Whenever I get an opportunity to talk to Nick Hornby, the conversation always shifts away from the topic at hand and instead veers towards our unadorned love for Bruce Springsteen’s music. Hornby’s love for music in general shows in every book and every screenplay he writes: “High Fidelity” was a love letter to the “record store”, “About a Boy” had countless references to pop music, and in “Wild”, Witherspoon’s lonesome hiker marches on her epic way, humming the 1987 Springsteen song, “Tougher Than the Rest” before declaring, “Sing it, Bruce!”
“I listen to music a lot during the working day,” says Hornby. “Loud/fast/urgent or moving and emotional or, sometimes, repetitive contemporary classical. I don’t listen to it while I’m working, but during breaks, and it all finds its way in somewhere.” Then the conversation shifts back to Springsteen: “Apparently Steve Pond was in the front row of the Springsteen DVD show for the upcoming River box set,” he says.
The 58-year-old British author and screenwriter has more than just that Springsteen box set to get excited about these days, as he’s been getting Oscar buzz for his delicately touching screenplay “Brooklyn”, an adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name. “The awards talk,” he murmurs. “Well, I’m glad I live in my town rather than yours! It’s pretty constant in L.A. If you tried to start that conversation [in the UK], where people don’t follow how it works and don’t really know we’re already part of the race, you’d seem a bit presumptuous. But most of the time it’s just the kind of excitement a writer never gets in a working day.”
Before Hornby started writing screenplays, Hollywood adapted two of his novels into great movies: “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity” (which features an amusing cameo from The Boss himself – Bruce Springsteen). Both were critically acclaimed and nailed the blue collar Hornby touch that makes his writing such an authentic treat, so much so that rumors actually exist of a possible Hollywood sequel to “About a Boy”. Surprised about the question, Hornby puts it to rest: “I don’t know where those rumors came from. I can’t imagine writing a sequel to any of my novels at the moment.”
The difference between the cinematic and the novelistic approach is night and day; both have their merits, but concessions have to be made when it comes to the silver screen: “Well, a script is an unfinished thing. It needs the work of a few hundred other people before it gets to where it needs to be. It doesn’t and shouldn’t belong to you. Even an unpublished novel is still a novel. And you have so much room and time in a novel – every single line in a screenplay has to fight against every other line for oxygen.” No matter the concessions, Hornby seems to be a natural at the cinematic game: he got a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for 2009’s brilliant “An Education”, received a WGA nomination for last year’s two time nominee “Wild”, and his latest endeavor – John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” – is one of the most buzzed about titles for awards contention this year. His wife, producer Amanda Posey, has played a key role in bringing Hornby to the big screen. “My wife and her producing partner actually asked me to do Brooklyn, and I can’t say no to them!” he says. “I loved the book and could see a way of doing it.”
All three of his screenplays feature strong female lead roles and he is quickly becoming the best writer for women in Hollywood. “It’s probably not a coincidence that the last three screenplays have been about young women”, he says. “”An Education” taught me that if you write a big, strong part for a young woman, you get the opportunity to work with the best actresses in the world, because there is, ridiculously, nothing else for them.” It’s a sad fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the headlines, with many actresses strongly coming out and fighting for equal pay and others just not finding the amount of work necessary to sustain a career. “The best male actors are not so interested in independent cinema, because they’re getting these huge paydays from studios, plus they get big parts as well. Reese, Carey, Saoirse and all the others just don’t see roles of that magnitude most of the time. It’s ridiculous, of course. The talent is out there, in spades, and the market too. But this imbalance works to the advantage of those of us who want to make movies that have a chance of lasting.”
“Brooklyn” is a beautifully made film about good, well-intentioned people trying to do their best in life. The gorgeously crisp and colorful cinematography by Yves Belanger is to die for, as is the direction by John Crowley, which is stylishly slick enough to harken back to a time when handsomely made, feel-good pictures worked marvelously well in Hollywood. This is an old-fashioned movie done right, a heartfelt effort by people who very much care about story and character. Nick Hornby’s screenplay captures his usual impeccable ear for small talk. Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis, an Irish girl who moves to New York to start a new life, but finds herself doubting that decision once there. The movie will make her a household name, and there’s already talk of a possible Oscar nomination for her performance – which originally had Rooney Mara cast in the lead role – and for the film itself, which is exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing treat the Academy eyes year after year. “Saoirse is incredible,” he says. “It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the world pulling that off. So subtle, so moving… she pulls you in and doesn’t let go.”