Sundance: Antonia Bird by Susan Shacter

BOMB 51 Spring 1995
051 Spring 1995
Bird Boyle 01 Body

Left: Danny Boyle, courtesy Gramercy Pictures © 1994. Right: Antonia Bird, courtesy Miramax © 1994.

Strange, but of all the films I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, ostensibly a showcase for American independent cinema, my favorites were directed by Brits who weren’t in the official competition. Both got their starts in small, regional English theaters performing bit parts and then quickly became directors winding up at the prestigious Royal Court Theatre in London. Antonia Bird, as Resident Director, and Danny Boyle, as Deputy Director, overlapped tenures for a short time before making the leap to great success directing television films. Bird’s Priest and Boyle’s Shallow Grave are their feature film debuts. Bird has just completed her second film, for Disney, Mad Love, a dark trip down America’s highways featuring Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell. And Boyle is about to begin Train Spottingwith his Shallow Grave collaborators, writer/physician John Hodge and producer Andrew MacDonald.

Antonia Bird’s Priest won the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature at the 1994 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and the People’s Choice Award at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival. When I saw it at its American debut in Park City, I couldn’t stop sobbing, much to my embarrassment. Jimmy McGovern has written a story that strikes a chord with anyone from any religious background. A rigid young priest, Father Greg, played by Linus Roache, arrives at his new parish in the tough town of Liverpool, where he meets up with Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson), a wild, fortyish fellow, who is shacked up with their beautiful housekeeper, played by Cathy Tyson, of Mona Lisa fame. So much for celibacy! Matthew parties with his parishioners, spreading warmth, tolerance and compassion, and if necessary, ignoring the rules of the Church. Father Greg is appalled. His own crisis occurs when he meets a man in a bar, and is soon unable to deny his own sexual longings.

Susan Shacter Are you Catholic?

Antonia Bird No. My need to have rules and regulations, like the secrecy of the confessional and the protocols surrounding celibacy, explained to me improved the film by making it clear to other non-Catholics.

SS When Father Greg refused Communion to his lover Graham, it surprised me—I didn’t know priests couldn’t give Communion to homosexuals.

AB They can; it’s just not okay to sleep with one. (laughter) That was a personal crisis for Greg, the younger priest, because of his relationship with Graham.

SS How do you feel about the celibacy rule?

AB I feel very strongly about the laws of celibacy in the Catholic Church. Researching this film, I met many wonderful, radical priests who, it was clear to me from their whole demeanor, were incredibly warm, loving human beings … The whole notion of denying that side of yourself. Sex is a natural function; it’s what we’re made for. It’s absolutely insane that they spend their whole lives suppressing their sexuality. And it’s hardly surprising that it makes a few become rather peculiar, sexually.

The Catholic Church is turning a blind eye to the fact that priests have relationships with women. Now, organizations are being set up by the mistresses of priests. (laughter) I’m not joking … The one in France is very volatile and they’re actually talking about marching on Rome and complaining to the Pope about their lack of support.

SS What kind of support would they like?

AB I would imagine, being allowed to marry and be accepted in the community as the wife of a priest, instead of doing all the work of a priest’s wife and not getting that acceptance. It seems a lot of the housekeepers are, in fact, mistresses. What made the screenwriter so angry, and provoked him to make the central character gay to counter the situation of Matthew, the heterosexual priest, is that while heterosexual priests are unofficially allowed to do it, in no way would a blind eye be turned to a gay priest. In this day and age that struck the writer, and strikes me, as being extremely intolerant.

SS Do you think gay priests are sneaking their relationships, doing it under cover like the character, Greg?

AB Priests have talked very candidly to me … I know it does happen. Obviously, it’s impossible to have a full-blown monogamous, loving, life-time relationship in the priesthood if you’re gay.

SS What drove you to work with this material?

AB I’m interested globally in inequality and injustice. This film seems to deal with those things, specifically with one person’s life, personal dilemmas, pain, and guilt. What touched me when I read the script was that Father Greg as a gay priest goes through the same thing I’ve been through as a woman director in this industry. It’s very similar.

SS In what way?

AB You are marginalized, labeled. It’s torturous.

SS I read that you started as an actress.

AB Yes, I was a terrible actress. I had a strange upbringing; I come from a downwardly mobile family. My dad was an actor but he was massively unsuccessful, very bitter and very pissed-off with the industry. My mom was one of those women who did every job you could possibly think of to earn money. I developed this obsession to be a successful actress and make my dad proud of me; I ran away from home at 16 and joined a repertory company. I was called Assisting Acting Stage Manager, which meant I worked for about seven pounds a week, and did every job: swept the floor, made the tea, washed the actors’ underpants … and I got to play some small parts in the plays. It was a truly wonderful experience except that I discovered I suffered from pathological stage fright, absolutely appalling. Actually, I was quite a good actress except I was so frightened I couldn’t see. Standing in the wings was a psychedelic nightmare. But by working in theater I got to see the role of the director very clearly, and realized that I could be as creatively involved without having to get up on stage.

