You hear Rosie’s voice before you see her face in the film that bears her name, an acknowledgement that it could be just about anyone who could find themselves in her position, desperately calling every hotel around town looking for an affordable room for the night after losing their home. Her voice grows less chipper as one place after another in her native Dublin declines a reservation, either unwilling to accept the credit card the government has given her as a result of the increasing amount of families that have been kicked to the curb by landlords looking to cash in on increasing gentrification in the region or being all booked up already. With four kids seated around her in the only home she currently has, a blue minivan which she has prevented from being used as a bed for a full night to date, she desperately keeps dialing while her husband Jean-Paul (Moe Dunford) works a dishwashing job that could help pay for the room and some food should she actually be successful in retaining one to begin with.
Rosie’s plight is devastating to be sure, but in the hands of the wry Irish writer Roddy Doyle and director Paddy Breathnach, it doesn’t exist at a remove with the disarming wit and undeniable humanity of “The Commitments” author and the intimate, impressionistic camerawork of the “Viva” filmmaker pulling one into the proud matriarch’s experience as surely as Sarah Greene’s heartrending performance. Remarkably for two of Ireland’s most towering artists, “Rosie” marks a first intersection and while the collaboration is indeed monumentally affecting, it is the kind of small-scale, street-level character study that both Doyle and Breathnach are known for getting just right, showing the destabilizing effects of family displacement undoubtedly happening all across Dublin as it becomes obvious that Rosie is felled more by a lack of time than money as she spends her waking hours just trying to securing temporary housing while sending the kids to school, leaving no way to look into something more permanent.
Although Rosie’s always on the move, the film in her name stays with you and shortly after “Rosie” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, Doyle and Breathnach spoke about a screen partnership long in the works, getting their arms around such a large social issue as homelessness with just one family’s story, and the challenges of shooting inside a cramped minivan.
How did you two titans of industry finally come together?
Paddy Breathnach: He’s full titan, I’m half-titan. [laughs]
Roddy Doyle: Because we needed one and a half titans for the job. [laughs] We met years and years ago, and I remember we both agreed we’d like to work together, but nothing really came of it at the time, so I wrote the script [for “Rosie”], and I had been in conversation with the company, Element, and they gave an early draft of the script to Paddy. They told me he said he was delighted, and I like Paddy’s work, I like Paddy, so it was great to be able to work with him finally. Really great, very reassuring.
I imagine Paddy’s a very different filmmaker now than when you first met with a much more intimate style of filming. Did that factor into this collaboration?
Paddy Breathnach: In a way, “Viva” and “Rosie,” for me, are a slight return to where I started. The first two films I made were “Alisa” and “I Went Down,” and in between I did some other films that were more genre and I suppose at a certain point it was a very conscious decision to come back to do either smart comedies or dramas. There’s not loads of great scripts floating around, so luckily, I got this script from Roddy that just chimed with where I wanted to be.
I was delighted with “Rosie” because I knew I could bring something to it. Sometimes you get a good script that you say, “I don’t know if I can do that,” but this film I felt it. There was this simplicity and a purity about it because I think the language and the repetition of language is beguilingly simple, but actually gives a really nice structure and rhythm to the piece. That drew me in, and being a parent of young children allowed me to know the jeopardies and small dramas and dilemmas and tensions that Rosie goes through in the situations she’s in. Thematically, for me, it goes beyond the immediate issue of homelessness, something that’s far more profound and deep about our feeling that safe and certain in the world, and the necessity of [having a home] to build life and culture and civilized civility and civilization. So to be able to make something that had a very immediate, tangible reality but underpinned by something far deeper was very interesting to me as well.
Roddy Doyle: I like living in Ireland, I like being Irish. It’s a very warm place to be in many, many ways and a lot of the things that are happening in the globe that aren’t happening there, so it’s a nice place to be, looking out at the rest of the world. But the homeless problem is shameful. I’m not much of a fan for the notion of famous people saying, “This is wrong, let’s do something about it,” but I was listening to the radio news one morning, just less than two years ago, and there was a woman explaining what had occurred to her the day before. She was trying to find somewhere to stay, and her car was full of her children, and her husband was at work. They had nowhere to live, and this had been going on for quite a while. I thought to myself, “Well, there’s a story.”
At first, I thought in terms of a 24 hours [timeframe], but I thought it would be better [to see] they did get a hotel room [at the start of the film] — and it’s far from ideal as we see, but then we know what they got the night before — and then go into [the next] 24 hours [where] we know what the likelihood is of them not even getting that. I immediately started thinking about the woman. And once I was thinking about a character, I realized that I wasn’t going to smother the story in politics, so it would be about people as opposed to an issue. Once I knew there was a story there, that’s where the urge came from. It’s almost morally wrong that as storytellers we often are drawn towards people’s misery, people’s mistakes, people’s flaws. Nobody wants to watch something about a perfectly happy couple for whom nothing happens. We’d wish it upon our friends and on ourselves, but not when we turn on the TV. So I started writing it, almost literally immediately, made a couple of calls and took it to my office and tried to find a way to [make it].
