The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
During one of the funnier sequences in Stephen Moyer’s feature directorial debut, “The Parting Glass,” a bemused yet grief-stricken man, Danny (Denis O’Hare), regards the predicament that has befallen his immediate family. He quips that they seem to have been cast in a community theatre production of “No Exit,” the classic existentialist play by Jean-Paul Sarte, which contains the immortal line, “Hell is other people.” These words resonate throughout much of Moyer’s film, as family members strain to inject levity and distraction into a deeply tragic day. Danny’s youngest sister, Colleen (Anna Paquin), has committed suicide, and neither Danny nor his sisters (Melissa Leo and Cynthia Nixon), his father (Ed Asner) or his sister’s estranged husband (Rhys Ifans) have any idea why she chose to end her life. The screenplay by O’Hare captures the exhausting roller coaster-like series of emotional peaks and valleys triggered by such a nightmare. There’s an especially painful scene in a motel room where Danny’s inebriated siblings pick the precise wrong time to egg him on, insisting that he sing when he would much rather scream in agony.
Exactly one week after “The Parting Glass” premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the picture made its way to Karlovy Vary, along with O’Hare, Moyer and Paquin in tow. It was great fun to see the “True Blood” cast mates reunited in person, and I had the pleasure of chatting with them at length the evening prior to their scheduled press roundtable interview. O’Hare is the sort of actor who disappears so seamlessly into a role that I often forget it’s him. His gleefully smug archbishop in “Novitiate,” creepily doting father in “Allure” and cross-dressing bartender on “American Horror Story: Hotel” are just three recent examples of his versatility. During our Q&A at KVIFF, O’Hare discussed why he wanted to tell this story cinematically rather than onstage, considering his success in the realm of theatre.
“For us to see this movie on a big screen is really a joy because there is so much happening at any given time, and a lot of it nonverbal,” said O’Hare. “That’s why it’s a movie. In the motel scene, for instance, the killer moment for me is delivered by Melissa. We see through her face what’s going to happen, and when they go to get Danny, she moves to grab and stop them. Those sort of details tell you, as an audience member, how dangerous a certain action is going to be. She was really good at that kind of thing. Just having that big canvas of a theater screen, you can take in someone over here and then see someone over there with a different energy level.”
What makes this film especially poignant is the fact that it was inspired directly by events in the life of O’Hare, whose own sister, Kathleen, committed suicide. Many of the scenes depicted in the movie happened verbatim, which prompted me to wonder just how many parallels there were between O’Hare and his role as Danny. One of the most daunting things an actor can do is play themselves, especially when reenacting a story as wrenching as this one.
“Originally there was a scene where we see Danny get a phone call,” O’Hare told me. “He gets the news and he kind of collapses. It made the moment too much of an external event, rather than a private event. I came up with the idea because I thought it would give Danny some place to go. By talking about him like that, he becomes a character. The fact that we can talk about Danny as a character was very helpful to me, and it helped me treat him like a character. What happened in that scene was not what happened to me in real life. In reality, I got the phone call and I fell on the floor. I lost my mind. But I fictionalized it so that Danny is different from who I am. Stephen kept a really good eye on me, and would check in on me occasionally. He’d say, ‘That take was pretty angry or pretty hard. Let’s make sure we get something else.’”
“Like every other performer in the world, Denis has an ego and has his sense of a place as a performer,” said Moyer. “But what he doesn’t have, which is remarkable, is any interest in how he comes across from a vanity standpoint. He forms his approach in the moment without questioning what he is putting forward. Sometimes I’d go, ‘Okay, we got the version where we see the anger, let’s see what it would look like if he was being more forgiving,’ purely just to give us the option. It’s amazing working with someone like that because you’re never having to push them into exploring a dark place. When Denis first sat down and told me the story of the movie, we were laughing. He was describing a true family dynamic. My sister and I cannot go to a funeral without falling to pieces laughing. There is something about the melancholy of it that provokes a nervous human reaction, and I love what that illuminates about our human frailty.”
One of the most timeless illustrations of this truth was the 1975 episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” entitled “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” in which Moore finds herself dissolving into hysterics during the funeral of her network’s in-house clown, whose absurd demise she failed to find amusing—until now. How fitting that Asner, the actor forever beloved as Mary’s spunk-reviling boss, Lou Grant, was cast as Danny’s father. At age 88, the man shows no signs of retiring anytime soon. When I recalled my memory of seeing Asner perform a magnificent one-man show as FDR years ago in Woodstock, Illinois, Moyer told me that the actor was preparing for another one-man show during production on “The Parting Glass.” “The man is a machine,” Paquin exclaimed. “He doesn’t stop.”
