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Recreating ’50s NYC in Montreal: Director John Crowley on Brooklyn at TIFF 2015

Saiorse Ronan in Brooklyn

Just like Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, which revolves around Eilis Lacey having to cope with the changes caused by her immigration from Ireland to America during the 1950s, the cinematic adaptation of Brooklyn encountered some alterations over the course of its development. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) was to play the lead female protagonist but delays in the production required a new actress to be cast (Saoirse Ronan) and a non-Irish filmmaker was sought for the project that ended up being directed by John Crowley, a native of Cork, Ireland. While attending the Toronto International Film Festival, Crowley shared some of his insights with Filmmaker about the big screen version.

Filmmaker: What scenes from the book were kept, and which were removed or created for the movie?

Crowley: The last movement of the film, from when she goes back to America, wasn’t in the book. That was Nick Hornby’s genius idea [as a screenwriter and novelist]; he understood that it wasn’t question of ripping the novel up and starting from scratch. Nick knew that we needed one more beat at the end of the film to deliver her back to America in order to conclude it. What that did was to shine a strong light on the big scene between Eilis Lacey and Miss Kelly. We adjusted their relationship accordingly because Miss Kelly became more of an antagonist; she represents what Eilis will never be able to overcome about her hometown, which is a certain pettiness, small mindedness, controlling, and moralizing quality that she needs to get away from.

To give you the opposite [answer] to that there is a beautiful sequence in the book dealing with her homesickness. Eilis has a dream where she is drifting over the cliffs and you can see her hometown in the distance. I said to Nick, “We have to put that in it.” He went, “Okay. I’d enjoy writing that.” Nick went away and came back two weeks later. He said, ‘The dream sequence didn’t seem quite right.” Nick saved me from a terrible idea because it would have been a cliché.

Filmmaker: Can you explain the choices made in regards to the color palette for Brooklyn                          

Crowley: Visually the movie is divided into three movements. The first movement would be before Eilis leaves Ireland. The frames are tight, there are no wide shots, it’s all about her face. We are dealing with post-war Ireland. The colors that we were looking at came a lot from photographic reference of the time. We tried not to have it too brown or dull, because it can become very muddy, so we leaned more on greens. When she gets on the boat we have the first proper wide shot. As Eilis expands her horizons so does the horizon of the film. We get to be more playful with the colors. America in 1952 was on the cusp of pop culture kicking off. The Ireland Eilis sees in the last movement isn’t the one she left. It’s brighter and subtly more colorful. It’s partly because she has changed and looks very different. There’s a sprinkle of glamour to her. We tried to reflect that in the film as well and leave it loose with some of the frames. Yet there is a slight dreamy quality to that last third. Eilis is not quite dealing with reality; she is postponing the big decision until the decision comes and literally pops her eyes open outside that door. She is woken up and realizes that it is time to be grown-up and make a decision that is going to cost her. One of the interesting things that the film observes is that the heart can be true to more than one person. Eilis has to cauterize a part of her in order to be able to properly own and live her life.

Filmmaker: There are a lot of close-up shots in the movie.

Crowley: Filmmakers that I adore, such as the Dardenne brothers from Belgium, follow their characters around like that all of the time. They are second to none in creating an emotional proximity to their characters’ dilemma. It felt like to me that our film would stand up or fall down on our proximity of Eilis. That was an aesthetic choice from the start. We were emboldened by that, because Saoirse Ronan has an exceptional face as an actress; she would have had a great career in silent movies. It’s an incredibly expressive face. I wanted to use that and in a sense make a study of it. In regards to the period I wanted to wear it lightly. I didn’t want to fetishize it. I didn’t want to shove it in the face of the audience. I wanted it to creep into the back of frames because it’s all about what is going on in her eyes.

Filmmaker: When Eilis has been accepted by the American immigration officers, she steps through a door that has a heavenly bright light on the other side.

