Jake Roberts was always going to go into filmmaking. Just what path he’d take was up for consideration. The son of a screenwriter, he grew up around people talking about movies and would bury his head in scripts.
“It was really the only vocation that ever occurred to me, even from a young age,” says Roberts, who worked as a runner, a 3rd assistant director and an assistant in the lighting and art departments before finding a niche in editing. “[Editing] was something that I fell into having a bug about working on films in various capacities. It is so kin to so much. It’s the mirror image of [writing]. In the post-production process, you’re rewriting the narrative to an extent.”
Doing so with images rather than words, Roberts has become quite eloquent, tinkering with an Avid from the time he was a teen to become the frequent collaborator of David Mackenzie, the chameleonic director of the concert-set romance “You Instead,” the apocalyptic “Perfect Sense” and most recently, the harrowing prison drama “Starred Up.” Nothing on his resume until now, however, would suggest the restrained yet extraordinarily powerful work he has done on “Brooklyn,” which unfolds with the grace and persistence of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), the young woman at its center, making her way from Ireland to New York in the 1950s.
Achieving the page-turning quality of Colm Toibin’s cherished novel while slipping into the subconscious in a way only cinema can, Roberts perfect calibrates Eilis’ journey, which goes miles more emotionally than her transatlantic travels. While the film is in theaters, Roberts spoke about getting a firm grasp on such a delicate story, how he worked in post-production to simulate the immigrant experience and making the most of his opportunity to do something different.
Is it true you had to read the script a couple times to get a grip on it?
I did have to read the script a couple of times because when you first read a script, you don’t have any of the indicators that the audience eventually does. I had no frame of reference at all, not having read the book. I just kept expecting something else to happen in a way that threw my receptors off to what the story was really about. I kept expecting Tony [Eilis’ American suitor] to reveal himself to be a villain of some kind. [laughs] I realized my first time through the script, I had been playing the wrong movie in my head. It’s much more subtle than the majority of screenplays that are out there and it’s such a personal thing. I really loved the tone and wit and humanity of it. You can tell that it spoke to something — a part that’s in all of us. Those things are timeless.
The fact that it’s set in the age that it is really helps as a device with regard to isolation. If you were to contemporize the story, it would become meaningless with Skype. The true distance that was there in the ‘50s is something that is more alien now. Just how foreign even using a phone was or having the meaning of letters, those are things which have almost no currency in our [contemporary] culture. The weight of them was a really interesting dramatic device to make you think about the time and again, there was always this very relatable universal quality to it, so I was very keen to be involved.
When I spoke to the film’s director John Crowley, I asked about that shot of Eilis at the dance in her hometown near the beginning of the film that he called “almost a statement of intent” in how it’s longer than what modern audiences might expect, but you’re able to learn so much about the character just by letting that scene of her settle in. Did that moment actually dictate how you might work with Saoirse’s performance throughout the rest of the film?
Absolutely. It was very early on, probably the third or the fourth day of material coming in, when that scene came in and it was really the first time I was exposed to the full subtlety of what [Saoirse’s] capable of. John had phoned me to say, “Don’t make it shorter” because it wasn’t in the script that we hold the shot like that. I just saw in the dailies and was like, “My god. That’s just an extraordinary piece of acting and that certainly has to go in the first cut” because I wasn’t so sure if it’ll stay. But it never left. It just told so much about what she was feeling, and it became an end, because we sped up a lot of stuff around that part of the film under pressure to get her to America faster. But that was something we really wanted to hold on to because we felt it indicated to the audience that this was unnmissable, given how self-consciously long it was, that this is what the film’s about by putting it in the first six or seven minutes. Yes, she’s off to America, and things are going to happen to her, but it’s about her and her face, “This is where the action is,” as John would say. It’s not going to be about huge wide shots. It’s all here in her eyes.
Because it was so early in the editing process, it was an indicator to me how we would cut other scenes too. If it hadn’t already been obvious, I realized how essential to the film [it would be to] be playing through Eilis. There’s other scenes where she doesn’t say all that much, but Saoirse’s such an unusual actress in that she’s able to do so much passively. She can receive another actor’s lines, and you can feel them registering in her eyes. She’s very present in the moment in a way that I’ve never come across before. That really is so vital to the film. You have to be with her, because that’s what the story is. She was a complete gift.
