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IRISH EYES

by Robert G. Pushkar


"I am who I am, and I don't hide it. But they all love you." The words are Thomas Phelan's near the end of IRISH EYES, the film equivalent of a roman a clef by writer, producer, and first-time director Daniel McCarthy. In from Los Angeles where he now lives, the Milton, Mass. native basked in hometown glory and a full-house audience at the premiere at Lowe's Cinema-on-the-Common on a blustery, winter-like night in December. Family, friends, and well-wishers were out in force to welcome McCarthy who was accompanied by co-stars Daniel Baldwin and John Novak, and supporting actors Eugene Lapinski, John Ralston, and Ronnie Marmo.
IRISH EYES is a thoroughly Boston story, although the eyes portrayed aren't smiling; rather, they're often crying. It's a dark, epic tale about two brothers, Sean Phelan (Daniel Baldwin) and Thomas (John Novak) who choose divergent paths as adolescents with fateful consequences. Sean rises-or falls-from street thug to Irish mob goon to FBI informant, while brother Thomas goes to law school, climbs the legal ladder, and aspires to state Attorney General. It's Cain and Abel in Southie with the real-life Billy and Whitey Bulger as doppelgangers not far behind the silver screen.
McCarthy doesn't deny the template factor of biographical detail. "Growing up in Boston," the director says, "I knew the legendary stories of the two brothers. There's no denying of that influence. But I put my own twist on that. Maybe it was my early 20s machismo right after I got out of film school."
McCarthy, who matriculated at Northeastern University, then finished in film school at the University of Miami, wanted to kick-start his career in film. "After graduating, I originally wrote the screenplay as a vehicle to get my film directing career started. I'd always been attracted to the movies of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and the old 1950s film noir movies."
Particularly, he drew inspiration from their films and from DONNIE BRASCO, the 1997 film about an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the mob in the '70s. "In terms of story, some people might says it has basis in reality. But hopefully it's far enough removed from that reality so it's not just a regurgitation of facts."
IRISH EYES is steeped in mob violence and gang wars right out of the shady underbelly of Boston's recent history. But McCarthy's filming and editing decontextualizes its sensationalism. The net effect is less jarring, and in one big shoot-out is almost balletic with its slow motion frames, sweeps of imagery, and cutaways from actual gore.
This is because McCarthy's higher reach was to emphasize the relationship story and use the elements of crime drama as his filmic glue. "First and foremost, I was trying to write a story about two brothers with a blood-is-thinker-than-water relationship, yet with an antagonistic, love-hate slant. After about twelve weeks of editing I realized that in my attempt to keep to the story about the brothers, I didn't have enough crime beats. We actually had to go back for four more days in L.A. to re-shoot the crime side of the story."
Hours before the premiere in the lobby at Nine Zero Hotel on Tremont Street, McCarthy paused to talk about IRISH EYES. Ironically, in that morning's Boston Globe the Bulger brothers' backstory resurfaced with quotes from a purloined copy of secret testimony emblazoned on the front page containing the now-famous statement by Billy, "But I have an honest loyalty to my brother, and .... I don't feel an obligation to help everyone catch him."
When I showed McCarthy the newspaper, he smiled and disappeared.
Upstairs in the bar, co-stars Daniel Baldwin and John Novak sat down to talk. Dressed in black and sporting a black goatee and black sunglasses, Baldwin stood out among the afternoon drinking crowd. His demeanor suddenly shifted when he removed his glasses, and his powdery blue eyes seemed to leap from beneath his wide forehead.
Originally, Baldwin was contracted to play the Phelan boys' father, a longshoreman with mob ties who gets blown away before the innocent eyes of his young sons early in Act I. Baldwin eagerly lobbied for the role of Sean after the lead pulled out five days before shooting began in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada.
Baldwin says, "It wasn't the classic shoot 'em-up, he's-the-good-guy, I'm-goin'- get-your-brotha' film. It was about the intertwining of the mother being the matriarch and the common thread between the sons. There are touching moments where we're discussing murdering someone and then ask, 'How's Mom?' Suddenly, it gets real soft; there are real moments in it." Jumping topics, he adds, " I'd much rather do independent films rather than big Hollywood films. You do those films to keep your name out there. But once every three years I get to do a real film. I get to act. It's exciting."


