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The Irish Times
Saturday, August 30, 1997

McCourt on camera

Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, has sold millions in the US: his nephew, New York policeman Conor McCourt, has been making a film of his uncles' stories.
Dylan Foley reports

        AS Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's memoir of growing up in poverty in Limerick, continues to take American and European literary circles by storm, a short documentary film by his nephew is attracting attention in New York City and will premiere at the 49th Cork Film Festival on October 19th.
        The McCourts Of Limerick, Conor McCourt's one-hour documentary, contains powerful interviews with Frank and his brothers Malachy, Michael and Alphie, where they talk about growing up with an alcoholic father and a depressive mother in the slum lanes of Limerick. The brothers also recall the humour and songs.
        Conor McCourt is a 31-year-old New York City bicycle cop and is the son of Malachy, an actor. Making the movie on a budget of $5,000, McCourt advertised his video on the Internet, hoping to sell a few copies. It became an underground sensation.
        "I had a really good cross-section of people including former students of Frank, people who loved Angela's Ashes and Irish immigrants who grew up in that period," he said.
        "People who called me about the video would talk to me for 10 or so minutes, telling their own stories and how the book had affected them. One gruff Irish guy, who sounded like a longshoreman, left a message on my machine saying, `I saw your video and I cried after,' then hung up."
        Raised in New York, Conor McCourt went to film school and became a news cameraman. "I was a 'video vulture' for four years," he said. Working for an independent video company, McCourt raced around in used police cars, listening to police and fire radio reports, trying to beat the TV network camera trucks to crime scenes, and probing the brutal robberies, murders and tragedies of New York.
        In 1990, McCourt was the first cameraman to reach the Happyland Social Club, an arson fire that killed 87 people. He captured devastating footage of a hysterical man trying to break past police lines against all hope of finding his brother alive.
        "I had to quit the video business," said McCourt. "I was burned out and was tired of living off the misery of other people." McCourt worked as a waiter in Boston and did other odd jobs until he entered the police academy in 1992.
        After working as a cop for several years, McCourt got back into video by setting up Romeo and Juliet Productions on the side with his wife Juliet.
        McCourt taped weddings and christenings, often for his fellow police. "I got interested in doing a film about my family when I found some old photos. Uncle Frank said he was going to Limerick, so I said, `Can I come? I'll bring a camera'." It is Frank's humorous and poignant stories at the scenes of his childhood in Limerick City that form the backbone of the documentary.
        "I'd always wanted to make a documentary," said Conor McCourt. "So many people will tell you you can't. You just need to get a camera and do it."
        A former writing student of Frank's convinced Conor he should try to do more with the video. Through acquaintances, he met Greg Dougherty, the owner of a company that produces music videos and big ticket commercials.
        Dougherty, with another editor, reworked the video. "For me, working on Conor's film was a labour of love," Dougherty said. "Angela's Ashes had hit me at so many levels - I grew up poor and on a farm in Wisconsin."
        Judiciously cutting and adding footage of the late mother Angela, Dougherty removed the original narration and let the McCourt brothers tell their own stories. The sound was remixed and Conor McCourt had the video transferred to film.
        In the new version of the documentary, an emotional Malachy talks of the longing for his missing father. Frank tells stories of the rough-and-tumble childhood of Limerick's poor children and how the local priests at the time turned a blind eye to the desperate poverty of the lanes.
        Mike tells of his gang stealing apples and being picked up by the gardai. Alphie ponders the family's bread-only diet. The documentary also provides a complex view of the brothers' troubled parents.
        In New York, the major cable company HBO and a public documentary TV show have both expressed interest in The McCourts Of Limerick. Conor McCourt will also be showing the newly transferred film at the Independent Feature Film Market in New York in mid-September - the market attracts buyers from across the US for new American scripts, short films, features and works in progress.
        The film The Brothers McMullen was picked up at this event several years ago. "Conor is a wonderful storyteller and he comes from that tradition," said his father, Malachy. "He not only has the oral talent, but the added eye for film. He accurately captures the character and eccentricities, the similarities and differences, of the McCourt brothers."
        Malachy is finishing his own memoir, titled A Monk Swimming, and in October is planning to restage A Couple Of Blaguards, the play that he and Frank have performed for two decades.
        Meanwhile, Angela's Ashes has sold a million copies in the US. The movie rights have been sold and actress Rosie O'Donnell is reportedly very keen to play Angela. Recently, Pierce Brosnan approached Frank McCourt about playing the father. Frank gently turned him down, saying he was too handsome to play Malachy senior . . .
        The McCourt brothers will be in Limerick on October 28th to watch Frank receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick. "I am amused that Frank is getting the degree," said Malachy. "He was 'not good enough' for the Christian Brothers secondary school . . . us laners were not well-dressed enough and had the wrong accent. They probably thought we smelled."
        As a police officer, Conor McCourt works on Manhattan's West Side, near some of the most active drug spots in New York City. On a recent tour of the area, he pointed out some local notables. "You see that young guy eating oranges," he said, indicating a man calmly sitting on the sidewalk. "He is one of the biggest drug dealers in the area." The neighbourhood is full of stark contrasts - graffitied walls and burned out buildings, and schoolchildren planting flowers near a community garden. "There are so many stories in this area, always something new," McCourt said. "Ceilings collapse, there are domestic disputes . . . once I even got a call that there was a tiger loose in Central Park.
        "I like the people in my precinct. Crime is down now and with individuals, there is hope. It is a whole neighbourhood going down that depresses me."
        McCourt has moved on to pre-production for a sequel to his first documentary to be called The McCourts Of Manhattan, detailing the experiences of the McCourt brothers in New York in the 1950s to the 1980s. "After that?" asked McCourt. "I always wanted to do something on cockfighting in Mexico."

        The McCourts Of Limerick will premiere at the Cork Film Festival on October 19th


Copyright 1997 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.