New York Stories

Jimmy Smallhorne interviewed by Pat Collin

Jimmy Smallhorne has had a full life. After recovering from a teenage gambling addiction which forced him onto the streets of Dublin, he moved to the construction sites in New York. With the recently deceased Chris O'Neill, he set up the Irish Bronx Theatre. He has just completed his first feature film, 2 by 4, which won the Best Cinematography Award at this years Sundance Film Festival. Here he speaks with Pat Collins about his early years and the experience of making his first feature film.

Firstly, your origins. You never let people forget where you're from.

Yeah, they call me Jimmy 'Ballyfermot' Smallhorne at this point because I plug it so often but I plug it for a reason. Access to the media wasn't a big thing coming from Ballyfermot, you know, and film wasn't really part of the culture.

But were you interested in cinema from a young age ?

Oh yeah. I spent my time in the back garden and in the fields of Ballyfermot with a toilet tube up to my eye., scouring the landscape and making up documentaries in my mind about Chris Bonnington and all these adventurous types. The first film I saw that made me want to make films was Ken Loach's Kes. I recognised the landscape and I connected with the characters. What blew me away was, here was this story about a kid and a hawk and someone thought it was important enough to make a movie about.

Was there anyone close to you who influenced you to get involved in film ?

Not really, no. Well, from the culture that I came from the great achievement was to get an apprenticeship in ANCO (Irish Government Work Scheme). You didn't go outside that. Joe Comerford made a movie there called Down the Corner, years and years ago, and that was like, bizarre, you know. We never fully comprehended what that was - someone making a film in Ballyfermot about some guys robbing an orchard. It's like dreams and ambitions, you know, you tend to divert what you want to do and a lot of guys done that. I went to school with very talented comedians, very talented singers and writers and a lot of them didn't go on to do what they wanted to do. That's not me playing a working class fucking hero - its a reality. At my first audition in Ireland this guy said to me; "My dear boy, you're not at all serious about wanting to be an actor" and I said "I am, yeah" and he said "With an accent like that ?" and that was a common occurence. I just found it overwhelming because I didn't feel like I fitted in or that I was taken seriously. Over here, in New York, if you're African American, they put you in a film to keep their conscience happy and I found the same coming from Ballyfermot - "We'll use this fellow here, he might be handy for a robber or a drug addict. " Funnily, that was the first professional role I had here in New York, a drug addict !

Just from seeing you on the Pat Kenny show, you don't seem to be lacking in self-confidence...

That's more to do with the people I came from. From my family, friends and my girlfriend I live with now. Confidence is something you gain over your life, it's not something you're born with. As a kid I was very shy and withdrawn. Like, you fight a lot of battles and you come to know who you are. That night on the Pat Kenny show was the most terrifying experience of my life.

What were you're early teenage years like in Dublin ?

I had a rough few years in Dublin. I had an addiction, compulsive gambling. I was living on the streets for about a year and a half, roughing it up and doing all sorts of things to get by, and luckily enough I ended up in Rehab at about eighteen and kicked the habit and haven't looked back in about fifteen years. When I came out of Rehab I looked at my life and that was the first time I actually looked at what I really wanted to do and it became a possibility. I thought if I'm still here after what I've been through, then maybe I'm meant to do something.

Were you into drink and drugs at the time ?

Not really, no. I didn't have time to drink and I never did drugs. When I was a kid I was on valium for my nightmares. The psychiatrist gave them to my mother and I took one every night for seven years starting from when I was six until I was thirteen. So I had this aversion to drugs. But I did a lot of robbing and thieving to support my gambling addiction. I mean there's a lot of other shit that I done that I can't mention. It was fairly chaotic, and especially coming out the other side, you just have this understanding of the human condition. Growing up in Ireland I had never experienced any kind of emotional well-being. We weren't brought up to nurture feelings or emotions, you were brought up to be a fuckin' man, to get married, have kids, get a job, have your drinks on Saturday night and watch football on the telly. I met all these people in Rehab who were hardened drinkers, gamblers and drug addicts who had all turned their lives around. They weren't saints; they were Joe Soaps from Pearse St, Darndale, Ballyfermot, you know, blokes who'd seen the rough and come out the other side and were talking about what they felt. Some of them were the biggest fuckin' gangsters in Ballyfermot, you know, and then they're sitting there talking about feeling sad and lonely and angry and there was something about that that just excited me. After coming through that experience, I found that a lot of what I grew up in was not acceptable, you know like violence and drunkenness. We thought that was normal and we never questioned it. We never said "God, isn't it terrible we've no fuckin' shoes' so when I came out of that I thought there's a lot here I want to examine. That's where a lot of my inspiration for film comes from.

How long are you living in New York ?

I'm eight years here, going on nine. Nine years next January. I just got out of Dublin because nothing was happening, everything was fucking stale. There was a status quo there and it seemed very bureacratic and completely out of my reach to do what I wanted to do - which was to make a movie. I just knew it wasn't going to happen in Dublin and I just wanted to go to a place where I knew no-body, where no-one knew me and I could start afresh. I had two tickets for the U2 midnight concert in the Point Depot and I sold them for four hundred quid so that's how I got the fare to come over here. I arrived in the Bronx with £ 80 to my name and was put up by Catholic charities. I was doing construction and washing dishes for two years, but you know, when you live in Dublin, it's mainly Dubs that you live with and then when you come over here you meet lads from Belfast, Tyrone and Kerry, from all parts of Ireland. I had my own idea about what these fellas were like, which is the normal stereotype - thick culchies and mullahs, you know, but I was pretty blown away to find out their lifestyle. It was crackhouses and cocaine and hookers and transvestites and transexuals and they'd still arrive at the job at seven in the morning. Again, these were blokes that were very open and they'd talk about their lives and where they came from.

And a lot of 2by4 is about that theme...

It is you know. It's a theme that I was worried about. It's about a sub-culture over here that a lot of blue collar guys get into. I'm not saying that everyone that comes over here does but some of the blue collar construction guys that I met, a lot of them had done this shit, and they wanted me to make the fucking movie, you know, they wanted someone to tell the story as it was. They were sick and tired of people making this lamenting emigrant shite. That's not what it's like, going on about how horrible America is. They fucking love it here for the most part, and I wanted to make a film about their lives. I was very intrigued by Karl Jung saying about alcoholism that it was a low level search for God and I thought that this whole sex and drugs scene was a low level search for self expression. Whe the lads described some of the things they'd done I'd think "Wow, this is amazing", some of the S and M stuff and that. As bizarre as it may seem, I thought something was being freed from them. But then the pain is some of the reasons that some of the guys do it.

The remainder of this article can be found in Film West 32.