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NEW YORK — The past, one might say, is in the mind of the beholder. So when director Jim Sheridan and two of his daughters, Naomi, 30, and Kirsten, 27, began writing three separate scripts for a film based on their family’s emigration from Ireland to the U.S. in the early Eighties, nothing, not even the things they wanted to forget, was off limits.
“When they wrote their drafts, my character literally disappeared out of the story,” jokes Sheridan, who also directed “In the Name of the Father” and “My Left Foot.” “And they wrote all this stuff where I embarrassed them in school because I put plastic bags over my head in the rain.”
“He never had an umbrella,” Kirsten chimes in. “We’d always be coming out of school and we’d be like, ‘Where’s Dad? Oh, he’s the one with the bag over his head.’”
The incident never made its way into “In America,” which hit theaters last Wednesday, but the film does chronicle many of the Sheridans’ real life experiences, even if they are tweaked for dramatic effect. In the movie, a struggling actor, his wife and their two daughters move to Harlem after losing their son, Frankie. In 1981, the Sheridans moved to New York with Naomi, then 9, and Kirsten, then 5, so that Jim could try to make it in the entertainment business. After illegally crossing into the States via Canada, the family lived in a series of rundown apartment buildings and eventually moved back to Ireland in 1988.
The addition of the Frankie character in the script gave the grieving family an emotional hurdle to overcome and it was, for Jim, a hurdle that was rooted in reality. Jim’s brother, Frankie, died from a brain tumor as a child. He added the character not only to provide an arc for the story, but also to give himself a degree of distance. “It wasn’t until I did that that I got a perspective on my character and I could laugh at him,” he says.
The family’s apartment also got a cinematic makeover. The kitsch pad in the movie is in Harlem, but the Sheridans lived in a tiny railroad apartment in Hell’s Kitchen while Jim ran the Irish Arts Center. He also worked odd jobs answering phones and mopping floors and once dragged a stolen air conditioner from the theater through the streets of New York. “My mom and dad always made it feel like it was a big adventure,” says Naomi. “We moved into this apartment and they completely sold it to us on the fact that it had a window seat, which we thought was fabulous.”
Compiling their separate scripts into a final product was a chance for the family to spend time together, given that they live all over the world. (Jim’s wife, and the girls’ mother, Fran, helped in the editing room.) During the actual filming, however, Naomi and Kirsten stayed away from the set and from the actresses who play them in the film.
“We didn’t want to put the girls on the spot,” says Naomi.
“And I knew if I was on set, I’d want to do things differently,” adds Kirsten.
Naomi and Kirsten both say that spending time with Jim in the theater allowed them to forge their own careers in the business. Naomi, who is now writing a TV series and just finished writing a contemporary screenplay based on an obscure Greek tragedy, lives in New York and has the same landlord that the Sheridans had over 20 years ago. Kirsten, based in Dublin, made her feature film debut in 2001 with “Disco Pigs” and is at work on two more screenplays. Jim, also in Dublin, is writing a script about an Irish-American political family that he insists is “not the Kennedys.” During the whole process, however, the youngest Sheridan daughter, Tess, 18, who is in school, just sat back and watched.
“Tess is the poor little rich girl. When she was born, I did ‘My Left Foot’ and made money,” says Jim. “She said we all bonded when we were poor without her, but now that she’s seen the new movie, she feels bonded with the family, too.”