by Danny Peary
Run & Jump fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. I was rooting for this splendid German-Irish co-production to be voted Best Narrative Feature at 2013’s Tribeca Film Festival. It took a while but I’m delighted that this Friday it will be released theatrically, as well as debut on VOD. I highly recommend it. American Steph Green’s touching, perceptive, and witty debut feature is about the Caseys, a family living in Ireland’s Kerry County. Once happy, the family tries to not fall apart after a stroke leaves the 38-year-old father, Conor (Edward MacLiam), physically fit but brain-damaged. They get needed financial help when a stick-in-the-mud American doctor, Ted Fielding (SNL alum Will Forte in his first dramatic role, preceding Nebraska), pays to stay in their house for two months and study and film Conor. At first Ted doesn’t connect with Conor’s optimistic but struggling wife, Vanetia (Maxine Peake gives a marvelous, award-worthy performance) or their closeted gay teenage son Lenny (Brandan Morris) and always cheerful young daughter Noni (Ciara Gallagher), but over time he loosens up and becomes close to them all. At various times he takes on the father role, the mother role, and, perhaps, even the husband role. The escalating romantic feelings between Vanetia and Ted result in a lot of soul-searching.
“This is not a story about a man adjusting to life after a stroke,” states Green in the film’s press notes. “This is a story about a woman adjusting to a new man. This side of the story isn’t often told…[Alibhe Keogan's] script navigated a classic love triangle trip in a new way, in a distinctive world, presenting two people whose relationship developed in shy, realistic stages, and was never self-serving…Ailbe told me she wanted to make a movie about how things didn’t always turn out perfectly, but this…was the nature of life, and therefore, should be celebrated.” The following is a brief interview I did with Steph Green, Maxine Peake, and Edward MacLiam.
Left to right: Edward MacLiam, Steph Green and Maxine Peake
Danny Peary: Steph, I really like your short New Boy, which I first saw when it won Best Narrative Short at the 2008 TriBeCa Film Festival. I was thinking of that film when I saw Run & Jump, your first feaure. They’re both about people finding it difficult to become part of a group, rather than being a fish-out-of water story.
Steph Green: I don’t think Run & Jump is a fish-out-of-water story. Ted is American who comes to live with a family in the countryside of Ireland’s County Kerry, but he didn’t have to be American to be a guest at the house. He’s a doctor who happens to be an American. I see it as a story about relationships and the dynamics between these five family members…I mean four family members and a fifth person.
DP: He’s an outsider whom the four Caseys all embrace by the end.
SG; Yeah, he’s awkward at first but they open him up and he becomes part of the family. Nobody has talked about that theme before you, so there you go. I’m interested in how people reject and then accept each other, in stages.
DP: Edward, did you talk about what the Casey family was like before Conor’s stroke?
Edward MacLiam: We had five days of rehearsal and improvisation to build the family. Maxine and I did some improvisation as Vanetia and Conor and then the kids Lenny and Noni, played by Brendan and Ciara, came in, and then the parents Paddy and Nora, played by Michael Harding and Ruth McCabe, got involved, and then Sharon Horgan’s character Tara, was brought in. So it was the whole family unit and a close friend. That helped immensely because we had a reference to draw from.
DP: Steph, were you present for this?
SG: Yes, I was always there. There is a line in the script about Vanetia and Conor before his stroke: “When we looked at something, we saw the same thing,” so I knew I had to give them a back story or they wouldn’t have believed that line to be true. One thing I did was make Maxine and Edward slow dance. I got a tip from an acting coach, who said that if actors are going to play a married couple, make sure you have them do some slow dancing during the rehearsal process. I remember watching them slow dance and seeing them melting. They were slowly turning off their nerves and connecting. I stopped the music and they kept dancing because they were so into it.
DP: Maxine, since Vanetia and Conor once were so close that they looked at life in the same way, was it sad when you were doing the back story?
Maxine Peake: You come up with the back story and then you have those memories when you’re doing the scenes in the present. I think initially I was feeling sorry for Vanetia when she wasn’t feeling sorry for herself. I’d say things and start reacting emotionally and so I told myself I had to stop. It’s interesting how we had to push that emotion down to our boots.
DP: Does she ever feel sorry for herself? For instance, when she goes drinking, does it have nothing to do with her feeling sorry for herself?
MP: I think it does.
SG: Vanetia does feel sorry for herself then. But that’s the only time she allows herself that emotion.
