Renowned theatre director Domnic Cooke talks about his cinematic debut ‘On Chesil Beach’. Adapted by Ian McEwan from his 2007 Booker-Prize nominated novella, the film analysis’s the awkward relationship of a young British couple Florence and Edward, played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle.
Could you tell us about the casting of Irish actress Saoirse Ronan? Writer Ian McEwan recommended Saoirse, I hadn’t seen her on screen for a bit, then I went to see ‘Brooklyn’ which I loved and thought she was just sublime in it and had that quality of a quiet repressed exterior but with a very passionate inner life. She had a friendship and a working relationship with Ian from her first acting role in ‘Atonement’. We met up and hit it off immediately, she’s incredibly easy to talk to and work with and it was all action stations from there really, she signed up for the film a year before we shot it and never wavered.
Saoirse’s accent (English Received Pronunciation) is perfect in the movie, did she work with a dialect coach or did she arrive with the accent perfected? She was about 90% there, she’s got such a great ear, we had a wonderful dialect coach called Penny Dyer for both Saoirse & Billy. That period’s dialect is a long way away from the way we speak now. What’s interesting is that she really stressed the need to finish sentences and complete thoughts in a very precise way, in a way nobody does now. That was a real eye-opener in terms of character and the world they were in, it unlocked things for us. She is amazing in that regard, as you’ve seen in recent films, it’s not hard for her to play dialects that are remote from her with amazing accuracy.
The film has a number of scenes that differ from the book, how have fans of the book responded to the changes?
The gift of adapting a novella is that its short and therefore you don’t have to make difficult decisions about which bits to leave out. There’s actually there’s more in the film than there is in the book which is unusual, pretty much everything that’s in the book is on screen. Everyone’s responded differently, it’s always tricky when you love a novel to be able to see a film fresh, a lot of the responses are based on whether we matched their expectations really. Generally we’ve had a very favourable response. I’ve done a lot of theatre work, reviving old plays, my responsibility is to retell that story for the screen and it has different demands, Things that land comfortably on a page don’t always land on screen, quite a lot of the last act of the film is alluded to in the book but only on one page. A novel can be more open ended but if you’re asking an audience to watch a film for two hours you have to give them a worthwhile ending.
At times it feels like we’re eavesdropping on intimate moments between a couple, was it a closed set for a lot of the more awkward scenes?
It got more closed as it went on, we had an incredibly sensitive crew, interestingly it was 50% female. It felt like a safe space for the actors, when we did the sex scenes we reduced the numbers down to the absolute minimum to who could be in the room with us. The actors were very open-minded and easy going about it but part of the job of the director is to give the actors the support and space to do their best work so I was very mindful about that. When we did the bedroom scenes we spent the morning rehearsing it before the crew came in and then we shot it bit by bit.
You gave your actors a written timeline of 1961-1962. Including food, music & politics. Could you tell us what type of things were on it?
It was a very interesting time, there was the Cuban missile crisis beforehand, there’s all these tensions in the world and it was the dying end of the Edwardian landscape and the post-war landscape. We had the beginning of sex being something the public talked about, two years later we had the Beatles, it was a fascinating time, so I wanted the actors to think of the world around them.The music that was around, the culture that was around, we gave them a big list, I also gave them the route they’d have driven from the wedding to Chesil Beach and where they would have stopped, it was a visual map of what happened to give them something to bring into the room with them. They’ve both got a particular kind of imagination that they completely get what it’s like to live in a different time.