The first breathtaking moment in “Brooklyn” – one of many in the adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s beloved novel, penned by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley – happens just after Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), the young Irish woman at its center has started letting people know in her tiny burgh of Enniscorthy, she’ll soon be living a world away in America. The reason for her departure is never explicitly given, but it doesn’t need to be. Taken to a dance hall by her best friend on one of her final nights in town, you can see the place is simply too small for Eilis. Yet in a shot that Crowley allows to linger for far longer than most filmmakers solely on her face, it’s obvious that the decision to ship out hasn’t been finalized until just now, with Ronan beautifully expressing with little more than her eyes Eilis’ entire emotional process of realizing she’s more excited about the possibilities of the unknown than what’s in front of her and finding peace in trusting her instincts on what is the biggest decision of her young life.
“The second we started sharing the film with the public, you could feel that it was like a statement of intent on how the film was going to unfold – the canvas on which some of the most eloquent expressions within the film were going to play out on that face,” says Crowley. “It said to the viewer, ‘Look carefully because everything is going to happen here.’”
You couldn’t pull off such a moment without Ronan’s extraordinary performance as Eilis, who finds herself between countries, potential suitors on both shores (an equally superb Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson), and as set during the 1950s, the societal expectations of being a dutiful daughter and wife and a restlessness to be independent. But the scene, and by extension, the film as a whole, is also as vivid an expression as there’s been yet of Crowley’s love for actors, a hallmark of the director’s work ever since jumping from theater to film. (It’s no surprise his professional and personal partner is the great UK casting director Fiona Weir.)
After Crowley crammed as much talent as possible into his rollicking ensemble comedy debut “Intermission” just over a decade ago, only to pull back the spotlight to watch Andrew Garfield blossom in front of his lens in the fierce followup “Boy A,” there’s been a liveliness about his work directly tied to the unexpected performances he brings out, a quality that contributes to the distinctly contemporary feeling his latest has despite its period setting. Every role in “Brooklyn” is cast with care, from the raucous young women that crowd the dinner table at the boarding house Eilis stays in to the small but crucial roles of the adults in her life (a priest kindly played Jim Broadbent, the boarding house owner delivered with relish by Julie Walters), only to be illuminated further by the sumptuous, detailed production work that give it the warmth of something fondly remembered, even though it’s hardly a film given to sentimentality.
As “Brooklyn” makes its way into theaters, continuing a journey that’s been as precarious as Eilis’ travels when protecting such precious cargo, Crowley graciously took the time to speak about crafting a gem out of limited time and resources, drawing on the story’s inherent timelessness for its modern feeling and again, that incredible long take near the start of the film.
Your films have always felt very immediate, and even though this is set in a different era, this doesn’t buck the trend, but was that was something to contend with on this?
Absolutely. It’s a strange thing to say when a film is so lovingly recreated in period detail, but I never really felt I was making a period film. I was blessed with a wonderful production designer François Séguin, a great costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and a great [cinematographer] Yves Bélanger – this great team around me who were all passionate about getting the details right. Then my attitude was, we got it all right – now we’re going to throw it away because the important thing is the emotional directness and connection with this young woman at the heart of the film. That’s what we have to get right and the film will rise or fall on that basis.
[Eilis] feels like a very contemporary young woman to me, in lots of of ways. It doesn’t feel like it’s pure story where somebody is oppressed by Catholic motility and gets punished because she steps outside of marriage, or is left pregnant. It’s a very delicate story about the emergence of a rather beautiful young woman who’s decent, has an inherent sense of right and wrong, and who’s faced with a massive dilemma about who’s she’s going to be and where she’s going to be that. If you can get an audience to feel what she feels, it could very slowly build a massive head of emotional steam behind it and be very powerful without ever having to resort to melodramatic tricks within the film.
Was it an initial instinct to keep a close eye on Eilis’ face from the script or perhaps something where after casting Saoirse Ronan, you decided there might be a few more closeups?
No, it was a stylistic choice. The very first decision I can remember making was we weren’t going to shoot it in widescreen. I had done that in a few other films and I just knew that this had to have an aspect ratio which was gentle on the human face. The focal position that I wanted to be in as the first viewer on this film was closer to Eilis’ face. When we did start shooting, there’s a shot close to the start of the film where we stay on Saoirse’s face for an extended take, and you see her looking around the [dance] hall. Instead of cutting away to what she’s looking at, we stay on her face.
That take – we should have called cut after 10 seconds because we have the bit of the shot that we needed for the story – but looking at her face is so damn interesting, so much more than what she’s looking at, that actually it’s not just any face that we were highlighting, it was remarkable thing that you could see unfolding with Saoirse. I think she would have been a great silent movie actress, Saoirse. She has such an expressive face she has. As we went on shooting, it felt like my instincts in that way were met by the right piece of casting.
Was it actually difficult to keep that take in the film? I imagine there might’ve been pressure to cut it for time.
It wasn’t difficult. We looked at it — myself and the editor — early on and realized that it was very special. I can’t pretend that we didn’t have to defend it to lots of people, because we did. You can imagine when the pressure’s on to distill a film down, to not indulge anything, I would argue that the shot was not indulgent and it wasn’t a shot about filmmaking, but the emotion on an actor’s face. In a way, we were playing a game here in the filmmaking [because] we made it on a very limited budget for a period film shot in three countries, and for me, locating the heart of the film in an intimate place, and not trying to make it epic in any sense, but to allow the scale of the story to take care of itself and getting the relationship to that face and that storyline right was key.
