In his own novels, including High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby always displayed a knack for tuning in to the concerns and neuroses of the modern man, but his career in adapted screenplays has surprised many by focusing on women’s stories. With An Education, Wild and now Brooklyn, he has helped to create three memorable leading roles for women, all of them Oscar-nominated. Saoirse Ronan is in the running this year for her performance as the quietly determined Eilis, migrating to the USA from rural Ireland in the 1950s and finding homesickness, hope and romance awaiting her. Hornby, who has himself been nominated for Adapted Screenplay for the second time, talked us through his approach to her story.
Colm Tóibín’s novel is quite an internal book; did you immediately see it as a movie?
It felt like it to me. I was relieved that it was actually less internal than I thought it was going to be. Eilis is quite passive, but things happen to her, so any drama that there is, is outside of her. I liked that it took place over a confined time period, and it had these two very strong central relationships. I liked the boarding house scenes too: nothing really bad could happen to her there, so it was a safe place for humor. I felt that, if it were to be a movie, it would have to be amplified a little bit. John [Crowley, director] and I had to turn the volume up, from 4 to about 7. Not to 11! It wouldn’t have borne that.
What was it that made Saoirse right for the role?
Well, she’s absolutely capable of the journey that the film requires her to go on, which is raw and vulnerable and then quite sassy. She was the perfect age. But her expressiveness, for a film where the camera is on her face so much, is unbelievable. She would make a great silent star. I knew the first time I saw the film that she’d get an Oscar nomination.
What was the toughest part to adapt?
My real worry was how late Jim [Domnhall Gleeson] came into the story, and that was where the most fine work went, to try to shove him up a bit. In the book, I think he comes in on page 220 of a 260 page book. Domhnall understood that his job was to be a viable alternative [to Emory Cohen’s Tony]. He said to John, “I have to think that this is my tragedy,” which was a very good way of looking at it. So even though he only had a limited amount of screen time, the way to approach it was as a film about how he falls in love with this girl and she leaves him.
Was there any scene in particular that was hard to lose?
The thing that we tried to keep and it didn’t work is a really good scene in the book about the trouble in the store when they sell stockings designed for ‘negro’ women. One of Eilis’s colleagues quits over it. But the movie is so close on her all the time that anything that felt like a detour didn’t work. It was shot, and you can still see the stockings in the store, but we had to take it out.
What did John bring? Did he change the script significantly?
It felt like working with a book editor with John. I had the experience the year before of Jean-Marc [Vallée] with Wild, where he’s an auteur and you can tell that the script is something that you work off. John is a theatre director, so for him, the script is the text. We talked a lot about certain scenes, but it was small, fine work, where the wrong line in the wrong place would overbalance it. He didn’t change its feel. He said, “I can see the film you want; it’s the film that I want, and maybe if we try this, this and this, we will achieve that.”
Is it strange to see how different directors approach your scripts, now that you’ve done quite a lot of films?
It is. I mean, I never want to direct, so I’m completely at the mercy of directors. What is interesting is that there are only a few who do what John has done, who take someone else’s script and film that. It’s kind of what I’m looking for. But if you take out the auteurs and the writer-directors and the people who are tonally wrong, there are very few. On every project I’ve been involved in, the same names come up. A lot of the time they’re the next generation up, like Mike Newell, John Madden and Stephen Frears. They will still film the script, but it’s harder to find younger directors who do that.
Is that because the route to the top has changed?
I think that many are writer-directors. I also think they have an enormous motivation now to leap straight to these huge films. Every now and again you think, “Oh, he could be interesting,” and then their next movie is a hundred million dollars and full of explosions. So I’m always keeping an eye out for somebody new.
Your adaptations of other people’s work have largely had female leads, which is unusual for Hollywood.
Yes. Not Wild, because Reese was there and it was easy, but we had trouble funding the other two. The advantages are that when you’ve got a big female part then you have the choice of the best actresses in the world. So I’ve enjoyed it because of that choice that you have. Whereas, you know, if it was a guy, they’d be tempted to go and put a superhero suit on and earn $50m instead.
You’ve been to the Oscars before now. What are you going to do differently this time?
I think we’re in the same position, which is that it’s amazing we’ve been nominated, so it’s a very enjoyable occasion for us. The thing that changed this time is knowing that it’s possible. With An Education, it felt as if we’d jumped into some parallel universe. This time it doesn’t feel as outlandish, but it’s still fantastic and we’re still proud to see it there.