“I didn’t hire Christopher Walken for his accent; I hired him for his soul” (talking with playwright and writer/director John Patrick Shanley about his latest film “Wild Mountain Thyme”)

Since international travel is currently all but impossible the movies provide a way to visit other parts of the world—as they always have. And it was of tremendous importance to writer/director John Patrick Shanley (“Doubt,” “Moonstruck”) that Ireland, the land of his forefathers, be a main character in his new film “Wild Mountain Thyme,” adapted from his play “Outside Mullingar.”

“Instead of being in midtown Manhattan, where we made-believe we were in Ireland, I could do the film [on location] with the unbelievably beautiful terrain and the Irish people,” Shanley said via phone this week. “Especially now, when we’re all suffering from terrible cabin fever, [it’s a way] we can get outside.”

“Wild Mountain Thyme” stars Jamie Dornan (Christian Grey in the “Fifty Shades” films) as Anthony Reilly, the son of farmer Tony (Christopher Walken). With Tony nearing the end of his days, he shocks the family by announcing plans to leave the farm not to Anthony but rather to an American cousin (Jon Hamm). Meanwhile, Anthony also tackles matters of the heart as he awkwardly romances the beautiful Rosemary (Emily Blunt).

Dornan, who in real life is from the north of Ireland, said it was enjoyable not only being able to use an accent on screen that closely resembles his own, but also to be working with an Irish crew.

“I always have the best fun with an Irish crew because we’re on the same wavelength and speak the ‘same language’ and get each other’s jokes,” Dornan told me. “There’s nothing like coming home and being surrounded by your people.”

Writer-director Shanley’s father and several uncles emigrated to the United States from the Emerald Isle at the age of twenty-four. Like the Reilly family, the Shanleys kept a farm in the old country, and they would return there over the years to visit. Although Shanley didn’t accompany his father back to Ireland until he himself was an adult, Shanley says he based many of the fictional Reilly clan on his own family members.

“I started taking [my father] back to the farm in Ireland [where] he grew up with his brother, Tony, whose farm it was,” Shanley said. (Tony is also the name of the fictional patriarch in “Wild Mountain Thyme.”) “That was a tremendous reservoir that I used to draw on to write the play and the film.”

John Patrick Shanley on the set of his film “Wild Mountain Thyme”

 

Shanley sent location scouts to find “the most beautiful farm and mountain” in Ireland, which he said helped inspire his play-to-screenplay translation (the film was shot in Crossmolina, which Shanley said is not far from where U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden traces his own roots.) But rather than have the actors precisely copy the accent of his family, Shanley sent his actors, many of whom are American and British, to a dialect coach to achieve a believable brogue endemic to the Irish Midlands.

“[The coach] makes tapes [of] very neutral pronunciations of the lines for a given character,” Shanley said, the New York timbres of his youth still much in evidence in his own speech. “Then you send those recordings to the principal actors, who spend a lot of time listening to and practicing at home.” Shanley believes that actors who are also musicians, as is Blunt, often have an easier time picking up on accents for a role.

However, as authentic as the dialect coach could be, Shanley says he didn’t want Walken, as paterfamilias Tony, to lose that specialness that makes him—well—Christopher Walken.

“Somebody actually said ‘Why’d you hire Chris Walken?’ I said I didn’t hire him for his accent, I hired him for his soul,’” Shanley said. “And he never made me sorry.”

Because the source material was a play “Wild Mountain Thyme” includes long scenes set in single locations. Dornan said that while in theory this would approximate the stage experience, he said that due to a brisk production schedule, he and Blunt didn’t have much time to rehearse their lengthy scenes together, as would have been the case in the theater.

“Shanley put a lot of trust in us. He said early on, ‘I have no idea what you’re going to do but I trust it,’” Dornan said. “That was a great freedom to be given by a director. And if he did give notes, it was always this gem of a note.”

One of the throughlines in “Wild Mountain Thyme” is the question of destiny, or a “curse” that Anthony believes has affected his family for generations and will also shape his own future. Shanley says that while such superstitions still exist in parts of Ireland—or in any modern country, including the United States—he believes a more modern interpretation is that any family has genetic predispositions for certain diseases that are passed down.

“It’s not superstition. It’s suspicion that perhaps this is the case,” Shanley said of Anthony’s belief that he might not shake his family’s so-called curse.

Adding to this, Shanley said that a theme in his new film is that people sometimes believe themselves to be something that isn’t necessarily true.

“Basically what I’m saying is you should be comfortable with that,” Shanley said, adding that “everybody is deluded” about their own identity in some way.

But this is perhaps the key to unlocking what audiences should take away from “Wild Mountain Thyme.” If everyone is crazy in some way or another, then there’s less need to worry about being an outsider and, instead, to be more self-accepting.

“If you think about it this way, you might enjoy your life more,” he said.

Location filming in Ireland wrapped in November 2019, but there was no way the cast and crew could have foreseen how different the landscape would become for moviegoing the next year. However, given a rather surreal year in real life, “Wild Mountain Thyme” provides a decent bit of fun and escapism in fiction.

“It does take you away to an off-kilter world to spend time with these quite off-kilter people. It’s sort of from ‘another time’ and so romantic,” Dornan said. “I hope people [have] a big smile across their face and they don’t even particularly know why.

“At the end of the day, we’re not making it for the Irish people [alone]. It has to be palatable all over the world.”

Indeed, near the end, the titular song is sung by everyone we have previously seen in the film: those living as well as those who have passed on during the story. It’s a hopeful and optimistic climax, with everyone smiling.

“Everybody is participating in the song, [which shows that] it’s a group effort being alive,” Shanley said.

“Wild Mountain Thyme” is now available on demand and in select theaters.

Emily Blunt in “Wild Mountain Thyme”

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