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Interview: John Crowley Talks ‘Brooklyn,’ The Heartsickness of Leaving Home & Dramatizing A Movie That Shouldn’t Work

Interview: John Crowley Talks ‘Brooklyn,’ The Heartsickness of Leaving Home & Dramatizing A Movie That Shouldn’t Work

Irish filmmaker and theater director John Crowley has been commanding some incredible pieces of film and theater for many years now, but he’s only starting to rise to significant prominence in 2015 thanks to his Sundance breakout film “Brooklyn” which has been receiving an unusual amount of raves and early Oscar buzz since its Park City world premiere back in January.

Sundance films with acclaim in the beginning of the year can easily fade later in the season, but “Brooklyn” is the rare festival picture that has been asked to appear at every major North American film festival— Toronto, Telluride and New York Film Festival  the quality of the drama apparently so high that any previous festival-war squabbling was quickly laid to rest.

Crowley’s “Brooklyn” stars Saoirse Ronan — in a career-making turn no less — Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters, and centers on Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant (Ronan) navigating her way through the unfamiliarity of a new land and culture: 1950s Brooklyn. Missing her family and wracked by homesickness, Eilis eventually falls into a tender romance, but complex circumstances find her torn between two men and having to choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.

If “Brooklyn” sounds like a Nicholas Sparks-ish weepie, well, it could have been in the wrong hands, but not unlike Todd Haynes’ “Carol” or Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” it’s an exquisitely moving, nuanced and delicately crafted film that carefully sidesteps cliches to deliver something emotionally honest, universal and heartbreaking (read our review). Also, if it’s a coming of age movie about homesickness, it’s smart enough to understand that the relationships in the movie to country, home and nation are just as important as our relationships to lovers, family and friends.

It’s also a film without perceptible villains or much surface conflict, but Crowley’s sensitive direction does so much with the imperceptible, the subconscious, the minute, unspoken emotions we can all recognize. It’s a subtle but gorgeous piece of filmmaking all around with an outstanding troupe of performers in it, so it’s perhaps no wonder it has wedged its way deeply into the the awards season conversation.

Crowley’s heat index has been seriously rising this year — a two-episode stint on season two of “True Detective,” which not-so-coincidentally were the best two directed episodes, hasn’t hurt. But he’s been percolating in the arts culture for a while now, perhaps in his own imperceptible manner. He essentially landed Andrew Garfield on the radar of North American directors after the young actor’s astonishing turn in Crowley’s deeply underrated and overlooked 2007 film, “Boy A.” And Nic Pizzolatto may be a phenomenon now, but he also was ahead of the pack on Crowley’s talents — the “Brooklyn” director was originally pegged to direct an adaptation of Pizzolatto’s “Galveston” years before “True Detective” took off. We might even want to credit Crowley with assisting Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonaugh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) in hitting our shores — it was Crowley who directed the stunningly-rendered, hilariously dark and extremely cinematic play “The Pillowman” which was such Broadway hit sensation it helped McDonaugh launch his feature-film career (“In Bruges” would follow a few years later). We recently sat down to chat with Crowley over tea to discuss this bittersweet and heartrending drama.

Choosing a project is always a big decision for a director because you have to devote years to it. What was the thing that you locked into with this story?

Without burdening it, it felt like a profoundly important story, not just for Ireland, but America. It felt like a very fresh take on a story that feels very familiar, but actually shows something that hasn’t been told on screen very often which is the full narrative of immigration from one country to another and back again to see the full effect of what that countries have done to them. Secondly, it’s from the point of view of a young woman which is interesting and rarer these days. And the emotional complications that you can get in a really good piece of fiction — if we could hold onto that, not oversimplify or reduce it to just being a story about choosing between two men. And if it could be just never one thing; always present more than one aspect of this layered emotional story, we could have something really special.

How did you make the story personal? Because the specificity and complexities of homesickness and how that’s articulated is dead on.

