Every year Harvey Weinstein throws his best stuff against the wall to see what sticks. And the last three years have been amazing: “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Silver Linings Playbook” all won big at the Oscars. This year it looked like Weinstein had quite a few quivers in his bow: but “Grace of Monaco” got pushed back, “The Butler” and “August: Osage County” may eke out some acting noms at best, and despite well-reviewed performances by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, “Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom” may have been superseded by extensive global news coverage after the death of the South African hero.
The stealth candidate leading the Weinstein pack –with strong box office and reviews (92% fresh) and most awards attention so far– is Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” which this week earned a SAG nomination for Judi Dench, three Golden Globes nominations, not only for Best Drama and Dench as Best Actress but for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay, which was also nominated for the Critics Choice Awards, along with Dench.
The engine driving this train is writer-producer-star Coogan, who delivers an unexpectedly deep dive into the true story of Philomena (a pitch-perfect Dench), a bereft mother searching for her long-lost son, and the human-interest feature writer Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) who helps her to track him down. As the narrative unfolds we learn that Philomena hangs on to her religion and faith, despite the horrors brought on her by the Catholic Church that kept her for years in indentured servitude for getting pregnant out of wedlock and sold her young child to the highest bidder. The debate between her and Sixsmith, who is consumed with anger at what the Church did to her, gives this drama its spine.
As a Brit comedy actor, audiences have a sense of Coogan from the roles he plays–he tends to be cynical, acerbic, a bit of an asshole. This passion project marks a turn for him, as he not only wrote the dialogue for Sixsmith but for “Philomena, who argues with me,” he says in a telephone interview. “I’m arguing against myself in the film. This film is what I wanted to do, it was important to do. I decided that this is the story I want to tell, like a dog with a bone. I want to get it done, and do it properly.”
He didn’t want to do yet another Magdalene Sisters film: that had already been done. “It has to be something more, it had to reach out and have an element that was conciliatory, of reconciliation,” he says. “There are a lot of good films that are disturbing but don’t make you feel good, but they are good films. And there are powerful films that don’t necessarily make you feel positive, nor should all films do that. But I wanted to make a film that did make people feel positive, in real way, not in a manipulatively Hollywood way, without false moments.”
But doesn’t director Stephen Frears manipulate the audience with shots of Dench staring longingly at the place where her son was packed into a car and driven away never to be seen again?
“Only as far as the film he made was the film I wanted to make,” responds Coogan, “which is this: the manipulation is that the fact are facts. It’s true [that the Catholic convent] did withhold information. It’s all true. But the big thing about this film that drove me to do it: I was fed up with clever creative people doing post-modern ironic sneering art. I was trying to do a film which was authentic and sincere.”
Sure, the real Coogan veers close to the character he’s playing, the Atheist cynical urban sophisticate who does not believe in a higher power. “I know! I recognize, I’m sick of myself,” he says. “Martin Sixsmith is that kind of anti-schmaltz, irreverent advocate, so that by and large we avoid those moments of sentiment. There’s a duality. There’s no correct answer, no spoon-feeding.”
Even though “Philomena” “in the end looks more broad and accessible than anything I’ve done before,” Coogan says, “I thought it was more of a risk because it’s saying something sincere. That’s far more risky than being cynical. It’s opening yourself to potential ridicule. That’s why a lot of people are scared of being sincere. People like to be less sincere, more post-modern. It’s become the default setting that is annoying for smart people, it’s limiting. It was a stretch for me. Not being sentimental, mawkish or indulgently syrupy and crappy, that’s marketing a man’s emotions. But the real ambition, saying something authentic, is the most avant-garde thing you can do. Talking about love. The intellectual word that intellectual aesthetes fear is love. Weirdly in 2013 we end up in a place where the edgiest spikiest thing you can say is love: how did that happen?”
Getting Judi Dench to star was key. “She was very important. She made it bankable and was important creatively. I wanted someone who was not just iconic and good at what they do, but she doesn’t milk any of the sentiment. She’s restrained, she did everything I’d hope she’d do. It appealed to her as an actor.”
Coogan chased Stephen Frears hard to direct “Philomena.””He played hard to get,” says Coogan. “I gave him an ultimatum. I had Dench and the financing and could go with someone else. Frears was not crucial as far as the finance was concerned. He gave good notes, talked straight, didn’t talk endlessly about the fucking subtext. We argued efficiently, there was no time wasting, no political pussyfooting. He really brought something to it. Sometimes he would want to more clarity than I wanted, he’d want to make explicit what I regard as implicit.”
They sold the movie after Harvey Weinstein saw the trailer at Cannes 2013. “We held [the film] back, so we didn’t wanted to give him the film until it was done. He had some notes, and some of them were good, some we resisted, the good ones made the film better, not many. Some things he wanted to do we didn’t want to do –and didn’t do.”
Mainly, Coogan knows that “Harvey is the award taskmaster, he’s definitely given this film a platform so that it goes beyond being an esoteric East Coast film.”
Frears had to agree that the film’s ending be based on truth, Coogan says. As he was telling a true story, Coogan didn’t want to change the resolution into the dramatic convention (SPOILER ALERT): “We honor the facts,” he says. “I don’t find God, and she doesn’t find her son. She did find out that he was dead. He did bury himself for her to find. The moments of real transcendence for me are where she finds out he’s buried at the convent–that’s real. She forgives them–that’s real. The right way to do things is not to provide complete resolution, but the kind that Philomena did find, a kind of serenity and equilibrium. Not everything is ok. It’s just a way of moving on, a way to learn to live with what happened to you.”
“Philomena” is the exact opposite of the work Coogan did with Michael Winterbottom on “The Look of Love,” “Tristram Shandy” and “The Trip,” in that it is entirely scripted, with no improvisation. But “The Trip,” which will soon be followed with “A Trip to Italy,” is harder to pull off than it looks. “Yes, there is bit of frustration in ‘The Trip,'” he says. “I crank it up. If there are any positive developments in my career I minimize them. The more antagonism and frustration there is the funnier it is. If there is a kernel of truth, I channel it, if something’s bugging you, you throw it into the mix. It’s cathartic: ‘this pisses me off.’ I’ll laugh at it. With ‘The Trip’ my fear was that it has to resonate or it’s just narcissistic navel-gazing –not masturbation. That was my fear before I did it. We just did the second one. When you see a celebrity playing himself, it’s irritating when they are saying, ‘aren’t I really cool?’ It’s not interesting unless it’s a bit uncomfortable, you have to know that nothing happens unless you take the risk of failure.”