Andrew McCarthy says that he "won the lottery" when he was a kid. Just another NYU acting student who wanted nothing more than a life in the theater, he went to an open casting call, and two weeks after the audition he was the lead in a Hollywood movie, Class (1983). Two years later, with St. Elmoís Fire, he was part of what became known as the Brat Pack, along with Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, and other up-and-coming 20-somethings.
Now McCarthy is 41. Since 1999, he has gotten back into theater, performing in nine plays, including the off-Broadway Tony-winning Sideman on Broadway. Last year he did something else that had been hanging fire for years ó he filmed a Frank OíConnor short story, News for the Church. The story had so charmed him in 1989 that he bought the screen rights, promising the Irish authorís widow not to fiddle with the dialogue.
The resulting 20-minute short film stars Nora-Jane Noone, who made a strong impression in The Magdalene Sisters. Since it was filmed in Ireland, McCarthy held its world premiere in July at the Galway Film Fleadh. The American premiere will be part of the opening night screenings at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
This little film is a gem, well-acted and visually smart. Itís no exaggeration to say that McCarthy improved upon the original with his screenplay and direction. Where OíConnorís priest is an over-written caricature, with "pouting crimson lips, and small blue hot-tempered eyes," the film conveys him as being somewhat sympathetic toward the girl before she confesses her adultery. McCarthy added the character of a boy, a thief whose eventual punishment parallels the young womanís in a way that makes the story shock and resonate. This is the sort of short that makes festival-goers look forward to a feature-length accomplishment by a filmmaker.
A RIIFF official mentioned that McCarthy turned down an award he was to receive at the festival, because he wanted to be treated as just another filmmaker. McCarthy spoke by phone from his Manhattan home about making News for the Church.
Q: Why did you choose to bring your film to the Rhode Island festival?
A: In starting to learn about film festivals and what were good ones ó ícause there are five billion of them ó it was just a really good East Coast festival. And I thought this little movie was an East Coast film.
Thereís a whole world of film festivals and people who do the festival circuit. Everyone just kept saying that this was a really nice sort of elegant, classy, low-key, quality film festival. You keep hearing from the filmmaker community that itís filmmaker-friendly.
Q: What appealed to you about the OíConnor short story? I understand that back in 1989 it really gripped you.
A: (Laughs lightly) It did. Itís embarrassing, isnít it? It took me 15 years to make an 18-minute movie.
The story is just about a girl who goes to a priest to confess that she had sex, in Ireland in 1940-something, and then the repercussions of that. I thought it was really powerful and moving.
The price of self-empowerment is what I call it. Somebody who thinks outside the box. It was a beautiful experience for her, the experience that she had that she confesses. It wasnít dirty and it wasnít horrible and wasnít shattering. It was a wonderful, liberating experience. So for someone whoís been told her whole life that thatís a bad thing, for it to be this life-changing, joyous event, sheís trying to figure it out. "Iíve been told this but I feel this," and thereís this chasm in between, and sheís struggling with that. And I know when I was younger, and still, I always marvel at what I feel is different from what Iím told that Iím supposed to feel. So something about that touched me, obviously, when I was young and it just stayed with me. Iím always amazed by that, because my experience seems to be so much different than what Iím told, so much of the time.
Q: This sounds like a wonderful acting opportunity for the woman, but what did you see as a director and a screenwriter, or potentially so, when you decided to make the film?
A: I was fascinated that everybody in the story thinks that theyíre in the right. Nobody thinks that theyíre evil or bad, they think that theyíre doing the right thing. The idea that we cause harm by doing what we perceive to be the right thing, thatís another theme that interests me. Because most people donít intend to cause harm, they cause harm by doing the right thing ó in their mind. So I wanted to explore all points of view of that, not just the girlís but his point of view as well. Only by directing it could I explore all the points of view.
Q: By the time youíve finished making it, what did you know about filmmaking that you hadnít when you started? Did it become a learning process?
A: Sure. Yeah, thatís part of the reason to do these sort of things. In doing everything, from coming up with the ideas and putting them on paper till doing the final edits, you are always thinking the next three steps, youíre always thinking what next, what next, what next? You always have to keep thinking: "Where am I going?" Whereas acting, youíre always thinking: "What am I doing?" You donít want to know where youíre going, you want to be right where you are. In filmmaking you have to know: "Iím doing this but Iím going to there, so I have to film it in this way so that my transition is good, so that I get there." You always have to keep the end in mind, I guess, whereas you donít as an actor.
There are certain shots I wish I had. I thought I understood the story very well, because Iíve lived with it for so long. But movies change and take on a life of their own once they start to be made, and you have to keep your eye on the real ball, not the ball thatís in your head.
Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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