Girls on film: Brooklyn interview with the producers

Oscar® and BAFTA award-nominated producers Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey on their latest film, an adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.

6 November 2015

By Joseph Walsh

Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan on the set of Brooklyn (2015)

It’s five years since Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey’s first joint production, An Education, was released, bringing success and acclaim in the US and internationally as well as at home. Directed by Lone Scherfig and adapted by prize-winning author Nick Hornby from British journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir of the same name, the film starred Carey Mulligan in a career-launching and BAFTA-winning performance, and brought the producers a host of nominations, including an Oscar® nomination for best picture.

Although An Education was a stand-out success, it hasn’t been a flash in the pan: between them, Dwyer and Posey have produced a number of successful and distinctive films, both separately and together. These include Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, starring Maggie Smith; Iain Softley’s debut, Backbeat, both produced by Dwyer; and Fever Pitch starring Colin Firth, and also adapted by Hornby and produced by Posey. Most recently, via their joint production company Wildgaze Films, the duo worked on Brooklyn — an adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, long-listed for the Booker Prize.

Amanda Posey and Finola Dywer on the set of Brooklyn (2015)

Dwyer read Tóibín’s book and found that she couldn’t get it out of her mind. She was fully aware of Tóibín’s reputation and that the book was much loved by readers, but there were real challenges to making a cinematic adaptation and raising the finance.

“First of all, it was a period piece set across two continents. From the off we knew that recreating both worlds set in the early 1950s comes at a price. Added to this, its leading female role in many ways seems to be passive. I knew this would be a challenge to dramatise and the nature of the material meant that we wouldn’t be able to cast big names.” All of these factors meant that the film could be a tough sell in terms of financing. There still remains an industry attitude that female-led stories don’t make money or at least not as much as stories about men. Despite initial concerns, Dwyer felt convinced that there was a wonderful film there.

This was all happening in the wake of the success of An Education. “We had been on the circuit with An Education right after the Oscars®, and I needed a bit of a reboot, so I thought I would go to New York,” says Dwyer. On the journey she continued to think about the possibilities of adapting Brooklyn, and decided to check if the rights were still available. A chance meeting in New York with a friend led to her being introduced to Tóibín, who was at a rare book fair on behalf of Princeton University, and the two hit it off. Seizing the moment, Dwyer asked whether he’d consider her optioning the book, and despite the fact that the rights were being pursued by a number of other parties, Tóibín gave Dwyer his blessing.

Posey and Dwyer have had a long-standing collaboration with the writer Nick Hornby, which has proven to be incredibly fruitful. Posey worked with Hornby on two adaptations of Fever Pitch, the first starring Colin Firth, the second directed by the Farrelly brothers and starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon. More recently, Dwyer and Posey produced an adaptation of Hornby’s comic tragedy, A Long Way Down, directed by Pascal Chameuil and adapted by Jack Thorne.  When Brooklyn came into view, Hornby was a natural first port of call for Dwyer and Posey.

Brooklyn (2015)

Tóibín’s subtle and understated style is not inherently cinematic, yet both producers felt that Hornby’s tender touch would help to fully realise the story. The writer immediately saw the ‘inherent drama’ of Tóibín’s book. “Nick knew exactly what he wanted to do with it,” recalls Posey. “It seemed very clear to him right from the off.” Dwyer points to one of Hornby’s first comments. “He talked about the passivity in her [the leading role’s] character, and conversely her strength, where she is like a flower unfolding, gradually taking control. We know it is a delicate story, but we know from test screenings that audiences really embrace it and go with it.”

Brooklyn needed a director who would also be able to appreciate the subtlety of the material, and yet bring it to screen with real power. John Crowley had long been a fan of the book, and became available just as Dwyer and Posey were seeking their director. They admired his outstanding stage work as well as his films, which include Boy A – launching the career of Andrew Garfield — and Intermission. Irish-born, and with a fantastic track record with performance, Crowley was an excellent fit to direct Brooklyn. He, like Posey and Dwyer, recognised the distinctiveness of the story. As Dwyer says, “When John came on board he said that there are countless Irish immigration stories. However, he had never come across a story like this, told from the perspective of a young woman.” What could have been seen as a weakness, namely the challenge of getting finance for a female-led story, would actually prove to be a factor in what makes Brooklyn fresh and original.

With the director and a great script in place, the biggest test was yet to come in the form of tackling a production across two continents on a challenging budget. The production began in Ireland before moving to Montreal, which would stand in for period New York. In Ireland, the team ended up choosing to film in Enniscorthy, where the book is actually set: “We looked all over Ireland, but Enniscorthy offered us a lot creatively, and an array of authentic locations; we even opened up a dance hall that had been condemned,” says Dwyer. Discussing shooting in Canada, Dwyer continues, “Montreal was more challenging. Firstly, because it is more expensive than Toronto, and secondly, because they speak French, though creatively it was a no-brainer for the wonderful locations it offered.” The language barrier, of course, made it necessary to have a crew who could speak both English and French.

Brooklyn (2015)

“It was clear that we were going to have to piece together the financing from a range of sources and incentives, and when looking for the right locations, this was also a critical factor,” says Dwyer. “I made up a ‘look book’ of key locations early last year and sent it out to film offices around the world to see what they could offer.” This ‘look book’ is a collection of photo references which convey the requirements of the project including the period, types of buildings, streets and larger locations.“You still have to go and look, but it narrows it right down.”

When asked what they felt was the biggest challenge to overcome, Dwyer says, “We had as many as 11 different financing entities and they all had to be knitted together into an official three-way co-production. It was like a Rubik’s cube of a project.” Posey adds, “Making the financial needs and the creative needs come together at the same time is an art.”

Fortunately, whilst it was a complex project for Dwyer and Posey, it is clear that the story always drives them, making them want to craft films with love and care. And, thanks to their wealth of knowledge in the industry, they have the tools to realise those stories on the big screen.

Brooklyn was backed by the BFI Film Fund.

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