“The thing about Ed that is so remarkable is that he wants to work,” O’Hare told me. “He shows up ready to work. He has an incredible memory and ability to process information. My favorite moment in the motel scene is after Danny has his big breakdown. I remember after we filmed that, Ed cryptically said to me, ‘You did it now.’ I was like, ‘Is that good or bad?’ And he goes, ‘I dunno, you revealed a lot.’ The scene is pretty raw and kind of embarrassing in a way. And after the breakdown, out of nowhere, Ed takes his beer bottle and clinks it with Rhys’ bottle. I thought it was lovely. He’s not being sacred or serious or precious around someone else’s emotions. He’s like, ‘Ah, he’s crying. Oh well.’ I love the humanness of that. You have big emotions and then you move on.”
“There are moments where you wonder what’s going to come out of Ed’s mouth,” laughed Moyer. “He is very present as a performer, so he will sometimes improvise in a way that is kind of incredible for a man his age, but it’s not always what you want. Sometimes it’s about rolling with it, and many things that he came up with were genius, but that wasn’t always the case. I like to encourage a sense of play and allow people to try things without admonishing them for it. I’ll just go, ‘Okay, that idea didn’t work. Let’s do a version that’s in the script.’ On multiple occasions, I found myself having to go into the sound mix and turn Ed’s mic down, because when he was on, he was talking the entire time. He’s amazing.”
Another standout in the ensemble is Ifans, whose history with Moyer goes all the way back to a 1991 Whales production of Hamlet that they both performed in while fresh out of drama school. For this film, Ifans devoured many doughnuts and pancakes in order to transform himself into what Paquin dubbed as “the skinny Welsh version of schlubby.” The most difficult role to cast proved to be that of Colleen, and Paquin was far from an obvious choice. She had signed on to produce the film with her husband, Moyer, having both founded the production company, CASM Films, and she initially thought that would be the extent of her involvement.
“I’m younger than Denis’ sister was in real life, so age range-wise, I was never in the mix,” said Paquin. “I always thought that if I were the right age, I would’ve loved to have played Colleen. As we were getting closer to production, we honestly had not found who that actress was going to be. That’s when the idea of me in the role started to feel like less and less of a stupid idea.”
“There’s a lot of balancing in this movie in terms of how much we can ask an audience to put up with certain things,” said O’Hare. “How deep into the story can we go before the audience gets to hear anything about a body—whose body, what body, how did they die? I wanted to push it as far as I could. I don’t believe in spoon-feeding an audience. I believe in letting them eavesdrop on a world. People are intelligent, they will figure it out, but you have to be careful not to break their patience. How much can you hold off on showing this major character before they get frustrated?”
Though Moyer admits that Paquin was roughly 12 years too young for the role, he wanted her appearances in flashbacks to be based on how the characters themselves chose to remember her. Moyer utilized different clothing and hair color for Paquin to convey the malleability of memory, while O’Hare’s script specified that Colleen’s face would never be fully glimpsed, aside from one perfectly executed sequence. I asked Paquin how she approached playing a role that consists entirely of enigmatic fragments.
“What’s interesting, actually, is in some ways, that lack of knowing made it much easier,” Paquin told me. “I was just playing each scene as an individual scene. As an actor, my job is first and foremost to service the material. But in this case, my character also services the memory of the other characters. Even though she is kind of the center of the storm, it’s ultimately not really about her journey as a character. For whoever’s flashback it happened to be, I just gave back what they were giving me. I attacked each scene as a separate thing, and didn’t try to draw some linear line between them.”’
“I remember my elder sister once talking about my mom and dad, and I told her, ‘That’s not how I think of them,’” said O’Hare. “And then somebody said to me, ‘Each kid has different parents. Not only is your perception of your parents different from those of your siblings, but where your parents are when they have you is different as well.’ I’m eight years younger than my elder sister, and Kathleen was eight years younger than me. So in each case, our parents were literally different people. They were a different age, had a different financial position, and had gone through different things. So you remember them differently. I feel the same way about each sibling. My relationship with my little sister was unique. We had a certain relationship that nobody else had. I often write from life as a way of working out what actually happened, and this is a story that bothered me. I don’t really know why Kathleen killed herself in the end. I can tell you that it wasn’t her first attempt. It was her third time trying. Writing the film was my way of trying to revisit but also to honor and memorialize. It’s my gift to her. I wanted to make something out of that act that is gold.”
“And something that provokes conversation,” added Moyer. “We all felt the weight upon us to honor Denis’ feelings throughout this whole endeavor, and there is also the deep-rooted sense of a bigger conversation to be had about this. But what I love about the film is that it isn’t just about dealing with death but living your life and reestablishing important ties. The first time we see Danny in the back of the car, it’s the beginning of the day. We don’t put a clock on the screen, but you can gradually tell that it’s around 6am. Then the next morning, when everyone goes to sleep at dawn, it’s 6am again, and it’s the beginning of a new day. It’s the beginning of Danny’s new day and his life.”
“Retelling stories about a person is what keeps them alive,” O’Hare concluded. “I showed this film to my two sisters, my brother and my nephew and nieces. The people who were most effected by it were the nieces and nephew. Afterward, my nephew came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t get to know her that well. I never got to spend much time with her.’ So the film was his way of spending time with her. And so, if for nothing else, it’s a time capsule and a repository of a memory.”
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