EXCLUSIVE: Five years ago around this time, director John Crowley was in rehearsal on Broadway for the world premiere of Martin McDonagh’s play A Behanding In Spokane. A bizarre (and in some quarters reviled) black comedy, it starred Christopher Walken as a psychotic drifter who has spent 27 years searching for his severed hand and believes they may finally be reunited. Crowley and McDonagh, whose screenplay for In Bruges was Oscar nominated in 2008, had history: Crowley had staged McDonagh’s nightmarish, Kafkaesque drama Pillowman in London and New York a decade earlier.
Behanding was not well-received but the show had one unexpected benefit. Crowley, who works in both film and live theater (he directed the BAFTA winner Boy), read Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, the story of Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl brought to New York in the early 1950s. Her situation becomes seriously complicated when a visit home results in a tug-of-war between the new life she’s embraced upon and the sudden possibility of returning to the one she’d left behind.
Crowley would go on to direct Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Brooklyn, the Fox Searchlight film that has opened to rapturous reviews and generated plenty of awards talk, especially for Saoirse (SUR-sheh) Ronan, the 21-year-old actress who had a phenomenal debut in 2005’s Atonement (for which she was Oscar nominated) and has starred in The Lovely Bones, Hanna and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Playing Eilis already has won her a Golden Globe nomination.
Crowley, whose brother Bob Crowley is one of the most prominent designers working on Broadway (An American In Paris, Skylight) and the West End, spoke with Deadline from London.
DEADLINE: I know your work through Martin McDonagh’s plays, which can be luridly violent, grungy and, let’s say, off-the-wall. Brooklyn is just the opposite — quiet and almost shockingly intimate. So I wouldn’t have immediately connected you to this film, which has the visual richness of a Merchant Ivory movie and the elegiac voice of memoir.
JOHN CROWLEY: I came into it — really it was destiny. I had read the book shortly after it was published while I was directing A Behanding In Spokane. Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey called and asked if I was available. The timing was bad for me and I didn’t hear from them for a while. Fortunately it came back to me after Nick had done a draft of the script. As it arrived in my inbox and read it, I did stop for a second and thought, What if it doesn’t work? Because I already had worked out how I’d like to do it. But reading it, I had exactly the same emotions that I had when I read the novel.
DEADLINE: Which were what, exactly? Brooklyn begins as a traditional story of an immigrant reluctantly giving up the Old Country only to find happiness in America. But something happens when Eilis returns that puts a very non-traditional spin on what we thought would be a conventional — if beautifully wrought — tale.
CROWLEY: The last 30 pages have a breathless quality as we become convinced that Eilis is going to make the wrong decision. Nick had an unerring notion for what could be left out and, I think even more important, trust that an adaptation didn’t need to add a lot of stuff. Nick is married to Amanda and they had done An Education together, which tells you a lot about their sensitivity to material like this. I knew that Brooklyn needed somehow to be emotional but not sentimental.
“I already had worked out how I’d like to do Brooklyn. But reading Nick’s screenplay, I had exactly the same emotions that I had when I read the novel.”
DEADLINE: There had been some movement on the film before you signed on to the project. What happened when they came back to you?
CROWLEY: After meeting them there was a bit of due diligence. As soon as it was properly mine, I said that Saoirse, whom I knew from Atonement, was my first choice to play Eilis. The irony is she would have been way too young when they first approached me. I went to meet her in Dublin and she was on the cusp of making a decision to move to London, which I encouraged. Then a year went by between us meeting and starting the film. She did move to London and was devastatingly homesick. She wanted to know if it got easier.
DEADLINE: She spoke about that after the screening at the New York Film Festival in the fall. We could sense that Brooklyn and her own life had converged.
CROWLEY: Yet she hadn’t connected the film with how she was feeling. Of course the circumstances were so different. She could hop on a plane and go home at any point. And yet it’s not about sadness. It’s about leaving, about where you are now, which is not being not at home — neither where you grew up nor in some new place. It’s very painful. Eilis is a watcher, and that gaze on Saoirse’s face in Atonement is astonishing. That face is like a little screen in itself, it just lights up. Watching the rushes, I would always be struck by how expressive her face is on the screen with no sound at all.
DEADLINE: It sounds as though you too, were familiar with that sense of displacement as well.
CROWLEY: I thought when I moved to London it was just me. It tricks you that emotion. That’s why Brooklyn is such an extraordinary piece of writing. And why the casting was so critical.
DEADLINE: As the two men who figure most prominently in Eilis’ life, you cast Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond The Pines) as the Italian plumber who woos and wins her in her new home, and Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as the young man at home who causes her to rethink her choices.
CROWLEY: Emory took longest to cast. There were lots of opinions regarding the need for a “name” and no “name” was right. Authenticity was everything with the film and the danger of getting it wrong was overwhelming. I could never have connected the boy from The Place Beyond The Pines, but he had enormous charm and a degree of delight and equally you could believe he was a plumber — but not in a macho sense. He’s the kind of man who can handle a wrench and have a sweetness about him. I needed an actor who was ego-less, who didn’t mind appearing slightly less intelligent than the actress and Emory was happy just to embrace it and just go with it. The producers went along with it, and believe me, this was not an easy film to finance.
DEADLINE: Domnhall is better known but not a star.
CROWLEY: Domnhall was second person cast; I knew that I wanted to work with him. His job was to shift the film’s center of gravity from Brooklyn back to Ireland. If you don’t create a proper pull between those two guys, you don’t have a film.
DEADLINE: And you had such great supporting actors as Jim Broadbent — with whom you’d worked on Pillowman in London — and Julie Waters. All of them are stage as well as film actors. How did the preparations go?
CROWLEY: We had a full week’s rehearsal in Dublin, and that was enough. The danger with rehearsing for film is that you can over-rehearse. In theater, it’s pretty much impossible to over-rehearse. The goal there is radically different: If you crack a big scene on a wet Wednesday afternoon then the rest of your task is figuring out how to re-create it. With film, the camera is a Bunsen burner that puts heat under a scene to make it pop. Non-actors can work on film but can’t in theater. Physicality is critical to stage acting, where cinema tends to be more behavioral.
DEADLINE: And now Saoirse is heading to the stage.
CROWLEY: Yes, I’ve been encouraging her to do stage, and she will be doing The Crucible in New York.
DEADLINE: And you — will you follow your colleagues Nick Hytner and Kenneth Branagh and set up a company of your own?
CROWLEY: Oh I don’t think so. I’ve never wanted to run a building, not my style. I’m much happier choosing a project, and moving on.