Categorized | Danny Peary on Film

Steve Coogan’s Odyssey with “Philomena”

Posted on 17 November 2013

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By Danny Peary

Add Stephen Frears’ Philomena to the list of possible Oscar contenders.  It has a good shot for a Best Picture nomination, and I think it’s almost a sure thing that Judi Dench will be among the five Best Actress contenders for her spot-on performance as Philomena Lee, a devoted Irish Catholic who wants to find her bastard son that the convent gave up (actually sold) to a well-to-do couple for adoption fifty years before.  The spectacularly versatile Steve Coogan (hilarious as a fictionalized version of himself in the brilliant comedy, The Trip, and off-putting as a manipulative egotist in the brilliant drama, What Maisie Knew) deserves a Best Actor nomination for playing ex-BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, who helps Philomena on her quest so he can tackle a “human interest story” for the first time.  But I think Coogan has a much better chance of receiving a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for turning Sixsmith’s serious 2009 nonfiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, into an audacious mix of tragedy and good cheer.  Additionally, Scottish actress Sophie Kennedy Clark might snare a Best Supporting Actress nomination for playing the young Philomena, who was abandoned by her parents when she became pregnant and wound up in a convent and toiling as a laundress with other young girls who had “sinned.” I will soon post a roundtable I participated in with Clark.  For now, here is a roundtable I did with Coogan, who was in New York to promote the opening of Philomena this Friday.  I note my questions.

Q: The convent where Philomena was confined and that sold her baby is in Tipperary. Did you film there?

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Steve Coogan (right): We actually didn’t film in southern Ireland at all.  We filmed in London, Washington D.C. and Northern Ireland, which doubled for southern Ireland. The abbey we used is actually outside London. Actually, the two buildings we used—the redbrick building where Philomena last sees her baby and the building where the nuns live–are about twenty miles away, but with CGI we stuck them together so you don’t notice on the screen.

Danny Peary: I love The Trip. That film and this film seem to have nothing in common but when you were writing about two ill-fitting travel companions again, did you find similarities?

SC: Of course they’re both road movies, in a way, so there’s that similarity. I never saw that parallel until it was pointed out to me.  If it’s there it’s subliminal, because their executions were poles apart. On Philomena, we stuck to the script absolutely verbatim; there was no improvisation whatsoever. The Trip, which Michael Winterbottom directed, was almost entirely improvisation.

DP: So you weren’t drawn to making an entirely different trip, or road, movie?

SC: I was just interested in telling Philomena’s story, which I read in the newspaper and found very moving. I wanted to tell a real story as a drama. I didn’t see it as being especially funny, at first. But whenever I told people the story in a sentence, they’d say, “Oh, that sounds awful. Who’d want to go and see that?” Then I thought that since the story is so inherently sad, so tragic, introducing some levity would make it bearable. I wanted to somehow find in the sadness a way to lift people up. I didn’t want people to leave the cinema depressed but to feel positive and hopeful or inspired.

I wanted to tell the story about this odd couple, Philomena and Martin, looking for her son and thought about  Missing, with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon looking for his son [and her husband], and how in their odyssey they learned some things about each other and about life. I thought that would work but I wanted to do something funnier.  I looked at the newspaper photograph of Philomena and Martin sitting on a bench and they’re both laughing, like we are in the poster. The movie ended up being funnier than I thought it was going to be. When writing it, if it was clearly a funny situation we’d mine the humor, but we were very careful not to introduce humor into moments of real drama. If it was too much, we’d take it down a little. Sometimes we’d take the humor out of a scene entirely because we thought it would trivialize it. It was all about tone.

Q: A lot of the humor in your movie actually derives from unusual things Philomena says to people. How concerned were you not to make her come off as…

SC: Stupid?  You have to be bold sometimes in terms of the way you write a character. You can gently mock a character that you later find heroic, that you then dignify. It’s okay to do that, and you should do that to lead the audience down the garden path. I want people to think Philomena is a slightly foolish, naïve, old lady. Then I can surprise them by showing that she has this special intuitive quality.

