Talking to director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby about their film, Brooklyn.
It didn’t take much convincing to get Nick Hornby to adapt Colm Tóibín’s bestselling novel, Brooklyn, for the big screen: “It just made me feel,” Hornby tells us about the book. Having made a name for himself on the literary scene with 90s “lad-lit” favorite novels High Fidelity and About a Boy (both of which were then made into successful films in their own right), Brooklyn marks the third in a series of Hornby adaptations to focus on the self-discovery of young women (the author also notably wrote the scripts for An Education and Wild).
Directed by John Crowley and starring an excellent and quietly dignified Saoirse Ronan, purity of feeling seems to be the M.O. of this tenderhearted, 1950s-set immigrant love story. Following its decidedly moral heroine, Eilis (Ronan), from Ireland to America—and eventually back again—Brooklyn swells with such unadulterated emotion that it could very well be a product of the time period it portrays.
When we first meet Eilis in the small, rainy town of Enniscorthy, the limited scope of her surroundings is immediately apparent: everyone knows everyone else’s business. But it is home, after all, and when the opportunity comes for a sponsored job in America, the promise of a better future is not without heartache for those she has to leave behind.
It’s been arranged in advance for Eilis to live in a women’s boarding house in Brooklyn and, although she has everything she needs in the practical sense, each letter from home brings with it a gut-wrenching bout of homesickness that prevents her from making any kind of life for herself. That changes when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a good-natured Italian boy with a thing for Irish girls. Not only is Tony head-over-heels in love with Eilis, but he also helps steer her toward self-possession and, eventually, emotional independence from home. But when tragedy beckons Eilis back to Ireland for a visit, she finds her town suddenly has much to offer: a good job and a kind, well-to-do suitor who seems to care for her just as much as Tony does.
Aided by Michael Brook’s score, which infuses classic orchestral swells with Celtic romanticism, Hornby and Crowley have taken a small story about a divided heart and turned it into something bigger, with many people’s happiness hanging in the balance of Eilis’s decision as to what exactly constitutes home.
We sat down with Hornby and Crowley to discuss what drew them to this project, the difference between adapting someone else’s novel versus your own, and what makes where you live into your home.
Colm’s Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn was quite popular when it came out in 2009 (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize); what was your first encounter with the source material, and what drew you to it as being ripe for an adaptation?
I actually hadn’t read it, but I’d read three of Colm’s previous novels. The producer of the film, Finola Dwyer, called me and had talked to Colm and asked if I was interested. He’d had a few offers and didn’t seem entirely sure about any of them, but he had seen An Education and asked if I’d take a look. I read it and I loved it, and also understood why they thought the book was a film. Sometimes—most of the time—you read something and that isn’t the case. But this had a perfect spine.
I was actually struck by how little there was image-wise in the novel. I’m curious about your screenplay-writing process: Do you leave that more up to the director?
Pretty much. [Laughs.] Well, the first thing is that it’s actually more of an external book than people think. It’s a literal novel and it’s not noisy. People tend to conflate two ideas and think that if it’s a literary novel, it’s not going to be cinematic. But in fact, we’re just seeing the world through her eyes—and everything goes on outside of her. Plus also, it just made me feel. I thought maybe if I could turn the volume up a little bit, then we have the material for something quite classic-feeling—a throwback to a time when people actually made movies that kind of destroyed us emotionally, and that’s something I was interested in doing.
A lot hinges on that of Saoirse Ronan’s face—there’s a disarming goodness and earnestness to her character, rarely found in contemporary cinema. Your characters typically have a bit more bite to them, this is a bit of a departure for you.
Well, I’ve got two hats. In the contemporary novels, the characters tend to be more bumbling and sarcastic. An Education was different and that kind of extended my palette, and I enjoyed it. One of the really great things about adaptation for me is that it gives you a chance to work from material that you could not have created yourself. I could not have written that book. Last year I wrote [the screenplay for] Wild, and I could not have written that book. But I have skills as a dramatist that I can bring to these projects, and it all feels completely fresh to me, and I love that.
This is the kind of movie that you really have to give yourself over to. I found myself thinking: If I can’t be moved by this kind of purity of emotion, I’m just an ass.
[Laughs.] Yeah, you do. And then once you do it’s not so bad…
What I’m saying is that earnestness is not a quality that’s prized—or that even really exists in film these days. We tend to watch everything with a bit of distance.
Is it earnest or is it sincere? Because it’s got comedy in it. Earnestness to me suggests something that’s serious-minded, which I don’t think this completely is. There’s joy in it. I’ve seen the film in theaters—it’s hard to know if the comedy plays until you see it with an audience, and it does. But it is a sincere film. And there isn’t any irony and there isn’t any distance. And that’s what John [Crowley, the director] and I wanted to do from the beginning. I supposed you need to kind of seal yourself away to do it, because of all the trappings you were talking about. It’s kind of like, whoa!… People don’t do this. But once I, as you say, gave into it, I decided let’s go for it and see what happens. I’m going to make this sincere and heartfelt and see what we’ve got.
