Armagh director Brian Kirk’s BBC production of Great Expectations proved to be a smash hit with over six million viewers tuning in each night to the three part series last month.
And with the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth on the horizon, Britain is going to see an array of Dickensian events over the coming months.
Last month’s series on the BBC kicked of proceedings with perhaps the most celebrated book by the Victorian novelist.
Great Expectations tells the life story of an orphan boy, Pip. It’s a tale about class, ambition and cold hearted revenge.
The BBC cast included Gillian Anderson, who played the lead role as the tormented and jilted Miss Havisham and Ray Winstone, who starred as the dastardly Abel Magwitch.
Irish director Brian Kirk says it was the dark, intense, mythical quality of the story which enticed him into taking a seat in the director’s chair for this project.
And he says some of the issues the film touches upon have as much relevance today as they did in the late 1860s.
“Great Expectations really speaks about themes of identity. Who you are, the things you will do for love, in both the positive and negative sense,” Kirk says.
“I think it is particularly relevant, in terms of the backward social mobility that is happening at the minute in our society. This idea of arriving into an unfortunate set of circumstances into which you are born is multiplying actually. We are not really progressing as a society. If you want to talk about things like social justice, opportunities for kids, we are definitely going backwards. The inequality between rich and poor is kind of opening out at a frightening rate. Certainly none of that social relevance is lost within the story.”
Kirk claims he was initially drawn to making films because storytelling in itself allows you to make sense of your own life. Although Kirk read Great Expectations as a schoolboy, it was his re-reading of the classic novel last year, which made him ponder the relationship he had with his own father growing up.
“It’s interesting, because what you bring to the table as a director is yourself,” he says. “I saw my own father, and the relationship I had with him, at a certain stage in my life, in the character of Joe, who is represented as a fool.
He adds: “I was desperately condescending to my parents when I left home and went to London when I wasn’t much older than a teenager myself. I treated them very badly and then subsequently came to discover the power of their forgiveness. I also discovered things they had given me that I wasn’t even aware of. In a way that’s why Dickens is still relevant to me, because his work speaks to you, and that created a space for me to feel that I could create an original adaptation of this classic text.”
Although Kirk has just finished this BBC production, he is currently in the middle of negotiations for two major Hollywood films beginning early next year – Midnight Delivery, which is being produced by Guillermo del Toro and Paper Wings, which will see Tom Cruise in the lead role.
Since his critically acclaimed, debut feature film, Middletown in 2006, Kirk has spent the time since, directing several episodes for major TV shows in the US including Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Luther, Game of Thrones, and Luck.
Kirk seems to have made a seamless transition from small time indie director, to coordinating some of America’s top TV shows on the HBO network.
In conversation he name drops people like Steve Buscemi, Dustin Hoffmann, and Michael Mann, who are now close work colleagues. Working on these productions, he says, has given him an appetite for large scale storytelling.
“The larger the budget, the bigger the onus to draw greater audiences into the story, and if you don’t bring in that audience, you won’t be given the budget again,” he says. “A good thing to remember is that the audience is a key part to the story and that was one of the things I felt I learned enormously when I made Middletown.
“Although I invested a huge amount of effort and worked with an amazing group of people on that movie, I think I felt at the end of it that I didn’t want to make films in the future that were as niche as that. So that sense of responsibility to the audience is a useful thing to understand, at whatever budget level you are at. I just think that you need to be realistic about the nature of the contract that you are making with yourself, as well as the people who pay you the money.”
The first short film that Kirk made was Baby Doll in 1998, but it was in 2004 that he got his first real break, successfully directing a BBC Northern Ireland comedy called Pulling Moves.
Growing up in the North of Ireland in the late 70s and 80s wasn’t exactly a cultural hotbed for film directors, yet Kirk maintains that a few individuals, who have since gone onto direct and star in several films in Britain and further afield, collectively began sharing a passion and a love for film.
“There was a wave of people in Armagh at the time who were interested in film-making,” he says. “This was lead most notably by Seamus Mc Garvey and other talented people like Enda and Michael Hughes, who were in the same school as me. My own brother is also very heavily involved in the film industry as well, so certainly there was something in the air that made us all connect and want to reach out to that form of storytelling.”
When it comes to directing Kirk believes that it’s the ability to make decisions in a split second to make or break a movie that separates mediocrity from excellence.
“I think the hardest part of the job is just being really clear about what you are trying to do, he says. “You have to ask yourself: what I am trying to say here? How is what I am doing right now advancing that story?
“There is a great line from Stanislavsky which says: ‘The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious’. I guess that’s probably the hardest thing to do.”