Sam Millar talks movies and motives

Sean Penn has been linked with the lead role in the film version of On The Brinks, the memoir written by best-selling author Sam Millar...

Although he thinks Penn would be “perfect” for the role, he has some reservations about dealing with the Hollywood machine:

“Despite my reservations, the decision to option the book was made by my former publisher. This is the second year On The Brinks has been renewed, and we are hoping for the final word some time early next year. I would much have preferred a film company based in Ireland or Europe so that I would have a hands-on approach to it, but whatever the outcome of all this is, the book will appear on the big screen.”
 
Warner Brothers optioned the film rights through mega-agency CAA – whom list Penn as one of their clients – though they seem keener to focus on the aspect of Millar’s story that deals with his involvement in the $8,000,000 robbery at Brinks in New York in 1993, one of the biggest robberies in US history.

Currently touring Europe promoting his latest book The Darkness of Bones, the Belfast-born novelist took “a break away from all the frenzy” to talk about the possible film of his life, about which the Irish Voice in New York said: “Hollywood couldn’t have done it better” and its relation to current events: 

“A French magazine started the rumor of Penn, and it has just simply snowballed over here. Warner Brothers are less interested in the political section (of the book) though, where I was tortured as a political prisoner. That is another reason why I am so weary of the book getting the Hollywood treatment, as they seem to want to erase my life from my own memoir!”

On The Brinks has its beginnings in the surreal world of Belfast in the 1950s and goes on an extraordinary journey of life in Northern Ireland for a young man: from an innocent teenager on the 1960s streets of the Bogside, to the brutality and loss of innocence in the H-Blocks of the 1970s, and finally a new life running a comic store by day and spending nights in the illegal gambling dens of 1980s New York.

Then there is the infamous planned multi-million dollar heist, and the prison sentence that finally brings him home. The book was critically praised both in Europe and America, winning the Aisling Award for Art and Culture in Ireland, where it was the #1 selling book for four months and causing Millar to be listed as “part of the new generation of Irish writers” by The Guardian newspaper.

Previously, Millar had won the Brian Moore Award for his short story Rain in 1998, and had also been short-listed for numerous other literary awards including the Martin Healy Short Story Award and The Cork Literary Review Award. Two of his stories, New York and the award-winning Rain had been performed and transmitted by BBC radio.

Now living in Belfast, Millar admitted that On The Brinks “no longer dominates his life as it once did” although the issues of prisoners being tortured is one that affects Millar just as personally today as it did during his time behind bars:

“I am a pessimist at heart. It breaks my heart to see America’s great name being brought to shame in such places as Iraq. The torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib has shocked the world. People at one time could always point to America for guidance. Now we think that if America can do this to men women and children, what hope is there in this world? My children are all Americans, and have had to endure a lot of anti-American sentiment in Europe because of what is going on in Iraq.”

In particular, it was the stories that emerged in relation to the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay that bought back dark memories for Millar.

Prisoners or “unlawful combatants” have been held at this Detention Center in Cuba for nearly five years, and the number refusing food has more than doubled over the last year or so.

The Pentagon denies any inappropriate treatment, but Amnesty International calls this situation a “travesty of justice” and Millar, the longest man on the blanket protest in the H Blocks of the notorious Maze prison in Lisburn, County Antrim, where Republican prisoners fought for political status by refusing to wear prison uniforms, was horrified at the images he had seen:

“When I look at what is going on in Guantánamo Bay and compare it with what happened to us, the parallels are frightening. It is worse than internment what is going on out there. I am afraid this will alienate ordinary Americans from the rest of the world because of what their government is doing.”

It was especially troubling for Millar, who dreamed of going to America as a child:

“I fulfilled that dream, though I destroyed it by what I did in America. America and the American people were always good to me. I should never have done what I did, and have apologized for it. After being sentenced to the penitentiary, President Clinton pardoned me, and sent me home to the North. What other country would be so magnanimous? That’s another reason why I despair seeing what is going on in Iraq and what it has done to America’s great international reputation.”

Millar has written several books since On The Brinks including Dark Souls, which focused on the consequences of child abuse, and The Redemption Factory, which the Chicago Tribune called “a bleak vision of contemporary urban Ireland”.

He always however returns to the same place to be inspired, noting “All my stories come from my own personal experience”. As Cyrus Nowrasteh, writer of television mini-series “The Path to 9/11” commented: “While most writers sit in their study and make it up, Sam Millar has lived it.”

Born in the predominantly Catholic New Lodge area in 1955, some of Millar’s childhood memories also combine the personal with the political:

“My mother leaving us when I was 8 years old, never to return. Going to Derry on Bloody Sunday, a day that changed my life forever. Those are the two main changing events in my life that remain salient in my memory.”

As for the future, he is continuing on the road with The Darkness of Bones – which again topped the best-seller lists in Ireland – and deals with another area of abuse, the notorious Kincora scandal that rocked the North in the 1980’s:

“It tells the story behind the cover-up of a pedophile ring in Belfast by the British Government and the Orange Order. The book caused uproar here when it came out two months ago, with calls of a boycott from the Orange Order. Of course, this had the opposite effect and sales in the book rose further.”

Whether the movie of his life makes it to the big screen or not, Millar is determined to just keep on writing.