Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan in Wild Mountain Thyme
As a writer (Moonstruck) and director (Joe Versus the Volcano), John Patrick Shanley has created some of the funniest, most compassionate, and original romantic comedies of the past 35 years, bringing him back to the big-party genre with Wild Mountain Thyme. Shanley adapted his play Outside Mullingar and created his most lyrical and complex film to date. Jamie Dornan and Emily Blunt play Anthony and Rosemary, potential lovers who grew up together on neighboring Irish farms without recognizing their mutual attraction – largely due to Anthony's hopeless awkwardness. Anthony's father (Christopher Walken) fears that his boy will never marry and thus never produce an heir, so decides to leave the family farm to an American relative (Jon Hamm) whom he trusts to preserve his legacy, which puts the pressure on to react to all participants increased to their true feelings.
Shanley's infectious love for his characters and the Ireland they live in makes Wild Mountain Thyme his most exuberant film, generous with its joys: consistently funny dialogue, exquisite cinematography (both landscape and portrait), and an ever-increasing sense of emotional risk, that is a wealth of poignant observations and insights. As a writer, Shanley creates characters that are messy, complicated, and as universally recognizable as their details are specific to language and behavior. As a director, he repeatedly finds expressive frames that lend texture and depth to the relationships between the characters and their physical surroundings. Wild Mountain Thyme is insanely romantic and lovably eccentric, but it's also as weighty as a movie when you focus on what it's really about: asking how we live our lives, with whom and why. I spoke to Shanley the day before the film opened – it's currently in theaters and streamed on demand – and asked him first what motivated the decision to turn Outside Mullingar into a movie.
John Patrick Shanley: I wrote the piece with no particular idea of the future, other than to play it. We did it, and one of the people who saw this production on Broadway was Leslie Urdang, who produced a lot of my early work. She came up to me and said, "I think this would be a great movie." And I said, "Yeah, I think that would be the case because here in Midtown Manhattan we think we're in Ireland." Why not go to Ireland and have the sky and the clouds and the land and the animals and all that texture and make Ireland the main character in the movie? "
Filmmaker: If you translate the story to actual locations you're filming in rather than a stage, how do those locations inform the finished film?
Shanley: The places definitely inspire you. I said to the Boy Scouts, "Find the nicest farm in Ireland and find the most beautiful mountain." They found the two in the same location in County Mayo, a town called Crossmolina. They took me to the farm and it was the nicest farm I have ever seen. So I made a deal with the family that owned the place where most of the film was shot.
I walked across the property to see where to get out of it and found this large storage building with a diagonal staircase coming down from the door. So I thought, “I'll have Emily Blunt upstairs when he pulls up, then the stairs can help create movement with the camera and she can have this conversation with him, then he can escape by climbing over the camera fence, the there was… “So we didn't build any of that, it was all there, materials with which you can record a scene in an interesting way.
Filmmaker: Yes, the locations are beautiful and provide great context for the performances, which are all excellent. How do you communicate with your actors to get them all on the same page for a piece with such a delicate tone?
Shanley: I've spent my entire life working with actors and loving actors, and I think I got them inside my bones. One of the things I've learned is that dealing with really good actors is like driving a Maserati – don't hit the gas pedal hard. The smallest thing you say has a huge impact. So I prefer to say little or nothing at first. I watch the performance and if I think it needs to be adjusted I will say the least impactful thing I can think of because in the film it will have a huge effect. Every actor has their weaknesses and you need to be aware of them. In the case of Chris Walken, he said, “If I can see you at all, it will affect my performance. I can tell when you like something and when you don't, even if you're trying to keep a stoic face. "So I shot Walken's first three days in a closet to hide from him so he couldn't see my reactions to what he was doing. We got on really well and when we did that, he had his really big scene developed a lot of confidence and he and I and Jamie spent a very quiet and intense day getting where we needed to go. We all talked a little bit about our fathers and how Chris was a kind of surrogate for all of the fathers entire audience, and he could deliver.
Filmmaker: He's so great in film. How did you choose him and the other leads?
