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Toronto: How ‘Brooklyn’ Director John Crowley Avoids Earnestness In His Emotion-Driven Films

Toronto: How 'Brooklyn' Director John Crowley Avoids Earnestness In His Emotion-Driven Films

READ MORE: Toronto: Saoirse Ronan on Why the Real Heart of Her Romantic Drama ‘Brooklyn’ Isn’t What You’d Expect

Based on Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” follows plucky young Eilis Lacey (Saorise Ronan) as she travels from her home in Ireland to a brand new world in New York City, all in pursuit of a better life. Although the story sounds like the kind we’ve seen on screen plenty of times before, Crowley’s film is bolstered by some very unique elements, including a female-focused storyline that still makes room for a breakout performance from co-star Emory Cohen.

The film premiered at Sundance in January, where it quickly sold to Fox Searchlight, who are currently prepping it for an awards season run. It may be Crowley’s first experience with this sort of thing, but the director and playwright has spent many years making the kind of emotional work that seems to snag audience attention this time of year. But that doesn’t mean that “Brooklyn” is just awards bait, because the film is deeply feeling and exceptionally lovely, a gem any time of the year.

Crowley recently sat down with Indiewire at the “Brooklyn” press junket at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he discussed how (and why) he balks at earnestness in his films, instead opting for a delicate balancing act of humor and genuine emotion.

The film got bought very early on at Sundance, what was that like for you?

It was mind-blowing. It was beyond one’s wildest dreams. It was amazing. A very exciting night. I’m very happy with the home we found. I didn’t think there’d be a bidding war, it was very flattering and incredible.

The film is obviously rooted in romance, but there are so many wonderful relationships within it that are between women in different permutations — mothers and daughters and sisters and friends and roommates, there’s so much to choose from here.

One of the things that’s rather fresh about the novel, and that we really wanted to hold onto in the film, is that in terms of narratives about immigration, they tend to be male. They tend to deal with the hardship and things we know. This is the first one I’ve come across which is from the female point of view. Where you have a set of young women who are trying to negotiate their way through a paternalistic society and how they deal with each other and deal with the world outside them. And it just sort of gave a fantastically unusual, dramatic palette to work with. There are just precious few films that have that many great, powerful women in it.

The girls in the boardinghouse are especially striking, and so often very funny.

I think everybody who’s been to school sort of knows what those kind of relationships are. And that game around the table, see if you can make other people laugh without getting caught by the teacher, is something we’ve all done. The sort of camaraderie and rivalry, and maybe petty smallness, but then also friendship, that the complicated mix of that, which we never wanted to over-simplify, just get it right, is very particular and just too delicious to not want to go after it. And to want to try and cast an authentic bunch of really great young Irish actors who wouldn’t normally be in films, who are also great stage actors, but they are just the character, they have exactly what’s needed for that role, that felt like it would be great to see all these young actors on screen that you don’t know, you just see the characters.

What was the casting process for those roles like?

It was just meeting after meeting after meeting. Some of them I knew a little bit because I directed a lot of theater in Ireland. But some of the younger ones I didn’t.  Jenn Murray who plays Dolores, I didn’t know, Eve Macklin who plays Diana, the laughing girl, I didn’t know her work at all. The casting director did a fresh round and put a lot of people on tape and we whittled it down to people we actually wanted to meet. Then I sat with them in a room and read. And what was very, very important to me, was that they all had to spot what was funny about those characters without trying to be funny. That’s a very particular thing, which is not minding being laughed at, but being true to the character. And I trusted that it would fly because we had Julie Walters at the head of the table, who’s a comic genius, but I didn’t think that film would lack for humor in any way.

I think a lot of people are maybe expecting something more dour from the film, and it’s not like that at all.

No, not at all! But that’s an element that does course through the book in a very subtle way. There’s an irony to Colm’s prose, it’s not always in a situation, but it’s in his view on things, and I tried to keep that in mind when we were shooting. That always, always, always want to see the comic potential, but not laugh out loud comedy, just small character humor potential. Because of course, it also sort of makes the descent into the sadness all the greater. It’s a very particular mix, laughter and tears, it’s very Irish.

Emory Cohen is also incredible in the film. It’s being hailed as a breakout role for him. How did you get that performance from him?

Well, it comes from him, it’s his talent. I may have teased him and nudged him in certain directions. We were looking for Tony and we couldn’t quite find him. There were a lot of ideas thrown around and a lot of big names. I wasn’t quite happy. I felt that the authenticity of these relationships on either side of Saoirse are key, and we had Domhnall. To find someone who’s believably an Italian plumber in the 1950s and also vulnerable is really tough.

Our casting director Fiona Weir asked him to do a reading alongside a bunch of brilliant young actors who were great, but just not quite right. We saw his reading and it was very simple, it was there. He had this sort of masculine, Brando-esque thing going on, but you felt there was a sweetness to him as well. When he then turned up to rehearsals, he had had about three months between his last film and us, so much time to think about it and overthink about it. And everything he had done previously had been on the darker end of the spectrum, and like a lot of young actors, he trusts working from dark emotions rather than joy, because it might make you feel more authentic if it’s got a bit of grit.

