By David Hennessy
The Edinburgh Film Festival was the venue for the recent world premiere of The Sea, adapted from Irish author John Banville’s Booker Prize winning novel. Directed by Stephen Brown, The Sea stars Ciarán Hinds as a widower who returns to the sea where he spent his childhood summers and first experienced love and death. Also among the impressive cast are Sinead Cusack, Ruth Bradley, Rufus Sewell, Charlotte Rampling and Natascha McElhone of Hollywood films such as Ronin and The Devil’s Own. The Irish World caught up the director Stephen Brown fresh from his creation getting its first airing.
“I was delighted with the response,” Brown begins. “The point of making this film is that your audience is going to love it and I’m not absolutely sure but one of the indicators was that we had a full house where you could hear a pin drop. It was a really attentive and receptive audience and that to me means a lot.”
One of those in attendance was the author himself whose approval is understandably very important to Stephen: “It wasn’t his first time seeing it. I showed it to John when we completed the film at a screening for him alone in Dublin and yes, the good news is that he does approve of the film, he loves it and that in a way is an equally important moment for me as a film maker because I love the work. I didn’t want to distort it but at the same time, the film is a different animal. But John is a great film enthusiast, he loves cinema and understands cinema and once he delivered the script to us, he said: ‘Look, this is your film and your vision. Do with it what you need to make the film you want make’. And the result is he’s seen it and yes, I think he enjoys it very much.”
Did the director feel any pressure when reworking such a popular novel by such a famous author, even if it came from himself? “Early pressure in terms of approaching it at the script stage: ‘How can you convert this great novel?’ I felt the weight of that a little bit at times but at the same time, I think you have to let go of that and to sort of enter the world of the film itself. The film takes over at some point and has its own logic and resonance. Now I feel the film can meet the book. I don’t think they’re in conflict. I think there’s a complimentary feel. For me, I hope my film does justice to the novel.”
Stephen directed the successful short films Breathing and The Curious with Charlotte Coleman and David Suchet in the respective lead roles. Both were concerned with troubled human relationships. The Sea sees Ciarán Hinds’ Max battling to reconcile himself to the deaths of those he loved as a child and an adult as well as, in flashback, finding it hard to watch illness slowly taking his wife: “I love those sort of intimate relationships and people say: ‘You can’t do this on screen, emotions don’t work, they’re not cinematic’. Well I disagree entirely. I think that audiences have an appetite for and are receptive to the portrayal of emotions.
“What attracted me to the novel on an immediate level was some of the resonances of things I have encountered, illness and death in my family. As a child, I had those same emotions. I really identified a lot with the kids in the book even though dark and strange things happened. That resonated for me when I read it and I thought it would suit me as a film maker.”
The Sea is Stephen’s debut feature film and comes eighteen years after his last short, The Curious: “Making the leap to film: Terrifying but wonderful, exhilarating and transformative. Yes, it has taken a long time because that’s been my trajectory. I’ve worked for many years in the industry as a TV director, as a director of business television, corporate videos, music videos, news TV, back in the day The Word, all sorts of stuff. I’ve always wanted to make a feature, made a couple of short films but family life got in the way and suddenly ten, fifteen years have gone by. Then five years ago when I read The Sea, I thought: ‘This is the film that I must make, that I have to make and that is going to be me right here, right now, where I am in my life’. I think the five year development trajectory is not actually that extreme. It is long but it’s not unheard of and we did get there and we were properly funded: Luc Roeg (producer of We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Michael Robinson in London and David Collins in Dublin so it was a proper Irish co-production. That was daunting because I’m not Irish, I’m from Hackney but I was embraced by Ireland, I hope. The film has a very strong Irish component which I believe I was brought into in a very welcoming way.”
Dealing with such an emotional storyline, Stephen could hardly have asked for a better cast with Ciarán Hinds and Sinead Cusack in the pivotal roles and also one of Ireland’s brightest young actresses Ruth Bradley as their daughter, Claire: “These are people whose acting often represents life on these levels. Ciarán and Sinead, for example, have worked together on the stage on some great projects and they are deeply intelligent and receptive actors.
“I’m glad you include Ruth Bradley there because I think (she can emote) just by the look in her eyes. For all of the actors, it’s not just in the dialogue. It’s what goes between the lines which is very important and very critical and that is, I admit, a hard thing to pull off. And that’s not my directing, these guys, these actors came to me knowing, having read the script, they knew how this needed to be represented. I would block out the scenes with them but when it came to the actual expression of those pages in the script, you’re working with masters here and I hope I’m not sounding too sycophantic, it’s not the case at all. I’m stating the case. Ciarán and Sinead are masters of emotional portrayal.”
For the full interview, see the July 6 print edition of The Irish World.