My Auntie Theo, who lived in the hills above Dublin Bay, started my
obsession with snow when she gave me James Joyce's short stories on
my first trip to Ireland. We are all Irish in our clan, we are so very
Irish. And it's that last paragraph of The Dead-my vote
for the great short story-that put a splinter in me forever. The
snowflakes begin falling, wet and heavy, down on everything living and
dead-and every human concern, every fear, every hope, dissolves
away into haunting silence. The guy could write.
Theo and my Uncle Harry took me to the very house where the story was
set, on that Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1904-exactly 100
years to the day later. John Huston directed his final film here, his
stunning adaptation of the Joyce story. Or maybe he just did the exteriors
here-the great man was pretty sick at the time. I shot about 50
photos of that townhouse, dodging traffic along the Liffey, trying to
see inside windows and doors. And finally, as some people were leaving,
I got a glimpse inside the main doorway. The staircase. I could see
Anjelica Huston, in my mind, standing on that staircase, lost in a reverie,
frozen by the image of the boy who had braved death for her love. Damn,
the guy could write.
Anyway, I kept following snow. Of course, there was plenty of it in
New York City, the place where I grew up. Plenty in Boston where I studied
business for no particular reason. But then along came New Mexico. I
chased a pretty girl out to Albuquerque, in a part of the country I
couldn't have found on a map. They sold joke passports in the airport
gift shop, I guess because so many people didn't realize it's one of
our 50 states. It was desert out there-high desert. High desert
meant that it snowed there. A lot. Then the sun would burn it off a
few days later. And so this alien place became a second home to me,
even after the girl got tired of me and went away.
I co-wrote a film to be shot in that desert, which had changed my eyes
forever, as much as the Joyce story had blown my mind. The highways
out there, the pink sunsets on the Sandia Mountains, the limitless horizon.
(Take a drive from Santa Fe down I-25 at midnight and you'll know pretty
much all there is to know.) To tell our story, we needed snow. But not
too much. If it arrived early, that was the end of a beautifully constructed
schedule, and the sanity of a very nice line producer. On the other
hand, the thought of laying down snow blankets, blowing phony flakes
around with giant fans, using computer-generated particle patterns-sounded
as magical as the broken shark in Jaws.
But then, that final week, the snow came-as if on cue. A late
February downfall, ten inches in a single night, first time in 50 years,
a hundred years!-well, in any case, it was rare. And we all did
the sign of the cross that morning, then got the hell out there to shoot
every foot of it we could. In a story about the Gods-laughing
their asses off about all human endeavor-we felt like they (or
She or He) had really cut us a break.
My Aunt Theo died last year, after an illness that she kept quiet from
everyone. I was going to claim that she had some cosmic role in sending
us the New Mexico snow-but the timetable doesn't work, and that's
a bit on the nose for my people, anyway. She was buried near my old
man, my grandparents, my Uncle Vincent, in a small cemetery in Tipperary,
dedicated to the families of the local Garda (which is a flowery Gaelic
way of saying "cops"). It's the kind of place Joyce would
have approved of-an austere, orderly patch of modest stones and
modest epitaphs-right outside a town regularly pillaged by Cromwell.
(Like I said, we are extremely Irish.) The place is filling up fast,
and I'm recognizing more and more of the names. And this isn't as scary
as it used to be.