Director Sue Bourne talked to me about her new documentary, “Jig,” the story of the Irish dancing world championships. It is thrilling, touching, and inspiring, with unforgettable characters and stories and dancing that would make Michael Flatley stand up and cheer.
This is your first feature, right?
Yes. I’ve been making films for British television for a long time, won some awards, but this is my first feature and it has been a very interesting journey to go on. Once we heard that 6000 dancers from all around the world were coming to Glasgow for the Irish dancing world championships, I pitched the idea to the BBC. They said, “That sounds interesting,” and I said, “I want to make a feature film,” and they said, “Why?” I said, ” I don’t want to make a film about an Englishman, and Irishman, and a Scotsman going to Glasgow — that’s dull as ditchwater.” If we’re going to make a film that shows the true international scope of Irish dancing then let’s be ambitious about it and raise a big budget and do a big proper feature film. So it began with me being a bit big for my boots and saying, “I want to go around the world! I need a big budget!” and it escalated from there! I could see it would have international appeal and a cinema audience. Very few documentaries have what it takes for a cinematic theatrical release but I knew this was one.
How did you know?
My key thing in the films I make is finding the extraordinary in the apparently ordinary. Everyone’s got a story to tell and I am always keen to show that it’s not about dance; it’s about people and their stories and their lives and what they are passionate about. I just sensed that there would be great stories and great characters, that it would be about much more than Irish dancing. And you throw into that that it’s got great music, great dancing, children — I thought, this could be like “Spellbound,” plus “Mad Hot Ballroom” with a dash of Riverdance thrown in as well.
Those children are amazing, not just in their talent but in their determination and maturity. When the two top competitors hugged each other, it was a stunningly moving and powerful moment.
And they’re just 10! We knew that one of the stories we would have to find was a ten year old coming to the World’s for the first time. We looked for a long time, and many of them were shy. But then I saw Brogan and she was so remarkable. I said, “Who’s that!” I thought, “I’ve got to find out more about that wee girl.” She could talk for Britain and she was a 10 year old with a sense of humor. She’s remarkable. Yes, it’s about dancing, but it’s about much, much more than that.
We live in a world of “do your own thing” and yet this incredibly rigid and formal style of dance that is so particular and unchanging attracts passionate devotion from people around the world.
After two years, I’m none the wiser about that as to why they all love it so much. As one said, “It’s the shoes and the rhythm.” The closest I’ve got is that it casts a spell and you’re hooked. Something inside them connects with the rhythm or the music or the dance.
One of the most fascinating parts of the movie is how many people overlook their own cultural and ethnic traditions to devote themselves to Irish dance. You have a group from Moscow, Americans, and a Dutch kid originally from Sri Lanka.
Only about three of the dancers are Irish! Even little Brogan, her family never did any Irish dancing. And people said, “The film is going to be filled with pushy parents.” On the contrary, we found bemused parents who’ve been dragged into it by children who have been captivated by the dance.
It is as engrossing to watch the parents as the children, though. You have a couple of shots where you can tell everything just from the way they tense their shoulders and life their chins as they watch their children perform.
As with all sport, the teachers and parents live a little vicariously through their children and it is so beautifully manifest in that moment. I had to ask myself as a mother if I would be willing to make some of the sacrifices the parents in this movie make to support their children — to move from California to Birmingham! If you’ve got a tennis or golf prodigy you might movie because they could make millions. But here, if you are the world champion, you get a little bauble. They’re not motivated by celebrity, they’re not motivated by money, they’re not motivated by anything other than the goals they set themselves to be the best.
Cinema Blend has the best discussions I’ve seen about when you should pay the extra for the 3D glasses. The factors they consider include whether the movie was filmed in 3D or had the effects added in post-production, whether it minimizes the inevitable dimming, whether it provides a sense of depth, and the “glasses off test.” The Green Lantern 3D analysis is an excellent example. Whether you do or don’t like 3D, you’ll appreciate it much more if you check out Cinema Blend’s take before deciding whether to put on the 3D glasses.
It used to be that a comedian who wanted to be in movies had to make an armed services comedy. Now, we stick them in domestic stories about daddies who need to learn that the family is more important than the office. Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey have all been, there, some more than once. Other performers take on movies through this rite of passage: look at Ice Cube’s “Are We There Yet?” and “Are We Done Yet?” or The Rock in “The Game Plan” or “The Tooth Fairy,” or Hulk Hogan in “Mr. Nanny” or Vin Diesel in “The Pacifier.”
As rigidly structured as a limerick, these films also require: crotch hits, potty humor, grumpy bosses, and Daddy working through his own issues before finding that what really matters is family. Sometimes, as happens here, they appropriate the title of a beloved book and then jettison just about everything else about it. I’m still hoping for an authentic version of the real-life story “Cheaper by the Dozen,” updating the classic movie version with Clifton Webb. The charming book by Richard and Florence Atwater merits more than a homeopathic speck of a relationship to a movie someday as well.
The book, written in 1938, is the story of a decorator who dreams of adventure and is sent a penguin by an antarctic explorer. In the movie, Jim Carrey plays the son of an explorer who was never home when he was growing up. Now in his 40’s, he is the divorced father of two who works so hard for a company that buys beautiful old buildings and tears them down to build new ones that he misses a lot of soccer games and dance recitals. He very much wants to be a name partner in the firm. If he can make one more big acquisition for the company, it’s his. The only privately-held space in Central Park is the elegant old restaurant, Tavern on the Green. In real life, it is now closed, but in the movie it is owned by redoutable dowager Mrs. Van Grundy (Angela Lansbury).
And then, a crate is delivered. Mr. Popper’s father has died and he has inherited a penguin, soon followed by five more. Popper tries desperately to get rid of the penguin until his son Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) sees them and thinks they are his birthday present. So Popper keeps them as a way to connect to his kids, even though his building does not allow pets and a zealous zookeeper wants to take them away. Various forms of chaos disrupt Popper’s life, interfering with his efforts to persuade Mrs. Van Grundy to sell and the no-pets rule in his apartment building but enhancing his communications with his children and ex-wife. As he scrambles to create an optimal environment for the penguins, his home starts to look more and more like the South Pole. And when three of the penguins lay eggs, it brings out his protective father instincts.
Carrey gets to make faces and do some improvising, which is undeniably fun, and there are some clever lines. Popper’s son describes his upset middle-school sister as “95 pounds of C4 explosives on a hair trigger. You’re in the hurt locker now.” Carrey has some fun with the sillier situations and the lovely Madeline Carroll (Popper’s daughter) is a welcome presence. The book that inspired it is warmly remembered more than 70 years later. The movie may not be remembered by the time you get home.