Director Jim Sheridan On 'Brothers'

Writer/director Jim Sheridan has been nominated for six Oscars but has never won. His next big chance: the drama Brothers, which opens Friday. It's a chilling war movie that's centered on the home front, featuring three of the biggest under-35 stars in movies today — Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman. Host Robert Smith talks to Sheridan about his reputation as an "actor's director," and about how he hopes to make this movie stand out from the war-movie pack.

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(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SMITH, host:

It's one of the oldest stories in literature: A man goes off to war and disappears. His wife thinks he's dead. Another man takes his place. Then the husband returns. When Homer wrote it, it was about Odysseus and the Trojan War. In the new movie, "Brothers," the war is Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of film, "Brothers")

Mr. TOBEY MAGUIRE (Actor): (As Captain Sam Cahill) October 7, 2007. Four days till we deploy. Grace knows I would do anything to get back to her, anything. Today I wrote her a letter.

SMITH: The soldier is played by Tobey Maguire, the wife, by Natalie Portman, and in the modern twist, the man that comes between them is the soldier's brother, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

(Soundbite of film, "Brothers")

Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL (Actor): (As Tommy Cahill) Just say it, you know what I mean? All right, he told me I could borrow the car whenever I want.

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (As Grace Cahill) Sam's dead.

(Soundbite of sobbing)

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Tommy) What are you talking about?

Ms. PORTMAN: (As Grace) He's dead, Tommy, (unintelligible).

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Tommy) Why didn't you call me? Why'd you let him go over there, Grace?

Ms. PORTMAN: (As Grace) Tommy.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Tommy) Well, what now, huh?

SMITH: The director, Jim Sheridan is with us. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. JIM SHERIDAN (Director, "Brothers"): Thank you for having me.

SMITH: Just off the plane from Ireland?

Mr. SHERIDAN: I am, but it's a good flight, and they treat me well. All the air hostesses know me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: You're best known for your films about the Irish experience, "My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father," "In America," about the Irish diaspora, and this is quite a departure for you. I mean, it's a war film. It's set in an American suburb. What attracted you to the story?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Well, you know, the truth is I'd seen Susanne Bier's movie�

SMITH: Which is based on a Danish film.

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah, yeah, and I really liked it, and I thought I could remake it without damaging it and maybe just do something slightly different.

SMITH: But what interested you? Was it the story of a family in conflict, or was it the war part, the Afghanistan part?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Well, it's funny you should say that. You know, it's kind of split in two, like "The Iliad," and you watch "The Odyssey." So, you know, it's the - it's more the journey home and it's more about being in America, being a soldier returned from the war, rather than it's about, you know, being in Afghanistan.

So, I mean, family dynamics always interest me, putting the family back together, and in this movie, I wanted it to be as kind of story that despite the terrors and horror that the main character goes through, the family, in some kind of profound way, stood behind him, you know?

SMITH: I know you love to explore family in your films. Was any of this based on your own family, your own brothers?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah, you know, when I was 12, we changed from a little cottage house, and we moved into a big house, but we kept lodgers. So in essence, there were two families in the house. There was the nuclear family and the other family, and they both had their power structures. They both had their kind of father figures.

The lodgers always had one dominant male who ruled his side of the roost, you know, and then on the other side, my dad, and I remember fights between my dad and some of the lodgers, you know, where the two males would be like two bulls fighting on the floor. My mother would still just be pouring the tea out, though.

SMITH: Jim Sheridan, we've been talking about the classical influences of this film, and, you know, that it's based on this Danish film. Where do you make it real? How did you make it so that this was a real story of real people happening in an American suburb?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Well, you know, I don't really know how I do things, in a funny way. You know, I always just judge the truth, you know? I had a brother who got a brain tumor, and it kind of slowed his motor functions. So first, his smile went, slightly. So I became interested in people acting and that if they were malfunctioning and acting, I always felt like they were dying. So my instinct was to protect them and love them, and I think that's beyond words.