Well, that was kind of easy. I had emigrated to London when I was 27, very happily so. I had always wanted to direct plays in London. And everything was good and there was high-level work right away. But I was blown away with how confusing it was to feel like an exile. And it made no sense cause I had thought of myself as an urban sophisticate, but it has something to do with how your relationship to your old country has altered fundamentally. And when you go back, they view you differently and you view them differently. And the experiences you’ve accrued may make you appreciate things about home, but also critical of things. But it makes you feel like there’s a doubleness to your existence. That you belong to neither one place or the other.

You’ve just explained in great detail the emotional complexities of what Saoirse Ronan’s character undergoes in this film: you’re an emotional island unto yourself and can’t relate to anyone. It’s alienation on a fundamental level.

It’s alienation, that exactly it. It’s an exile, you’re a member of a third state and your feet aren’t in either place. And it’s very confusing. And it passes, of course — you eventually carry on with your life, you meet people — but when you come back home, there’s this huge tidal pull which makes you yearn for the comforts of the familiar. And so this was the first piece of writing where I thought we could capture those specific feelings vividly on a screen and make it feel that way. But never having it explained to you. “Oh this is how that feels.” To just communicate that on a visceral level and use everything at our disposal to cinematically express that. And it’s a film that was about something, but not what it was announcing itself to be about, if that makes sense.

Absolutely. I think you’ve nailed why I love this movie. OK, we can end here [laughs].

[Laughs]. Ideally you feel the emotion, and go on her journey, but maybe not know exactly why you have wound up caring whether this girl ends up having to choose between these two guys. And that you would feel her homesickness, and feel the pull of home even if you weren’t Irish. It’s the universal that we were after. Now if it works with a mainstream audience, who knows. But all you really know as a filmmaker: if it really, really interests you, there’s a chance it will interest other people and more importantly it will inevitably pull good work out of you.

This film, to me, is really cinematic, but in really subtle and elegant ways.

Thank you. You know I looked at films about duality like Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” because Eilis is grappling with her identities of home in two different countries, but the manifestations of that is very subtle. A few reflections here and there, but it’s not pronounced. You know, reading David Thompson’s book “The Big Screen,” there’s this great quote, to paraphrase, “there’s nothing more beautiful than a close-up of a face changing its mind.”

And it struck me like a smack: “wow, that’s cinematic beauty.” Not elegant horizontals and verticals in a frame, not lovely long tracking shots. All of that’s great, but is not going to be about formalism, it is going to be about human scale. I knew then I wasn’t going to shoot it in widescreen, that it was going to be academy ratio, which is gentler on the face.

Right, and gives it a more classical look.

Yes. The other thing that was quite influential is a comment that I read in an article, maybe it was the New Yorker, about “Brokeback Mountain,” in which it said, “the villain in this film is the closet.” And I love the idea that you can have an abstract form of antagonism, which doesn’t have a villain as such. So we don’t really have an antagonist, but we have the abstract form: a very invisible structure of 1950s expectation.

This is before female liberation. In some versions of this story, this girl, dominated by Catholic morality, might get pregnant and get sent away. The film never lurches into that melodramatic territory.

There’s always forces and expectations from society that are gently trying to restrain. It could be familial, it could be nationalistic, emotional, there’s always some kind of binds holding you, and here we have a story of somebody who just gently sidelines her way to trying to figure it out, without even having the language to understand that that’s what she’s necessarily doing. So that was the emotions and schema of how to photograph that, actually. That’s very abstract, but it can still guide you visually.

Her lack of agency seems like a big part of that too — she’s really shuffled around at first before she learns who she is in the end. She isn’t the one choosing to come to America.

That’s definitely her condition that she starts from. Her fate as it were is chosen by her sister and a priest, and you go from there through to a young woman, who is then confronted by the villain who represents what I think is the antagonist: which is a small-mindedness, a pettiness In small-town Ireland. That self-appointed moral guardianship, which says in this movie, “I know your secret now, and I’m telling you it’s my business,” and Eilis has to stand up to that.

The scene you’re alluding to, Eilis standing up to that horrible woman Nettles Kelly [played by Bríd Brennan], a town gossip and her old boss.

