to repeat that he loses that moment for the next two or three weeks. It’s a mysterious process, it is. But there’s a sense of knowing when it’s right. There’s a sense of flow that you know when it’s right. And I just hope that through my acting in this part that people can see inside to these characters and their story, and see this man that was very shy, awkward and innocent, but very manly in his honesty and his ability to get emotional, and his ability to express his love without worrying about that it sounded so vulnerable, his ability to stand up to the cops and say, “Well whatever she says, I’ll not say a word against her.” And as a man he stands right up to them. It’s a fascinating role. His ability to say, “You’ve been very good to me,” to his stepparents, realizing that they already feel bad, and he’s not going to make him feel worse, that he appreciated they treated them better than most of the people that took these kids out of the homes and had them live in the barn and were basically indentured servants. ^
[ What are your next projects? ] ^ AQ: My career is over, I’m unemployed, and no one wants to hire me. So I’m playing a waiting game, and hoping this film sparks some renewed interest in my meager career. I did a film with Meryl Streep that’s coming out in October, and I got to play her boyfriend, which was a huge thrill, and it’s a terrific movie. It’s a supporting role, and it was a thrill to work with her. By Wes Craven, and it’s a straight-ahead drama. And he did a wonderful job. Paul’s going on to direct mammoth major motion pictures, huge challenges; he’s only going to work with people above the age of seventy. ^ PQ: Actually I’m going to be doing this thing called “Wilbur Bloom,” about a group of men and women who are in their 80s, in New York City. It’s sort of how they’re facing the last furlong of their life as their health begins to go, and their friends and lovers die around them. So how they face that — the end. ^
[ (to Paul) Would you like to act in films yourself? ] ^ PQ: Yeah, but I don’t want to do it the way that these poor bastards do it. Heathens watching you and judging you. I want to do it like where eventually I put myself in my own films and let them come to me. ^
[ That’s a marvelous way to do it. ] ^ PQ: Screw the other way! It’s too painful.
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Posted on June 14, 1999 in Interviews by
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