You mentioned the comedy in the film—one of the most enjoyable and funniest parts of the movie is the micro-world of the boarding house. It was definitely not that animated in the novel.
No, that was something that I saw. There isn’t a lot of dialogue in the book, actually. But the boarding house seemed to have a natural rhythm of comedy to it, and I could see that Mrs. Kehoe [who runs the boarding house] could be this kind of matriarchal comedic figure. She’s so good—the looks that she gives those girls. It’s really thrilling to see it with an audience because you can feel that when the film cuts back to the boarding house they start to go [rubbing his hands together with glee] “Oh, ok great!” That’s not to say they’re not enjoying the rest of it, but it gives the film a rhythm that we kind of hoped it would have but didn’t know it would come off as well as it did.
Since adapting your first book, Fever Pitch, you’ve said you don’t want to adapt your own work again. Is it nerve-wracking relinquishing control and letting someone else turn your book into a movie? Conversely, having been on the other side, are you more sensitive to adapting someone else’s project?
It’s interesting the language that we use about adaptation. You say “turned into” a film. It hasn’t! It’s still sitting there as a book.
No! I went to the bookstore and all I found was vapor where your books were supposed to be.
[Laughs.] Exactly. If that actually happened, I would feel more nervous about it. If the only record of your book once you’ve sold it to the movies was the movie, then I would think: “I gotta think really carefully about this.” But in my experience, if people like the movie, they read the book; if they don’t like it, the movie dies and the book stays there anyway. So I don’t get terribly nerve-wracked about it. I was just talking to Colm about it this morning and we both agreed that the only important question is: Do you like and trust the people you’re working with? And if you do, and you know they want to make something that you buy into, anything that happens after that is in the hands of the gods. If it doesn’t turn out then it’s nobody’s fault. It’s an ungovernable and vastly collaborative process, and I have always liked the people who wanted to make my books into movies.
How involved are you in the process? Do you typically like to see drafts, for example, or do you hand it over and then shut your eyes?
When it first began I thought, oh yeah, I want to read these. I’d get sent a draft and maybe make a comment or two. But if you’re outside of the process and not working on it the entire time, when you read the second draft you think, I can’t remember if this was in the first draft or not, so maybe I should read the first draft again. And then you start to think, this is quite a commitment! Now I’m working on the movie and I don’t want to be working on the movie because I’m writing another book! [Laughs.] After the third draft comes they start coming in a kind of unstoppable flow—15 or 16, with tiny tiny changes and you get really muddled. That was a long way of saying: not anymore. [Laughs.]
And what about in the reverse situation—when you’re adapting someone else’s book, are you keeping them involved in the process? Do you find it helpful to do so?
I want them to be happy, so it’s not like I’m looking for help. Things start to diverge and you’re making decisions that they didn’t make. But with Wild, for example, Cheryl [Strayed] was writing about her marriage and her family and her drug abuse and so on. I’d use some inventive details or collapse things, but if she had said to me, “I hate this scene so much because it dishonors my mother,” or something like that, I would have taken it out. I’m not going to argue with her about something like that. There are a million ways of doing everything, and there’s really no point in falling out with someone you respect and admire. I’ve been lucky. Colm’s been just great: He reads drafts and the only thing he ever said to me was, “Oh, in this part of Ireland it’d be ‘mammy’ instead of ‘mommy,’” which was useful, but he never tried to interfere.
The film is as much a coming-of-age story as it is an exploration of the very concept of home—what makes home, home.
We’ve all experienced homesickness, even if you don’t move very far. There’s that sense of everything that you’ve known having been taken away from you. One thing you learn is the more specific you are about place and time, the more others respond to it in another time and another place. If you try and make it about everyone and everything and every place, then it has no truth and no tang of love.
This is quite a faithful adaptation of the book but there are, of course, some subtle yet important changes. Did you collaborate with Nick Hornby at all after reading the initial script?
There were a few small refinements. He read the book and it was really clear to him what the movie needed to be, and the script really had that quality. It had this immediate authority, which is amazing because he hasn’t got a drop of Irish blood in him; he doesn’t know anything about Ireland or Irish history. [Laughs.] But, I think there was something about the fact that he was a novelist adapting the work of another novelist: He was kind of watching Colm’s back in a way. But secondly, he really spotted what the essential nature of the drama was and that it would ruin it to start injecting events into it. This is the challenge of making any movie, but the idea was that if we could keep [Eilis’s] story moving forward without landing on any false beats, then we could build up this emotional steam, which novels are able to do—it’s a slow burn. We tried to match that internal rhythm in a way.
