Interview with Gabriel Byrne

by Allison Seale

The Usual Suspects

Prior to the John Huston Award dinner in April of 1997, GABRIEL BYRNE AND KEVIN SPACEY, among others, gave us their views on artists rights. Their comments were often profound and always enlightening. In this interview, I spoke with Gabriel Byrne, an Irish filmmaker with a rich perspective as both an actor (The Usual Suspects, Little Women, Point of No Return) and a producer (In the Name of the Father).

Q: As an actor, what process do you go through when you portray your characters, and how important is it to you that the performance you give is the performance that audiences in the future see?

A: I tend to look inward when I'm developing a role. And in order to do that you have to draw on your own experience and, of course, one's own experience is very subjective and very personal and is culled from many years of struggles and successes and failures.

I've always believed the objective of the actor is not to become somebody else, but about truly becoming oneself and having the bravery to express this. James Joyce said that an artist must lower a bucket into the well of the subconscious and give life to whatever comes up. I feel much the same way about acting.

The actor’s contribution to the filmmaking process cannot be separate. He serves the telling of the story, and tries to tell the truth. And the truth, whether it’s told from the perspective of the actor, the cinematographer, the screenwriter, the director or the producer is something that has to be protected and valued. I don’t believe that anybody has the right to interfere with that process.

Q: Do you think film is art?

Actor Gabriel Byrne

A: I don’t think that all film is art, but film aspires to be, often times, great art. Shakespeare said that the artist holds the mirror up to nature. The artist holds the mirror up to society, and society sees itself reflected within that art. Sometimes that mirror can be dark and painful and truthful, and how we, as an audience, respond to how we see ourselves often times defines us as a culture.

I believe that the function of art is to disturb, to force change. And great changes can come about because of art. It’s debatable whether a movie, per se, can change the world. Personally, I don’t think that's true, but the cumulative process of awareness, whether it’s through film, through music, or wherever, contributes, ultimately, to change. Nobody would ever dream, for example, of interfering with a Van Morrison song. Why should it be any different when it comes to movies? These decisions are not just made in limbo by a couple of faceless people in an office, I believe they all have a political air.

I don’t think it’s any exaggeration that, for a great many people, our idea of who we are is defined to a great extent through the movies that we see.

Q: Some of the alterations that are being made include altering films imported from other countries to make them more marketable in this country. How do you feel, as someone who has made films rich in cultural significance, about the flexibility of our laws to allow such changes to films?

A: European audiences—and I specifically talk about European audiences because they're the ones I know best—embrace without subtitles, without change, without any interference whatsoever, the product as it has been imported from America. And that has been to our benefit. We have been enriched by that experience.

The idea that there is some elite group who decides what is acceptable and not acceptable to American audiences is, to me, distasteful, and I think ultimately damaging because, when a director makes a film, it is expression of himself and the community and the society that he belongs to. Nobody has a right to interfere with that. In Europe, we see a much broader spectrum of movies. But in America there is an unspoken belief that they won't understand a European film in Nebraska or Texas, so there exists a benign, almost censorious authority that decides what can be seen and what cannot be seen. It’s a short step from there—when you start interfering with music and references and so forth—to interfering with content.

Studios have too great a distribution monopoly over the kinds of movies that are shown in Europe. The juggernaut of American culture (which includes movies), as someone called it, “cultural imperialism,” has ridden rough-shot over Europe with the result that our film industry is fighting for its life. But there are signs of hope. The British film industry is beginning to come back now after many years of being trod under foot of this gigantic marketing machine, thanks to the change of government there and the introduction of further tax breaks.

I was in Copenhagen for about four months. There was one Danish movie for every eight American movies. Now the end result of that is that Danish people have little access to their own cinematic voice. Ultimately, a film is the telling of ones own story. The cultural Americanization of Europe may not necessarily be a bad thing, in many instances, but when you consider the kinds of movies that the studios put out which are formulaic and designed to appeal, in many cases, to the lowest common denominator for the maximum return, you begin to wonder what the cumulative cultural effect that kind of movie has on them. And I see it in my own country, in Ireland, where maybe 15 or 20 years ago there was a greater level of exposure to different kinds of film. Culture is becoming homogenized, and the native voice is being suppressed.

One of the reasons I decided to become a producer was because I wanted to tell stories that were important to me about my culture. Up until now the movies that were made about Ireland and the Irish were filtered through the eyes of American and British filmmakers. No matter how well intentioned, we deserve the right to tell our own story in our own way.

Q: As a producer, is there a compromise to be struck to maintain the integrity of a film?

A: It’s very difficult because you often see “This has been altered for airplane viewing,” or “This has been altered for home viewing,” and so forth. I can understand why those decisions are taken, but they have to be taken, I believe, in consultation with the people having to relinquish control.

I have sat with executives in rooms where random decisions are taken about scenes to be excised, moved around and changed and even butchered. I have suffered at the hands of those kinds of producers. There's not a respect for the end product and very few people wield the power to be able to result that kind of sabotage.

I believe we are all responsible. We have a collective responsibility as actors, as writers, as producers, as cinematographers to protect what we have tried to create in truth and with a great deal of pain, in many cases. It’s also a question of educating and making ourselves more aware of how important we are to the process. There is a tremendous lack of awareness especially among actors, I think. If you really care about your product, and you really care about the movie that you've made, you'll fight for it. But there's a huge danger, I think, that with the amount of movies being made and the demand in the marketplace for more and more movies, the people who are buying are the ones who are in the position to dictate the terms, and we have to fight against that.

As a producer, I feel that there is no point in me deciding to develop a film unless I'm passionate about it. That passion has allowed me to be knocked down and stand up again because I believe so much in my own vision. I have never decided to produce a movie based on the fact that it might be a box office success.

We have to believe in film's power to change the way people see the world, and I believe what good we put into the world will come back to us. It’s karmic. The people that I got my love of movies from felt like that. They loved all kinds of movies and from every country from all eras and decades. When I hear some producers talk in Hollywood about the kinds of movies they want to make, I see them talk with the same passion as one would about the processing and packaging of a hamburger.

It’s unfortunate now that a great many movies are green lit by marketing people and by lawyers. I think it’s time that we take back our art from these people. When you see the bigger picture, there was a time when people thought radio was a revolution that would never be replaced. As we become technologically more advanced, we find different ways to tell our stories. Who's to say that in a hundred years’ time movies won't have the same place in our story-telling world as the traditional storyteller sitting around the fireplace? When I grew up as a child in Ireland, storytellers used to come and sit in the kitchen, and with a live audience they would sit around the fire and tell stories divided up into two nights. They created, with just words, incredible universes that we absorbed and believed in. We thought they would never die out, and they were replaced by the electronic storyteller in the corner.

Kevin Spacey interview