'In America': A Family Film

Paddy Considine, Emma Bolger, Samantha Morton and Sarah Bolger in "In America"
Fox Searchlight/Barry Wetcher

Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan is where most of Jim Sheridan's new film, "In America," takes place.

It is the story of a family of newly arrived Irish immigrants who take up residence in a decaying apartment building. But this isn't the story of just any family. It is the story of director and screenwriter Jim Sheridan's family and the building in which he once lived with his wife and two oldest daughters.

Propelling the family from rags to riches, Sheridan made a string of highly acclaimed films, including "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father."

In his latest project, the filmmaker collaborated with his daughters on the family's own tale and in the process earned all three of them - Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan and Kristen Sheridan - an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. It is the first time a father and his daughters were nominated, explains Rita Braver on Sunday Morning.

Sheridan had dreamed of making the story for years. A while back, he asked Naomi, 31, and Kirsten, 27, to comment on a screenplay he had written.

"I kind of imagined, I don't know why, that they would fix it -- adapt it," says Jim Sheridan. "But they basically just eliminated my character."

The daughters became the heroines of the story. What Sheridan and his wife remember is a grim battle for survival. As in the movie, he really did carry an air conditioner across town and up four flights of stairs.

But, his daughters remember the fun of living in Hell's Kitchen.

"Every time, like, something, like, really crap happened, my parents, like, made a game out of it," says Kirsten.

Naomi says, "I don't think we even like realized … [we're] living in a dodgy neighborhood."

It was Kirsten and Naomi who wrote the scenes set at their old school, St. Anthony's. Students there today are fascinated by the story of the sisters' first Halloween. The Sheridans were the only ones in homemade costumes.

"Naomi decided to be fall, you know, because she got loads of leaves and she stuck them on a costume," says Kirsten. "But they were, like, 'They looked really kind of silly.' So, they made up a new prize that year. And, it was best homemade costume. Me and Naomi won it."

The girls are played by two real-life sisters, Sara and Emma Bolger. When Emma auditioned, Sheridan worried that she was too cute. So, he had another child read for the part. Suddenly Emma was tugging at his coat.

"She said, 'Is she reading my part?' You know, I wanted to go, 'This is an audition, kid,'" remembers Jim Sheridan. "So, I tried to do what any self-respecting director would do -- scare her out, you know, intimidate her. But it didn't work. And so I found myself saying, 'Nobody's reading your part. You're cast.' And she said, 'My sister is down in the car,' and I said, 'What age is your sister?' She said 'Ten.' And I said, 'Too young.' And she said, 'Well, you should see her anyway,Jim.' So, went down, met the sister and cast her."

Paddy Considine plays the dad, Samantha Morton plays the mother and Djimon Hounsou plays Mateo, the artist neighbor the girls befriend.

Hounsou received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and Morton got one for Best Actress, delighting Sheridan's wife, Fran.

"You know, she joked me. She said, 'I was nominated, you weren't. They didn't think of nominating the main character. It was just a woman, you know. That's because she goes through the most, you know?'" laughs Jim.

Sheridan's been nominated before, for directing as well as writing. And he's famous for getting Oscar-caliber performances from his actors. Richard Harris was nominated for "The Field," playing a farmer fighting off real estate developers.

Sheridan's first film,"My Left Foot," which was based on the true story of Irish writer Christy Brown, earned Oscars for Brenda Fricker and Daniel Day-Lewis.

But, Sheridan almost missed landing his lead actor. The writer/director had failed to attach a cover letter when he sent the script for Lewis to read.

"Halfway through it, he so loved it that he told me that he was worrying it would end badly," says Sheridan. "So, he went out to the hall, like, to pray or do a little dance that it was so good, and he finished it and loved it. And for three weeks, he couldn't find who sent it to him … So, by the time he did find us, he was really committed to doing it."

Up 'til then, Sheridan had been serving as janitor as well as director of a small theater at the Irish Arts Center in New York. It was a huge jump to filmmaking.

"I'd worked so long in the theater that I knew a lot about acting and story," he says. "But I worked, always, usually in small places like this. So, I knew intimacy."

It is the intimacy among the characters of "In America" that engulfs audiences as they see them grapple with the death, back in Ireland, of their little boy, Frankie, who suffered a brain injury after a fall.

"I thought about it a lot and then I decided that I would take an episode from my own life, which was the death of my brother when I was 17," says Sheridan. "He was 10 and I put that in the story."

One true-life experience depicted in the movie was when the film's mother, like Fran Sheridan, had a premature baby and the family received a hospital bill they couldn't afford.

A nurse helped the Sheridans.

"My mom actually sent her a thank you card saying, 'Thanks a million,'" says Naomi. "The woman called up my mom and said, 'I have not received a thank-you card in 20 years.' So, she found a loophole or something."

Oscar win or not, the Sheridans are a family with a lot to be thankful for on the Academy Awards night.

"It's very odd," says Jim Sheridan. "You don't actually feel negative or anything. If you don't win, it's just kind of, like, the camera is on you and you kind of don't want to look disappointed. I mean, you don't want to look stupid. The best look, if you don't win, is to be quizzical. Kind of think, 'That's interesting.'"

And for the Sheridan family, life is always interesting.