“That, she supposed for a moment, was the one thing her feeble life had given her access to: the power to put together brightly coloured memories, to mix them and heighten the resultant shade …” From Chrysalis, by Michael Feeney Callan, Best Irish Short Stories, (Elek Publishing, London).
A Life in Creative Adventuring
Michael Feeney Callan’s is among the most varied and daring of Irish writers’ careers. Born and raised in Dublin, the son of an engineer, Callan’s abiding wish, from childhood, was to contribute to internationalising Irish cultural experience and, in his words, “to writing some good, lasting poems”. He started as a poet, publishing in David Marcus’ New Irish Writing, then won the Hennessy Award for short fiction before advancing quickly into thriller writing.
Callan’s first major screenplay was the epic crime series The Burke Enigma, a six-hour landmark production for RTE, which starred Ray McAnally and Donal McCann and went forward as RTE’s drama entry for the 1979 Prix Italia. Subsequently he accepted an offer to join BBC TV drama in London, where he story-edited the detective series Shoestring. Simultaneously, at ITV, he wrote for the action series, The Professionals.
Callan didn’t want to specialise in crime writing. His earliest published stories – like Baccy, which won the Hennessy Award, and An Empire Story (published in New Irish Writing) – suggested grander plans. The novelist John McGahern, judging the Hennessy awards, spoke of Callan’s “deep insight and sensitivity”.
After the spell in London, Callan returned to Ireland to write the famine novel, Lovers and Dancers, and Love Is, a play about contemporary sexual mores, which starred Gabriel Byrne.
Facing the eighties in Ireland, Callan was challenged by the paucity of opportunity in international production and publishing. It is a fact that, during the middle eighties, Ireland produced approximately the same number of movies as Uruguay – less than 4 per annum. Joining Morgan O’Sullivan’s pioneering production set-up, Callan collaborated in a strategy to acquire the defunct National Film Studios (as Ardmore was then named), alter film investment law and attract Hollywood-based co-production into Ireland.
Throughout the eighties, Callan worked with O’Sullivan, forging a bridgehead at the renamed Ardmore Studios, bought in partnership with the NEA and MTM Hollywood in November 1986. At the same time, he maintained his vastly varied creative work, continually writing drama screenplays (among them the collaborations with Frederick Forsyth, Privilege and A Careful Man, screened on PBS), publishing a succession of British television adaptations (Diamonds, Sweet Sixteen, Capital City, etc), and also a number of bio-filmographies.
It was during this period he also began painting in oils (the work exhibited at Dublin’s Blue Leaf Gallery in 2002 as A Workshop in France) and amassed the poetry which was published in 2003 as Fifty Fingers.
Callan’s most notable literary success of the eighties was his in-depth biography of Sean Connery, an actor he saw as representative of the trans-national Hollywood he personally admired. Its success refocussed him, and he made a decision to temporarily divert from fiction writing to study modes of documentary and directing in the nineties.
Callan saw in the nineties directing Roger Moore, James Coburn, Charles Aznavour and Joan Collins in My Riviera, a picturesque celebration of the Cote d’Azur, where he’d spent his summers since 1979. There followed the usual hairpin twists with directing and experiment, ranging from a bout setting up RTE’s Crimeline (he directed all the start-up drama reconstructions) to Back to Enchantment, a documentary about Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, animators of An American Tail and Anastasia.
Though he continued writing for radio and relevision (ITV’s Cluedo dramas, RTE’s Templewood) Callan’s most prominent directing credit of the period was The Beach Boys Today, centred on sensisitive personal interviews with the elusive and camera-shy members of America’s pop pioneers. This spell Stateside led indirectly to major American commissions that defined his nineties output.
The management of the Beach Boys requested Callan to write, co-produce and co-direct the career-finale Irish Christmas show of the legendary Perry Como for PBS. Meeting with Como, Callan understood the complexity of the venture – Como was in his eighties but determined to round off a 50 year career in Ireland – and crafted the comprehensive “overview” production that Como so much desired. Como later called the performance the most moving – and fulfilling – of his life.
Since the success of the Sean Connery biography in the early eighties, Callan maintained a constant flow of analytical biographical writing. In his view, this was “privileged labour”. Work in television and film gave him access to some of the world’s leading performers: literary analysis became a form of fiction-feeding character analysis. Combined with this was a fascination with icon-making. Interpreting pop culture via its Hollywood choices was, Callan felt, a worthy exercise of “discovery” – and discovery for him had always been the essence of authorship.
For twenty years Callan’s work had been a straddling of ambitious literary endeavour with diversionary entertainment. During that period America’s movie output divided sharply into two camps as separately distinguishable as opera and operetta. Mainstream Hollywood was given over to CGI, while the once marginalised “independent film” held fast to high ideals. Most prominent among the patrons of independent film was the actor Robert Redford. As with many star performers in the seventies and eighties, Redford too has straddled the forms, determined to carve out, it seemed, some resonant and lasting authorial vision in the fusion of his work in many genres.
It seemed the most natual evolution for Callan to focus on studying Redford in pursuit of a deeper cultural “discovery”. In 1995, Callan met with Redford, who agreed to support the project. Thereafter, the best part of a decade was spent interviewing more than 400 of Redford’s peers, family and friends – and, of course, Redford himself.
The scope and ambition of the project necessitated counterbalance, and Callan interspersed work sessions on Redford with vigorous diversities. In 1990, after more than 10 years of friendship with the actor Richard Harris, he had published his biography. In the millennium he revised and republished this, along with new, expanded versions of his books on Sean Connery and, in 2005, Anthony Hopkin
It was only a question of time before the return to novel-writing, and 2002 saw the publication of Did You Miss Me? and, in the following year, the potry collection Fifty Fingers. During this period a concentrated return to painting and the bronze sculpting of the middle eighties resumed, with A Workshop in France and a succession of group exhitbitions throughout Ireland. If, as Callan has been quoted, “discovery” is his mission objective, “beauty” unquestionable demands equal space. Given his prime career authorship and asked whether narrative or figurative work dominates his art, Callan’s answer hits the spot: “It’s just about beautifying space.”