Q: How about her comments about having enjoyed sex when she was young?

SC: She didn’t know anything about sex, but I did invent it when she says, “Martin, I didn’t even know I had a clitoris.” The real Philomena never actually said that to me, but I thought it would be a quite shocking and funny thing if an old lady says that. The humor is not at Philomena’s expense, it’s at Martin’s. He’s this buttoned-down, middle-aged man and has discomfort with what she says. Actually, that did come from the truth, it wasn’t just a contrivance. Philomena is very open. For 50 years she didn’t say a thing, it was all bottled up, but now that she’s unburdened herself, it’s like deluge.  She talks forever and can’t shut up!

Q: Judi Dench gives the film a lot of its humor and spirit. She of course can play comedy or drama.

SC: She was who we wanted to play Philomena from the start, and when the script was finished, I went to her house and read her the entire script out loud because of her eye problems. Judy was very enamored with it and wanted to play the part straight away, so we were fortunate. She’d worked with Stephen Frears before, so I knew that she would feel comfortable, which was important because she’s in her late seventies and playing the lead role was a huge task.   When the script was printed out for her, it was in very big letters, almost like for a child, because her eyesight is so bad.  But she got through it.  I was intimidated and worried because I was going to be acting opposite her, but she made me feel very comfortable. She is a Dame, but I saw her struggling with the part just like any other actor, and I realized she’s flesh and blood!

Q: How was it working with Stephen Frears?

SC: Stephen was there to serve the script, so he didn’t tear it apart. He helped us get it into a more clear and cogent shape.   He helped elevate it and with [cinematographer] Robbie Ryan made it look beautiful. There’s a lot of two people talking in the movie, and it could have been dull.  But it’s not, as a result of Stephen’s great work.  I’m grateful because though I love doing improvisation with Michael Winterbottom, I’d written this and didn’t want anyone messing with my script!

Q: Since you collaborated on a script adapted from a non-fiction book, how much input did you have?

SC: I did most of the dialogue and character detail and Jeff Pope, my co-writer, helped with the structure, pace, and rhythm of the piece. There was some overlap but that was largely what we did. The script was based only a small part on Martin’s book; most of it was based on interviews I did with Martin.  His book deals almost exclusively with the life of the missing son, but the son’s hardly in the movie at all–he’s a subliminal force throughout and you see snatches of his life on Super8.  The Philomena who Judi Dench plays is much closer to the real Philomena Lee than I am to the real Martin Sixsmith.  The movie Martin is really a distortion of the real Martin.  For one thing, Martin is not a lapsed Catholic.  I made him a lapsed Catholic in the movie because I’m a lapsed Catholic.  The Martin I play is half Martin and half me, with my thoughts and cynicism. When Martin says “Human-interest stories are read by weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people and written by weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people,” that’s me at my most cynical. The thing is, you can accuse the entire film of being exactly that. I’m as guilty as anyone else, because Philomena is by definition a “human-interest story.”

Q: Is the depiction of Philomena’s son Anthony in the movie accurate?

SC: What we have about her son is all real. He was a Republican and became a Chief Legal Counsel to the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations. He was a closeted gay and kept it quiet because of the politics of the time.

Q: These days there are many documentary and independent films about AIDS, but this is among the few films in a while that deals with AIDS.  How important was it for you to touch on this topic?

SC: It’s important, because it’s easy to forget what a huge, huge impact the AIDS epidemic had in the 1980s.  It was devastating and was turned into political football. I wanted to flag some things to remind people that your government under the Republican administration, withdrew funding for AIDS research. That did happen. It was a political decision that resulted in people’s deaths that needn’t have happened.  A friend of my girlfriend’s mother died of AIDS then, and had she contracted it twenty years later, she’d still be around because of the advances in treatment. We didn’t want to make a whole issue of it in the movie, because we were talking about Michael’s life, but I wanted to bring it up and also point out why he was closeted.  Part of the film is about sexuality and people’s difficulty dealing with it, and also how religion has difficulty coming to terms with it in an honest way. Philomena says, “We didn’t know about making babies.” Those nuns educated those girls, but they didn’t include sex education.  It wasn’t accidental that there was no sex education, it was systemic. Looking back now, that seems insane. And you have to ask yourself how that came about. In my opinion, it was because of the distortion of some of the better values that religion should have imbued them with. I didn’t want to avoid those spiky moments in the script; I wanted to give some voice to them.

