Three Monkeys Online

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A set of moving paintings – Making The Bridge of San Luis Rey. An interview with Director Mary McGuckian.

Bridge of San Luis Rey

Over ten years ago Irish film director Mary McGuckian first became interested in adapting Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey for the screen. “It's strange. I'm more comfortable in a literary Cinema environment, but they're not very easy films to get off the ground. It was originally given to me 10 years ago” she explains, ” by Brian Friel, the Irish playwright, and Judy Friel, his daughter, in relation to a conversation we'd been having about some lines from a very early play of his. It was an overall discussion of what is and isn't adaptable to film. Brian Friel very much took the view that what adapts is work that is poeticaly visual and is dramatic by virtue of character, and this particular book fulfilled both those requirements, but apart from that I'd never read the book. I was in my late twenties and I didn't really know anything about it. It was a great staple of American literature. I read it and fell in love with it. I thought it was a beautiful story, beautifully told. It's very intricate with a lot of characters, very complex. I just got caught up in it and endeavoured to get the rights to it, which is a story in itself, and which took ten years to sort out.

“I did the adaptation” she continues. “I spent quite a lot of time on it. I wrote it before Best actually and put it away for a couple of years, and then came back to it. We had a go at trying to develop it after Best, but there just wasn't any attraction at all for a large period piece set in 18th Century South America, based on a Thornton Wilder novel”.

But then interest in the book suddenly, tragically, took off in the wake of September 11th 2001. “At that time it was a direct result of Tony Blair quoting the last paragraph from the book at the memorial service in New York, after 9/11. People started reading the book again, and Oprah Winfrey re-instated it as a staple of American Literature. We then thought the only way to make the film would be as a very classical, old fashioned American film. It felt to me the only way to make it, but I didn't think that was how it would get made, or indeed if it actually would get made. We thought we'd give it a try, and I decided I'd give it 6 months to try out, so we got it out to Cannes and they really liked it. It kind of found its own way eventually”.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey to reduce it to simple terms, deals with a disaster, the collapse of a bridge over a gorge in the mythical town of San Luis Rey, killing five people. It deals with tragedy, fate and grief. It's interesting to note the wider cultural effect that September 11th had, and the re-discovery of Bridge of San Luis Rey by the film world is indicative: “There does seem to be a cultural sea change in terms of reference, in terms of what people want to see and feel. Their wanting to feel fear or hilarity or horror, all of those genre films seemed to be of less interest to the majority of audiences and either light or romantic comedy on a more superficial level or more investigative philosophical pieces seemed to be… anything that deals with sense of self or spirituality, on any kind of level, seems to have a lot more attraction in this decade than in the previous one. This is just a view of mine, I don't know if it's the case. It certainly feels to me that ten years ago when I started looking at making The Bridge of San Luis Rey, there was no way anyone would be interested in making it, [emphatically] no way”.

The resonance with September 11th is something that has been attached to the book, and is hard to escape now. Was she aware of that resonance as she made the film? “Very much so. There's a really weird thing in the book, one of the opening speeches, which Robert De Niro's character makes, the archbishop at the service for the five who died at the fall of the bridge. A a lot of the material in the script was, inevitably, quite reduced from the material in the book. The speech in the book was two or three pages long and I had to reduce it to twelve lines or so, to what seemed to me to make sense. I turned into more of a short oratory. In a very early draft of the script everything was in there, and then I went through it and moved things around and edited it. One of the lines I took out was “Twin towers fall on good men and women all the time.” In 1997 that meant nothing to me, except perhaps the tower of Babel, and it didn't really resonate, so I took it out and forgot about it, until not long before shooting. We were going through rehearsals, going back through the script, and De Niro was reading the script and going through the book, and we were discussing it – and then it jumped out. That is a line from the book, while he's talking about disasters, plagues, acts of God. I'm sure that people going to the film will think that we just put it in there, but it's from the book, written in 1927! So we put the line back in”.

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