BROOKLYN is a coming-of-age love story set in New York City in the 1950s. Based on Colm Tóibín's novel of the same name, adapted for the screen by author Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley. Brooklyn stars the luminescent Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey, a young woman who immigrates from her small hometown in Ireland to Brooklyn to build a new life. This charming and moving film was one of the darlings of the past awards season, and was produced by New Zealand born filmmaker Fiona Dwyer (An Education, Quartet). She kindly took the time to have a chat about Brooklyn, and life as a film producer.
RC: Congratulations on the success you’ve had with Brooklyn, what are you proudest of about the film?
FD: It was a very personal story for me. It was my mother’s story to an extent; she came from Ireland to NZ in 1951 and missed Ireland terribly really all her life I would say. And then when I moved to London in the 90s I could understand what it was like for her. It was a very personal story, but I always thought it was very universal, so to option the book, get it made with such a great filmmaker as John [Crowley], and the fact it took us a few years from when I optioned the novel to when we were ready to make it. Saoirse went from 15 to 20 so she became old enough to play the role. So there was a lot of stars aligning, and I just think we had very little money to make it, and I was extremely proud of the fact that we kept the bar high and it was really the film that I saw in my head from the get go. And then the fact it was commercial successful and audiences around the world related to it. That universality of how we all need to leave home and how you can never go back, and it’s different in every situation, but the fact it reached so many people. We make movies, tell stories and we want those films to connect with audiences.
RC: I can’t think of an immigration film that has a female protagonist, and the female perspective gives this film a beautiful intimacy and it felt like it was about the inner turmoil rather than the journey of just trying to make it.
FD: Totally, and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why it was hard to get it made and raise enough money - I didn’t just want to make a film, I wanted to make a really good film - and because people would read the script and go, ‘oh, you know, an immigration story’. And we’d say, ‘it’s never been told from the female perspective, we never had this story’, and [they’d say] ‘nothing really happens.’ But plenty was happening. It’s an intimate story in an epic landscape if you like; the world was epic around her what she walked into in Brooklyn. I think that’s why it did connect with audiences; on the page it wasn’t the easiest sell in the world.
RC: What was the biggest challenge – does it always come down to money?
FD: Well, it can be finding the right cast as well, and finding the right director. It’s not always money actually. There can be a lot of different factors, we didn’t have a lot to make it and it took me a while to figure out how I could make it and raise enough money, and where would we shoot as we wouldn’t be shooting at all in Brooklyn. Finding Emory Cohen who plays Tony took us quite some months actually. We cast Saoirse in February and didn’t really find Emory until September and we were looking at a lot of young guys and, because we cast her and she was on the younger side, we couldn’t have a guy like 30. We needed someone closer to her age. So, it took us a while to find someone who had all the qualities and the abilities as an actor to play that role.
RC: Does timing play a large part in pulling a film together?
FD: I think you need a lot of luck for sure, you can never take no for an answer and you keep pushing through. There are always a gazillion reasons why something can’t happen, but you keep going really and you have to have a lot of belief and perseverance that it’s going to come together when many people think it never will. It’s like, if I don’t believe in it, then I can’t persuade everybody else to believe in it and get in behind it. So belief is very important. And I never try and overthink it either, just keeping focused and keeping going is the most important thing, and try and pull something together.
RC: It feels like it came together so perfectly. I can’t imagine anyone other than Saoirse playing Eilis.
FD: Neither can we. And it was luck in a way because Nick Hornby who did the screenplay and is brilliant, we’d worked with him on An Education and we’re working with him again, he was like ‘you guys are taking so long’, but it was finding the right director. Then Saoirse’s agent rang me not long after John had come on board and he was like, ‘I know there’s someone else in the frame but you need to know Saoirse loves this book’, and I was like, ‘How old is she now?’ And then she was 18 coming up to 19 and when we filmed it was probably another year on from when he called me, a year and a half when we started filming, so looking back so yeah, she was 15 when I optioned the book. I remember looking it up and thinking, oh OK, she’s far too young and that’s never going to work. So when the day Chris rang me and said she’s nearly 19 I thought really? Has that much time passed? It was just perfect.
RC: Do you have young actresses lining up asking you to get Nick Hornby to write them a part? He’s really good at it isn’t he – writing female roles.
FD: We don’t, but we should! They should be queuing up and knocking on our door for sure. He also wrote Oscar nominated Wild between An Education and Brooklyn, and we’re working on something else with him with another female in the lead – which is early days so I can’t say what it is - but he can capture the female voice really well and it’s like an underserviced market. He’s like, there are all these fabulous actresses and people aren’t creating these great roles, so he thinks it’s just a win-win.
