Finola Dwyer, Oscar-nominated along with her Wildgaze Films partner Amanda Posey for 2009’s An Education, reteamed with screenwriter Nick Hornby to bring Colm Tóibín’s bestselling novel Brooklyn to the screen. Directed by John Crowley (Is Anybody There?), the film is a touching, human drama about an Irish immigrant in 1950s United States. In the lead, Saoirse Ronan delivers a stirring, heartfelt performance that marks her arrival as a fully mature talent. Here, Dwyer discusses the serendipitous journey from page to screen.
What made you fall in love with Colm Tóibín’s novel?
I read it when it first came out. It’s very much my mother’s story. My mother went from Dublin to New Zealand in 1951, the same year Eilis (Ronan’s character) went to Brooklyn. She was homesick for a large part of her life. It touched me as my mom’s story. Also, when I moved to the United Kingdom from New Zealand, I felt homesick too. I go home with that feeling that I’m getting sucked back into where I’m from, but of course once you’ve left your home, you can never go back to that. It was so universal because everyone experiences this to some degree or other.
Did it strike you as a film immediately?
I wasn’t entirely sure about it as a film because it’s a very internal book, and I wasn’t sure how we’d dramatize that for the screen. I thought, “It’s period, set in two countries,” so it was going to be at least $25 million (to make). How do you cast a film to raise that kind of money? I don’t want to just option books and not get them made—I want to get behind projects we can take all the way.
What changed your mind?
With Brooklyn, I kept buying copies of the book to give away. I thought, “I have to get the rights,” though I expected that they’d be long gone. I thought we’d figure out the money somehow. A friend who’d recommended the book in the first place is a rare book dealer in New York. There was a big rare books sale at the Armory, and it was a beautiful sunny day, so I decided to go with him. I asked him if he knew Colm Tóibín and he said, “No, but he’s coming later.” He introduced me to a lot of people during the day and I had this fantastic chat with one guy about the best kept secrets in New York—nothing about film, and nothing about books. We parted and my friend said, “So, did you ask him?” I said, “Was that Colm?” My friend went running after him and invited him for lunch. By the end of the lunch, Colm said to me, “If you want the book, it’s yours.” He’d turned down a lot of people, but it felt like it was so meant to be. Perhaps if I’d gone after (the book) straight away, I wouldn’t have gotten it.
You mentioned concerns about getting this film financed. Do you think there’s more conservatism to finance than there once was?
I always think finance is a bit conservative. An Education was an incredibly difficult film to finance and make. Quartet was tough too, because Dustin (Hoffman) had never directed before. You box on, really. But I did think Brooklyn, as we assembled the pieces and figured out how to do it, would be easier to finance. There was a moment of realization that I’d have to make it, and make it well, for a lot less money than I thought. We shot in three countries over 35 days and it was kind of massive for what we had. You always have to cajole financiers. If you don’t have big stars and you can’t say, “Well, it’s (this film) crossed with that (film),” it’s hard to make them understand.
It’s an unusual story to tell—nothing extremely dramatic or disastrous happens.
I think that’s the beauty of it. It’s a simple film that runs deep. There’s space within the story to project yourself onto it as well. I couldn’t really think of a film that told that universal story about leaving home—how you can never go home again and how you cut the cord from your parents. There are so many degrees of it. We’ve had so many people come up to us and tell us their stories.
The film rests on the central performance from Saoirse Ronan. Was there ever any other choice than her?
Saoirse was 16 when I optioned the book. I remember we talked about her and we kicked ourselves that she was way too young. It was more serendipity that things didn’t happen faster because when we were ready to start shooting, she’d become 19, nearly 20. It was a privilege to work with her, and to work with her on her transformative, first adult role. It was so exciting to watch her—I’ve never seen a face do so little and tell you so much. You can’t get enough of it. She has so much power and can do anything. Colm thought she reminded him of a young Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter. John was brought up on authenticity and we always talked about wearing the period lightly and making it authentic. Saoirse is at the center of that, and she’s the best person as well. It’ll be exciting to see what she does in the future.