Emigration is Universal: Irish Film Brooklyn

Emigration is Universal: Irish Film Brooklyn Director John Crowley
Brooklyn Director John Crowley

Brooklyn, one of the gems of the London Film Festival has won huge praise for its evocation of 1950s emigration from Wexford to New York. Director and UCC philosophy graduate John Crowley, of that generation of directors who came up through the Donmar Warehouse spoke to Sarah Lafferty about emigration and home sickness.

Interview with director John Crowley by Sarah Lafferty

The film Brooklyn, one of the gems of the London Film Festival, based on Colm Toibin’s acclaimed novel, has garnered critical plaudits for writer, screen writer, director and cast for its tale of 1950s emigration from Wexford to New York.

Its director, John Crowley, is part of that generation of directors who came up through the Donmar Warehouse – a crucible for a great deal of Irish talent in the 1980s and 1990s – and started his film career with a young Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Kelly MacDonald in 2003’s Intermission and Martin McDonagh on the West End stage with The Pillowman. Earlier this year he directed two episodes of the second series of TV blockbuster, True Detective, which starred Colin Farrell

The University College Cork graduate has quietly built up a stage, screen and TV CV that has seen him work, again and again, with some of entertainment’s biggest household names yet few outside the industry would necessarily know of him, despite his winning several awards.

Sarah Lafferty spoke to him in London about how the Irish experience of emigration is universal.

In person John Crowley is warm, modest, and down to earth as befitting for someone who really doesn’t, at this stage in his career, have anything to prove – and he has strikingly bright blue eyes.

His passion and confidence in his craft draws you in as he shares the joys and challenges of making movies.

His older brother Bob is a Tony award winning theatre designer and had a big influence on John’s career.

“Theatre always felt close to me because of my brother Bob. I would go to see films with him in ‘The Capitol’ in Cork. The film world felt very distant and unattainable so I did what a lot of people do I guess, I went to the University drama group in UCC and there I fell in love with directing theatre.”

Emigration is Universal: Irish Film Brooklyn - Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen
Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan

John feels Brooklyn fills a gap in our film history. As a story of emigration, we may feel familiar with it but he disagrees, “Angela’s Ashes’ it isn’t, ‘In America’ it isn’t either. This experience hasn’t been put on camera before.”

Brooklyn is set in Co. Wexford and New York (for budgetary reasons most of the American scenes were filmed in Montreal with only two actual days in Brooklyn).

Because of that modest budget – by the standards of most modern studio features – John had to be thrifty and imaginative when planning shots and negotiating extras.

“We would horse trade within ourselves. I wouldn’t eat lunch for a week to have more extras. We had to make 190 extras look like 3,000 people,” he said.


Despite being fettered by such restraints, John has nothing but fond memories of shooting Brooklyn.

Among those is shooting lead actress, academy award nominee, Saoirse Ronan: “There is a shot on Saoirse’s face in the dancehall in Enniscorthy where you don’t quite know what she’s thinking but you know it’s her last night in Ireland.

“There was something so special going on in her eyes that I just let the camera run. I had to defend that shot in the editing room. Others thought it was too long and pretentious but I insisted, her face is the canvas for this story.”

Emigration is Universal: Irish Film Brooklyn
Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan

Despite being a period piece Brooklyn feels very current. It is a film with an emigration story that’s as true in 2015 as it was in the 1950s.

To press home the point John refers to his leading lady’s own real-life homesickness: “Saoirse went through something very similar to the protagonist Eilis when she left her home recently and moved to London. Despite gaining her own independence with a new flat and boyfriend, she was suddenly struck by homesickness. It affected her on a deep visceral level and when she went back home, Ireland didn’t feel the same to her anymore.”

The film and stage director actually has a Master’s degree in philosophy which he momentarily applies to the subject of emigration a It’s not surprising to learn that John has an MA in philosophy as he delves into the effect of emigration: “Home is different when you return from living abroad because you’ve changed and so you’re in a sort of exile for a while. It’s not about economic deprivation. It’s about an emotional state that happens when you leave home”

The preview of “ The Pillowman at The National is a night I will never forget”

In the film, in stark contrast to the theme of loneliness, the home of Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house where Eilis lives in Brooklyn is a lively spot. Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) adds great comedy with her no nonsense approach to keeping her female lodgers in tow.

“Julie slapped the table unexpectedly during one take, the actors were unsure if this was part of the scene or not, because Julie was really quietening the rising giddiness of the girls as we filmed. Julie is so delightful but she can be serious too. We felt a crackle in the air as she hit the table. It was fabulous because we caught it all on camera.”

“Ah, there were plenty of special moments like that, I could go on and on.”

Emigration is Universal: Irish Film Brooklyn

Brooklyn is something special both in the canon of modern Irish cinema and in Crowley’s career but before his successful cinema career there was an accomplished and feted theatrical career.

He was an associate director at The Donmar Warehouse at its creative peak and was nominated for a Tony (Broadway’s prestigious theatre awards) for directing Martin McDonagh’s last great theatrical success, before his stage comeback with Hangmen, a decade or so ago.

“The thing I’m proudest of in the theatre is ‘The Pillowman,’ both the production in ‘The National’ and on Broadway. The preview of ‘The Pillowman’ at ‘The National’ is a night I will never forget.”

“Martin and I would take a bet as to what would be the funniest line of the play and we would always be wrong! The audience will always educate you.”

How does he compare film and theatre? “Theatre is written in the wind, it will only live on in people’s memories but if you make a good film, it will last.”

Great Privilege

“On the whole, it’s a great privilege to work in a sphere where you get to tell stories,” he says.

He hopes ‘Brooklyn’ will be received as more than just an Irish film, per se, and is keen to highlight its universal relevance.

He finishes our conversation with an anecdote from his time in Vancouver two weeks ago: “I was doing interviews like this and a Chinese gent walked in. He had immigrated to Vancouver from Singapore about five years earlier.

“He has a radio show for the Chinese community and admitted he’d been talked into watching the film (Brooklyn). He didn’t want to go see it at all because he was only covering Chinese films but once he’d seen it, he was passionate about getting this film to the Chinese community in Vancouver because he felt it was their film.

“This was the film that would express what it feels like to land in a town that you’re not from.”



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