Storytelling is a form of folk art in my Irish Catholic family. As a child, I vividly recall my grandmother holding court in her kitchen over a game of solitaire, a cup of tea, and a never-ending stream of grandchildren. The subject matter of my grandmother’s tales was the neighborhood and the people inhabiting it. She was able to spin a compelling melodrama out of what would seem to be a rather average person experiencing an unremarkable event. Her kitchen was a boisterous, theatrical place; there was staunch competition for laughs, for airtime, to outdo an aunt or a cousin–after all, the most popular tales were the ones that were as dramatic as they were humorous. As a filmmaker, I’ve drawn on those experiences to understand how to draw meaning out of and even heighten the experience of everyday life, how to build upon and transform these details into imaginative landscapes, and how to maintain a light touch, even while carrying the weight of serious drama.
Like so many of my relatives, the characters in The Murphys have a way of unfurling comic tales in which humor barely wins out over the pathos resting just below the surface. The narrative follows the unique journey of the brash but loveable Pauline Murphy, an Irish ex-patriot living in Utah. When we meet Pauline, she’s at a crossroads—her marriage and life in America are imploding, while a family crisis back in Dublin beckons her to come home. Although the film tackles grave subject matter, Pauline’s reunion with her hilariously dysfunctional family entertains as much as it enlightens. The tone of the film, like Pauline herself, is tugged in two directions. It inhabits a space much like real life, always striving for the perfect balance of comedy and drama.
The film unfolds in three settings; the suburbs of Utah, late 1980s Dublin, and interstitial sequences that drop us into pivotal moments Pauline’s in youth in 60s/70s Dublin. Three visual styles will create distinct moods for the different environments, and they will also cue the audience as to where Pauline is emotionally. For the opening scenes, static wide shots, single shots of Pauline, and sparse compositions will emphasize Pauline’s loneliness in Utah. When Pauline’s with her husband and in-laws, she’ll be positioned opposite them, across tables and rooms — I’ll use the physical spaces to isolate Pauline and showcase her incongruity in those places. When Pauline arrives in Dublin, she’s almost overrun with people. Large family scenes will unfold in developing master shots, where blocking will draw Pauline right into the chaos of her large family in ways that feel both claustrophobic and intimate. Frames will be packed with people and subtle camera movements will keep us with Pauline as she navigates the physical and emotional spaces of her old life. When the story jumps backwards in time, carefully executed transitions will transport the audience into critical moments of Pauline’s youth. Slight shifts in lighting, costume, and production design will cue the audience that we are in a different time period. Fluid but handheld tracking shots will keep us on Pauline’s heels, and frames from Pauline’s POV, shot on slightly wider lenses and from a lower perspective, will bring Pauline’s memories alive with warmth, realism, and immediacy. Pauline’s abrupt emigration to America has fragmented her identity and torn her life into three parts. The film charts her search for cohesiveness. While I envision three visual styles, I want to create a meaningful progression one that captures Pauline’s reconciliation with family and herself with visual and thematic unity.
The Murphys is a love letter to my Irish American heritage–a fictional world steeped in the traditions, personalities, and quirks of those closest to me. It tells one family’s story, but it could be anyone’s. Change the name, the accent, the location— the emotional core of the film remains universal. This film chronicles how one family’s love for one another endures–through uplifting moments of sheer joy and the excruciating pain of loss, the love shared by Pauline and her relatives transcends all obstacles: time, place, religion, even death. I invite the audience not to observe from a distance, but to have a seat at the table with these characters. Try to keep pace as the jokes whizz past your head and you witness the heart-wrenching emotional scars of the past bubble to the surface. The Murphys celebrates family and what it means to be a part of something larger than yourself. It showcases, with unflinching honesty, the moments you wish could forget, and the precious memories that sustain and keep us moving forward, together.