John Crowley tugs at your heart strings in the new film Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson. The immigrant love story powerfully depicts homesick Irish girl Eilis, who is struggling to find a place to call home.
She moves to America and falls for young and lovable Tony. But a tragedy brings her back home to Ireland and introduces her to a new man. The pull between two countries and two men is dramatized with emotion and authenticity, drawing audiences into this beautiful immigrant love story.
We chatted with John Crowley about working with Soairse, how this film came to be and how he identified with the story.
Can you talk about how the film came to be? Was this your idea?
Honestly, I can’t say it was. I read the book when it was published and absolutely loved it. But was devastated to find it went to another director – it had a prehistory before I came along like all movies do. Then the director and actor who were circling it decided to not do it. Then I got a call asking if I would like to read the screenplay for Brooklyn and they sent it and I read it immediately. Within two hours I was on the phone telling them I’ve got to do it.
Did you think about who you saw in those roles when you read the script?
Yes, absolutely. Saoirse was the first choice and in the best sense she was the obvious choice. She was authentic and hadn’t done an Irish role yet. But she was also moving from that place of having proven herself as an astonishing child actress. She just needed one right role to move her from that category into saying she is a proper adult actress. She has got an incredible career ahead of her. She showed the full range emotionally that she has.
It’s such a performance driven story. How did you draw such emotions from your characters, especially Eilis?
It’s my job as director to direct them very specifically and we were aided by a wonderful screenplay by Nick Hornby so the scenes were beautifully crafted from beginning, middle and end. I rehearsed for a week with them and was as specific as one can be away from the set. I directed them quite forcefully but not to the point of releasing the emotion that’s necessary to be released in the scene. That came later in front of the camera. The biggest kick I get from directing is directing actors. That came from the theatre. It’s not so much the image you’re directing but the character. It was important to me how close audiences felt to Eilis’ experience emotionally. It was important to get that right at every single beat and never to let it become about prettiness, in terms of costume, which happens in a period film.
How did you identify with the story?
I live in London and left Ireland when I was about 27. I left because I was offered a job at the National Theatre in London to direct a play. I didn’t have to leave. I wasn’t an economic migrant. There was plenty of work available for me in Dublin. But what struck me was how homesick I got when I moved to London. It didn’t make any sense to me. Some bit of me felt homesickness is an area for economic migrants who work very hard to fit in. The point the novel makes very thrillingly and very clearly is that when you leave home, you’re no longer from home but you’re sure as hell not from the place you’ve moved to either. When you go back home, you’ve moved on. That’s what the novel captured so wonderfully and the split of that is dramatized in her choice between the two countries and the two men. It almost turns the film into an existential problem..a dilemma. What version of herself is she going to embrace?
What was interesting was between first meeting Saoirse about the role and when we actually got to shoot the film, she went through something very similar herself. I first met her in her parents’ house to discuss it. A year later she moved to London and was living by herself for the first time. She was more homesick and couldn’t figure it out. She kept asking, “Does it get better?” So even she was struck by that homesickness and exile, which is a very primal and emotional thing. That split that happens and it is never resolved. You must learn how to deal with it.
Anyone who leaves one’s country with a strong culture, it’s going to be very hard for them to adjust and join a new culture. I wanted this film to not just be an Irish film but wanted it to be able to work with audiences who have no interest in Ireland and to move them. If we could make that happen then the size of this small story could take on a scale that I felt it had, which is that it could be anyone’s story.
Have you seen the film with an audience?
I have at Sundance and at TIFF. This was my fourth time at the Toronto Film Festival and it’s my favorite festival because I love the audiences here. Each time I have brought a film here I’m bowled over by the way audiences love the film. It’s not about the industry. There’s an infectious quality to that. And of course, there’s a vast amount of immigrants here from Ireland and everywhere else.
Thank you so much!
~ Marriska Fernandes