Director John Crowley‘s Brooklyn explores the life of a young Irish woman, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) in 1950s Ireland and New York. The film began as a novel by Colm Tóibín, which Crowley read before his involvement with the film project. Having been a fan of Tóibín’s other novels, he read the book purely from curiosity and not for professional reasons.
“I was directing a play in New York at the time. It was a very vivid sort of experience when I read it, being in New York, reading that book,” Crowley said. Some time passed and the director was asked if he was interested in reading writer Nick Hornby‘s adaptation of the novel. “I didn’t need to think twice,” he recalled. He read the screenplay and found it marvelous. He was especially impressed by Hornby’s confidence in knowing exactly what to do. “He just seemed to know what to leave in and what to leave out. It was really special,” said Crowley, who was immediately on board the project.
Crowley looked for someone who was very intuitive when it come to the cinematography and he found exactly what he was looking for in Yves Bélanger. They both agreed on the decisions that had to be made. “I knew we weren’t going to shot in widescreen. Bélanger loved that and was really up for that. We then began talking, began looking at images together, referring to films together to just try and see what kind of aesthetic this would boil down to,” Crowley explained.
The open-ended conversation provided the perfect environment to make some creative choices. “The idea behind it was to have something gentle, handheld, almost artless for the first section of the film, very unselfconscious, which gradually unfurled into something more classical. In the third section, which goes back to Ireland, Eilis isn’t quite living her own life. She’s sort of living a dream life, so there’s quite a bit of Steadicam,” Crowley explained.
Jake Roberts edited the film and the collaboration was a wonderful experience for the director because he was working with another deeply intuitive person who also had a great sense of rhythm and a sense of musicality about scenes. “I love his attitude which is: there’s always a solution,” Crowley said. No matter how much work gets done shooting a film, months down the road during editing, there are gaps that the director wishes he had shot and it was no different on this film. But Roberts’ great response to actors saved the day at times when this situation came up.
“He’s one of the great distillers. His instinct, which was a great contrast with me in the room, was always less is more. We kept distilling down, stripping away dialogue so that it would become more visually eloquent,” the director explained. The goal was always to keep cutting down until the images were what spoke loud and clear.
There were two worlds to deal with in the production design by François Séguin – Ireland and America. Crowley didn’t want to realize the differences by contrasting the two worlds in an over-the-top manner. “The rather obvious way is to say Ireland is small and rather grim and America is big and splashy, but it’s not that simple because what was subtle in the story and what I wanted to reflect was that everything is complicated and not that straightforward,” Crowley said. They searched for a town in Ireland that wouldn’t look too pretty. When it was found in the actual town the novelist set the story in, it just felt perfect. “It all was a bit drab, the right kind of lack of pretty color,” he explained.
The New York scenes were mostly shot in Montreal. “When I first met François Séguin, our production designer who is Montreal based and he said, ‘This can’t be done,’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ He said ‘Brooklyn in Montreal. Not possible,’ and I was deeply reassured by that. I loved that and I thought you’re our guy because I don’t want to be told ‘yeah, it’s no problem’ and turn up on set disappointed. Whereas he saw the problems from the start and how to solve them and be really resourceful.” They had to be really precise in their creative choices considering all the limitation there were. “We had to nominate our wide shots. We couldn’t just turn up on set and say ‘oh, I think I’ll have a wide shot on this street.’ It had to be so carefully done from the start. We didn’t have the luxury of shooting five wide shots and using the best one.”
The film is set in a great period for any costume designer and Odile Dicks-Mireaux embraced the project with aplomb. Crowley’s main direction to Dicks-Mireaux was that the characters wore clothes rather than costumes. “What’s difficult about it, especially with the young women in the boarding house is that, you’re dealing with characters who were looking at Hollywood movies, and wanting to emulate that but don’t necessarily have the salaries,” Crowley explained. The solution was in a Macy’s catalogue Dicks-Mireaux found from the time, which contained cheaper knock off versions of the Hollywood high fashion clothing from the movies. These costumes were made in colors that blended with their surroundings instead of clashing, with the exception of two characters who were the meaner girls in the boarding house. “They’re like the ugly sisters in Cinderella. They’re all dolled up but they’ve got nowhere to go, and the colors were vibrant and almost clashed within the frame.”
The costumes really helped tell the story throughout the film. This can especially been seen in the moment when Eilis comes back to Ireland in the third section of the film, and the audience sees just how far she’s come through what she wears. “You see her through the eyes of people who knew her before she went to America and it’s like one of the Kennedys coming home or something. It’s that glamorous,” Crowley said. The sunglasses and the yellow dress Eilis wears were selected carefully for the scene after much planning and conversation. The director wanted the effect to feel invisible and careful so it wouldn’t become self-conscious. “She doesn’t even realize how glamorous she is. She has to be told. Her mother says, ‘I told you so.'”
Overall, Crowley kept a tight rein on the color palette, not just with the costumes, but within the entire film. The early Irish sections were greens and browns and some occasional yellows, but nothing vibrant. The first red gets introduced when Eilis is on the ship going to America. Then in America, even more color is applied. “The high point of color, where we were able to play the most with it, is at Coney Island where we have this vibrant, almost chaotic quality between the cotton candy and the costumes in that frame,” Crowley said. When Eilis returns to Ireland, the goal was to make the colors slightly more beautiful than they looked the first time. Largely, the change was the effect of the camera work, which became more classical with wider frames and elegant camera movements.
Brooklyn was a film that had its fair share of challenges but the most restrictive one was shooting in three countries with the small budget that Crowley and his team were working with.
“When you are moving a bunch of people between three countries the budget evaporates really quickly. What that comes down to is how much shooting time you have every day and what your shooting day is like,” Crowley explained. This meant when it came time to shooting the Montreal section, Crowley was working with an impossible schedule in terms of the massive amount of shooting that had to take place every day. Every day became a major day. Somehow the director managed to accomplish what was scheduled and dropped only one small scene.
The way Crowley tackled this challenge was by making sure the actors could work very fast. He didn’t let them know ahead of time of the tough schedule because he didn’t want to overwhelm them, so what he did was rehearse efficiently. “With rehearsals, it was about making sure every actor was lucidly clear about what the target of the scene was. Rehearsals were very important but I would never over rehearse the scene,” Crowley said. This process ensured that the moment when the emotions truly came to a boiling point would happen when the cameras were rolling.
“It was not easy but it was thrilling,” Crowley said of the experience. He had several treasured memories. One from the Christmas Day shoot stands out: “I remember watching the shot on Eilis’ face as she’s listening to the song. The emotion is welling up in her eyes as Bélanger is doing a camera movement, pushing in gently on her face. It’s like a dance move and it just comes together beautifully.”