SS You also have more control.

AB Oh clearly, yes. Having been through that humiliating experience of being an actor, knowing how frightening it is, helped me as a director. That plus my father. I have a genuine deep love of actors, which makes for a very good working relationship. I make movies as a collaborative team. I think an actor has as much right as a producer or a writer or anyone else to have artistic input into the film. Priest was unusual because the script was absolutely superb, whereas quite often you are dealing with dialogue that needs to be rewritten in rehearsal. So that kind of work we didn’t have to do, but the actors had enormous input into the development of the characters, beyond where they were in the script. A good example is the mother of the girl who is abused by her father. In the original script, she didn’t have a life before or after the discovery of her husband’s incestuous relationship with their daughter. The actress and I both felt very uncomfortable with that, particularly as women. We felt that it was degrading to her as a human being. You needed to see the destruction of her life and her belief and her faith. It was another element about religion today and how people feel let down by the Church because of old-fashioned rules and regulations and attitudes. She represents that. That’s why we made her a regular Church goer and volunteer, so she could walk away. She could be the person who slams the door metaphorically on the Church, because it is not keeping up with the times.

SS Do you believe that the secrecy of the confessional should be abolished?

AB I feel a need to have an enormous debate about it. It’s an important role in society, that there are people who other people can go to and know that their trust will not be broken.

SS But in Greg’s case, it’s such a tragic situation. This 14-year-old girl comes to him, confesses her father is sexually abusing her, and Greg wants to stop it but cannot because of the sanctity of the confessional.

AB Yes, it was his absolute moral dilemma about breaking his faith and saving this girl. I talked to many priests when I was researching the movie and put this situation to them. They all said they would never betray her trust but would work on the problem until she was able to tell someone else herself: her mother, friends, teachers, social workers, whoever was in her life. If she was still absolutely adamant, then it would start being very difficult and they would have to do what Greg does in our film, drop a hint at school.

SS How did you actually start directing?

AB I was 17. An actor in the company took me out for a drink one night and said, “So, what are you going to do? Are you going to be an actress?” And I said, “No, I’ve decided I’m going to direct.” And he screamed with laughter and said, “Oh, that’s so stupid. A woman director. Don’t be so stupid.” Seriously. He said, “You’ll never make it.” There were no role models at all. There were so few female directors in Britain at that time. It has not gotten better. There was little a phase of improvement in the ’80s.

SS An illusion of getting better. (laughter)

AB In film, there are about five women directors in Britain directing features. There are many more in the theater now—but the percentage is still terrible; it’s terrible. Right then I just thought, “Fuck you, you bastard, I’m going to show you.” I started directing the following year. It was fury, actually, wild anger that someone told me I couldn’t do something. I eventually ended up as Director of our premier new writing theater in London called the Royal Court. I was there for four years as Resident Director and that led into television. I was like a duck in water; I was swimming. I really needed to learn my craft, so I volunteered to be a director on an innovative new series that was about to be made by the BBC called East Enders. It was really exciting to work on. I did 19 episodes of that the first year. In the theater I was so frustrated. We were doing important subjects, but we were performing for liberal, educated, upper middle-class audiences. It was preaching to the converted. What in the hell is the point of that? The goal is to reach the biggest possible audience. I wanted to go into television initially, because I thought that would be the way. But the restrictions on subject matter in television are getting worse and worse. For me now, film is the medium, because it actually reaches the world.

SS Could Priest not have been done for television?

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Linus Roache in Antonia Bird’s Priest.

AB It will be seen on television, but it has a much bigger life as a feature film. Now that Robert Redford is creating this independent Sundance film channel, there’s a good chance it might be shown on television in this country. It’s an audience film; it works well with a large group of people because they collectively go through this humorous, emotional roller coaster. You laugh, cry, and then come out and have a debate about what you just saw. It provokes discussion.

SS You said that Father Greg fantasizes about Christ: whenever he looks at the crucifixion, all he sees is a naked man that he wants.

AB ”I turn to Christ for help and all I see is a naked man, utterly desirable. I turn to him for help and he just makes it worse.”

SS Do you think he ever acted on his homosexual impulses before he became a priest?

AB The character probably had sexual experiences before he’d become a priest and had been burying his sexuality. And then the crisis of arriving in this new parish where he really didn’t understand the people … He came from the South of England, and the North and South are so divided. Southern Britain is much more middle-class. There are more jobs, more money; it’s an easier life. The North is much more working class, and there are fewer jobs. They’ve suffered from inflation and the crisis of capitalism. Coming up to that world, he was very alien; it was hard for him to communicate, especially with his attitude. He was coming into a parish that had traditionally been run by a radical heterosexual priest who really connected with the local people.

SS I thought it was interesting that Greg was so right wing and traditional and the older priest, Matthew, was an ex-hippie type.