Yeah, in the film, we used to refer to the scene as the “OK Corral” moment. It’s like a shoot-out: but in the gentlest possible way, she has to destroy something that is constraining her, which is somebody who goes, “I know your dark little secret,” and that’s power over Eilis. But Eilis stands up to her. And suddenly, this small-town, little, petty, minor person is left shocked, and there’s nothing she can do, because Eilis has landed into herself and gone, “Oh, I know who I am.”

It’s a tiny moment, but a hugely defining one.

Absolutely, it instantly reminds her, “I can’t live here anymore, because I’ve forgotten what this town is like.” It’s squashed her back into that little box. It’s not about the size of the town, it’s about the mindset that is represented in that. That in a sense became what the antagonist is. Even when she’s on the boat, when she’s going away to when she meets that girl, Georgina, who says to her, “Just remember, it’s nice to meet people who don’t know your aunty once in a while.” That the familiarity and warmth that comes from community, and also a restrictiveness of it that may not let you grow.

How did you think about the language, the grammar of the film in terms of its locations?

The way I’d seen it cinematically was that there’s three movements to the movie. The first in Ireland is almost artless, it’s handheld. It’s the most intimate and sort of unobtrusive in a way.

The second movement of Brooklyn is more wide shots: communicating the scale of America, that’s overwhelming and affecting her. The third section back in Ireland has the most steadicam, and there’s a dreamy quality to it. Saoirse’s character’s gone back home, and to this smaller world, they look at her as a little bit glamorous and she sees them differently too. She’s working in her sister’s job, and it’s almost as if she’s leading a ghost existence. It’s a slightly heightened quality, which is, “Oh, this is like a dream, a mantle I can wear for a while. When she’s on the beach and she’s chatting with [Domhnall Gleeson’s character], she goes, “I wish it was like this before I went.” She’s talking about a job and the possibility of a boyfriend. She doesn’t say that, specifically, but that’s the subtext. Of course, it couldn’t have been like that before she went away, because she hadn’t grown into that person yet. So, she’s confused by that.

Because her town now, her life here is suddenly so reassuring, and so nice, like a dream state. It reminds me of “The Wizard of Oz,” where they’re going through the poppy field, and they all get a bit sleepy for a moment, and it’s like, “You can’t! Wake up, wake up, wake up!” And that’s partly where the pressure in that part of the film comes from, is we’re always like, “What are you doing?” Because we know she’s not being honest with herself about what she’s already found in America, in Tony.

I love the bittersweet emotional complexities. Feeling two things at once, even sadness during would-be happy moments. Like when she’s on the boat home back to America — she’s discovered who she is, she’s made her bold choice, but there’s still a sadness there.

Because there’s a loss of innocence. You know, a diamond is more interesting for having facets cut in it. It hits the light more interestingly, and you know, that’s partly what you’re watching happen, which is the formation of this rather wonderful young woman who has an intuitive sense of fairness and of right and wrong. She’s not a goody-two-shoes, but nor is she mean to anybody, and people are kind to her, and in a strange way, it’s all the stuff that should be the death of drama, that should not work. You shouldn’t be able to generate any heat from that.

Right, there’s obstacles in this film, but on the surface not a lot of major conflict and so much of it is her own and she’s fairly passive for most of the movie.

Right. It shouldn’t work. And [screenwriter] Nick Hornby quite rightly didn’t overdramatize anything in the first half of the film. It was not about injecting new events to pump it up a little bit or to make it a bit more exciting. To be honest, that was one of the things that took a while with the financing, is that a lot of financiers would read the script and go, “Not much happens. She’s a bit passive.”

It’s the shibboleth everybody learns on screenwriting courses, which is, you have to have an active protagonist who has to be doing things, you have to have an inciting incident on page ten. And none of those things happen in this movie, but it tells you there are other ways to tell stories.

And you guys stay true to that not-overdramatizing dictum.