How do you find this wonderful lead actress to play Rosie?
Paddy Breathnach: Sarah’s known in Ireland as a theater actress and then she’s been in various TV productions and films. A lot of people think she’s fantastic, and she has a good reputation, but she hadn’t had a lead role in a film, and there was a sense that should happen. I auditioned widely, and her name was high on a list of people I had in mind, so I waited until I’d gone through a more broad audition process, and then brought her in and she was able to hit a line of strength and vulnerability, a tension between those two things that was very important for Rosie to have, so it was quite easy after that. She had some commitments [professionally] so we just had to wait for a good window to get her, but we did.
Was there anything you did to facilitate this family feel amongst the characters?
Paddy Breathnach: Yeah, in the rehearsal process, we did a bit of just playing games that let people trust each other a little bit, and begin to feel free in terms of talking in front of each other and being a bit silly as well. Then I talked to Moe and Sarah a lot about how they were important in terms of being a conduit for me [because] sometimes if I couldn’t be close, if I wasn’t in the car, they were present for me [working with the children]. In general, I have a thing about trying to break down the lines between when the camera is rolling and when it stops, so there’s [not a] sense that it’s a race and to let people find the moments within that slightly looser sense of performance and for me, more importantly, to recognize when that’s coming and capture it. It’s happening, it’s live, and I’m working around that thing and reacting to that thing, as opposed to saying this is a shot, and it’s exactly this, and those lines are said within this. It’s trying not to perfect in that way, or polish, but to get a general feeling of vitality.
Was the geography of Dublin was actually embedded in the script?
Roddy Doyle: I rarely stray too far from where I grew up, and [it may be] a coincidence, but virtually all the shots — the car, the housing stage — are all within walking distance of where I grew up and it added a certain emotion to the experience for me. I found it really reassuring — familiar territory, the accents, the characters, the way they speak, are all exactly as I would want them and as I would hear it. That’s what I loved about Sarah and Moe, is when they spoke. When they read the script, they saw the hesitations and the stresses, so it wasn’t just delivering a line. They were delivering the lines as if they’d lived those lines. And it’s the same then with the backdrop and what they see from the car, and what they step out into. I don’t think I named anywhere [specific] in the script [because] unless it’s absolutely vital, if you name a place you may well be robbing yourself and the makers of an opportunity to go look for somewhere else. Paddy could have quite easily have found suitable locations closer to where he actually lives, because a lot of the estates are the exact same. But for whatever reasons, he wanted to be as far as possible away from that spot.
Paddy Breathnach: Well, it’s funny there’s certain other areas that I could have chosen, but you begin to see the mountains and that takes you away from something. So there were certain things that maybe by osmosis that come through the script that I know it shouldn’t be there because it takes away from where you feel they might be.
Roddy Doyle: The kids’ school, for example, you come out of the school, turn left, walk a hundred yards, you come to the railway tracks, cross the tracks, walk another hundred yards, and you’re at the school that I used to teach in. It’s that close.
Paddy Breathnach: People would ask us what we were doing when we were filming, and I’d say, “Oh, we’re making a film.” And they’d [ask], “What is it?” and I’d say it’s a script by Roddy Doyle, and it was if you had contacted or come in contact with Roddy’s third or fourth cousin. They held that he was a voice that had represented their world in a way that they felt had a truth and really a pride in that, so the world we were in was connected to Roddy.
It must be a challenge to shoot so many scenes with such a big family inside a van. What was it like to cover that?
Paddy Breathnach: I was talking to the [cinematographer] last night, and he was reminding me that there was a period he was making a film in L.A. and I was sending him e-mails about the dimensions, like an Excel spreadsheet, of all those types of cars because in reality, if you have a camera and a lens on the front, that means so much of the space is taken up. A lot of process goes into what car they’d be in, boring stuff like the height of the car and the width, and [you have to] measure it because you don’t want it to feel too big and you need to know where can we be with a certain lens. It needs the compression for the story, but for practical reasons you need it to have a certain amount of space. So there was a lot of discussion went into that. But I very much wanted it to be immediately present and feel that the camera is a witness in the car. I made the decision that we needed to be in with them all the time and sometimes I was lying on my back — I’d lie underneath the kids’ feet with my monitor, and that’s the only place I could get into the car. If I wasn’t there, there was no space for me. I’m giving instructions looking up at the kids like that, but it was good.
There was another thing where sometimes I’d be in the back of the hatchback, and we had the faux shelf with the [family’s] bags on top, and I’d be lying with my back to the back door of the car with my legs outstretched and my monitor. Beside me would be the focus puller with his monitor, and the sound guy would be there, so the three of us would be there with our [equipment] and they’d open the door, and the [gear] would fall out. So the filmmaking process makes monkeys of us all.
Roddy Doyle: It’s actually lovely to hear that because when you’re writing a script, you never pay any attention to that, the misery. I think I insisted, whatever director we get, make it a relatively tall man, so his life would be hell. [laughs]
Paddy Breathnach: [laughs] Really embarrassing.
Roddy Doyle: With a bad back.