A gifted comic actor, Steve Coogan is best known for character creations such as Alan Partridge (recently brought to the big screen in “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa“), Tommy Saxondale, Paul Calf and more. A dexterous improviser, and remarkable impressionist, Coogan came to fame by making U.K. audiences laugh large and hard, so many were surprised when the actor took on a true story about an elderly woman searching for the son she lost during her tough teenage years spent in a convent. But the results have been impressive.
Winning a screenwriting prize at the Venice Film Festival (Coogan co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope), a runner up for the highly prized People’s Choice Award TIFF and a Golden Globe nominee for Best Picture, Best Actress (for Judi Dench) and Best Screenplay, “Philomena” has seen Coogan move the goal posts of his career into new territory. In addition to writing and producing the movie, Coogan co-stars as well as journalist Martin Sixsmith, holding his own against a winning Judi Dench in the title role, with the duo proving to be an engagingly odd couple. However, despite the largely positive reception for “Philomena” not everyone has been pleased, most notably Kyle Smith from the New York Post who accused the film in his review of being an “attack [on] Catholics and Republicans” and “90 minutes of organized hate.”
So when we got on the phone with Coogan last week to talk about the film, we discussed the absurd Smith review, which appears even more misguided as Coogan elaborates on the genesis of the film, his work to achieve the dramatic and comedic tone of the movie and how he balanced his approach to religion in the picture. It was a fascinating talk with a deeply thoughtful Coogan, so dive in below. Note: some answers have been edited for clarity. Bonus note: if the last two questions seem arrived at randomly, that’s because our talk was interrupted by a power outage, with Coogan generously getting back on the line for a couple of final questions as he waited in the dark for the lights to come back on.
What was the moment when you realized there was a movie in the story of Philomena?
I was reading [a magazine article, featuring an extract from Martin Sixsmith‘s book ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee‘] and I found it very moving, but I think [it was] looking at Philomena in the photograph and seeing that the story wasn’t so outlandish. The story wasn’t about a tsunami, it wasn’t about some huge apocalyptic event…she seemed like an ordinary old woman, it was that that sort of struck me. Lots of real people have stories like this of personal suffering. What happened to Philomena, I’m sure many people have suffered similar stories of being cut off from the person they should have been with, the life they should have shared together. So it was the fact that it wasn’t desperately alien, the story. I think it was ordinary. I think it started to click into place because I thought there’s a humanity to it, because it’s about a mother.
I was connecting with it on an emotional level…and I felt equipped to do it because of my background. I felt like I knew what I was talking about and I knew these two people in the photograph, Martin and Philomena, who struck me as such an odd couple. So it was a number of things that all slipped into place.
I wanted it to appeal to a European audience but I wanted it to appeal to as many American people as possible. I wanted a story that I could tell with integrity but I want as many people as possible to connect with the story. I thought that it would resonate with audiences internationally. I did have an eye on whether it would work in America, I was also actually aware that there was more affection for the Irish in the U.S. than there is from the U.K. It being about someone going to the New World, planning a new life there and leaving their old life behind them. All those things, and the odd couple element of it. I knew Martin and it looked so odd him sitting next to this old lady…it was such an odd couple and I thought it’s a gift for a writer, because I don’t have to think how to put them together. I don’t have to contrive a situation to put them together because it’s happened. All I have to do is relate that.
In the film, there are a few scenes with Martin Sixsmith and his editor, where he’s pitching the latest angle he can take on the story. When working with Jeff Pope, did you guys have those same kinds of discussions about the script?
Yes, we did. One thing I’ve learned is, if something is a problem, you make it part of the solution. I kept thinking I just don’t want this to be a story about evil nuns.I don’t want it to be that, I’ve seen that before and I feel like clearly they’ve done bad things, but I didn’t want it to become a caricature. We’d joke and use these generic—I might have used the term ‘evil nun’ but we were making a joke about the fact that we could be tabloidesque about this. We were making jokes between ourselves. I said, “Well that’s how he should talk to the editors, like it’s a story about evil nuns.” It’s a lazy, reductive way of trying to sell a story. The way you might pitch the movie to a lazy studio executive. Of course, we tried to transcend that, we tried to have humanity and nuance but of course we just thought that if you have fears you put them in the movie and my cynicism about things, I put that into Martin’s character as well. So you’re right, the observation is definitely what we were feeling.
How many different drafts did you go through?
The humor was always in it from the start. [Director] Stephen Frears came on board, he tried to make it more straight forward. We didn’t do that many drafts, maybe a handful, maybe two or three and we submitted it. Stephen came and he liked it. Stephen gave us lots of notes and we did about five more, I don’t quite remember. Stephen wanted things made clear, he wanted clarity. I think we tried to get a balance between making things clear and not spelling them out and not losing subtlety. That’s always a constant tension, I think, between making people understand what the scene’s about without spoon feeding them. So that was definitely something that was on our mind.
Once you started working with Judi Dench, did anything change?
Well they didn’t really, the words never changed. There was no improvisation whatsoever, which is unusual for me. However the tone is very important and Stephen did keep a very close eye on that. That was a crucial thing, not to make it too cute in the comical moments. I was very careful to make the comedy come from a situation which I believe is authentic. I know some people questioned whether an old Irish lady would be impressed by a chocolate on a pillow in a hotel, but believe me, I know lots of those old Irish ladies and they would be.
I said to Stephen, “Please watch me because I could slide into an over animated performance next to this nuanced, subtle performance from Judi.” So I think he sometimes would just raise his hand and tell me to take it down. He didn’t do it with Judi, but sometimes with me. Judi he gave very little direction to. Hers was all intuitive and instinctive. She had spoken to the real Philomena and picked up the tone from her. I spoke to Martin, but I put a lot of my self into it. I tried to be authentic. So the tone sort of wasn’t a discussion at the time. It was just arrived at.
