John Crowley is an Irishman who has called London home for the last 18 years. His latest feature film Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan, and tells the tale of a young woman coming of age in the 1950s who moves from Ireland to Brooklyn. I sat down with Crowley to talk about how he and Ronan tapped into their own experiences of immigration and what was different this time that made him want to tell a story that had been told countless times before.
Awards Daily: A lot of films have already been done about immigration. What made you want to tell this story?
John Crowley: It’s a variety of things. I absolutely love the Nick Hornby book, and it’s also a profoundly important story. Not just for Irish history, but also for American history. It’s the first piece of writing, that for me, happens in an in-depth way. It’s also from the point of view of this young woman that also made it fresh. It didn’t feel like a period piece either, even though it’s set in the ’50s.
She felt to me like a contemporary woman. She’s trying to negotiate her way around an invisible structure – paternalistic, quite restrictive – where the assumption is you have to get married, at the very best you’ll get a job, but you’ll always be talked down to and patronized. There’s something wonderful about the female camaraderie in the story, the way they find each other. The emotion it nails resonated very strongly with me because I immigrated when I was 27. That confusion that happens when you leave your homeland and obviously you move to a new country, but you’re not from that country. You’re not quite from the place you came from either, and when you go back there, they view you differently and you view it differently. That’s because you’ve had experiences being away and you see some of the shortcomings of what’s back home. So, that feeling where of where home is has a pull but you can’t quite live there is particular. In this case, it’s thrown into strong dramatic relief in Eilis’s choice between the men and the two countries and what they represent, which is really two versions of herself. Who is she going to be? It felt like it was a film that I had never seen before.
AD: It’s not just another story about immigration too. You mentioned we see her unfolding, and some of that comes from the closeups which is really effective, and it strikes emotions. What inspired those choices of shots?
JC: From the start, I decided we weren’t going to shoot it in widescreen format. The aspect ratio needed to be classical because it’s softer on the face. I knew the place where I was comfortable wanting to watch these events unfold was on her face. The decision was made really early on. It was about emotions, I had to get that right or it would go down in flames. When you go after emotions you’re walking a tricky line. You go too far, it’s sentimental. If you do something emotional, it is going to be against the mainstream feeling of what non-studio films should be doing – it’s not cool, it’s not ironic, it’s not hip. You can’t be too detached with the camera in your tone, you’re right in there. You’re right in there, but I thought that’s the only way this story will work as it should, which is to make the viewer feel and care about Eilis. It’s not like there’s a huge external jeopardy threatening her existence. It has huge scale. We have to go for the bullseye of emotion. Saoirse was key to that.
AD: She was great, but so was everyone else. What was the casting process?
JC: After I became attached, Saoirse came on board. I sent her the script, she felt the obvious choice. She had just come to the exact right age, and had proven since she was very young just how wonderful she was. We hadn’t yet seen her do a performance where she was taken from a young adult into an adult in one film. So, there was that transformation. But also, here was a chance for her to carry a whole film and to really shine and show just how good of an actress she really is. She had also never played a role in an Irish accent. What I didn’t know, was I met her first to talk and then a year later as we were about to begin shooting, I met her again, and in that time she had moved away from home. She got a flat, a boyfriend, and she was struck by how homesick she was and it was confusing to her. It was the same way I felt when I had moved to London. We knew London. I knew it better than Dublin, but when you move to a city, your relationship shifts on a mental level, you’re no longer there for two weeks with a return ticket. It’s a big shift and she found it confusing. She was able to tap into that, all that confusing emotion and rawness, and the grief that came with that, so it was all in her as we were shooting.
AD: Well, that’s what resonates with people. I felt that having just moved here a year ago, and we all have heard of, or know of personal immigration stories.
AD: So, when you’re adapting this from a book to the film, was it hard deciding what to leave out?
JC: Well, a great screen writer like Nick Hornby is what you need. The film adheres to it, there are three parts; Ireland at the start, Brooklyn in the middle and the return home. So, it wasn’t a case with Nick’s adaptation he had to reinvent. It seemed so clear to him what needed to be held in. He never had any doubts, it was all clear to him. So, the draft I came on board to, it was a few character adjustments so we could show her journey and make it a bit more determined. In the book she’s left on the train, we knew that wouldn’t cut it. It was a marker scene, she’s taking down this guardianship, and realizes she has to go back. We did have her go back to America.
AD I was going to say, because I didn’t remember that ending in the book.
JC: No, it’s one of Nick’s best pieces of writing. The girl on the ship going back. She decides to be kind. The whole film is in that scene. It’s her deciding not to be locked inside her own grief, but to pass on her experience, just as that woman had passed it on to her on her first journey. It’s an act of kindness where she finally lands into herself. It’s not a happy ever after, because there’s that devastating scene with her mother, she’s jettisoning her future with Jim. Making the choice is the important thing. It needed to land on a more definite end point. It wasn’t a difficult adaptation.
AD: How did you recreate that beautiful coloring and 1950s Brooklyn?
JC: We had to do it in Montreal for budgeting reasons. We couldn’t convert 2015 Brooklyn back to 1950s Brooklyn because we were in no way that kind of league budget wise. We shot on location in Ireland and the street that the novel is set in. That gave the beginning a real authenticity.
When we were in Montreal I was anxious. We could only go into New York for two days. So, we did one day on a Brooklyn street where we did the whole brownstone exteriors, and we had one day at Coney Island. Both of those could not be doubled.
Montreal was fantastic because it gave us a huge range of interiors, like the church hall. I had a great production designer, DP, and costume designer, and we were all on the same page about what we wanted to be.
With the costumes, I wanted them to have color in them, but they had to be clothes that people were wearing. They had to be the Macy’s knock off version of what people wore at the time. With Francois he did a huge amount of visual research to find out what the color palette would be. We keep a tight reign on it at the start and it gradually unfolds. In a way Coney Island is the apex and most colorful section of the film.
The backgrounds come into the frame rather than be too featured. A lot of the environments are not ’50s environments; they’re like the end of the 30s. Mrs. Kehoe’s wallpaper probably hasn’t even been changed since 1938 you know. [laughs]. It’s just before pop culture is kicking off. We did very few exteriors in Montreal. The ace card was having actors in the foreground always, and makes you feel like it was a street in Brooklyn in 1951.