Across from Baldwin, John Novak has the casual, calibrated air of a polished veteran, of which he's been for over twenty-years on stage, in film, and on TV in Canada. "There's a subconscious thread of what goes on in this movie that the average person in the audience will be sitting there and go 'I know that,' Novak says in his articulated, modulated actor's voice. "It touches on the universal concepts of brother, sister, mother, father, no matter who you are or where you come from.
"Their lives take really different paths from the moment that their dad gets murdered, and they're looking for ways of resolving and exacting their own form of vengeance. Thomas goes after the bad guys of his nightmares with the law, and Sean goes after them with guns. And in all that stuff there's the concept of how do you judge the actions of your brother."
Because Baldwin was brought in at the last minute to play a leading role, he didn't have time to research his character other than from the school of life. "I grew up in New York, and I'm Irish," he says, his New Yorkese creeping through. "Because it was loosely based, I loosely researched it. If I would have played him by name and historically, then I would have been a research animal. So I used broader strokes. I didn't wish it to be Carlo Gambino or Whitey Bulger because it wasn't in the script. So I did what I usually do when I act: what would Daniel Baldwin do in this situation?"
Baldwin has over sixty movies on his filmography, and he's been deeply intent in most of them. "Because our country is the way it is, the thug will get the praise 'that was a cool character you played.' But John steals this movie." His eyes shift to Novak. "Only twice in my career has someone taken me out of my character. He had this moment where he stared at me a really long time and gave me this look, and I realized what he was doing. It was this little smile as if to say "That's cool," and I didn't know what to say. I covered it up and moved on. Our friend here takes the high road in this movie. You'll enjoy his performance."
IRISH EYES almost was filmmed in the streets of Boston. Producer Julian Valdes respected McCarthy's initial intentions. "Dan and me walked through Boston scouting locations," Valdes says."But it would have been a logistic nightmare to film here with the Big Dig going on."
Like the curse of the Bambino, the bugaboo of Boston's resistance to filmmaking-- exacerbated even more now with the sacking of the Massachusetts Film Office-- appears to surface with every production. Says McCarthy, "I wanted to do the entire project in Boston. But we decided it wasn't economically feasible. The Big Dig was going on. Here, we'd have to shut down streets which would have been impossible on our budget. Trying to shut down Broadway in South Boston at noon would not be doable.
"A lot of St. John burned down about a hundred years ago, and it was rebuilt by Boston architects. There were wood-slatted houses, and two blocks away there were red brick houses like the ones on Beacon Hill. The logistics of moving 80 crew members and trucks and equipment so easily would not have worked as well in Boston. But I could not have made this movie without the four days of shooting in Boston."
In St. John, McCarthy used 28 days to shoot IRISH EYES. Post-production began in July, 2001, but was put on hold after September 11th for about a month. Work commenced but stopped again after a fallout between the director and the film editor. McCarthy brought in Lindsay Mofford after receiving high recommendations about her work. For three months Mofford and he, along with Valdes and associate producer Olivia Sarratt discovered the 110-minute film now on the screen from over 180 minutes of film in the can.
To McCarthy, IRISH EYES was "nothing short of a miracle" as he wrote in his notes on the production. After the premiere in the lobby of Lowes, Sarratt reiterated McCarthy's belief that "the movie that you write, the movie that you shoot, and the movie that you see on the screen are three different movies."
The entire filmmaking process is a fragile one as Dan McCarthy the first-time out can attest. Unlike the sad Irish eyes in most of his film, maybe an attractive distribution deal and a wide audience for IRISH EYES will make his Irish eyes smile.

Robert G. Pushkar is a Boston-based freelance journalist, photographer, and screenwriter who often writes about the media. Currently, he is marketing his romantic comedy screenplay.