If I walk on a set, that's just what I feel. I don't have to say it. It's just in the air, the way the unspoken is in the air.

SMITH: Well, it's interesting you talked about losing your smile because in this movie, Tobey Maguire, who plays the young Marine, you can sort of see those layers stripped away from him. You can definitely see that. Was that intentional? I mean, did you talk to Tobey Maguire about this?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah, you know, in a funny way, I wouldn't talk really in a kind of prescriptive way about anything like that. I think what I tried to do is set up circumstances and let the person figure it out, you know, and I'm very good at not interfering. Tobey, I knew he could lose the complexity that's in his head and gradually be reduced to a tabula, you know, with nothing there except, blank, you know?

SMITH: It sounds like you sort of direct differently for different actors. I mean, you certainly had a very successful collaboration and career with Daniel Day Lewis. You did three films with him.

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah.

SMITH: But this is slightly different because you have these young stars who have become famous in blockbusters. Was this different for you, sort of dealing with these young stars who really are recognizable, big names?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah, it was different in different ways. You know, like I say Tobey's complex, loves control, where Jake is a kind of very - I kind of say Jake is a 360-degree actor. You know, he's watching what's going on 360 degrees, and it's like almost as if his family background, with his mother as a writer and dad as a director, has allowed him to live in the world of movies like a normal person, and he's great, and he's - like anybody who's really talented, they're kind of very odd, you know? I don't mean odd in the bad way. They just - they're alive, and they're not easily malleable, but an easily malleable actor is really a boring actor, you know?

Mr. SHERIDAN: We haven't talked about Natalie Portman yet, and in many ways, she has the hardest role in this film.

(Soundbite of film, "Brothers")

Ms. PORTMAN: (As Grace) I've loved you since I was 16 years old. Do you know that? Do you want to tell me what happened? You're not going to see me again.

Mr. SHERIDAN: Natalie's great - what's the word for it? You know, she has - her biggest drawback is her beauty, you know, because sometimes when somebody's that beautiful, you go: What the hell is she doing in that house, you know, with a Marine that age, and, you know? And Natalie is just a very strong individual, and if you were in a war, you'd want Natalie Portman at your back. That's all I can tell you.

SMITH: So Jim Sheridan, when I heard about the movie, I sort of assumed that the war would be a pretense for this family story, and so I was really surprised that there were actual scenes that showed the war, that were incredibly brutal. What are you trying to say about the war in Afghanistan? I mean, do you have a message there?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah, I suppose so. Look, I won't ever deny message or non-message. When you're in a situation where you're making a movie about a war, it's very hard for it to be entertainment. It almost, like, by definition, steps out of entertainment, and no matter what you do, you're into a propaganda space because war is beyond entertainment.

SMITH: In the last 20 years, you've directed total of six films. You tend to write, produce and direct and spend a lot of time on them, and I noticed that including "Brothers," you have four movies coming out in the next couple of years. What's up with that? Have you changed your work style?

Mr. SHERIDAN: I have a little bit. You know, I think it's - a lot of that not making a lot of movies is two things. It's - the first movie I made was a big success, and that was hard to follow up, you know, and you get a fear factor going on.

SMITH: That was "My Left Foot"?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah, and then I don't want to be ruled by fear because I was afraid. It was a simple as that. I was just afraid I'd fall on my face and that - my strengths were I thought was Irish and knowing the dynamic, and then I just decided, you know what? Maybe people are the same everywhere, do you know what I mean? Because like you say, it's family dynamic. That's the same the world over, you know? It's not that much different.

So it was great to make this movie. It was very easy most of the time, except for the odd blowup, but they weren't big-time blowups, you know, and I'm not as afraid, I think, as I used to be, you know? I'm not as worried about the outcome because I know it's beyond my control.

SMITH: Jim Sheridan directed the movie "Brothers," which hits the movie theaters on Friday. Thanks so much for coming into the studio.

Mr. SHERIDAN: I really enjoyed talking to you, thanks.

(Soundbite of music)

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