Sundance 2015: Hot Properties

Sundance 2015: Hot Properties

As seen in Screen International and Screen Daily

John Crowley, Brooklyn

Colm Toibin’s coming-of-age novel Brooklyn about a young woman who travels from her home in Ireland to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, won the UK and Ireland’s prestigious Costa Book Award 2009 and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in the same year. Irish director John Crowley took on the challenge of directing Nick Hornby’s adapted screenplay of the beloved book, and is rewarded with a world premiere in Sundance this month.

“It feels like a really important story to have told, and before anyone judges it, this is absolutely the film I set out to make,” says Crowley.

The film-maker continues, “All my luck came at once when I received the phone call from Wildgaze Films asking me if I wanted to direct this.

“I first read Colm’s book several years ago, and just loved it. Then getting to read Nick Hornby’s script — it was truly a beautiful adaptation, making it easy to envision how it could be brought to life.”

Curtain call

Crowley is well known in the theatre world — in particular his acclaimed version of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman that played in London and New York. To cinephiles, he is known for his earlier films including black-comedy crime caper Intermission and Bafta-winning drama Boy A, starring a then-unknown Andrew Garfield.

Though prolific, as his résumé suggests, Crowley admits putting Brooklyn on screen was no small feat. “I felt the pressure. It’s just one of those things when you take on a well-known literary piece of work,” he says. “I had never worked on an adaptation like this before, and I wanted to make sure the novel wasn’t lost on the big screen.”

The Ireland-UK-Canada co-production warranted a complicated shooting schedule that saw three weeks in Ireland, four weeks in Montreal (doubling as Brooklyn) and two days in New York.

While Crowley had worked on bigger budgets, such as terrorist thriller Closed Circuit, he reveals the sheer scale and ambition of what he and the production team were trying to achieve on Brooklyn was challenging and exciting.

Rather than emulating an old-fashioned 1950s period film, Crowley brought on board cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who shot Dallas Buyers Club, to help create a visual style that was contemporary and immediate. A broad colour palette helped to depict the different locations, while tight framing was used to show shifting perspectives.

Ellis Lacey — the main character who is pushed into leaving her small-town roots in Ireland for Brooklyn — was initially to be played by Rooney Mara, but scheduling conflicts opened the door to Saoirse Ronan, whose performance is described by Crowley as “one of the most defining performances of her career”.

The director likens working with the cast — which also includes Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters — to an archaeologist chipping away to find something special, something he claims was much easier because of the material’s emotional density.

“We all can relate to that feeling of moving to a place that feels unfamiliar, but when you return home, you look different and they look different,” says Crowley. “This to me is what makes the story so universal — everyone at some point has been in a state of exile.”