Middletown: Brian Kirk Interview



It's grim up north

There's a touch of the gothic about Middletown, which follows the disturbing machinations of a demented minister in Northern Ireland as he turns against his family. Director Brian Kirk tells Donald Clarke what drove him to this robust take on fundamentalism Read More>>





There's a touch of the gothic about Middletown, which follows the disturbing machinations of a demented minister in Northern Ireland as he turns against his family. Director Brian Kirk tells Donald Clarke what drove him to this robust take on fundamentalism

MIDDLETOWN, an excellent new Gothic drama detailing grim occurrences in the border counties, has one - and possibly only one - thing in common with the upcoming Borat film. Had a gentile created Sacha Baron Cohen's satire, in which a fiercely anti-Semitic Kazakhstani journalist bumbles around the United States, then it might very well have been subject to protests from the Anti-Defamation League.

Similarly, had Middletown been directed by some lazy southerner, the Protestant people of Northern Ireland, no strangers to taking offence, might have reached for their own placards. Brian Kirk's film, which follows a demented minister as he attempts to purge his village of sin, will do little to dismantle the common perception of the Ulster Protestant as an austere, humourless fellow with little time for japes or jollity. Transylvanian villagers, rendered daughterless by local vampires, have traditionally been more inclined towards beer and skittles than the inhabitants of this sombre, fictional locale.

Brian Kirk from Armagh? Brian? Kirk? Hmm? I suppose he has the right to depict my people thus.

"We are in a time where Islamic fundamentalism is the subject on everyone's lips," Kirk says. "And, of course, fundamentalism is embedded in my own culture. I remember being in London when the tube bombs went off. And there was talk about the foreignness of it all. But I grew up with all this. I had the desire to demonstrate that fundamentalists are not necessarily monsters. They are not a different species to the rest of us."

Yet, though Middletown trades in an unmistakably non-conformist school of extremism, no mention is made of any specific religious denomination. Nobody on this island, watching Matthew Macfadyen's clenched performance in the central role, could be in any doubt as to which "community" the characters belong to, but some Americans have been confused. Jay Weissberg, reviewing the film in Variety, declared it "another addition to the growing list of pics depicting the Catholic Church as a haven for sadistic nut jobs".

Kirk casts his eyes to heaven.

"Oh, yeah, I know," he says. "And it specifically says he is a minister. That was annoying."

So why did Kirk and his screenwriter, the acclaimed playwright Daragh Carville, decide to avoid any specific mention of the characters' denomination? Somebody named Weissberg could, perhaps, be forgiven for not quite understanding the significance of the term "minister".

"Well my interest is in the family and how that is torn apart. I wanted it to be accurate, but I didn't want to get into making a film that was a critique of any particular religion. I wanted to show the negative impact that faith can have on a family. Here is a guy, who, as a child, is told you have a destiny to fulfil and, if you don't fulfil it, you are a moral and existential failure. How do you live with this?"

All the talk of oppressive religion and rural misery may give the reader the false (and terrifying) impression that Middletown harks back to the dreary agrarian realism that plagued Irish television and cinema throughout the 1980s. The film is, in fact, a darkly humorous melodrama, whose depiction of the destructive power of faith and accumulating sense of doom call to mind such classic British horror films as The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General. There is also something of The Night of the Hunter about Kirk's picture. But the original inspiration came from a more surprising source.

"The sources of the gestation were far away from here," Kirk says. "It evolved in an organic way. Long before Walk the Line reintroduced the world to Johnny Cash, Carville, who is a great country music fan, was playing those songs to me and talking about the great gothic drama within them. We suddenly thought we should make a film that touched on those themes. They are lurid. They are entertaining. They are dramatic. And religion is at the heart of them. At the same time we were brooding on the subject of fundamentalism and those two things just came together."

The result - for this writer the best Irish film since Adam & Paul - focuses on an unhappy reunion between two siblings in the early 1960s. Macfadyen's Gabriel Hunter has, throughout his life, been expected to succeed, while his brother Jim (Daniel Mays) has always been regarded as something of a loser. When Gabriel returns from missionary work to take up his home parish, he finds Jim married to the daughter (Eva Birthistle), now pregnant, of the town's publican.

Gabriel fumes. The citizens, comically dissolute at first, are gradually swayed by the preacher's sinewy rhetoric and begin to turn away from booze and cockfights. But madness awaits.

