Set in 1962, ‘On Chesil Beach’ takes us to a seaside town where Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan) are young newlyweds honeymooning. Florence is of affluent descent and Billy has graduated with a degree in history. Director Dominic Cooke seamlessly takes us through flashback into their childhood and their upbringing. The story follows the couple as they sit down to dinner and later attempt to consummate their marriage as virgins on their wedding night.
Howle stands out as Edward, and Ronan shines in her performance in this film about being born at the wrong time and the consequences of being born in an era where being a virgin on your wedding night was the norm. Ian McEwan adapts his Booker Prize novel for the screen.
I caught up with Cooke to talk about directing a film where society dictates something impossible. ‘On Chesil Beach’ is out this Friday and released by Bleecker Street.
You came into this by the screenplay rather than the book, how helpful was that for you as a director?
For me, it was really helpful. Unless as a director you read a book and you have a passion to make that book into a film, I think going the other way is better. I didn’t know the book. I think if you read it as a regular punter, you’re always going to have such clear views. To inherit a script would have been difficult.
Because I came to the script first, I was just really taken with the script itself and then I went back to the book and I think it worked so well.
What was it that jumped at you and said, “This is something that I need to make?”
I used to run a theater and I was reading up to ten scripts a week. They were play scripts that were still dialogue and drama. I’ve since read an awful lot of film scripts. I think the quality of writing stands out when it’s as good as this and it’s about whether you can really see something. Whether it’s really complex as it is in this. Whether you believe the characters and the detail. It just felt to me like it was very fully imagined and a really interesting take on the frontier between physical and emotional intimacy.
When I started thinking about it all and whether I wanted to do it. I started thinking about the 70s. There were so many great films about sex and eroticism. I feel like as far as an adult conversation about that, our culture has retreated. There’s a pornographic dimension on the internet, but even in the culture, there’s a superficial engagement with erotic, but there’s not really much of an adult discussion about how complex and tricky those areas can be. I can see it was dealing with something really unusual and did it with a compassion.
He’s not sentimental and it feels like he’s on the side of the characters and he’s generous towards them and I like that feeling of compassion in the writing.
As the author, what did McEwan bring to the film and screenplay and how helpful was it to have that insight?
It was great. I was nervous upfront about how that was going to go, but as soon as he started working the nerves went partly because I felt he was interested and ready for another take on it.
He was really appreciative of questions and suggestions that I was bringing and respectful of those.
The interesting thing about Ian is that he wrote a few screenplays before he had written a novel. This was the first time he had written a screenplay of one of his own novels, but he’s very very film literate and so he was able to think in images.
In his books and in the screenplay, the place is very important. If you think of that amazing image of that long scene of shingle, that totally comes from his sense of how important place and setting are and that’s very filmic.
There was a lot in there that was natural and organic in terms of how we developed the script from the novel and how we worked together.
The other thing that I love that was so organic was the treatment of the past in the film. It’s far from Hollywood and sugary. You’re working on something that’s not sweet.
That was very very important and I’m glad you raised that. I don’t like nostalgia. There is a tradition of British film, a lot of which is very enjoyable which shows the past as a nice and easy place but I don’t believe that to be true.
I think what he does very well in the novel and what we try to realize in the film is that sense of the reality of that time and that’s why stuff like that ghastly food is really important because it’s showing that world and the deprivation these young people have grown up in. It’s not a material deprivation, it’s emotional and those manifestations of that world.
That was another big pull for me in that movie and showing the past as ti really was. I think it’s really interesting because it breaks a contract with the past in British film because the norm is, “here we are, the past is quaint.” This film doesn’t do that. I love that and it’s surprising to see the film honestly.
The other theme is being born at the wrong time, as an adult, we wish we were born in another time.
I had that sense growing up in the 70s and how brilliant the 60s were.
How did you find your cast? Saoirse and your Edward?
We started with Saoirse. I met with her, we hit it off hugely and that was great. It was a long search to find Edward. We saw all sorts of actors from different backgrounds and they weren’t all English, it was a brilliant mix of people.
It was a particular mix of qualities we were looking for. Some of it was about people being able to play the slight formality. It was so remote from the society we live in that some people just couldn’t get there. Others, he’s a brilliant mix of rugged and slight masculinity that Billy found with it, with a really deep sensitivity. Eventually, we put the two of them together and did a screen test and it was magic. They really played well together and that’s when we knew that was the guy.
It was a long search. It was enjoyable because I met some great actors, but it was clear that a lot of them, we didn’t believe were in 1962.
Aside from the casting, how did you find your perfect location for Chesil Beach because it adds to the beautiful cinematography?
Again, Ian had really clear ideas about where everything was and one of the first things he did was take Elizabeth Karlsen and me around the Chilterns and it’s the area where Edward lives.
The cricket club where Edward plays was the club that Ian plays at and it was exactly where he saw that being. There were other locations. He showed us what he imagined Edward’s house to be. He imagined a lot of it and we had a brilliant location manager. Sean Bobbitt who is our cinematographer spent an awful lot of time about the feel we wanted for each of those places. A lot of it is about what he did once we got there and how it was treated.
It’s an interesting period to get right. When you do a period such as 1962, a lot of the furniture was bought from 1932. You have to give a whole back story and reality to the world they’re living in.
You worked on stage and went to the screen, but what was this experience this time around like?
I did the Hollow Crown and felt the real shock started there so by the time I came to this, I felt slightly more prepared to be on a film set. I have to say I found the whole experience to be really joyful. I’ve loved every element of making this film, the challenge for me, the big one was the amount of input you get from executive level and that’s something we don’t have in theater. You might get a few notes that you’re not necessarily obliged to do, but when you’re working in film, these days, it’s all financed by people and they’re giving a lot of input, so how you’re sifting through that in a productive and creative way is a skill. I’ve had to learn how to do that, and that’s been the hardest thing to learn as a filmmaker.
Storytelling is storytelling. There are certain elements of storytelling that are the same in any form, but how one uses a camera to tell a story is the interesting thing about filmmaking and it’s something I’m fairly young at but it’s something I’m really enjoying doing with the help of a really great team.
How did you keep us in the flow? Because sometimes with film you’re moved out of that moment and with the flashbacks you use, that just didn’t occur in this.
We thought about it a lot. We shot minimal set up. We looked at a lot of 60s movies and we looked at the main difference between that period and now. The main difference is that they don’t use many cuts. I thought, let’s do something where the shots are much more sustained and that will give a sense of period and help with what you’re talking about. The structure of the film is fragmented anyway and if you put too many cuts within each scene you end up with something unintentionally splintered.
We were very strict on scene direction so everything moves from one side of the screen to another until that moment where everything starts moving the other way, and those things create a subliminal link between the bedroom and the bedroom. We wanted to do something that would help in the sense that it’s all one story even if it takes place at different times. We also tried to make the joins feel purposeful between past and present.