Admittedly, I read the book after seeing the movie, but it seemed to me Eilis is given a lot more agency in the film.
For me, [Hornby’s] masterstroke in the screenplay was the last few minutes of screen time on the film, when we take her back to America. The book ends on a much more ambivalent note, which is how a lot of Colm’s prose works—he walks around a person’s dilemma and then steps away from it and you are left there going, “Oh my god!” Whereas a film needs something more definitive about it. And it’s that scene on the boat that he wrote for Eilis and the young girl that gives the sense that her story has come full circle. After showing all the sadness that comes as a consequence of her choice, you sort of owe it [to the audience] to show a little bit of the positive side as well.
The other adjustment that we talked a lot about was the Nettles Kelly confrontation scene, which, again in the book, is far more about shaming and something internal, but in cinematic terms Nettles Kelly is in many senses the antagonist. She represents the power of small-mindedness that would constrain Eilis and try and squash her down as so many people in the country had been. But Eilis has the ace card of having been outside of it, so for her to be able to stand up and take that power away was a big moment. That was dramatized in a more conflict-based way, waking her up from this sort of woozy dream state the film has been lulling her into.
The whole first half of the film, when she’s settling into America, is very much a slow burn, as you say. Nothing bad is happening per se, it’s more about communicating this overarching ache of loneliness. So much depends on performance, but how did you go about creating that feeling without injecting events into the story?
I think it was the film historian David Thomson who said, “There’s nothing more beautiful than a close-up of a human face changing its mind.” That was the sort of aesthetic we were going for—to stay very close to Eilis. The first thing you see is a doorway with a face in it, and it’s her, and she’s on the move. She’s walking down the street and we’re moving with her. It’s almost like the Dardenne Brothers. By staying on her you immediately pose a question to the audience: What’s this? As opposed to, say, the lovely wide shot of the sleepy town with a bike going past. That’s a different way that we didn’t go, precisely because of what you’re saying, because we’re not starting with an event, we’re starting with a person.
She’s somebody who has a sense that she’s not thrilled with her surroundings. The guys are boring to her; there’s an otherness to her. And then you find out that she’s going somewhere, but there hasn’t been any conversation about it, it’s just this thing hanging there in the room. What there is underneath it is a huge wave of emotion between the mother and the sister, but no one is speaking. Even when she’s looking around the dance hall, her inner projector is recording because she knows she’s not going to see it again. So all of those things are small cues to the viewer that there’s something developing and the audience should stick with it. And she’s a kind and decent person. By the time you see her around the table at the boarding house, when [the other girls] are being a bit catty and a bit bitchy to her, she recoils from it, and you can see that she doesn’t want to play ball with that. She wants to be a different sort of person. So we just stuck very close to her. It sounds very banal, but we had to trust that was interesting. And in the hands of Saoirse, it’s very very interesting. That face… she could have been one of the great silent movie actors, and not a lot of actors have that. It’s not a given. She has an old-fashioned face and she’s a great watcher on screen. When she’s looking at something, it’s really captivating.
You touched on the goodness and decency of her character. Her flaws are extremely minor—yawning in church, for example—and there’s a sincerity to her that’s quite disarming. The film feels almost a movie that would have been made at that time as much as it is about that time.
Yeah, in a sense I agree. But in another sense she’s a very modern woman. It is about her coming into her own sense of agency, but you are watching the formation of somebody who is moral—who has an inherent sense of right and wrong, and who is decent, and that’s very affecting to watch. Because when you see the kind of tangle she gets herself into by not announcing the marriage when she comes home… that building day-by-day, the more she doesn’t declare that there’s nothing going on, the more she’s seen as fair game and rumors start to swirl. Now that she’s back, there’s a little sprinkling of stardust on her. And it’s not even really a lie, she backs into it, being untruthful by not speaking—which is the same thing, ultimately. You can see how you can get into that tangle but it’s not a conscious decision. And when she turns around and finally arrives back into herself and tells the truth, it feels like the right final moment for her to turn into an adult. But the film doesn’t rely on the usual tricks films tend to use to make you root for the central character, it just does so in a very quiet way.
Right, but that’s so rare. Watching this makes you realize how we watch everything at a distance. You have to let yourself go there.
Yes, you do. There’s nothing ironic about it. And it’s not “cool.” It’s not cool filmmaking, it’s not film-school filmmaking, either. It’s a mixture of sort of European aesthetic with something more classical. But definitely what you’re talking about was a decision very early on which was that I needed the film to stand up and fall down on its emotionality, which I wanted to be completely separate to sentimentality. I wanted genuinely felt emotion in a situation from the pressure that a character is under. If we could get that and surround her with the right kind of emotional pressure of the other characters then we could have quite a unique experience for the viewers, which is to say a proper emotional experience, rather than something which is manipulated.