Despite that, you do get the sense she can get lost in this sea of strangers she encounters as well during her journey and I understand you had a hand in making her feel surrounded almost at all times.
There’s a very colorful obviously cast of characters — even the waiter on the boat who just has three lines, he’s a great little character. Everyone chipped in with their bits popping into the movie, which is credit to Fiona [Weir, the casting director] and John for casting it so well, and Nick [Hornby] for writing every part with such care, giving people with one line a really great line. Nothing was thrown away or wasted. In terms of [surrounding the character], that was something we did very specifically, but it [meant to be] subconscious. I remember when we were shooting in Montreal, about halfway through that section, I was like, “There’s something missing. There’s something viscerally not quite right here.”
I figured out it was American accents. Because we were in Montreal, pretty much all of our extras were French-speaking and we were just missing that American voice in the film. Very few of the characters in the film are American – Eilis moves from Ireland to America and moves into a house full of Irish people, so we made sure in the latter stages of sound [post-production] to record lots of [dialogue] from every true American [we had], improvising stuff you might just hear someone say when she’s walking down the streets, someone’s sitting in the café, or certainly when she comes to immigration. We really tried to wrap her in American accents wherever we could just to make that just to culturally place her.
Sound always plays such a huge part in a film and all the texture is just very, very deliberate. Obviously, the distance of the sound from Ireland to America, [you can use] the sound of the boat. You always just impose as much psychology as you possibly can using whatever tools you can and we had one of the best in the business for sound design – Glenn Freemantle, who did the sound for “Gravity.”
There are some beautiful montages in the film. How much leeway do you actually have in cutting those versus what’s on the page? [Spoilers ahead]
Throughout my career, the majority of montages I’ve gotten, I’ve had tons of leeway. Either you’re usually sifting through mountains of footage or cobbling together something. But here, the montages such as the ones [that correspond] to the letters [between Eilis and her sister Rose] are incredibly specifically shot and written. They were really authored initially by Nick, then very carefully [executed] by Yves [Belanguer, the cinematographer] and John in terms of shot construction. Those really were just presented to me almost as a fait accompli.
There were a few other places where we created montages because we felt we needed to either sit in an emotion for a moment, or to slow time down. There’s a montage that exists before Eilis gets her first letter when she first gets to America, which is all just cobbled together from images that were intended for somewhere else in the film. We wanted to accentuate her sense of isolation before she gets the letter from home [telling Eilis her sister’s died]. She got the letter a little bit too quickly, so we worked around and decontextualized some stuff there. There’s a whole letter from Rose we created in post [because] we felt we hadn’t heard from Rose for so long that it made her death less impactful. We found some images that had been designed to go somewhere else, created a montage, then went back to Nick and said, “Can you please write us a new letter?” It was very handy to have Nick available for things like that.
There is this circular quality to the film as you see Eilis having similar but slightly different experiences in Ireland and America. Was it tricky to create that parallel without making it feel repetitive?
There wasn’t so much to hold shape – the shape of the bookends and the echos that happen throughout the film wasn’t something we fought against – but we had an issue after Rose’s death, before Eilis leaves New York. There was just something about the narrative flow that didn’t quite work. The scenes were much of what they are [in the finished film], but we just reordered them to help her trajectory there. It didn’t take very much. But the narrative is gentle, so it only took an extraneous detail there to stall it. There’s something about the progression of life, which is essentially the narrative of her assimilation, where things never were allowed to stagnate too much. That was something we had to work on quite a lot.
Since “Brooklyn” seems like a different film than the ones you’ve done before, did you actually take anything away from this experience?
Definitely. It was a very pleasant film to make and you inhabit the worlds of the films you’re working on, so it was nice to have something comfortable take over your life. I’ve done a very violent prison film [“Starred Up”] before, which I loved, but three months in that, it was pretty grim. Spending five months with Saoirse playing that role was a really charming experience and I knew I had a sensibility that would handle emotional material, so I’m glad I’ve been able to showcase it. It’s very easy to be typecast, so it’s been nice to be allowed to play against type and I’d certainly like the option to be able to make all kinds of movies. I owe John a great bit of gratitude for taking a chance on me.