Stephen never gives you any hard direction. He nudges you this way and nudges you that way. With me sometimes he would watch what I was doing and sometimes he would reshoot something because he felt I’d warmed up into a more grounded performance. It’s like when band rehearses a song and is very, very tight, and they’re hitting all the right notes in the right place and everything but there’s something not relaxed about it. Whereas a good band sit back on it and they play in a relaxed way. That’s what Stephen would see that I was doing so he would reshoot things. So I learnt a lot from working with Stephen. That was how we arrived at tone, I would say.
One of the most impressive elements of the film is its nuanced look at faith and people’s relationship to it. When you wrote the script, what were you trying to get across?
I’m an atheist but what I get fed up of, is people either being on one side of an argument or another. That kind of reductive, over simplistic approach to things isn’t what…those are my views but I don’t pretend I have all the answers, and neither should religious people pretend they have all the answers. It’s just known there’s nuance in these things. To me it was kind of a conversation with myself in some ways about religion.
I’m from a religious background. The people in my life who are religious, who I love, I don’t have to agree with them to love them. So to me the thing I was saying was—it wasn’t like I set out with a statement in mind—I wanted to show that no one has a monopoly on wisdom. The one thing that I’m saying, if anything, is people who have more certainty—fundamentalists of any kind, whether they be fundamentalist right wing American Bible bashing creationists, or the Taliban, because to me they’re one and the same type of thing—they’re both intolerant peoples who do not broker doubt or nuance. That’s one thing I don’t like. You might say that’s just a wishy washy liberal way of looking at things but wishy washy liberals don’t shoot people because they disagree with them. That’s all I know.
I sometimes feel that in criticizing organized, institutional religion, we sometimes diminish those of simple faith and we can learn something from those people, who live their lives in a dignified way and are not overly materialistic, but they live what they believe. They don’t say one thing and do another. Philomena is not an intellectual but she lives according to her values. That’s something that we can all learn from. So all those things you’re talking about, to me it’s kind of a conversation out loud.
I’m sure you heard about the New York Post review calling the film an attack on Catholics.
I wrote a letter, with Jeff Pope to Kyle Smith. I have to say he does himself a disservice and he does the people who have political empathy in him a disservice, in reinforcing the view that people of his political perspective don’t understand nuance. They don’t understand the fact that I’m not claiming to have all the answers. I’m not claiming a simplistic view of the world. I’m saying, “You know what? Some of what she says is right.”
In all his criticism he just very quickly skips over the whole tenant of forgiveness which is one of the linchpins of Philomena’s faith and is one of the most pivotal moments of the entire movie. I just think his review shows him to be stupid. It’s as simple as that, it’s like, “Doesn’t he get it?” It’s almost weird how much he misunderstands the movie. But I have to say, it’s also politically nuts because if he thinks he’s harming the movie, he’s doing anything but. There’s always going to be a certain sector of American society that thinks that anyone that doesn’t show absolute certainty, or broker any kind of doubt is the enemy. Things that are intellectual, that offer doubt, they see doubt as weakness. To have doubt shows that you’re strong enough to see…people out here don’t understand what the word duality means. You can hold two opposing views to be true at the same time. It doesn’t mean that you’re stupid, it just makes you compassionate and empathetic.
I’m going to take things a lighter direction. When are you going to write the spinoff movie based off the novel in Philomena?
Well that was my favorite piece of writing. Jeff was sitting at his typewriter looking over his shoulder going, “Surely that’s enough” I was going, “No there’s more.” He’s like, “What happens next?” I go, “The guy with the one foot does this,” and he’s going, “This is going on too long, you can’t go on this long.” I said, “It’s worth a shot. It might be really funny. It might be funny that it’s really long and boring, or it might just be long and boring. But it’s definitely worth a shot.” I kind of got too into it in a way. I really like the twist where the guy shows up at the end. I genuinely think it could be, if you applied yourself to it with real rigor, you could turn it into a proper movie.
Did you talk to Michael Winterbottom about possibly working with him on Philomena?
I didn’t tell Michael about it, I ran it by Andrew Eaton, his producer. I’ve worked with Michael so much, I think it’s important that I go off and do something different. It was kind of like he’s the only person who was good enough to give me these breaks, I thought it was important to find someone else. Also, Michael’s approach is very free form, and I felt like I wanted it to be really close to the script. The way Michael works is great, it’s liberated me from a lot of things, but there’s a lot of craft in this and I didn’t want to start improvising around it.
I knew Judi would be comfortable with Stephen and that was important because it was a big ask to get her to do the lead role in a movie that’s quite demanding. When you make a movie certain things have got to go right, the one thing I didn’t want to go wrong was not being sure about the relationship between the leading lady and the director.
Working with Rob Brydon on “The Trip” and now “The Trip to Italy,” how do you and Rob Brydon know what the line is? You guys play these heightened versions of yourselves and you prod each other pretty hard.
Well, it’s hard. Because sometimes we both crossed the line with each other and it’s difficult. It’s a family, in fact sometimes people have arguments with their family, their brothers or sisters or there’s tension. You know you can trust your family even if they annoy you sometimes. I guess it’s the same way with Rob. He’s sort of like family, so it doesn’t matter if we have…sometimes we stray into real arguments. But that’s what makes it exciting and interesting. Weirdly it only happens when we’re filming. At the end of the day Rob and I go to dinner and we get on great for real. We have to kind of seek out tension, sometimes that becomes real tension. But we’ve shook hands before and said, “Look, if we do this we can’t take it personally.” We can’t just avoid unpleasantness. We have to take the risks that we’re going to annoy each other genuinely for it to be interesting. So it’s kind of like a Gentleman’s Agreement.