Arts Desk

Ghosts, Gospels, and The Eclipse: A Conversation with Conor McPherson

Since J. M. Synge's 1903 play The Shadow of the Glen portrayed a corpse awakening onstage to find his "widow" cavorting with a homeless tramp, Irish dramatists have favored narratives that juxtapose the hilarious and the macabre. Conor McPherson, a Dublin-based playwright, screenwriter, and director whose film The Eclipse opens this Friday in U. S. theaters, shares this proclivity. McPherson's most recent play The Seafarer, staged on Broadway in December 2007 and in D.C. last January, features the devil incarnate playing high-stakes poker with a trio of working-class drunks, the dialogue crackling with ad hominem jibes and Mephistophelian musings.

The Eclipse pursues a more somber tack than The Seafarer, though McPherson finds moments of comic relief in his gothic narrative about a widower haunted by apparitions of his deceased wife. As McPherson tells it, "All stories have light as well as shade. Life can be pretty shocking, very crazy, but there certainly are little moments of joy."

At just 38, McPherson has accumulated a body of critical praise as well as multiple awards, including a Laurence Olivier Award and a Critics' Circle Award for The Weir in 1997, as well as three Tony nominations. His film Saltwater won the CICAE Award for Best Film at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival, and The Eclipse received raves at Tribeca last year. As both a writer and director of his own plays and films, he has emerged as a multi-talented auteur with a wholly distinctive voice and aesthetic.

In contrast to the repartee between drunks and the devil in The Seafarer and the monologued ghost stories that shape The Weir, The Eclipse involves carefully composed portraits of the Irish landscape and extended single-shot scenes that evoke the isolation of  protagonist Michael Farr (Ciarán Hind). Maneuvering within a five-week shooting schedule and a two million-euro budget, McPherson took what he calls a "Russian Roulette" approach to making the film.

"A lot of scenes were shot in one take, as that was all I had," he says. "I forbade myself even the option to edit and spent time taking just one long shot, one camera move."

That approach, McPherson insists, helped him hew to an old-fashioned style of filmmaking.

"I was trying to emulate the visual style of The Exorcist and The Shining, which have a very assured, formal kind of filmmaking style.... People might have thought at the time that it was slightly crazy and difficult to pull off, but I knew if it worked it would seem more assured."

Giving equal screentime to workaday details and supernatural questions, The Eclipse dramatizes Michael's struggle to preserve the memory of his dead wife while functioning in the realm of the living. Michael volunteers at an international literary festival in his seaside town, shuttling two writers between readings and social engagements and finding himself embroiled in a love triangle with the arrogant American novelist Nicholas Holden (Aiden Quinn) and mystery writer Lena Morelle (played by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle, known on the American screen as John Cusack's epic ex Laura from High Fidelity). (An intricately choreographed, nearly slapstick boxing match between the two men relieves the tensions wrought by their rivalry and suggests that McPherson refrains from taking his material too seriously.) Lena shares Michael's interest in the paranormal and, despite Nicholas's constant stalking and drunken threats, helps Michael navigate the sequence of nightmares and supernatural visions that hinder his ability to move on.

McPherson views ghosts and supernatural experiences as metaphors for "the unknown, the existential and the unfinished business of our lives." In The Eclipse, moments of horror-film imagery are meant to draw the audience into Michael's tormented psyche—as opposed to "just freaking [them] out."

"When Ciarán Hinds is having these really terrifying moments, the audience experiences it with him," McPherson says. "The horror becomes a visual manifestation of what he's struggling with, the grief and the feelings that can't be expressed. By struggling through it he becomes free."

Like The Exorcist, The Eclipse draws on Catholicism as a source for some of its eerier elements: McPherson confronts the audience with crosses, graveyards, statues of Christ, and wounds that resemble the stigmata. The story is set to choral arrangements in Latin that echo an evensong service. (McPherson, along with his wife Fionnuala Ní Chiosáin, had a hand in arranging the soundtrack.)

“As a kid I was really fascinated with ghosts and the supernatural,” McPherson says. “I think it might have had to do with being brought up as a Catholic. The holy ghost, and Jesus dying on the cross . . . it all seemed so dramatic."

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The Eclipse opens Friday, April 9 at the Landmark E Street Cinema

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