O Lucky Man!
Pity Kirk Jones. This 33-year-old former director of TV commercials is just beginning a career in features, and his debut film, Waking Ned Devine, required quite a lot of research: constant visits to Irish pubs, chats with the locals, and scenic drives to state-fair-style "county shows" in the countryside. The poor guy even spent his own money on a lottery ticket, and--wouldn't you know?--he won.
"Well, it was only 10 pounds," explains Jones, who took his good news to the local pub, "just to see the reaction." Jones proclaimed, "'I've just won the lottery and I'd like to buy you all a drink.' And [the customers] gathered round, but when they heard it was just 10 pounds, they drifted off."
But in every other respect, the locals hung around happily. Charmed by Irish life, the British writer-director had cooked up a story about a winning lottery ticket whose owner is a man who died upon hearing the news of his victory. Jones was preparing to write the script that became Waking Ned Devine, and he knew that anecdotes and local color and rhythms of speech were vital. So did he talk to any winners? "No, I spoke to a lot of losers!" he says. "They'd talk about paying for the lottery every week, and how their dreams of spending it would change. But once I pitched the premise to these locals, their reaction was, 'Oh, that could absolutely happen here. What you want to do is go talk to old Jerry down there--he's got a lot of stories.'"
Waking Ned Devine is a genuinely sweet comedy about group spirit as inspired by individual greed. It follows two charming oldsters, Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) and Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly), from their first discovery that the winner resides in their village (population: 53) to the payoff that really is a payoff--a plan to give everyone in town a share of 7 million pounds. Once Jackie and Michael realize Ned's dead, they have to pretend he's alive, and this involves a funeral that takes a sudden comic and emotional turn.
Jones says his favorite scene in the film occurs when the village, feeling the coast is clear, holds a service for beloved old Ned. Jackie is in the middle of a eulogy when he suddenly has to change the name of the deceased. So he substitutes his old pal Michael, who receives an especially deep sermon from his seat in the front row. "I needed to mix the emotion with the humor," Jones says. "But I nearly panicked at an early screening, because everyone laughed when Jackie says, 'Michael O'Sullivan was my great friend.' But then [the audience] suddenly pulled back, allowing Ian to say something quite moving and touching. He gets to thank his friend properly while he's still alive."
This is a true feel-good moment, and Waking Ned Devine is a movie to which you can safely take both a grandparent and a grandchild. But Jones was wary of making his movie too Irish, too twinkly eyed, with shamrocks all around. "As an Englishman, I was very aware of, and even paranoid about, prior examples, and I wanted to avoid them," he notes. "That's one reason I didn't make the film in Scotland, because I so much love the old Ealing comedies [of the 1950s] like Whiskey Galore, or Bill Forsyth's great films like Local Hero . So I held back on everything 'Irish.' I didn't want the clichés to be a criticism of the film. I knew I'd done the right thing during casting, when the Irish actors just thought I was Irish, too."
In a cynical age, Ned Devine is a wholesome but believable movie, almost purely innocent. Jones knows he's taking a risk with that, but he deliberately wrote the film to have 52 heroes and only one villain. And that villain is almost totally exaggerated--a person to laugh at and despise at the same time.
Testing the impact of said villain's demise was Jones's ultimate victory: "They did this audience research screening, and the report said, 'There were no negative points to talk of in this film. One percent of the audience did say the scene [of this character's cruel fate] was unsettling. However, 99 percent of the audience also rated this as their favorite scene.' I thought, 'I can handle that!
Waking Ned Devine starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.
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