My dad was a bit of a frustrated fiction writer. Mostly short stories about the adventures of the residents of a fictional village in turn-of-the-century Ireland (he called it Kildooney). When he was working on his stories, he’d sometimes allow me to read drafts. I’d do my best to decipher his chicken scratch handwriting and give him suggestions for changes. He genuinely seemed to love that one of his sons was a writer. Whenever I’d visit home, the first question he’d usually ask was “Are you doing any writing?” Of course, I always was. He delighted in hearing about whatever scripts I was working on and always had the same suggestion: “What if an elderly Irish couple lived upstairs?” In his mind, every movie could be improved by the presence of bickering Irish neighbors.
I’m not exactly sure when I started working on SUNDOWN. Like my dad’s dementia (which spanned well over a decade), the story of the Shea family gradually seeped into my brain so slowly I don’t know that I even noticed. As my dad’s disease progressed, more layers of the fictional family’s dynamics started to reveal themselves. It was a difficult and complicated time for my real life family, but my biggest personal frustration was standing by helplessly while a great mind slipped away. My dad wasn’t an ordinary guy. He was the most well-read person I’d ever met. He spoke several languages. My cousin Ronan referred to him as the “family philosopher and wit.” He was a thinker. To watch a thinker lose his greatest gift filled me with unspeakable rage and sadness and desperation and hopelessness. So I dealt with it the way writers do: I wrote. Draft after draft after draft. When he died in October, there was no doubt in my mind that the time to tell the story was now.
I think this movie is more than just a way for me to work through my grief. That’s certainly a part of it but if that were my only end, I would do it privately. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I’m making this movie so that hopefully people that see it feel less alone in their rage and their heartache around loss. We’re not great dealing with this stuff. We answer grief with platitudes (“He’s in a better place now,” “Time heals all wounds,” etc.) because we don’t know what else to say. One thing my dad always taught me was that I was allowed to feel whatever I felt. I’m a shameless cryer and an uproarious laugher just like he was. He never ran from feelings, no matter how uncomfortable. I found that quality in him pretty heroic.
In this movie, all emotions are on the table. Anger, sadness, selfishness, denial, sick humor – everything’s fair game. The only thing the movie doesn’t have is an Irish couple living upstairs. Sorry, Pop – maybe next time.