As you allude to, it’s beautifully measured, but you are allowed to go big because of the emotionality with bold colors and a swelling score – given that your other films have adhered to a usually grittier sense of realism, was it exciting to embrace the movieness of this?
That emerged as we were cutting. For me, the first thing to get right was the emotion, and I was adamant that we would get the emotion at the core of the film for every performance absolutely spot on. For every single performance on the screen to be perfect is the ambition of a mad man, but we had a great cast, a great script by Nick Hornby, so there was reason to not close that gap down and make a beautifully performed, emotional story.
When we began to unfold it to actually allow in some of the other secondary tools [such as score], we were able to play a little bit more. I was nervous of going too far, never ever wanting to tip into sentimentality or [become] a cozy, easy, simplistic tale of one girl caught between two men or immigration. It’s the stuff that’s surrounding that, which is the bigger issue, having to do with a very important part of Irish and American history and trying to make an audience feel the pull of America, and of home – that’s the thing that I really had my eye on. It’s not articulated in [verbal] language in the film, but it is in the actual images, so the task of the score was to try and take an audience into those emotions.
I also didn’t want it to have an overtly Irish identity. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted the score to have a more international identity. When we do have the Christmas Day scene, where we have the wonderful Iarla O’Lionaird, a great singer, sing an Irish song, he sings it in Irish, but it’s unaccompanied, and it’s served up in its fullest authentic and purest form. To answer your question, it was thrilling, but it’s not my comfort zone, doing something which is more powerful or cinematically playful, and I was nervously stepping one foot in front of the other out onto the tight rope.
There’s an elliptical quality to the story itself – the way Eilis will experience the same rituals on both sides of the ocean, but culturally, they’re different. Did you see that as something you could exploit cinematically?
In the novel, it was conceived as a game of pairs in a way, so likewise was the film, but the key was [to use it as] this invisible map. I never wanted the viewer to necessarily feel that there was an overt scheme at play. You would never be nudged, or prodded on the shoulder, going, “Did you get it? Do you get it? Do you?” You would gently place details in there which a discerning viewer could find, should they wish to. But the doubleness reflects a bigger emotional condition, which is the condition of an exile. Having left her homeland, obviously she’s not from her new country that she’s now living in, but her relationship to her homeland has changed fundamentally – in some ways good, and in some ways bad, and she can’t go home again. She’s left feeling like she lives nowhere. That when she goes home, there’s so much that’s familiar and nice, and yet she’s able to appreciate that beach in Ireland [more] because she’s been to Coney Island and there’s a huge amount that she’s earned in America, through hard won experience, which is very liberating.
A lot of ways we were playing a game of echoes visually within the film where, like say, the Irish hall in Brooklyn is an echo obviously of the dance hall back in Ireland, but with subtle differences. In Brooklyn, you’ve got tinsel-covered shamrocks up on the stage and the feeling you get in Irish-American [milieus] where they’ll dial up the Irishness of it because you’re far away from home and it’s an attempt to hold onto an identity whereas when you’re back in Ireland, it’s just assumed. So we would play a game of contrast between Coney Island, and the [vibrant] colors, and the pop-ness of that with the Bing Crosby song, and the wide-open expanse of that beach back in Ireland, which has a beautiful, natural quality, and there’s not another soul there.
Were there colors that immediately stood out to you when you either read the novel or the script that you’d thought you’d work with?
There were colors that were seemingly obvious in terms of a color scheme – green, not because it’s Irish, ironically, but it became very important, and the careful deployment of reds and yellows as we went on. We tended not to use that many blues, though there are a few blues in her costumes, as a counterpoint with the environment. Saoirse also has a great eye herself for costumes and there was dialogue rolling forward that that something in her costumes in the early sections had to do with land and sea — the greens and the gentle blue coming in, so we tried to keep it all this quite elemental. We picked our way through the script and built a careful graph between the costume designer and myself, which [charted] what would would unfold and when. What was so important to me with the color was to make sure that the flesh tones were completely natural. I never wanted to film to feel like it was being touched up, or like a homage to Technicolor. I just wanted it to be true to the period.
With a tight schedule, did all the boarding house dinners have to be shot together? If so, that must’ve been pretty crazy.
Yes. I’m afraid that there was a day where those girls, and Julie Walters, ate for a whole day. [laughs] They did something like five dinner scenes back to back, and the biggest issue on set was me getting those girls to eat more dinner. I would think, “Come on, you’re pretending, you’re in close up and you’ve got to take a mouthful of that stew and eat it, and look like you’re enjoying. Otherwise, it’s not going to wash.”
It was a crazy schedule, trying to get this done on this budget. Nothing was ever shot as one would wish in sequence that would help psychology. It put a lot of pressure on Saoirse. She and I had to keep ourselves in our eyeline to make sure that each time we would be stacking us scenes, which could be spread across six or seven months of story, it was very specifically emotionally calibrated to do what we needed it to do in each case.
What’s it been like to travel with this? This seems like it’s a different experience from your other films so far.
Yes, to put it mildly. I’m very proud of the films I’ve made, but they’ve been gloriously untroubled by the attention. They’ve had their fans in smaller pockets, but when Fox Searchlight came on board and embraced the film and the reaction as it rolls out into the world here in America has been jawdropping to me. It’s beyond anything I could have hoped for the film, sincerely, and to watch an American audience take ownership of the film, and go, “Oh yeah, there’s a story about where we came from. There’s a story about my grandmother, my grandfather…” I’ve been very moved, and more than a little bit excited.
“Brooklyn” is now out in limited release. A full list of theaters and dates is here.