The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Philomena.
How did you come across the book and what compelled you to champion this project?
Coogan: I was in New York making a film. And because my career’s been in comedy—I’ve written a lot of television comedy— I wanted to find something more substantial, that had more substance. I read an article with the headline “The Catholic Church Sold My Child,” and the article was about what happened to Philomena all those years ago. I found it really moving, and very sad, and next to the article there was a picture of Philomena sitting next to Martin, on a bench on the patio; and in the picture she was laughing. It struck me as being at odds with the tragedy inherent in the story, and I thought, “Why is that old lady laughing like that?” Of course it’s just a moment in a photograph, but I thought, “I want to know how she’s arrived at a place like that.” The reason I wanted to tell that story is because Philomena is the same age as my mum, and I’m half Irish and spent all my summers in Ireland and I was raised Catholic, so I felt quite connected with the culture. So I felt like if I did tell the story based on Philomena’s experience I knew enough about that kind of culture to write about it with some authority.
“I never gave up hope that I would find him, and I have, thanks to Martin, and Steve brought that into the film.”
What was it like for you to see your story told on screen?
Lee: It was very emotional. I thought it was very well put together, I did agree with most of the film from beginning to the end. Especially when Martin went out and bought a little statue of the sacred heart for Anthony’s grave, it brought a tear to my eye. He was actually buried there nine years before I found him, before I even knew he was there. I could have hopped on a plane in an hour and gone. Anthony wanted to find his roots originally, and he was only an hour away from my hometown, Limerick, in Ireland. And he never did find them, because the nuns never did tell him. He went over three times looking for me, and every time I moved, which was six or seven times, I sent all the new addresses to the convent in case he ever contacted me. And I never heard anything. But I never gave up hope that I would find him, and I have, thanks to Martin, and Steve brought it into film. For 50 years I held onto the secret. I didn’t tell my lovely daughter or my son, nobody. We were so heavily indoctrinated by the Catholic Church that we had committed a very mortal sin. My mother died when I was six years of age, and there was six of us, three boys and three girls, so my father had to put us three girls into a convent school in Limerick. So from the age of 6 until I was 18 I was in this convent school; and I was well-educated, but there were times when things were tough. We were allowed home once a year, for a fortnight, to go home to my dad and my brothers. And that was my life for 12 years. You had to leave by the time you were 18, so my aunty took me out, and soon after I met Anthony’s father, and that’s where the story actually starts in the book. So I had a very good education in music, dancing, English, Irish, French… but we were never told anything about the facts of life. I didn’t have a clue. It was all religion all the time, which we all firmly believed in; you believed everything you were told, you just didn’t question it. If the nuns said black was white, you believed them. You didn’t question anything, because that was the right thing to do, and in those days you didn’t question your elders anyway.
What was the process of writing the dialogue with your screenwriting partner, and what was it like writing something for your own character that you knew you were going to perform?
Coogan: Some of it is already in the writing process. Sometimes as a writer you have to hand your projects over to the actors, and you want to make sure the characters say everything you want to make clear. How we wrote is we literally sat in a room together– Jeff would be at the keyboard and I’d pace around the room playing every single character in the scene, I’d do everyone. I even did an impersonation of Sister Hildegard. I did most of the dialogue and character work, and Jeff did most of the structure and rhythm of the story—whether we were dwelling too much on one scene, does it feel right to go back to a scene, what order should scenes go in, and so on. With most of the dialogue and character detail I was pretty specific. As an actor, sometimes you say, “Well, we don’t need the character to say this, because if you edit it in a certain way you should see from my reaction what the dynamic is in the scene.” And sometimes I would say to Jeff, “Don’t worry about that, I’ll be in the scene and I’ll take care of it, I know how to do that. Just write, ‘Martin gives a look, blah blah blah’ to remind me.” It is an advantage, and sometimes I’d write down a description of the look that I give, in the script, literally as a reminder. And when it came to me being on the set with Stephen, sometimes he would say, “I don’t know what this scene means,” and I’d explain the dynamic and what should register on my face, what the situation is. For example, when Martin gets in the car and he thinks he’s going to be with Jane, but he’s alone and he’s a bit self-conscious with this old lady; it is the case that a lot of that detail is put in the script. I like to write in a big room so that I can literally play out the scene by myself with all of the parts.