RC: My young hairdresser this morning was telling me she thought Julie Walters was one of the funniest people on earth – was she fun to work with?
FD: Oh she’s wonderful – she’s really, really wonderful, Julie. She such a pro, she is so funny and she’s doesn’t miss a trick. She’s a delight. She made Mrs Kehoe everything that was on the page and more. She’s just tremendous and she’s greatly loved.
RC: Out of all the Festivals and award shows this film has taken you to, which one was the most fun?
FD: Well the Oscars was the last and the Oscars is the pinnacle, and that was our second time there - we’d been there for An Education, and I don’t think we ever thought we’d be back again, and back again so soon. It was a real thrill. It was a great time the first time around, but ever more fun the second time around. I had George Miller and all the Mad Max: Fury Road guys sitting in front of me and that was really fun because I know him from a long time ago, and we were joking we were the antipodean corner in the room. It was the end of the journey as well. We’d been at Sundance the year before and has started shooting nearly two years before that, and we were all there together; John, Nick, Amanda (my producing partner), me and Saoirse. It was a great few days. Searchlight had done a tremendous job releasing it in the US and done a great campaign. And we’d won the BAFTA probably 2 weeks before. Each one was great fun and the BAFTA was very special because we weren’t expecting that – you never expect them, so that was fantastic. But the Oscar is like the ultimate and to be back there again… and lots of friends were nominated, and the Americans know how to do those shows like no one else somehow.
RC: How do you find projects – do you mostly source material yourself and then bring a team together, or do directors and screenwriters approach you with material?
FD: It’s a bit of a mix. I would say, with Brooklyn it was a friend of Colm Tóibín who recommended I read it. It was at dinner at my house, and he said ‘I think you’d like it’. And someone else was there and said, ‘I don’t think you’ll like Colm’s writing!’ And I read it and I did very much like it, but I thought about it for a long time because it is a very internal voice and how do you dramatise that?… I met Colm by chance and we just hit it off and he said, ‘other people are in negotiation but it’s yours if you want it’. Because it was such a personal piece for me it just kept happening right through the process on Brooklyn, things falling into place. They didn’t fall into place quickly but they fell into place, which helped us make the best version of the movie I think.
We tend to acquire rights, or come up with ideas, or Nick brings us things as well, and then with the film I am currently doing I was asked if I would like to produce it, which is rarer for me. But it’s an adaptation of a novel called Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and it’s really beautiful and it’s a great love story and about loneliness, and it’s got Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, so it was really hard to say no to that. I found the director, and Robert’s a producer on it as well and we’re in our second week of shooting
After the long journey of Brooklyn, it was just great to go, there’s a window for these actors availability, you’ve got to find a director – is it possible? And 12 weeks later we’re shooting. Which is refreshing after the long drawn out journeys we go on. It’s energising to mix it up.
RC: How do you normally feel on the first day of a film shoot?
FD: Oh I hate the first day. Not that I hate it, but I’m always glad when it’s over. A lot of the crew feel the same, but I didn’t really realise that until this shoot, even though I’ve done so many. A lot of people saying, ‘How did you sleep last night?’ and you realise that most of the crew didn’t really sleep well as you think you’re going to sleep in or be late. It’s like first day at school - first day nerves. It usually takes a few days for everyone to settle in and get their groove. So the first day I am always glad when it’s over and you have it behind you. You have a sense of how it’s going to be after the first day.
RC: What’s the one aspect of producing you’re not so keen on, and which parts of the job give you a thrill?
FD: I probably don’t dwell on that stuff. Every stage you’re at is the most important stage is what I always say, whether it’s getting the script rights, pre-production, how you put it together, finding your director. I love post-production as I started in editing, and I still love post-production, it’s a great time. I’m sure there are plenty of parts of it I don’t always enjoy. But it surprises me, I think with experience you can keep on bringing more and more to the process, which I love, and Ritesh Batra who’s directing this [Our Souls at Night], who did this beautifully Indian film called The Lunchbox, and is superbly talented and it’s only his 3rd film and it’s great having that collaboration. But I also enjoy working with much more experience directors too, so you kind of bring different things to each film.
RC Which is what keeps it interesting isn’t it?
FD: Totally, and every story is different. They’ve all got different challenges and it’s never the same twice. Your cast is obviously going to be different from one film to another and they have quirks, foibles and demands. It’s different every time - it’s never predictable. Things come at you from left field and you go, I would never have seen that coming. So yeah, it’s good. I love it. I certainly can’t imagine producing if I didn’t enjoy it, if I lost it or thought I’m done with this you wouldn’t do it because it’s really, really hard work and it’s hard to make a good film. You have to be very focused and dedicated, but it’s good.
BROOKLYN premieres on Rialto Channel on Saturday 22 October at 8.30pm