AB It’s very typical, though. In the Catholic Church, they call these new right wing priests the Hitler Youth. (laughter)

SS Greg did seem a bit like that, especially in his leather jacket—so handsome, kind of Aryan.

AB His loneliness in the situation, where he’s at odds with his fellow priest Matthew, provokes him to go out that night and seek a bit of comfort. But I also think that those two people, Greg and Graham, are meant to be together. In a better world, in a more tolerant world, that would be a love relationship for life.

SS After the scandal (Father Greg and Graham are discovered making love in a car) and the arrest, he’s not excommunicated, he can still be a priest.

AB As far as I can make out, you can’t actually excommunicate a priest; all you can do is retire them. Once a priest, always a priest. It’s happening in France at the moment: there’s a bishop who’s very left-wing, has strong socialist ideas, is fighting for people’s rights, anti-racism, who has just been relieved of his post. He has no job. You don’t get excommunicated, but you can’t do your work.

SS Where does he go now?

AB Nowhere. It’s a trap. In the case of someone like Greg, the Catholic Church would traditionally send him somewhere where he could think quietly, a retreat, or a small parish with an authoritarian, right-wing, older priest to guide him, get him back on the straight and narrow. They’re banished for four or five years. Good behavior and he might be let back, bad and he’ll probably stay in that parish for the rest of his life. After the film, people come up to me, and say. “Does he leave the priesthood? What happens?” I say, “I don’t know.”

SS He couldn’t leave.

AB No. He believes in his vocation. He believes God wants him to be a priest. That’s why he’s trapped.

SS This movie really makes clear that priests are human beings.

AB He consistently makes mistakes. The radical priests that I’ve talked to are very much priests of the people; they mix in, drink in the same bar at night, wear the same clothes. Basically, they do 90 percent of their work not in church, but in the community.

SS I thought Matthew’s character was fantastic. And I loved the actor as well, he was just wonderful. He has the most beautiful face, and the most beautiful spirit.

AB Yes, Matthew’s my hero.

SS I know this film was in Toronto and at Sundance, and has gotten a great reception everywhere.

AB At Toronto it was shown twice; it got a standing ovation at both screenings. People afterwards seem to feel a compulsion to come up and give me a huge hug and then burst into tears.

SS Just like the end of the film. How does it feel to have everyone cry at the end of Priest? Surprising, I’m sure.

AB Completely surprising. The audience reacts exactly how I reacted when I read the script. It was six o’clock in the morning, in my bed. At the end I had tears crawling down my face and my boyfriend said, “What the hell is the matter with you?” and I said, “I just read the most amazing story, and I’m going to make a movie of it.” And I am lucky. Somehow we’ve managed, as a team, to get that emotion through the screen and into the audience. And it’s coming back at us again.

SS I’m dying to see your TV film Safe. Can you tell me about it?

AB It’s a very personal, angry, emotional response about the crisis of homelessness in Britain. It deals specifically with 48 hours in the life of a young teenage couple on the streets in Central London, which has a similar effect on audiences as Priest; people get very upset and then very volatile about the subject. It opens up discussion about what the hell we are all doing in this society, letting our children grow up in a situation with no hope and no future. The film the actors and I devised was a basic skeleton script. We went out and spent time on the streets, rehearsed for two or three weeks, and then made a movie. It was an inexpensive 65 minute film for the BBC. It won a British Academy Award last year for best TV drama, and I got a Best New Director at the Edinburgh Film Festival which is what got Priest started. Because they knew about me, when the project emerged, people were already interested in it.

SS You’ve done these two serious films, and now you’re working on a film for Disney?

AB It’s a very unusual film for Disney, it feels like an independent film. It deals with a first teenage sexual relationship and becomes a very strong, and quite tragic, love story. The girl has been psychologically damaged by her parents, and is, unbeknownst to her and everybody else at the beginning of the film, suffering from a clinical form of depression. The girl and boy break out of their middle-class background in Seattle, run away, and travel along the Middle West of America to New Mexico. At first, they experience a wild euphoria of freedom. Then, her psychological problems take over, and things start going downhill: they think they can stop somewhere and get a job, rent an apartment, and start a life; it doesn’t work like that, as we all know. Various emotional things are triggered inside her and she gets somewhat out of control in a very interesting way, and starts to get frightened about her feelings. It is a very touching love story.

SS What would you like to do now?

AB Another film about something I feel passionately, emotionally angry about. I know what it’s going to be, but I can’t tell you yet.

Susan Shacter photographs sort of well-known people for somewhat well-known publications.

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Originally published in

BOMB 51, Spring 1995

Featuring interviews with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Juliana Hatfield, Li Young Lee, Antonia Bird & Danny Boyle, Liz Diamond, Bradford Morrow, Dave Hickey, David Seidner, Shirley Kaneda, Cachao, and William Gass.

Read the issue
051 Spring 1995