Director Terry George on Reservation Road, American Gangster and More
The Irish-born director talks film criticism, the Troubles, and balancing drama and thriller elements.Terry George's early work shares the two themes characterized in most Irish films steadily released over the past three decades: the struggle of the working class and the everlasting tension between Ireland and Britain. After being imprisoned for six years for involvement with Irish republican organizations, George began his career co-writing the screenplays to In the Name of the Father, The Boxer with Jim Sheridan, and writing/directing 1996's Some Mother's Son. George broadened his scope with Hotel Rwanda, which earned George an Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay and a nomination for Don Cheadle's lead performance.
Rotten Tomatoes spoke to Terry George in San Francisco at the beginning of his press tour promoting his latest film, Reservation Road. An adaptation of the John Burnham Schwartz novel, Reservation Road stars Joaquin Phoenix as a father who loses his son in a hit-and-run accident and Mark Ruffalo as the guilt-ridden killer, and opens this Friday in limited release.
Rotten Tomatoes: Given your history and background, it's surprising you haven't directed more movies about Ireland.
Terry George: Well, I've done three. I wrote In the Name of the Father and The Boxer, and I directed Some Mother's Son. And they covered, certainly, the central section of the Troubles. The timeframe of In the Name of the Father was 1974; The Boxer would've been 1988. So we covered a 14 year range at the heart of the Troubles.
RT: So for now you're satisfied with the subject?
TG: There's a project Jim [Sheridan] and I have talked about. We want to do what would essentially be three movies, almost like Lord of the Rings. [We'd] cover the whole Troubles with real characters [who] move though it. That'd be divided up between me and Jim and another Irish director so we'd be making them at the same time. Maybe Neil Jordan, or Thaddeus O'Sullivan, or John Carney, who just did Once. Or maybe Paul Greengrass.
RT: How did you and Sheridan first meet and start collaborating?
TG: He was the artistic director of a theater called the Irish Arts Center in New York. And I had wrote a play in Northern Ireland about a prison escape. I took it to him and he put it on. It ran pretty well, ran for six months. Then he went off to do My Left Foot and I stayed behind and became this sort of temporary artistic director. [Then] I encountered Gerry Conlon, the subject character of In the Name of the Father, and started working [on the screenplay]. So I sort of stumbled into [filmmaking].
RT: Were you always interested in it?
TG: My interest was primarily journalism. I was working as a freelance journalist doing some work on research and work on a big Mafia book. The playwriting was just a way of expressing sentiments I felt about Northern Ireland, having left it in 1981, 1982. So, no, I never really planned a career or anything.
TG: I had a perception of a cast, so I rewrote it.
RT: This was after Washington and Antoine Fuqua had left the project.
TG: Right. I always viewed it as a team. Me and [Cheadle] were a package deal. Then the studio wasn't in favor of Benicio anymore. So I proposed that we do me and Don and Joaquin. And the cost of the movie didn't match up with the perception of what we [could] draw [at the box office]. And then Denzel became interested again and I couldn't in all good conscience abandon Don.
I think what [Universal] ended up with is the product they were after in the first place. Big stylish movie. I tried to approach it but if you have a $120 million dollar budget, it's different from a $65 million dollar budget. So that was basically it.