DP: Steph, you mentioned you used music during rehearsals.
SG: We used music a lot during rehearsals, some that went into the movie and some that wasn’t in the movie but was inspired by it. Mood music. Maxine has eclectic taste in music so we made mixes that would illicit moods for the scenes she’s in. For instance, when Maxine danced with Ciara in the kitchen during rehearsal, we had some David Bowie blasting. Of course, for the movie itself I couldn’t afford Bowie.
DP: Edward, I think your playing a brain-damaged character was so hard because, ironically, you had no limitations and could do whatever you wanted. I think that can give you too much leeway and too many choices for how to play the character scene by scene. So I imagine you had to constantly come up with the logic and limitations for how he behaves.
EM: Yeah… I did some research and read case studies and loaded it all in and saw what came out through Steph’s direction. I really, really trusted her. She gave me some specific notes early on and that kind of changed how I saw the trajectory of things. Like what Maxine was talking about–oh, you feel your character is feeling a certain kind of grief because of the situation. I think I may have latched on to that a little too much early on, and as a result my character was a little too pronounced. Steph brought me back a little. I trusted letting go and letting things happen naturally and never blocked myself by saying “Oh, I don’t think Conor would say this or do that.”
SG: I kept looking for frameworks from various psychologists saying, he wouldn’t do this or he wouldn’t do that. In fact, what you said is exactly right–any symptoms or any behavior is possible. I think we just got it down to the behaviors that were most interesting. We also had the input of the original writer, Ailbhe Keogan, whose father suffered a brain injury and that changed her household. I feel that if there’s any truth to this movie it comes from her story.
DP: Like Vanetia, we as an audience can get totally frustrated with Conor because, while the film is sympathetic toward him, he is not totally likable. He even has mean moments. Edward, you could have played him totally sweet and that would have been wrong and less interesting.
EM: As much as it is physical, there’s is a subconscious transformation going on with Conor. It gets very specific in how this relates to his son Brendan–how Conor now has a different smell, a bad odor, and how Conor states in front of his gay son that he doesn’t like gays.
DP: A major, major moment in the film is when Ted realizes that instead of filming Conor, he’s filming Vanetia. This confirms he loves her, and when watching her throughout the movie, I think we are supposed to love her, too, in order to understand Ted’s feelings. So, Maxine, how was it playing a character everyone falls in love with?
SG (laughing): No pressure!
MP: I wasn’t conscious of that. I had just to play her, and not worry if she is likable or not. Steph would just tell me that Vanetia is the life of the family.
DP: Steph, you didn’t tell Maxine that audiences must fall in love with Vanetia, but isn’t that really what you wanted?
SG: Oh, yeah, that was hugely important in the edit, where you couldn’t help but fall for this woman. Some of the best compliments we’ve received are from people who say, “Who can blame Ted?”
MP (laughing): It was a good idea that she didn’t tell me because of the pressure I’d feel from thinking it wasn’t possible for people to feel that way about me. But it’s about Vanetia, I suppose.
SG: Yes, it is. Vanetia is bereft of fun now. She is feeling the need to have fun again, and Ted is her only adult option in the house. Ted needs to have fun, too. That is maybe the fodder for their relationship developing, even more than thinking about romance.
DP: Besides making everyone love Vanetia, I think the other thing needed for this film to work is for us viewers to ask ourselves at the end, “Should Ted leave?”
SG: Absolutely. I really wanted to create something where you are torn like the characters are torn. I hope the ending is satisfying. An hour after the premiere, people told me that they were still debating whether Ted should stay with the family or leave. That’s the best feedback, for them not to know what they want. It’s true to life.
DP: Well, Ted becomes extremely vital to the family’s well-being. The whole film we think how he’s replacing Conor, but at times he replaces Vanetia, too, and is a double parent.
SG: That’s right, because she starts to fall apart and he steps in.
EM: Conor even asks Ted to stay, for his son.
DP: This film is about characters changing and adapting. How does Vanetia change?
MP: I’m not sure, but I think she taps into a coping mechanism and then accepts what has happened.
DP: I won’t reveal the ending, but because of Ted filling in at crucial times, the entire family becomes stronger, including Vanetia. It’s life.
MP: That’s true.
SG: The family does become stronger. And I think Vanetia recommits herself to the family. Early on, she has too much optimism for the reality. By the end, she has the right amount of optimism. She accepts the reality and commits herself to that.
MP: She sees she can survive the reality, as well. She decides to survive the reality.