Shanley: Well, I didn't hire Chris for his accent, I hired him for his soul and I got it – and he did a hell of a job with the accent. I said to the dialect coach, "Just make sure he stays Chris Walken whatever you give him." I didn't want to lose that and I didn't. He's really getting through. Jamie and Emily are great actors, and what they share is that they are very intelligent and have a large, veiled emotional life to draw on. Jamie is basically an introvert and there's a lot of awkwardness about him that he could allow for on this part. And Emily is a powerful mother figure with a lot of passion in disguise and she doesn't understand why not everyone can get along. Your confusion about the madness of others is very good for this part.
Filmmaker: As you made the transition from writing to directing, I'm excited to see how you learned the craft of filmmaking. Have you been able to watch the directors directing your early scripts like Norman Jewison and Tony Bill, and were there things you saw that shaped your later approach when you first started directing?
Shanley: I would say no because it's very difficult to watch someone outside direct unless you know a lot about the process. I didn't do it in those early days. Even when I was an associate producer at Five Corners and was involved in casting and contributing a lot to the film, Tony Bill was still walking into a room and finding out what the hell he was going to do on a given day. But I've learned a lot my whole life from watching movies and television when a kid sat in my living room and watched everything on my beaten black and white television. I learned a lot from reading Charles Dickens who did all sorts of dissolves and dissolves and so on in his work before there was ever a movie. However, my goal is to do something that is a personal document and not just use the standard model for writing a movie or recording a movie. I don't particularly like shooting a master and then disassembling him. I like to work the other way around, where I manipulate everything the camera will see and then, as the last element, turn on the camera and say, "Okay, considering what's going on, where should we put the camera?" There are many other valid ways of directing, but I think these are very good for me.
Filmmaker: Well, you work here with one of my favorite cinematographers, Stephen Goldblatt. How were your first conversations with him?
Shanley: We were lucky enough to do Joe Versus the Volcano together years ago and discovered a similar sensibility on this show. In this case it was out of the ordinary because for reasons I can't remember, he and I were roommates in Ireland for over a month before we started filming. I went to this place called Mt. Falcon that had a hundred acres of beautiful land and we went for a walk every day. We found about a third of the locations on the property and talked the whole time about how to shoot this and that scene. When we started filming, we hardly had to talk to each other anymore. It was a very good collaboration.
Filmmaker: What were some of your guiding principles for using the camera?
Shanley: Most of the film is shot on steadicam, but you'll never know. We had this solid cameraman named Peter Cavaciuti and he could use a steadicam like a tripod. We had to shoot like that because we were sometimes in a confined space, like in the Riley kitchen. We built it like an enclosed courtyard on the farm so that the windows become part of real things and give us that extra level of reality. There wasn't a lot of space so we had to be very close. We could never step back and shoot a standard master. We just had to get in and start shooting the scene right away.
Filmmaker: I really loved Amelia Warner's score and I was wondering if you could talk about how you worked with her to create this beautiful music that goes so much in helping the film get audiences in pulls his spell.
Shanley: Amelia is married to Jamie Dornan and that's why when her name first came up I said, "I like her job, but I'm not going to use it because I can't fire her." Then I walked around the block a few times, finally called her and said, "Look, I'm offering you the movie, but be warned, I can't fire you and it's your responsibility, you have to do a really good job . “And she did; She was an excellent collaborator and wrote the last song for Sinéad O'Connor with me. That was an added treat.
One of the best ways to communicate with a composer is through music. So, editor Ian Bloom and I spent a lot of time creating a temporary track to give Amelia a sense of what I wanted. Probably the most unusual temporary cue we had was The Flying Dutchman for the entire sequence towards the end where Emily comes out on her horse and Jamie comes out with his metal detector – they meet on the mountain and run around the tree and all that . It worked really well, so well that I thought, "I don't know if she can write something as good as The Flying Dutchman," but she came back with a good cue that hit it right away. I just told her to make it more melodramatic – "scare yourself" – and she did, and I think she's probably happier with that keyword than any other keyword in the movie.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streamed on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.