I understand the film was made on quite a modest budget and that you shot a lot of it in Montreal. Can you talk about the locations and the visual construction of the world? What was important to be shot in Brooklyn, aside from Coney Island, obviously.
All of the Brooklyn exteriors were shot in Brooklyn. The brownstone streets are all in Brooklyn. You can’t get those streets anywhere outside of Brooklyn. Even in Harlem, we tried to find something comparable and couldn’t. The exact identity we needed, the nature of the relationship between the stoop and the little flats underneath, we could only find in Brooklyn. And nothing doubles for Coney Island, so that was a given.
But the truth is that I had great producers who properly said every penny goes on the screen. It’s not a film that the financing world needed to make, let’s face it. So it was made by backers who were very passionate about the project and who got the story and had a personal connection to it. Within that, we had to make a little go a long way, and we needed collaborators who were ok with that, otherwise it’s misery. One of the things I think I learned from the theater is that lack of money is never an excuse for the lack of an idea. Otherwise you’d have everybody saying, “Well, I could do a really good job if I had fifty thousand dollars.” Yeah, well, so what? Throwing money at films doesn’t make them good.
To that end, the film was a co-production with Canada—we couldn’t afford to shoot the whole thing in contemporary Brooklyn. Modern-day Brooklyn is so different from 50s Brooklyn that the art department budget would be astronomical. And our budget wasn’t super low—we had just enough money for us to be punished mercilessly by taxes, it was right in the mean sweet spot. Canada was a very viable alternative, and we got tax breaks and were able to get the bare minimum you actually need to put the fucking thing together. Within that then, we had a great production designer—Francois Seguin—a legendary Canadian production designer and he knew Montreal very well.
Doing 1950s Enniscorthy, Ireland wasn’t easy either. Immediately the sort of thinking was well, Enniscorthy is too contemporary so we went to look at the more picturesque towns, but they were all too postcard pretty, and that was not quite right for this. We drove to Enniscorthy and we stood on the street that the novelist grew up on and set the book in, and went, well, this is it—minus 30 satellite dishes. [Laughs.] It was bloody challenging, but that’s great in a way. Everybody was in it together and the community there was so delighted to have us.
The performances in the film are, as we’ve touched on, particularly strong. I wanted to talk to you about your theater background and how that’s informed your process of working with actors.
For me, the experience with the actors is that I like to have them right at the core of the filmmaking process, which is to say they’re the most important thing on set. We’re all there to try to get the fifteen seconds of what is perceived to be truth—it’s a magical and mysterious thing we’re after. But how I get to that, is I rehearsed quite thoroughly and quite intensely before we shot, especially the dialogue scenes so that everybody was crystal clear on what the target of each scene was. But you never open up the emotion of a scene in rehearsal, I always leave that for set, for obvious reasons.
That’s very different from directing a play, where you can be around the table playing it and it matters not a jot if you go too far emotionally. In fact it’s great. You can crack open a scene emotionally one day and it can be amazing. It can be three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and it’s the best piece of acting you’ve ever seen and then it’s gone. But that’s ok, because your job with those actors is how to get there again and how to do it that way eight times a week. And of course with film, you just have to make sure the camera is on pointing at them and in focus. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] But I love directing actors. It energizing me: sitting at the monitor and watching something develop from take to take.
Though it’s definitely Eilis’s story, there’s kind of an ensemble piece going on in the background. You have some very well-known actors—Jim Broadbent, Jessica Paré—as well as some new faces populating the film. Can you talk about that part of the casting process?
I worked very closely with my casting director Fiona Weir, who also happens to be my life partner and mother of my son! So we work a lot from home. But it was a puzzle that we had to put together with the producers. My interest was always to pursue who is right for the part and the producers, though they always backed my decisions, had to remind me sometimes that we needed not necessarily a big star, but someone that meant something to an audience. We had to have the right kind of mix—and it’s a real art form.
But some of the characters we needed to be just the character—somebody no one had ever seen before. So when casting some of those boarding house girls, we got to play sort of fast and loose. Here’s somebody who’s done two TV things in Ireland and no one knows who she is, but she’s great! And everyone sees her and loves her and you’re off to the races.
Jessica Paré’s character was difficult to cast because we needed someone very particular for that part. It had to be somebody slightly exotic that had a kind of graceful dignity and could move around in the background almost like Nosferatu [Laughs], sort of appear out of the shadows. One of the producers suggested her and I thought, God that’s inspired! ♦