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Denis O'Hare, Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin talk issues of mental health and the lack of universal truths in 'The Parting Glass'

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The Parting Glass features an incredible and star-studded cast that include Denis O’Hare, Anna Paquin, Melissa Leo, Cynthia Nixon, Rhys Ifans and Edward Asner, in a beautiful, moving, and funny drama about love, loss, and family.

Driven by a core trio of True Blood alumni, with Stephen Moyer as director, bringing to life O’Hare’s original screenplay, and of course starring both O’Hare and Paquin. The film follows a family in mourning, as the scenes delve into their memories and piece together the woman they lost.

The Parting Glass is hardly fictional, however. The screenplay was based on O’Hare’s own experience losing his younger sister, Kathleen. “It was a mental trick, I guess,” says O’Hare, “which was that I figured that I’d never make the film, so I didn’t worry about what I wrote. I really didn’t think I’d make it, because you shouldn’t, and you can’t, because my family would kill me, so I didn’t worry about it.

“And then once it was written, and we started talking about making it, that was a whole other thought process of ‘Oh my god!’. The funny thing is that there are a couple of names in the movie that I never changed, of actual people, and we only realised it quite late, because we went through such a long process of figuring it out. So it was a mental trick about ‘it will never get made, therefore don’t worry about sparing anybody’s feelings, just write what you want to write’.

The Parting Glass was also Moyer’s first venture into directing feature films, and what an appropriate debut. “I was lucky enough to have done that with these guys before on True Blood, as a director. Therefore, I think there was a shorthand there already, and a lot of trust – obviously, this is a very specific story to Dennis, and his own personal life.

“And so there was never a moment that I wasn’t aware of the weight that it carried for me in terms of telling that story, and wanting to honour not only Dennis but Kathleen, who had died, and Dennis’ family. But also, there’s the elasticity needed within that, to try and tell a piece of entertainment that the audience will leave with something that they will be able to take away and talk about, whether it be mental health or some feeling of hope. That’s the weight that one carries, but the one thing that I never questioned was these guys’ trust, because I feel very connected to both of them in terms of lifting me through it.”

Paquin plays the family’s youngest who has, it is gradually revealed, recently committed suicide. Is the film going to bring something new to the discussion on mental health, which is so relevant right now?

“It’s not a simple issue, it’s not a simple story, we’re not saying: ‘Here’s the answer! Here’s what happened and here’s what you can do not to have that happen,’” explains O’Hare. “This is not that kind of story, this is one story about what happened to one person in one family, and this is how they reacted. It’s weird that it’s landing in this moment with this attention. I think that anybody who is going to watch it will take away their personal reaction, and I think whatever that is, they won’t feel quite as isolated after.”

“And I think another thing we hopefully managed to do is - and what Dennis’ screenplay does – is it’s about truth,” adds Moyer. “And sometimes truth is ugly, but that’s okay. And if that’s what you come out thinking, that that truth, that maybe one’s own experience of one’s own scenario, has made you feel selfish or guilty, in some respect due to something that happened to you, that’s also okay. Human frailty and human failure is part and parcel of the makeup of who we are. And that’s okay, and that’s what people don’t usually talk about.”

O’Hare continues, “and what Anna gets to do really well in this movie is this idea of ‘Who is this person?’ And there’s a multiplicity to a person because of course, there is no real objective answer. There is only who that person is to different people. And that’s beautifully portrayed in the movie. And at the end of the day, why did she kill herself? There is no possible answer. And trying to figure out was it this, was it that? Really, what does that answer give you?”

As O’Hare had said, Paquin did not have the easiest job in playing the youngest sister, being as her characterisation changed from one person’s memory to the next. “It’s as if each individual vignette is its own person, that each has an entirety of truth in that scene, and that doesn’t have to do with anything that I’m tracking or playing in any of the other scenes,” Paquin explains.

“And there’s actually something really freeing and really wonderful about that,” she says. “Being allowed to just respond to the sibling whose memory it is, and not actually trying to fit them all together in one puzzle, that’s not what we’re doing, that’s not the story that we’re telling. As an acting exercise, it’s quite interesting on the page, to be somebody who doesn’t exist in anything but memory.”

Moyer concurs, “it’s also a two-fold issue, because not only is it just the memory of whomever is thinking of that person, we all are different with specific people. So I might be incredibly vulnerable with Anna, but never let anybody else see that, or I might be really needy with a friend because I know that they’re going to give me that part of myself, which I might not ever let anybody else see. And I think that it’s again, a fascinating human frailty, and that’s one of the elements that we try to show, but also the fallibility of memory. It’s a difficult conundrum.”

Contrary to what one might expect given the topic tackled in story, The Parting Glass is actually very funny. As told by the director, he was “so worried because it’s such a difficult subject matter, that you’re kind of going well, we want to entertain the audience. And the first cut was almost raucous, because it was very funny.

“But the problem is, that when I put that together and I was really happy, thinking ‘wow, we have a really interesting, difficult, dark, really funny film,’ the problem was that when you put it in front of people who don’t have the history of knowing these characters, knowing us, that they see these characters for the first time laughing on this day, on this particular day, it makes them look callous.

“And so at that point, you’re going well no, something needs to change to honour the story and give the audience a chance, and to honour the characters as well, so that hopefully later on, it becomes okay for them to be ugly, for them to have emotions and dark thoughts, and to be selfish because of what they’re going through. But they have to earn that right from the audience,” before it becomes acceptable for the characters to laugh and be loud. “You have to teach them. It’s a real tightrope, and it was a difficult one to do.”

The film was clearly a collaborative process between Moyer and O’Hare, something which the latter seemed thankful for. "I’m so glad I didn’t direct it, because it meant I had a conversation with Stephen. And he’s going to make me justify everything, he’s going to push back, interrogate, suggest, improve, and that’s not going to happen if I’m the writer, director and actor. And I think it was really great to get some air into a piece.”

“Every penny that was scraped together was very, very difficult,” explains Paquin, when asked about the challenges in obtaining funding for the film. “And a lot of people were very compassionate passers on being involved, because ultimately, putting money into a film that you know you’re not going to make your money back on, most people don’t have that luxury to invest in something just because they care about it.”

Moyer continued: “The thing is, a lot of people understand what you’re trying to do, but just don’t have the money, so you’re just scraping – we all ended up working for nothing. And everyone else was being paid SAG minimum, but we weren’t going to ask them to redonate the money, because they weren’t producers on the show!”

“Something that was really beautiful about making the movie was how into it the crew was. They’re not making a lot of money, so why take this job? It’s because they read the script, and they think ‘yeah, I want to be a part of that,’” said O’Hare. “To me it’s a work of art, not an issue piece. It’s not a piece that exists for a cause, it’s a story that happens to intersect with a cause.”

Offers for funding did come, stated Moyer. “We nearly had somebody who was part of a suicide charity who, at one point, was going to give us money, which we were very thankful for because it’s a very, very hard movie to get made, financially. There were difficulties attached to it, because there’s certain ways that each charity wants the story to be told, and we didn’t want to be told how to write the story. That money comes with parentheses.”

But in the end, “we told the story we wanted to tell.” Paquin smiled.

The Parting Glass had its world premiere at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival. 

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