Ciaran Hinds, Conor McPherson & The Eclipse

eclipseYou know you’ve made it when you are an actor of British origin and you’ve been cast in a Harry Potter  movie.

So even though Ciaran Hinds has been acting regularly for over 20 years, the 57-year-old actor smiled  when asked about playing the part of Aberforth Dumbledore, brother of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) in the upcoming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, opening in November 2010, and Part II (opening during the summer of 2011).

“It was, ‘Oh, hello Sir, hello Dame,” Hinds jokes, referencing the star-studded cast of British acting royalty in the final Potter outings that includes Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and John Hurt.

The Belfast-born Hinds is in the middle of a two-week break from making another big movie—the long-awaited John Carter of Mars, in which he plays one of the leaders of a warring tribe on the red planet—when he stops off at Philadelphia, joining writer-director Conor McPherson to talk about his part in something completely different.

It’s an unusual low-budget film called The Eclipse, written and directed by McPherson, who also wrote and directed two of Hinds’ stage triumphs, the award-winning The Seafarer and an adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s the Birds, which is best known as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie.

In The Eclipse, supernatural elements mix with romance, drama, melancholy and family strife. That’s a lot for a movie to have on its plate, particularly a low-budget one. But thanks to the efforts of writer-director McPherson, a native of Dublin, and a top-notch cast featuring Hinds, Aidan Quinn and Iben Hjejle (John Cusack’s departed girlfriend in High Fidelity), the film works as an eerie, haunting and emotionally powerful little fable about love and loss.

Set and shot in Cobh in County Cork, Ireland, The Eclipse showcases Hinds as Michael Farr, a widowed teacher and father of two who is given the job of escorting visitors around his small town that is hosting a book fair. The participants in the fair include an attractive British writer (Hjelje) specializing in supernatural stories and a drunken American best-selling novelist (Quinn) who once had an affair with her. Concurrently, Michael begins having spooky visions of ghosts. But are they real or just figments of his imagination, inspired by his wife’s troubling death?

Hinds, who has played everything from a cool and calculating “cleaner” in Steven Spielberg’s Munich to Julius Caesar in the HBO series Rome to a key supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, related his experience making The Eclipse to a sort of method acting, living like his character.  “I had two lovely kids from Cork County and I fell in love with them, and we sort of formed a family unit,” says Hinds. “I have to go through different experiences than they do. Once we do that, it seems like there’s something missing—and here is the woman of the house.

“I found that this put me in a place where Michael the character finds himself in, and I find myself in the situation, I have to take care of the kids, and it goes out of control, although I had fun with it.”

“The other thing I had to deal with is grief and whether it’s covered up and allowed out from time to time, then covered up again. We’ve all been around grief in different levels, and the film is about locating grief at different levels, and letting it out somewhere in the circuit of our bodies.”

The horror element is something new in the work of McPherson, the 38-year-old writer and director who has directed three previous films and scripted the spirited 1997 Irish gangster film I Went Down.

But he says he’s always been a fan of scary things, especially the zombie epics of George A. Romero. However, with The Eclipse, McPherson notes he tried to do something different, “not announce it was a scary movie.”

“We tried to create a film in which you just didn’t know, going in, that there were going to be scary things in it. So that’s the weapon,” says McPherson. “You’re watching a film with a guy who seems ordinary and dealing with this stuff—he’s got problems, but they are not ghostly problems. Then you have them come out of nowhere. It’s so unexpected than if you have a horror movie that wants to scare you every ten minutes. Then a half an hour goes away and there’s another scary moment. You just use these weapons to attack the audience. If they are frightened by those moments, they can relate to Michael, who is really frightened by these incidents.”

During the tidy 25-day production schedule—for which the entire budget came from sources in Ireland, including Irish public television—Hinds was surprised on the occasion when he played a particularly emotional scene in which his character is visited by his late wife. McPherson shot him during rehearsal, then decide not to do it again.

“That’s a scene of cathartic release, of locked-up guilt and pain and grief,” says Hinds. “I let it out. Sure. I tapped into a channel and then it came. And then ‘Cut!’

“It was exhausting. It surprised me, knowing Conor. I said ‘Let’s do it one more time.’ I thought he’d want me to do it again. And I thought it was grand.”

“The reality of emotion was unleashed,” relates McPherson.  “It was mind-blowing and everyone there was the same way. (I said) ‘I can’t believe we got this. Let’s move on! Now we have time for other things.’”

Another surprise for Hinds was McPherson’s visual style, which captures the gorgeous Irish countryside with an appropriately haunting quality. “When I saw the film, that scene in the graveyard, it was a beautiful shot, like in a western,” says Hinds. “It was beautiful. It moved around from gothic to shadow to a hint of light to water. I was surprised to see it was just as naked and bold as I experienced it.”

McPherson shot the film with special wide lenses, which allowed him a sense of scale. “I was shooting off mirrors and creating as much infinity as I could,” says McPherson, who says he watched Stanley Kubrick’s films to prepare for The Eclipse shoot. “If there’s a window with a sky, that’s infinity. If you have mirrors bouncing off of you, that’s infinity. If you have a photo of a city and sky or a painting, that’s infinity. I wanted to make the whole thing transparent. I wanted to make Michael close to the infinite–that something is really reaching in and grabbing him. There’s that fear, plus lots of religious fears in the form of statues and religious iconography, as much I could fit in.”

McPherson, who made a big splash at the age of 25 with the 1997 London opening of The Weir, writes plays without paying much attention to others’ reactions, and has done pretty much the same with his movies. Of course, that doesn’t make it easy to raise the production funds, even with a tiny budget.

“The kind of work I do is pretty personal,” he admits. “I’m not doing stuff I think people want to see or market. I am pretty fortunate that people will see it. The Eclipse took years to get made. Nobody saw The Seafarer and asked ‘Are you going to do a movie?’ If anything, they’d probably think they don’t want to work with you, and say they don’t want to work with you, because they think this is a guy who does his own thing. He doesn’t listen to us when it comes to casting. He’s not going to cast who we want. He’s going to cast somebody never heard of.”

But Hinds, between high- profile movie gigs, and McPherson, between new plays opening, managed to put things together and get The Eclipse completed. The result was a hit at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where Magnolia Pictures picked it up for distribution.

According to McPherson, two things really make the film work. One is the actor Ciaran Hinds himself.

“I knew Ciaran was a fabulous actor,” claims McPherson. “But working on stage is a completely different thing. You help prepare him (the actor) for the ordeal night after night.  But with a film you’re trying to capture what is inside their soul. But I knew Ciaran as a person and human being, and he has a tremendous warmth. And if he were to deliver anything of what I knew of him as a person to the screen, that it would be enormously attractive. I knew that if there were horrible things, we would be rooting for him.”

The other key to the film’s success explains McPherson, was how the supernatural elements relate to Michael Farr, the lead character played by Hinds.

“We actually feel his (Michael’s) problem because we actually have a fright,” says McPherson. “And we know he’s having difficulty trying to share it with anybody, and so the scares are not gratuitous. By the end of the film, Michael seems to be releasing (his emotions) and we as an audience can feel the release. So the audience can take the emotional journey with him. We’re not trying to do an intellectual film, or be political. It’s a film designed to make people feel stuff.”

Here’s Irv’s review of the film: