“The Eclipse” is a ghost story for grown-ups, which means that it is story first, ghost second. It is an Irish film about Michael (Ciarán Hinds) a recent widower with two children, who is volunteering at a local literary festival. Two of the festival guests are the arrogant, self-centered Nicholas (Aidan Quinn), a novelist, and the sensitive Lena (Iben Hjejle), author of a popular non-fiction book about ghosts.
I spoke to Hinds and writer/director Conor McPherson about the film.
What do people ask you most about the film?
CM: They want to know exactly what was going on, to answer the questions the movie leaves unanswered.
Yes, Americans are very concrete, very literal. We want everything explained.
CM: When people are out of their comfort zone, it’s more dramatic, more prone to have more entertaining experiences, get into fights. That’s the dramatic instinct, to move people out of what they know and make them deal with it. In theater it’s all through dialogue in traditional plays. In movies, it’s so lovely, you can show him putting dishes in the dishwasher and everybody just knows what’s going on, that his wife is gone and he has to do everything. You still tell some things with dialogue in scenes but we’ve taken some away…
CH: Pared it away, really.
CM: And that’s enough. Film has that magic.
You play a quiet person in this film. How do you as an actor convey all you have to about what he is thinking and experiencing?
CH: He’s just a guy like anybody. We’re all ordinary in a way. We can all be hurt. We can all be unbalanced. We all have feelings. Life can treat us harshly, even shockingly sometimes. He has minor pretensions but he is a woodwork teacher. He works with his hands. He is a practical man. But though he is doing his best with his wife gone he is out of his depth a bit apart from the grief. He’s a real person but you bring elements of emotion to a heightened situation. He just wants to survive and take care.
I loved his interaction with his kids. It felt very real. The frustration and the need to convey a sense that he is in control.
CH: When Lena says she is sorry to hear about his wife he responds, “It was terrible for the kids.” He knows he hasn’t grieved enough but he has to keep a lid on it for the kids. In the end, in the story, he is allowed to let it all out and properly to grieve.
Do you find that now, like Lena in the film, people want to come and tell you their own ghost stories?
CM: At the first screening last April in New York, it turned into a sort of heavy session with people talking about how they lost people and the film made that feeling come back. It’s probably the last thing you think about when you’re making a film is other people’s problems. You’re thinking about your problem, which is making the movie. But you do have a responsibility. You can’t mess around with people’s emotions.
CH: You find people genuinely relating to something or a truth they felt, and that is what you aspire to.
Do you believe in ghosts?
CM: Yes I do, but I don’t know what they are. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. But if someone said to me, “Last night I saw the ghost of my sibling” or whatever, I wouldn’t say, “That’s impossible,” I’d say, “What was that like?”
CH: I don’t disbelieve.
CM: There’s a very old tradition in Ireland, and as an island at the edge of Europe, for thousands of years with no one knowing what was beyond there, I wonder if a sense of the beyond was internalized into the Irish psyche. We’re very quick to accept the supernatural. And I think Catholicism took root very quickly in Ireland because it’s a very superstitious religion, the holy ghost, the holy spirit, it has a goddess, very visual, the music. For me, philosophically, we don’t know anything anyway. We have this short little life we have to somehow try to get a grip on without understanding anything about the nature of time or existence or the universe or God or infinity. We’re just here for a brief moment and we open up these little eyes and go “What is this?” and then we’re gone! I love stories that frame that: This is what life is about — you don’t have a clue.
You are working with one of my favorite actors in this movie, Aidan Quinn as the arrogant author. And it’s the kind of part he does not get to do very often.
CH: Over here he is picked because of his beautiful blue eyes. The relish that he took to this part when he read it — and then he took it in a way where he brought what he had seen in certain circles. What’s brilliant about it is that it’s not monstrous. There’s a real person in there who’s nervous because he’s getting old, there’s a stuff going on, there’s lust and need and pain.
CM: There’s a lot of pain. I remember him saying, “I don’t think people will not like him. I think they will understand that he’s struggling with his mortality and he’s panicking.”
There’s a scene in a nursing home early in the film where your character, Michael, visits his father-in-law, who is very angry because Michael forgot to pick him up and so he missed the opening of the festival. What do you think that tells us about where this movie is going?
CH: He says in that scene that it is tough to lose a wife but when you lose a child you begin to doubt there is a God. You see in that scene that Michael has already made a compromise because his father-in-law is in a home and doesn’t want to be. He can’t help him. He was not responsible for this man’s daughter’s death but somehow knows he is blaming him. This anger, this pure bile, that he sees in his eyes, that’s what he’s hearing, puts him into this world, this manifestation of that. In the story we see he was one of the founders of the festival, and so that makes it even more devastating. The bleakness of that room, the bleakness of his life.
Were there movies that you saw that made you think you wanted to be an actor?
CH: Liam Neeson and I were friends and we both went to “Midnight Cowboy,” when we were teenagers, this extraordinary film, of expression and weirdness and loss of the world. I remember talking to him about that and what an impression it made on both of us.
And you came to directing indirectly.
CM: I started directing out of necessity, the first play I wrote in college because I didn’t know anyone who could direct it. Directing is such a crucial part of the writing process; you start directing and you see what does not work. “Oh, God, what was I thinking?” and then you can rearrange it. They are very much in tandem for me. As for my influences, I love Woody Allen’s films like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and a big influence on “The Eclipse” is “The Exorcist,” with its darkness and big, heavy Catholic symbols and “The Shining,” they’re kind of horror films but have real psychological roundness, even without the horror you would still be connected to it. “The Changeling” with George C. Scott getting over the death of his wife and child and moves into a haunted house in Washington State, great performance.
I like the way this film is between genres.
CM: I could not flourish in the Hollywood system because the first thing spoken about is “What genre is it?” and “Who’s it for?” It’s a very strange question to me; it’s for human beings. And the casting thing, “You know who would be good in this movie? Tom Cruise!” I think I would fail miserably in that kind of film-making. You want to have something more to chew on if you want. I would love to make a 1830′s period piece, a house in the country, a classic atmospheric haunted house movie, visually it would be so beautiful, the costumes, the candles, the darkness, and the quiet, no radio, to TV, the clock ticking away.