That was the intention from the word go though. It goes back to “There’s nothing more beautiful in the world than a close-up of a face changing its mind.” It’s special. From the start, you said, I kind of said, “I want to plant my staff in the ground,” where it would get emotional yet never sentimental. We were going for the emotion, and that meant we weren’t going to shove it in the audience’s face.

Performances are obviously such a huge thing in this, and everyone’s terrific, but I have to ask about Emory Cohen who I think is terrific.

Yeah, a brilliant young actor, who is so wonderful in “The Place Beyond the Pines.” I would never have connected him into this film, it was our casting director’s idea that he was one of the best genre actors around.

He had a very different acting style to Saoirse. The script was great, so I didn’t think there was anything to be gained in improvising and distancing away from the material and that was tough for Emory at first, especially if you do some major with Derek Cianfrance who’s amazing at that improvising, and went as far down that road as you can go. That was how Emory was used to getting truthfulness from his performance.

And working with Saoirse? She’s a huge star in Ireland, right?

Yes, she’s kind of a phenomenon. And so grounded as a person. Her technical ability to understand a camera, where it is, and what she’s doing with it: she has an uncanny ability with it for someone who is 21. You kind of expect it from somebody like Jim Broadbent or Julie Walters, people who’ve been doing it for most, more time in their lives.

But she’s like a ballet dancer who has a degree of technical expertise that you can only sit and marvel at. It’s the first Irish role she’s ever played in a film and I think it redraws the boundaries on what people think she’s capable of as an actor. She’s a heavyweight actress in this. We’d all noticed before, now she’s kind of drawn a line that says, “I’m opening my account as an adult actor, I’m here to stay. it’s quite something.”

Another emotional complexity that rings true: the wistful quality to the end of the film because Tony is far more in love with Eilis than she is with him. But, she’s still chosen him. I love how honest that feels, though I’m sure some people just see it as a 100% happy ending.
What two people are ever in the exact same place at the same time? Who goes through life knowing that they met the only person who’s 100% perfect for them? It doesn’t smack of truth, and somehow, it doesn’t smack of what life does to people, which is life happens to people. You might not choose it, and it has an effect if you’re to grow up. Life just doesn’t feel that way to me. The vast majority of people, who are mostly happy, by the way, and you can’t tell a story about immigration, which is a very, very huge, profound shift in somebody’s world, and just go, “Oh yeah, it’s all happy and streets of gold, filled with gold, and love and happiness awaits you in the U.S. of A.” It just ain’t true.

So we’re not going to reduce it to being a love triangle story. We fought very hard to maintain everything we’ve been talking about, the complications. That wasn’t the schema. That was not the intention. Even the Irish-ness of it and the score — we were gonna step gently around all of those cliches, ever so slightly and ever so insistently.

Right, your guiding principal, that you rigorously adhere to. So it sounds like Brooklyn has changed the game for you?

It has. Coming out the far side, “Oh, okay, now I see how high the bar is, which is, I don’t want to do anything anymore that doesn’t demand that much of me, and that I can’t give that much to.” In terms of filmmaking. That in a weird way made me comfortable about going away, I can go to work here and do this, but if I want to make films, I need them to be the absolute very best, that I can give my heart and soul and mind to.

I think of everything I’ve made so far, “Brooklyn” is the gentlest thing I’ve done in a way, you know? And whatever I do next, I don’t particularly want to do a period film with romance in it [pause]. Watch, I’ll be sitting here in two years’ time telling you about some Nicholas Sparks adaptation [chuckles].

I always love to do the opposite of what I just did. It feels to me that the world outside my head is more interesting in a way than the world inside my head, and I’m thinking back to directors like John Huston, and I look at their careers, and I think, “Fucking hell, they made such arranged work.”

Oh yeah, Huston’s work was so eclectic.

We lost the idea that directors shouldn’t be eclectic anymore. I think that’s what’s glorious about it, rather than, “I’m gonna make the same film, I’m gonna try and stamp the same film on all this territory.” It works for some people, but it’s not that interesting to me somehow as an approach.

“Brooklyn” is in theaters in limited release now and will begin expansion this weekend.

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