And it was all down the wrong road, I said, “you can’t work from grit, you’re going to have to work from joy and trust that you’re going to be just as good an actor, but you’re going to have to work from the rapture of falling in love with this woman. The terror comes from when she goes away, from the fear that if you lose her, your life will never be the same again. You have to convince me that when you look at her, you just light up.” And he just got it.

So it’s him, but I said, “come over here and try these colors,” and he lights up. He’s got a gorgeous smile and he allowed that into the performance and the playfulness with Saoirse and she was matching him with it. It was thrilling to watch.

Did you have a similar experience when you were casting “Boy A”? Andrew Garfield’s performance in that is similarly revelatory.

It was the exact same thing. And I knew a little bit about Andrew, I saw him on stage, in a play on The National in London, but I wouldn’t have thought that he was absolutely the role for this. We were meeting a lot of young actors, all the really talented young actors in the U.K. And he was away in L.A. shooting “Lions for Lambs” with Robert Redford, so he couldn’t read.

The casting director, Fiona Weir, same casting director, kept saying, “we’ve just got to see him. He’s the one. He’s brilliant.” And he put himself on tape and it was, again, it was a reading where you go, “oh, my God.” It hits you viscerally and it’s there and it’s not directable and you can then shape what they got and it’s there. He was very nervous because he had never played a leading role.

The film was a big breakout for him.

I think he was scared because we were making it for television and we had five weeks to shoot that. And he was afraid there would be a TV schedule of the worst sort, where there’s no rehearsal, but it wasn’t. We organized ourselves very carefully and rehearsed very carefully and never lacked for an extra take. That was another instance of an extremely emotional young actor meeting the right part at the right point.

And I was able to say, “go here, go there,” and just nudge them places, but, my God, the work he gave us in that film was magnificent. But it’s a similar thing about the humor, in that it’s a very very dark story and in some ways it could even seem indigestible. We fought hard in the casting and in the execution of it for humor. To make it absolutely clear that the secret film that was going on in there, the film that was lurking in the shadows, was a coming of age story. It’s almost John Hughes territory, it’s a teenage love affair.

When he meets the girl that they all call the White Whale in the office, the relationship that develops, that friendship, there’s a delicacy to all that, and you want it to feel really fresh and authentic and playful. The humor in all that was very important, because then you can work with opposites within the film, and that’s always where I sort of come from. I don’t trust earnestness in storytelling, I try to avoid it.

It seem like you enjoy having a rehearsal process on your films, which isn’t something everyone has the opportunity to do.

I think that comes from theater. With a script like this, which is beautifully written and the dialogue is very, very well-written, I wouldn’t let them improvise. And that’s part of the process, which is to lay out the terms. The Coen brothers have great dialogue and it’s always very crisp and I love that in a film. When the dialogue is good, you should pay attention to it, when the rhythms of it are right. It’s about laying out the sort of territory emotionally, rather than cracking the emotion open, you wait till you’re on camera before the emotion flows.

Your background is in film and theater, but you recently directed two episodes of “True Detective,” what was that process like?

Amazing. And odd. I had never done American TV before, I had worked with Colin [Farrell] before on my first film, “Intermission,” and I had worked with Nic Pizzolatto about four years ago developing a screenplay based on his novel, “Galveston,” so that’s how it came about. Talk about TV schedules, that’s insane. After I finished “Brooklyn: and delivered it, I went off to do that and it was the perfect thing to do, because it was between that and a play I had just directed in Sydney.

It was going to work, as it were, a “gun for hire” sounds pejorative, because you give everything as much as you give to your personal projects, but your emotional connection to it is different. You’re working as a professional director and you’re trying to figure out how the language of what you’re doing fits into the language of what everybody else is doing. In a way, it was a bit more impersonal, but it was wonderful to reconnect with Colin again as an actor. He’s just glorious. It was fun and kind of mad and intense, but he’s a wonderful writer.

It requires you to flex some very different muscles. 

Totally. That’s what it was. It was a very different type of task compared to “Brooklyn,” which was sort of cogitated on and felt painful and you just want to get it right, it’s a different type of thing. Every shot is weighted, and you can be lighter with TV, even though you’re dealing with dark material. I would argue with anyone on a film set as to whether we need an extra shot. On a TV, you go, “we need an extra shot,” you get an extra shot.

I’ve always admired directors who can do that, and lots of directors have a fantasy idea that they would’ve liked to work in the Hollywood system where they go from movie to movie to movie. And it can be hard making films, I didn’t go to film school, I’m teaching myself as I go. If you are just learning, you can have two years between films, and that’s a lot of downtime to not be shooting material and you learn from everything, so I enjoyed getting to do it.

“Brooklyn” opens on November 6.

READ MORE: The 2015 Indiewire Toronto Bible

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