"The idea is that Gabriel has only been exposed to things that justify his outlook to date and then he comes back and things are not black and white; they are grey. He is a virgin. He can't cope with the fact that his brother's wife is pregnant. He suddenly feels that the only way he can be true to God is to cast out his family."

Macfadyen, recently Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, has a softness to his personality that allows one to identify just a little with Gabriel. "Yes. Matthew has real integrity as a person. I wanted the audience to see him as a victim as well as an aggressor," says Kirk.

Brian Kirk, trim in regulation film-maker black, exudes a staggering degree of confidence. Prompted to discuss the film's reception in America or his recent successes directing for television, he will launch himself into an evangelical monologue of some five minutes duration. Fair enough. He has come quite some way in his 38 years.

Directing films must, for a working-class kid in Armagh during the 1970s and 1980s, have seemed as realistic an ambition as becoming an astronaut or getting elected President of the World.

"I remember coming back from college and telling my dad I wanted to make films and he said: 'Who do you think you are?'" he laughs. "And this was a man who really loved cinema." Seamus McGarvey, currently one of the world's most admired cinematographers, was born in Armagh a year before Kirk and his success helped persuade the younger man that a career in film-making might indeed be an achievable aspiration.

"My father was a social worker and my mother was a nurse," Kirk explains. "We came from a place called Drumbreda in Armagh City, which was quite a rough housing estate. I was always totally into movies. When Seamus started to get out and about and do things I thought: well there are no excuses. It is possible. You can't say people like me don't make films. A guy from up the road is doing it."

Brian studied English literature at the University of Edinburgh, before going on to take a course in film at Bristol University. After winning best screenplay at the Fuji Film Awards, he made a series of shorts, one of which, Here's Johnny, was nominated for a Scottish Bafta. A later vignette, 2001's Do Armed Robbers Have Love Affairs?, written by Ronan Bennett, brought him to the attention of the prestigious CAA agency in Hollywood.

"Somebody at CAA saw it and they brought me over and talked to me and then a few weeks later I was walking into the tube station and the phone went and they said: 'We have a job for you,'" he says, still sounding slightly bewildered. The job in question was Brotherhood, a major series for the Showtime network focusing on Irish-American mobsters in Rhode Island.

"'Don't I have to meet somebody or talk to somebody?' I said. Apparently not. 'They really like your stuff, so come on over.' It was as simple as that. Now working on that sort of show does really test your stamina. Because they will just pay overtime if they have to, you can find yourself working 18-hour days. That really does test your stamina when you are standing in freezing water outside Providence for five hours. That was useful for Middletown."

I imagine he had a warmer, better-appointed caravan on the Brotherhood shoot. Low-budget productions such as Middletown do not often provide luxurious accommodation.

"Yes, and some days the set was so cold there that the paint wouldn't dry properly. You have no idea how cold it was."

Which brings us neatly back to the unremittingly morose depiction of rural Northern Ireland in Middletown. Daragh Carville, author of fine plays such as Observatory and Language Roulette, was, like his director, born in Armagh. There is a town named Middletown in that county. So, though the location of the drama is never pinned down, it is not unreasonable to assume we are in Ireland's orchard.

"There is a Middletown everywhere," he says. "We Googled it and it transpires there are 240 or so of them out there. So it is just a coincidence that there is one in Armagh. It was just meant to be a town somewhere in the Ulster bible belt. What was more important was to get the look of somewhere as it would be in the early Sixties. And somewhere like that, because they don't have much money, a lot of things will be hanging around since the 1950s and the 1940s."

And, yes, though a domestic audience will recognise the world of Middletown as poundingly Northern Irish, the fictional town's proper location is in the same movie universe as Brigadoon, The Hotel Overlook and Manderlay. It bears the same dysfunctional relationship with Ulster as the dark fairy-tale environment of The Night of the Hunter does with the American south.

"Well there were two things I was worried about when screening it in America," Kirk muses. "I was asking myself will this play as an Irish film or an international film? And secondly will they see it as a period film or a contemporary film? People in New York were, in fact, arguing about that in the audience. And that's great. Some said: this is what's happening in the south now? Somebody else said: this is what's happening here - in Tribeca."

Kirk smiles as he ventures into a new anecdote.

"But what's funny is that the biggest gasp in the film happened when Gabriel throws this wad of money in the fire. That got a bigger gasp than the murder." Throwing money on the fire? Now there's an outrage that might really inspire the Ulster Protestant community to brandish their placards.

Middletown is released on November 3