At the preview of Brooklyn we attended there were plenty of hankies out, including a couple of chaps behind us, so congratulations on that score. We loved the film…
That's great, unmanning people! And many thanks, so glad you enjoyed it.
Why this film, what resonated for you with Colm Tobin's book?
First and foremost, I found it a profoundly moving story. It also felt like it was a fresh version of an immigrant story. Partly because it was from the point of view of a young woman and I have never seen that story before. Also in terms of an Irish immigrant story, it feels like a subject that everybody knows about but I am not sure that they do. It is not Angela's Ashes or In America, both of which are very good, but it felt that what Colm was doing was taking a very delicate and simple story but it had huge scale to it if we could get it right.
We were helped of course with the wonderful screenplay from Nick Hornby, who spotted very clearly how it could be transposed without betraying the book. So if we could surround that with the right actress, the right cast, it would be a very emotional experience viewing the film.
So was Nick Hornby's script in place prior to you occupying the director’s chair?
Yes it was. I had read the book for pleasure shortly after it came out because I love Colm's work and I had thought that I would love to direct any adaptation but there was a bit of pre-history as there was another director attached for a while. So by the time it came my way Nick had written the screenplay.
How often does that happen when you get to direct a film when you have been a fan of the book? Never?!
It never happens, certainly not in my experience. I must have done something right in a previous life for Brooklyn to have landed in my lap.
Saoirse Ronan is just stunning in the film. You made mention of searching for the right lead actress, how long did that search take?
She is amazing. There wasn't a search is the truth. As soon as the film became mine there was a blank slate to move on and Saoirse was my very, very first thought. For starters, she is exactly the right age and as an actress she has proven she was a great child actress and then as a young adult actress she again had proved how talented she was but she hadn't yet given the sort of proper heavyweight adult role.
There is an aspect of her acting that she has had right from Atonement and that is she is an amazing watcher. There is just something about that face and the way she looks at events and that felt so right for Ellis Lacey in Brooklyn. In a way, she is almost a passive character at first because she is observing and a lot of the events are happening to her. So that watching quality felt close to the character of Ellis.
However, what none of us could have known was that between when we first met to discuss the role and when we got to actually make the film, it was almost a year to the day later she went through a very similar set of experiences as Ellis. She left home and moved to London and got a flat, got a boyfriend and began to live her life. She had previously lived at home and because of her age had a chaperone on set. So she was struck and very confused that London was as hard as it was for her, given that she had been coming here since she was ten, given that she had lots of friends and everything was fine and yet her feelings did not make sense. She could fly home in an hour, there wasn't really that issue of being an immigrant but I think it was due partly to her childhood was over and she had left home, which is a very primal event in many people's lives, and can leave you discombobulated. So she had that feeling in common with Ellis. London did not feel like home and when she went back to Ireland that wasn't like home either. About a month before we started shooting, we met for lunch and because I had moved here about eighteen years ago, she started grilling me, "Does it get easier?"
So she had a really strong emotional connection to the character, which gave her that personal jet-fuel, I suppose, in her tanks when we started shooting.
Saoirse has that wonderful quality of really listening to her co-star doesn't she?
She does. I think she could easily have been a great silent movie actress and that is not true of every actor. But there were times during the edit we would turn the sound down to watch the way shots were cut together and you just remove the language and when you just watch her in silence it is enormously powerful. There are actually a few shots in the film where I just let the tape run long on her face and I would not normally do that but you when you see it on a monitor you just cannot believe how good she is. It is one thing being arresting on set but it is another thing working on it three months later and it just holds you. She is remarkable. She just gave so much and I think her performance is special.
We have been fans of Saoirse for so long, in films such as Atonement, Hannah, The Host and The Grand Budapest Hotel; there’s no question that she will enjoy whatever career she wants…
I really do think that is true. I think she has spotted that it is all about the quality of work. She is going to do a play in New York, an Arthur Miller play with Ben Whishaw. She realises that quality is what her career should be about, and not listen to people who tell her to do bigger movies, whatever it is that people say to a lot of young actors, just go after the quality. Thankfully, she is so wise and she knows it is all about the quality. The great roles will come to her.
Saoirse's two main co-stars were also magnificent. Once again, Domhnall Gleeson excelled. Without giving too much away, that longing he has in his face, your sympathies keep jumping between Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) and Tony (Emory Cohen). If we can look at Domhnall first, his role was not showy at all but he is as good as ever.
You are right on one level, Domhnall's role is a thankless role. The film works for about an hour rooting for Tony in Brooklyn and hopefully the audience will invest in that and the romance of that and then suddenly you park that and go back to Ireland. In perhaps three short scenes you have to believe in Domnhall's character. We were just so lucky to have Domnhall embrace this part because it is not a big romantic lead but he gave the role such dignity and it might have been a role whereby another actor would have tried something tricksy or showy but Domnhall's instinct is so pure he went in the other direction. He took it toward something very serious. He had a real emotional depth. I am so glad you have paid tribute to him because it could easily have been overlooked.