Q: How much research did you do in regard to the girls in the convent laundries at that time?

SC: Not a huge amount. I was aware of the laundries in Ireland, before The Magdalene Sisters, because my aunt in England voluntarily went into one of these places in the late 1960s. She was sent there because it was somewhere to hide while her belly grew and she had the baby. I was 7 or 8, and knew what was going on and I was embarrassed that my aunt had a baby and wasn’t married. It was a huge social stigma to have a child out of wedlock. It seems odd to us in this modern age, perhaps, but it was very, very real then. Being raised a Catholic I knew about those places and that they were dying out.  The laundries in Ireland have always been an issue. I didn’t want to make a film that was a polemic attacking these archaic practices. Having the benefit of hindsight, it’s too easy to express some sort of conceited liberal-minded admonishment of people in the past. It has to go beyond that, although clearly I’m angry about some things.  I wanted to tell the story of this simple, working-class Irish woman because there are many people like Philomena, including my mother and grandmother and lots of ladies in Ireland of her age. I wanted to celebrate those stoic, forgotten women who have sustained their faith and led quiet, unremarkable but dignified lives. It’s important that Philomena actually dignifies her faith, because I do point my finger at the Catholic Church. I made sure to distinguish between the hierarchy and institution and the ordinary people like Philomena, who are not only blameless but are the only real hope that the religion has.

DP: Martin has trouble containing his anger about what happened to Philomena, while she’s the forgiving and gracious one. My guess is that the average viewer is going to side with him and you.  But do you want that?

SC: It’s an interesting question. I asked Philomena, “Do you forgive them for what they did to you?”  And she said, “Yes, I do.”  I thought, “Well, that’s very interesting, and that could be a very powerful moment in the film.”  She told me about that decision to forgive; but given my creative license I have Philomena say it directly to Sister Hildegarde.  Her daughter, Jane, who’s also portrayed in the movie [by Anna Maxwell Martin], stood next to her mother when she said she forgave them.  She said, “I don’t forgive them.” I thought, wow, they both seem really comfortable with their opposite choices. She doesn’t but I do. That made me decide to put both choices the film next to each other.  But I also wanted Martin to confront the people at the convent and say what the audience needs to hear, to give the audience that kind of rush. An audience would feel cheated if they didn’t have that cathartic moment.  But, conversely, I wanted to contrast Martin’s anger with Philomena’s serenity. She tells him, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hating people, I don’t want to be like you.”   And he’s suddenly humbled and reduced to almost a child. That was really important, too. I didn’t want to be prescriptive because there’s nothing worse than a film saying, this is how you ought to feel.

DP: Was Sister Hildegarde, who in your movie sold babies and even now thinks all the convent girls back then who had pre-marital sex and gave birth were sinners, real?

SG: Yes, she was a real nun there, but she died a long time ago.  So that conversation [Martin and Philomena have with the elderly Hidegarde] in the movie never took place.  People in the clergy and other people came out the woodwork and said it is an unfair representation of her, that she did some good things. Then, straight after that, lots of other people came out of the woodwork and said, “No, actually she’s the one who stopped me from finding my child.”  There’s a big, big discussion going on in Ireland about this, even as we speak.

Q: Was the convent cooperative?

SC: When we tried to film, we told the church what it was going to be and asked whether they had any comments. And they didn’t respond to us in any way. They didn’t want to help.  I actually went to visit the abbey. I had a conversation with a nun there when I was looking around. The word she used to describe me was “impertinent,” which is very telling. I pointed out that we’d asked in a phone call days before if they would help, and they made it quite clear that they’d have nothing to do with the film.  Certain people within the church have been very contrite, but there are just as many people who are unwilling to accept that what is in film really happened.

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