Damien O'Donnell

Inside I'm Dancing

Interviewed by Adrian Hennigan

“I did try to go to Hollywood, but when I got there it was closed ”

Dublin-born director Damien O'Donnell returns home for his third movie, Inside I'm Dancing. In the same feelgood vein as his 1999 debut East Is East and 2003's B-road movie Heartlands, the comedy-drama focuses on two disabled young men - cerebral palsy sufferer Michael (Steven Robertson) and Rory (James McAvoy), who's nursing both muscular dystrophy and a chip on his shoulder...

What attracted you to Inside I'm Dancing?

There was no obvious attraction! None at all. I had to look hard to find the attraction. The easy answer is that I liked the lead characters, I liked their energy and the way they related to each other. It's quite a familiar buddy movie scenario, but in an unusual setting. That was both attractive and intimidating, because I didn't know whether I wanted to go down that road again [after Heartlands].

It's also a film about disabilities, and I wasn't sure if I was ready for that - especially after looking at the success of My Left Foot, which blazed the trail for Irish cinema in the late 80s. I didn't want to be a poor follow-up to that, so I had to think about it for a while. Eventually, I decided that it was fresh enough, and contemporary enough, and had enough of its own personality to be worth doing.

How much research did you do into cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy?

This was a completely alien environment to me, and I knew nothing about the politics of it, the medical science of it, I didn't know about how people lived in the community... So I had to go and talk to people who lived in care homes, people who worked in care homes, medical doctors about the conditions themselves, people who campaign for independent living, psychologists, people who'd worked as personal assistants - basically everyone who had some impact on the story, or who could give me some kind of insight into it.

Some people have questioned your decision to use able-bodied actors in the leading roles. What was your casting process?

We weren't making a documentary about the subject, and I didn't feel there was any onus on us to have people with real disabilities playing those parts. Those two characters [Rory, Michael] are individuals, they're not limited to their physical appearance, and we needed to portray those emotions - that spirt of Rory and Michael's - as well as we could on screen. And I think that's a very demanding job for any actor. The very fact that we knew we were looking for actors - whether they were disabled or not was another thing - meant that we weren't going to go out and look for some disabled person who was going to get their breakthrough. That was never on the agenda: let's trawl through the Irish disabled community to find somebody who has this particular disability and let's make an actor out of them. What we did do was look at actors who were registered as disabled. We also wrote to theatre schools that specialise in disabled actors and we briefed them about what we were looking for, but no one came within that brief.

At the end of the day we were always talking about a performance, and whoever got those parts would have to give a performance. Given that, who were the people who were most convincing with their ability to perform those characters? It was two brilliant actors who happened not to be disabled but who gave a convincing performance of the disabilities required. It sounds like a political speech at this stage, but only because I've had to talk about it so many times. I just hope the whole film doesn't get bogged down with that issue, because it's a very positive film about disabilities.

One of the dangers of this genre is when you can see the actors actually 'performing' their disabilities. How did you ensure they were authentic?

I had to have faith with my actors, and their ability to perform those parts. They did a lot of research individually into the characteristics that they'd have to portray, and I watched what they were doing and was convinced. They were much more critical of their performances than I was. But also we'd have people come to the set and quietly observe - although that would only happen at the very beginning. To be honest, at the beginning of the shoot we did all the interiors in the [Special Care] home and our two actors were in with 30 people, all of whom had disabilities. They were in this arena where they were being scrutinised by people who knew that they were acting - and the response was positive and encouraging.

Steven Robertson is from the Shetland Islands, James McAvoy is from Glasgow, and Romola Garai is English. As an Irishman, were you not concerned about casting three non-'natives' as Irish characters?

I wanted to! In an ideal world you would have had two great Irish disabled actors playing those lead parts - that would have been brilliant for the film. But, I made the choice to get the best acting talent available to me. I was more worried about their accents than I was about them being able to perform their disability; I think that would have been the thing that broke the spell for me.

After the success of East Is East, a lot of people were expecting you to move to Hollywood...

I did try to go to Hollywood, but when I got there it was closed! Actually I was making a film for FilmFour [Edgardo Mortara] that collapsed and that would have been my 'Hollywood film'. It would have had Anthony Hopkins as The Pope, and Javier Bardem playing this Jewish father. It was going to be great, it was going to be amazing, but unfortunately the financing of the film proved too demanding for its subject matter. People thought that the subject matter was too esoteric. I don't know how a father's search for his son could be seen as arthouse subject, but that's what people said.

Do you see a common theme running through the movies you've directed?

Not intentionally, no. I'd like to do something different now, though, from "funny and touching" - I hate that expression, it's so overused and cliched that it's become meaningless. I'd like to do something that isn't funny and touching - dark and frightening, or dramatic and scary.

But are the inspirations for you films which are "funny and touching"?

I suppose the films which have had a big influence over me are Mike Leigh's and Ken Loach's, the Coen brothers, and definitely Bill Forsyth. The Coen brothers aside, they all probably fall into that category.