The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Brooklyn.
What in your own life has helped you connect with the story?
John Crowley: I moved to London when I was 27 to direct a play at the National Theatre. Having been back and forth from London since I was about ten, I knew London better than I knew Dublin. I grew up in Cork, which is a smaller city. But I was very struck by how homesick I was. If I’m honest, I thought being a sort of sophisticated young urbanite that I fancied myself as, I thought that homesickness was a preserve of immigrants who had fallen on hard times, who couldn’t quite get on with it. The thing that Colm gets so right in the novel, and it’s the first piece of writing that I came across that really got it right, is the universality of that condition, which is when you leave home and you’re obviously not from the new city you’re living in, but your relationship to your homeland has been altered fundamentally and finally, and people view you differently when you go back, and you view the country differently because you are having experiences which are changing you. That doubleness, that sort of feeling like you’re not actually living anywhere for a period of time, that you’re sort of hovering and you don’t have what you would call a home anymore, which is very clearly dramatized in the film in the choice between two countries and two guys. That struck me very forcefully, so that’s the sort of emotional connection I felt to the material.
Saoirse Ronan: When John and I met initially about the project I was 19 at the time—only a few years ago—and I was quite anxious to leave home, it was something that I knew I needed to do in order to kind of push me out my comfort zone, and it needed to be in a different country in order for me, like everyone, find out who you are in the adult world, and that wasn’t going to happen in Ireland. I was the same. I had been working in London since I was about 10 and was quite familiar with the city and how it—so I thought—how it operated. But then I got there and I think to go there when it’s not for a specific purpose, when you’re just going there to live, to exist, to take care of yourself in a different place, it’s very daunting. Because I had gone through that maybe about six or seven months before we shot the film, those emotions were very much a part of my psyche at that time, and were very, very raw for me and it was what I was going for. That was the first time I had ever really had that experience on a film where I was playing a character who was emotionally running parallel to me the whole time. It was terrifying because of that to begin with because you kind of think, “Oh god, am I acting at all?” I think for me I was so affected by what John would speak to me about in relation to the character and story and just the text itself, the script was so powerful and every single scene would have at least one chunk of dialogue that really got me. That happened daily. It was kind of about adapting to that and trying to manage that emotionally as much as you could. It definitely felt like we had run a marathon.
Finola Dwyer: My mom left Dublin and went to New Zealand in 1951 and then I came and lived in London. I go home pretty much every year and I still feel, whenever I’m there, I want to be there because that pull of home is very strong. I was actually very homesick as well when I first moved to London. I was probably thirty and it was very—I didn’t expect to be at all, I thought that was all behind me. So, yeah, it touched me very much.
“if nothing needs to be said, then shut up; if something needs to be said, then we figure out a way of saying it.”
Can you talk about the challenges of production and where you shot?
Dwyer: It was a difficult film to put together. We wanted to put it together in a way that we could make, that also fit John’s vision for the film. So we did it as a three-way international co-production with UK, Ireland, and Canada. We had Montreal standing in for New York because that bought about a quarter of the budget, shooting in Canada. We shot two days in NYC. We shot the brown stone streets and Coney Island, because we couldn’t find that anywhere, and I remember during one of our first conversations with John, I said, “At the very least, I know we’re going to have to go shoot a brown stone street, even if we have to put our actors in there if we can’t get permission to bring them in for those two days.” That was kind of essential to place the film firmly there. We made it for a budget of just over 11 million dollars, which is very little for a period film shooting in three countries. We were a small group that traveled together. We three obviously, our cinematographer, editor, first assistant director, script supervisor, hair & makeup, costume, just like the key group. We were…
Ronan: A traveling circus.
Dwyer. Yeah. It was a very close-knit group. We had to land right into a new crew of two hundred people wherever we went.
Ronan: That was another thing as well. Adapting to a different crew halfway through a shoot is huge because it’s such familiar thing when you’re on a film set. When you’ve shot so many important scenes in three-and-a-half weeks in one country where you’re dealing with essentially a different kind of volume, a different kind of energy, and then we went to Montreal and also had an amazing crew. We were really spoiled with our Irish crew, and then we went over to Montreal and just had these terrific people who were working with us. No matter what, you’re kind of shifting and you’re adapting to that then as well, and they have to come in three or four weeks into this shoot and pickup where everyone else left off.
Dwyer: It was like thirty-five days, so seven weeks, over eight weeks, which is very, very short as well, so we never had a lot of time—several scenes a day, often two location shifts in a day. It was really intense.
Crowley: We went off and did three big scenes a day. You get to the end of the second one and the third one would feel like a mountain. It’s psychological, it’s something about the day dividing it into two that you can get a good morning’s work, and then a good afternoon. But at about four in the afternoon, you’re looking at doing a third big scene and it’s every bit as important as the one that you were fresh for and did that morning… it was intense.
What do you find most helpful in your work together as director and actor? How do you mark your script; what do you talk about?
Crowley: I tend not to mark my script. I make notes in a notebook on what I need to make notes of. In rehearsal, I sit with the actors and we read through the scene and you get a feeling for what it is; if nothing needs to be said, then shut up; if something needs to be said, then we figure out a way of saying it. There are all different actor styles. Emory and Saoirse couldn’t have been more different in style and approach. Emory is a wonderful young spirit who is very used to improvising and being loose with the script; I sort of had to say, “Oh, we’re not doing that film. This is different.” He was great about it. But it was a shock for him, because I wanted the dialogue to be quite crisp, sort of streamlined, almost like an old fashioned film in a way. It was a bit close to rehearsing a play, sitting around a table with the script, not really getting up on our feet. It was more about intentions and where the sort of bedrock of the story was sitting underneath the scene so that people could quite simply understand stuff if it wasn’t clear how it was fitting together.
Ronan: It was really about connecting to the text more than anything, wasn’t it?
Crowley: Exactly. Closing the gap.
Ronan: I’m the same, I don’t make any notes, and I’ve never made notes in the script. The only thing I’d make notes on would be dialogue, or dialect—accents—and I really didn’t have to do that as much on this, because it was only a slightly different accent to mine. For me really it’s just good script, good director. You can delve into it and go, “Well, I mean, when I think of it…” but that’s basically it for me anyways. And I like that. Of course it’s very complex and the thought process—whatever is going on in my head is very complex, but I just let that do its thing and get on with it.