Interview with John Crowley director of Is Anybody There

The director of Intermission returns with this Michael Caine starring movie…

John Crowley made one of the best Irish movies of recent years with Intermission in 2003. Since then he’s worked in theatre, taking time out to direct the BAFTA winning TV movie ‘Boy A’. Now the helmer is returning with a very different story, based around the friendship of a young boy named Edward (who some of you will remember from the wonderful “Son of Rambow”) and a retired magician named Clarence (aka Sir Michael Caine). caught up with the director to discuss the success of Intermission, working with Michael Caine and what’s next for Ireland’s top director.

Q: After the success of Intermission you must have been bombarded with scripts – what do you look for in a script?

Truthful writing, humour and something that’s different to what I’ve done before. It’s a little bit random really, in the sense that, you either have a reaction when you are reading it, or you don’t. It’s as simple as that. I’ll argue with myself about scripts that I think I should do and that will probably make a lot more money, but ultimately you go with the one you have the strongest gut reaction for.

Q: How did you first come across the script for ‘Is Anybody There?’ – What did it say to you?

I was sent a two page treatment and loved the idea of a kid growing up in a retirement home. There was a lovely dark humour to it. This was something I read as a two page treatment. After Intermission I was looking for a story where there was a child in the middle of it – a child protagonist. I fell in love with the book; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time but the film rights had gone a gazillion years ago. What that book had was the idea of the world through the eyes of a child, where the world seems comically topsy-turvy was something that I was looking for. Peter Harness said to me that he grew up in a retirement home and he wanted to write something about that. With our encouragement he went and wrote the two page treatment. Read it, and there was very little action in it, but the tone of it and the world of it had this irreverent attitude toward death and mortality and I said it would make a gorgeous little film. So when I read the treatment I knew I was going to make the film. He was about 32 when he started working on it, and that’s quite young to be excavating your childhood and invent action. His childhood was very uneventful. There were no magicians, his parents are still happily married, and none of the old folk lost their fingers… What he had soaked up, almost by osmosis, was a huge amount of life experience from all these fantastic old characters. He had a tone in his writing that was way beyond his years.

Q: How did Sir Michael Caine become involved in the movie?

We didn’t write it with Michael in mind. Once it was ready to go out to the world, we started talking about who might be right for it. It was the suggestion of the casting director, even though, obviously, his name had been hovering around. It suddenly became impossible to think about anybody else playing the part because he has such a distinctive voice, he kind of colonised the film. So it’s just as well he liked it. I sent it to him on a Wednesday, he read it on a Thursday on a plane, and his wife read it as well and apparently loved it, so she said “you’re doing this one”. He called and said he wanted to meet and when he was back, we met and we had lunch and he seemed to think I was OK so he said “OK, we’ll do it, but I’ve got to go off and do The Dark Knight”. Having just got on the starting blocks it was really frustrating to hang around for eight months, so I went and made Boy A.

Q: Is it possible to put aside the most iconic screen performances that Michael Caine has done, and direct him?

It’s my job! It’s as banal as that. I don’t get nervous of actors and I don’t get star struck. I am thankfully free of it. The one part of the job that was like breathing to me was directing actors. You’re right, Michael is an icon. You look at that face and its Alfie or its Charlie Croker from The Italian Job but actually he asked me a question and I had to step up and answer. He’s an actor who is trying to figure out a scene. You’re not doing him any good by being “Yes Mr Caine, No Mr Caine”. He loves being directed, because he doesn’t think of acting as a process. He’s a craftsman. He wants to get it right and he wants to get it right on take one, and if there was something missing in take one, you have to articulate what it was and get it in take two. He’s 76, he’s been on hundreds of film sets. I love film sets, the romance of them never leaves me, but he doesn’t! He wants to go home, and that’s fine! From a certain point of the day he will start asking “Are my shoes in this shot?” and his clothes will gradually turn back into Michael Caine!

Q: How did Michael Caine approach what would be a very sensitive role.

Quite fearlessly and without ego. It a very rare thing for an iconic actor like Michael, who has nothing to prove to anyone, to give such an emotionally vulnerable performance.

Q: The movie tackles death and the aging process, are you afraid of getting old?

I haven’t thought that much about it, but I guess I don’t really like the idea of it! The thought of someone singing The Wheels on the Bus that’s kind of purgatory alright! I think when you die, that’s it, but you live on with whoever remembers you.

Q: Michael says he dedicated his performance to his close friend Dougie, who died of Alzheimers was it difficult watching Michael getting into character and tough reliving memories.

Michael’s doesn’t try and dazzle anyone with his research while he’s on set. He comes, wants to get it exactly right, and go home! So the answer is no, because he always makes it look much easier than it is. The Alzheimer’s element of the script was very small. Michael’s friend Dougie was his tailor since he made Alfie, they were great friends. Michael doesn’t bring that kind of stuff on the set with him. Whatever the acting cost him is not physically demonstrated to the set. He’s working like a miniaturist; he’s trying to get each bit of the mosaic right. Other actors want to talk about the meaning of the overall film, but Michael wants very detailed, exact information. He never plays senile in [the film], he only plays someone who can’t remember.

Q: How did you find the youngest cast member Bill Milner?

We saw 100 children and Bill came to the fore very quickly, but he had also made a film, he had made Son of Rambow but none of us had seen it because they were editing it when we were casting. It finally came down to two, and Bill had experience and the other kid had no experience, he was from the north of England, Bill has a London accent, he would have o do an accent, I was very worried about that, but ultimately Bill’s instinct as an actor won through with me, he’s as good an actor as I have worked with, it’s not like directing a child where there’s usually a part of education or slightly talking down to them, you just direct him like you direct Michael. The fascinating thing was that Michael never patronised him, he never spoke to him like a child. They became sort of like the odd couple within about 10 minutes of starting to work. Bill was very nervous, but he shed it very quickly and stepped up to Michael. It was quite something, to be able to play with him in scenes.

Q: After the movie are you planning on returning to theatre or would you like to make another film?

I’m going to do a new Martin McDonagh play in New York next and then I’m hoping to make my next film early next year.