Crowley: There were a few moments where we allowed ourselves to be more expressive and let the emotional truth override the naturalism. One of the big influences for Yves Bélanger is Gordon Willis. Even the way Yves would light room and carve a shadow across an actor’s face is evocative of parts of The Godfather.

Filmmaker: What contributions did [sound designer] Glenn Freemantle and [composer] Michael Brook make to Brooklyn?

Crowley: Glenn and his team’s work is subtle. The dialogue editing I wanted it to be crisp. I directed the actors to be specific with the language. We didn’t improvise on-set. Glenn would find ways of emotionally wrapping atmospheres around scenes that you were never aware of. It was never pushing at you but was affecting you.  

Michael was fascinating because I love his music and he had never done something as lyrical as this. I didn’t want it to have an Irish score because I didn’t want it say this is an Irish film. I wanted its Irishness to be assumed. I wanted the scale of the music to feel right, which is low key at the start and larger at the end where we have some orchestral pieces. Michael does not read music and yet he has composed a score that is one of the most melodic and beautiful creations. There’s something in way Michael structured the cues where he never does the obvious thing but it’s never perverse. It’s wrapping around the emotion but Michael is always avoiding the path of least resistance. 

Filmmaker: A lot of the scenes occurred in interior settings.

Crowley: That was more to do with the nature of where the scenes were set. That said, we fought hard to try to get our exteriors placed adequately in the film. I was thinking in my head, “Rhythmically what is this going to be like?’ Is it just going to become airless if you’re cutting from interior to interior?” Nick was helpful with that where we would gently make sure that there were enough scenes on the street. Someone once asked Akira Kurosawa about a shot in Seven Samurai. He said, “If we move the camera an inch to the left there’s a Sony sign and an inch to the right there was a railway station.” Sometimes you have to accept your constraints and make a virtue of them. We had to be selective with our exterior shots because we were shooting in Montreal for 1950s Brooklyn. That was a process of refinement and looking to see which ones would really give us value and create the right degree of air around the scene at the right time. That would often inform the scene.  

We did the walk and talk scene with Eilis and Tony leaving the dance in a single take. I liked the idea of doing that, but equally we couldn’t have covered it from other angles because there were neon signs that way. That’s where form, content and restraint come together and tell you this is what can be done. We had one narrow corridor of buildings which were perfect for Brooklyn. We could get the limited number of cars that we had parked and driving through to create the illusion of life elsewhere.

Filmmaker: Was there much in the way of reordering scenes in the edit suite?

Crowley: Not a vast amount. One of the emotional elements that were not quite as strong during the initial edits as we wanted it to be was her homesickness. We had to beef that up, her lying in bed thinking of home. That was also invented from other material. The novel has quite a linear structure. There were a few instances where we flipped scenes but you couldn’t do a vast amount of it because it would interfere with the gentle narrative pulse which was consistent through it.

Filmmaker: The costumes have a big role to play.

Crowley: The costumes are amazing. I had not worked before with Odile Dicks-Mireaux but was a big fan of her work. It was all about finding clothes which were authentic and right for the period but would be a shopgirl’s idea of what Lana Turner would wear. These were young women in Brooklyn who were going to see films and wanting to dress like that, but their version of that. She found all of these old Sears and Macy’s catalogues and found the cheap version of those. That was what all of those clothes were modelled on so that they never looked too rich. Odile had a wonderful eye for color which intuitively connected with François Séguin’s [production designer] taste. There were a few uncanny connections between costume and background which was wonderful. What was fortunate with François was that his taste leans towards greens more than blues as a palette. That was entirely appropriate for the period, both in Ireland and Brooklyn.

Filmmaker: What was your biggest challenge?   

Crowley: The challenges were trying to realize things like diners which aren’t there anymore, and do it in a way that when you’re shooting you know that you’re going to be able to shoot three angles and the fourth angle is going to be problematic. That’s where Yves was immensely helpful in blowing out windows. You have to use every trick in the book to not expose the fact that you’re shooting in 2014.     

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