Emory Cohen is also wonderful, pitch perfect as Tony, the Brooklyn plumber. We first saw him in The Place Beyond the Pines, how did you become aware of him, John?
I too saw him in The Place Beyond the Pines but I would never have thought of him as Tony in that because he plays such a scary young man. It was actually our casting director, Fiona Weir, who asked him to audition for it. We had an awful lot of talented actors, including some really high profile people who were keen on the role but none of them felt right to me. He had to be believable as a 1930s Brooklyn plumber who is not educated, who is not bookish smart - he is all instinct - and yet he had to have a sensitivity to him despite being street smart and being able to handle himself. He had found the one girl who he adores and that is Ellis. He has that feeling that she is a little out of his league but everything she does just makes him adore her all the more.
So we needed to have an actor able to exude that odd mix of being quite sensitive but also blokeish and with Emory you really believe that with those huge arms he can fix a sewer pipe, he's a bloke. As soon as he read we knew we had our guy, and boy was he our guy.
Every role was cast exquisitely from Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent to the smaller roles. With a film as sensitive as Brooklyn, how important is that?
Casting is the single most important thing to me. What I get most excited by is when I see a great moment happen between two actors on screen or when a moment happens in a close-up inside an actor’s head. That's what really excites more than a nice long elegant tracking shot. Don't get me wrong, there are people that do that kind of work really well and I love watching it but it is just not what necessarily excites me about filmmaking. The more human scale is what really gets me and it is usually actors, emotions and what is going on inside and how to suggest things. So that might mean gently removing dialogue and using looks and glances to reveal things
Were you afforded the rarity of a rehearsal period at all?
Yes, we were, we had a full week in Ireland. Rehearsals are really important to me. I don't over rehearse but it is crucial to me that I know every single cast member in the film with, say, more than five lines and that they know exactly what the task is for each scene. Now by that I do not mean the big emotional scenes. For instance for those scenes with Saoirse, we did not go near that height needed, we stayed in the foothills but I made sure that she understood what the obstacles were and what the essence was.
As you can imagine it was not a cheap film to make, we did not have a studio behind it and it was very hard to finance. So the net result of that is to make it for a price and in three countries and the thing that gets squeezed is the shooting schedule. We were really up against it every day and the person who really wore that was Saoirse because she was in every scene in the film. She would regularly have to do two or three huge emotional scenes and then two or three witty little scenes in one day because we were not shooting in sequence. So she really needed to know which bit of the mosaic we were on. So that, of course, was my job to clear everything out of the way so that she could concentrate on that particular part of the story.
So rehearsals were crucial for that and also for the style overall so the cast were fully on board before we started shooting. I also used storyboards for anything which was larger scale.
Speaking of larger scale, is it true that you did not actually shoot in Brooklyn?
Yes, that is right. Montreal stood in for Brooklyn. Sadly 1950s Brooklyn just does not exist anymore. It is one of the trendiest places on the planet now. Also, it is an incredibly expensive place to shoot in. So we could only afford two days in New York. We shot one day on a brown stone street for exteriors and one day at Coney Island.
Mention must also be made of the tones, the contrast between Ireland and New York, you know instantly where you are, we loved that...
Many thanks for that, I am so glad that you picked up on it. It is something we worked hard on. I guess what we tried to do was a game of opposites. In terms of how the colour schemes unfurl, I knew that I wanted it to be quite unselfconscious and not showy. It is not a film about the frame, as much as I am interested in frame, it is a film about the faces and I knew that I did not want it to be widescreen, although many people decried that, but for me it was all about the human face. We choose our monies for a colourful wide shot very selectively.
Ellis is a young girl who doesn't have a lot of cultural references about America and where she is off to before she goes and so consequently there is a very tight rein on the style and the frame before she gets on the boat. And then when she arrives in America, we very gently open up the colour palate. I mean think back to the boarding house, it is still quite grim. As she begins to loosen up we used less handheld camera and the filmmaking becomes a little gently more elegant, almost classical.
I saw it as two styles, not so much opposing styles but rather opposite each other: a gentle unobtrusive handheld quality and it is also a young girl, who is rather pale and is not really clear as to who she is, growing into a young woman who is very strong, very clear and elegant.
John you must be just overjoyed to see so many wonderful early reviews for Brooklyn?
Of course, it is great. The biggest thing that is so pleasing for me is to go back to your original question as to what drew me to Colm’s book. I just think that it is a profoundly important story. It is a small story but it has huge scale and huge importance not just for Ireland but for me it tells the story of America’s relationship with Europe and how countries get made, which is through immigration and people recreating their lives in another country and I felt the emotional experience of that is very particular. So I really wanted to get that right is the truth of it; to get the emotional core right, very emotional but never sentimental. I love seeing it with an audience and you can feel that it is really touching people.
Well, we will be championing it to our audiences and we wish you the very best of luck with the release of Brooklyn.
Thank you so much. The support you have shown the film