FPH Interview: John Crowley
Speaking from the Toronto International Film Festival on the day before the Canadian premiere of Brooklyn, director John Crowley talks to Free Press Houston by phone. “I had read the book for pleasure, big fan of Colin’s work. When it was published the rights were snapped up and it was attached to another director. I forgot about it and moved on to other things as it were,” says Crowley.
Brooklyn, Irish author Colin Tóibín’s novel about immigration to America in the 1950s was a success upon its publication, garnering awards and praiseworthy reviews. The protagonist of Brooklyn, Eilis Lacey moves to New York from her hometown of Enniscorthy, also the hometown of Tóibín. The movie contains the tropes of sophisticated romance and drama: the department store where Eilis gets her first American job, a boarding house for women run by a feisty figurehead (played to the hilt by Julie Walters), romance between people of different backgrounds, the privilege of the rich.
“The director and actor circling it decided not to do it, and I got a phone call from [producers] Amanda Posey and Finola Dwyer asking me if I’d like to read the screenplay. I didn’t need to think twice,” says Crowley.
Saoirse Ronan starts as Eilis giving a stunning performance that instantly propels her to the forefront of the current generation of actresses. Ronan has proved her acting chops with young adult roles like The Lovely Bones, Hanna, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
“She’s proven how brilliant she was as a child actor but she hadn’t quite played the adult performance that would take her in people’s minds from being a child actress to a serious heavyweight actress. Secondly she had never acted in an Irish film,” says Crowley. “She’s in every single scene, it’s a huge journey for her emotionally. She’s never carried a film before, there’s a lot on her shoulders.”
Eilis meets a handsome Italian lad (Emory Cohen, Place Beyond the Pines) at a dance and they start dating. When a family emergency forces Eilis to return to Ireland she starts dating the well to do Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Complications ensue. The adaptation is by Nick Hornby himself a well-known author of such books as High Fidelity and Fever Pitch.
“Hornby is such a wonderful adapter. He spotted that we needed one extra beat at the end of the film, and that one scene led to that and it was the one scene we really re-wrote,” Crowley says about a dramatic confrontation between Eilis and Miss Kelly a local busybody. “It was about moving it towards a more dramatic confrontation. It is the final step to her becoming a young woman, which is to stand up and say ‘My name is Eilis, what are you going to do about it?’ It’s the scene where she slays the dragon”
One location in Ireland was shot in the actual home of the author. “With the budget we had we couldn’t turn it back into the 1950s. We looked all over the country. Small towns were a bit too pretty. Eventually we drove to Enniscorthy just to see what was there and what it might have been.
“It was defeating us, we couldn’t find the right look in any small towns. So we’re there looking at a street, which is where Colin grew up on and where the novel it set. And looked up and down and my God this is it actually. There were a lot of satellite dishes, there were a lot of things where we talked to locals and said can we repaint your door. But fundamentally that street had remained unchanged,” says Crowley. “We knew if we had that we could figure all the other stuff out. We wound up going quite to the heart of the place.”
Montreal doubled for New York City. “Montreal was wonderful because 1950s Brooklyn doesn’t exist anymore,” explains Crowley. “There are bits and pieces of Montreal where with a really tight frame you can recreate that illusion. We shot all the interiors in Montreal in actual interiors, there’s something about the connection with the architecture of the period.
“It reminds me of a story. One day someone asked Kurosawa about a shot in The Seven Samurai. And he said if you looked a foot to the left there’d be a train station or foot to the right and there’d be a soda fountain so that’s why it was shot like that.”
The opening scenes set in Ireland use predominately dark colors. The first wide angle shot doesn’t occur until Eilis gets to New York. “The color palette of the film and the emotional palette of the film begin to expand. When she goes back to Ireland we see and she sees a different Ireland,” says Crowley
“The esthetic of the film, the frame size and the way in which we shot and cut the film was always leading back to see the world through Eilis’ eyes. I told the crew heads I want authenticity but then we’re going throw it away. It will wash up in the background.”
Brooklyn opens exclusively this Friday at the Landmark River Oaks Theatre as well as the Cinemark Tinseltown 22 in the Woodlands.
— Michael Bergeron