How Paul Reiser Created a Non-Cutesy Ireland in The Problem With People

The comedy legend talks accents, authenticity, and rooftops

Colm Meaney and Paul Reiser in The Problem With People, debuting at Austin Film Festival

There's a long Hollywood tradition of stories of Americans falling in love with the Celtic fringe. Yet while Paul Reiser may have followed in the footsteps of John Wayne in The Quiet Man by heading to Ireland, he was actually inspired by a film from across the North Channel in Scotland.

In his new film, The Problem With People (premiering at Austin Film Festival this week), he plays Barry, a New York developer who travels back to the old country to patch up an old family divide. Instead, he quickly ends up reigniting the transatlantic feud through constant clashes with his Irish cousin, Ciáran (Colm Meaney).

Barry's romanticized view of the British Isles is fueled in no small part by constant rewatches of another classic of the genre, 1983's Local Hero, in which an oil executive (played by Peter Riegert) falls in love with a Scottish fishing village and its residents. It's a film that's dear to Reiser's heart. "I've seen it a lot," he said, "and I'm heartened that so many people have said it's one of their favorites, because I thought it was just me."

There's a key scene in The Problem With People in which Barry is watching a clip from Local Hero, but director Chris Cottam "put some Easter eggs that I didn't even notice," Reiser said. "He would have to go, 'Asshole, did you notice?'" Even the car that Ciáran turns up to is the same one driven in that film, "so Colm Meaney turns up in a 45-year-old Corolla."

Reiser admits that it was Local Hero that inspired him to make The Problem With People, in which he not only stars but also cowrote the script with Wally Marzano-Lesnevich (Almost Paris). "I once met Peter Riegert, and this was early on, probably in the '80s, and I said, 'What was it like, filming there?' And he said, 'It was exactly what you'd think it was.'"

And Ireland turned out to be a most welcoming shooting location in the most unexpected fashion. "We actually had this blessed experience that we had this wonderful weather, and it was crystal clear. I think we had one rain day that we had to reschedule. People would say, 'Don't get used to it, it's not like this,' and I don't know, it seems to be like this."

Cottam, a veteran of filming in Ireland, added, "In Ireland, you've just got to roll with the punches. I don't think people expect to see bright sun on the screen all the time, and if it's a bit overcast you make a virtue of that because it's beautiful and romantic all the time, whether it's grey and gloomy or sunny and azure skies."

“It was an old farmhouse, and the bedroom was on the second floor, and we had to support the floor because we thought the whole crew was going to fall through the floor.” – Paul Reiser
Moreover, in cinematographer David Odd they found a kindred spirit who wanted that dappled landscape. Reiser said, "He was insistent on using the most natural light and not being fancy in any way. He was old school that way."

"Very old school," Cottam agreed, noting that Odd "cut his teeth" on groundbreaking British cop show Prime Suspect, "which is the start of what we consider to be naturally lit TV drama as opposed to the hyper-stylized studio dramas that came before."

That's how the Ireland of The Problem With People is both idyllic and mud-splattered. "I've heard comments, surprisingly more than a few, responding to how authentic Colm's house was," Reiser said. "It was an old farmhouse, and the bedroom was on the second floor, and we had to support the floor because we thought the whole crew was going to fall through the floor."

"The paint and the walls don't quite meet," he added, "and we didn't fabricate that. It was a shithole."

"And it was someone's shithole that they loved," Cottam concurred.

At the same time, the filmmakers were very aware that it's too easy to depict the Emerald Isle as some pastoral fantasy. So, Reiser said, they were determined not to lean into "that 'top-of-the-morning' bullshit."

For Cottam, that came from listening to the Irish members of the cast and crew, and most especially production designer Tamara Conboy, who he credited with steering them away from thatched cottage fantasies. "We are the outsiders," he said, "and the dialect and some of the little moments, a lot of that was inspired by the cast and the crew themselves. The film is from the viewpoint of the movie is from those who are Irish and you have to give up a little bit of ego on that and say, 'I don't know best, you tell me.'"

That also included learning the specifics of how the Irish talk. "It took me a few days to tune into the rhythms, the music of it." Reiser said. "'Oh, the fourth word is the important one.'" However, he also had to get used to some of the thickest accents in the British Isles. "One guy, I literally didn't know he was speaking English, and someone said, 'Oh, he's from Dublin. He's a Dub.' I guess that would be like the Bronx, it was so Dublin-y. I went, 'Hmmmm, Someone help me.'"

But most of all, Reiser felt that he could let the location speak for itself. "That town is beautiful. There's streets, and then there's pastures around the corner. That's beautiful enough for me."


The Problem With People

World Premiere
Sat., Oct. 28, 6pm, State Theatre

Austin Film Festival runs Oct. 26-Nov. 3. Badges available now at austinfilmfestival.com.
Find more news, reviews, and interviews at Austinchronicle.com/AFF.

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