Philomena – Jeff Pope interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JEFF Pope talks about the process of writing the screenplay for Philomena with Steve Coogan and liaising with the real-life Philomena Lee herself. He was speaking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.
Q. How did collaborating with Steve Coogan on the screenplay serve the adaptation in terms of striking a balance between comedy and drama?
Jeff Pope: I knew Steve a little bit, prior to this, but I didn’t encounter someone who was a comedy writer, I encountered someone who was fascinated and passionate about the story. And I would say the first six months before we even wrote a word was [spent] going over and over and over the story. The comedy works best when it hangs off reality or a proper story. The one interesting thing about the process was being in the room with all the characters. It’s the one great advantage of writing with Steve because, among many other things, he’s a brilliant mimic. So, at any given point I was in the room with a nun, with Philomena, with Martin… and so that dialogue was brilliant. I saw myself as someone holding a big net, catching butterflies, which were lines and wonderful dialogue delivered in the style of the characters.
Q. The film is very emotionally layered. You have Philomena who forgives and Martin who doesn’t. He remains very angry. How important was it for you, when writing, to downplay both emotions?
Jeff Pope: The theme of forgiveness was very interesting. We started with it, almost. In talking to Philomena and her daughter Jane, we realised that Philomena had arrived at a point where she did truly forgive. But it wasn’t forgiveness on an intellectual level, say as Lord Longford famously practised forgiveness. Philomena’s came from within, she really, truly had forgiven those people who had caused so much misery in her life. Jane, who [is] a bit like Steve [Coogan], is a next generation Catholic with a more pragmatic view of the world and she hadn’t [forgiven]. So, we decided that that’s how we would play the end, in that Philomena does this magnificent act of forgiveness but Jane’s point of view is represented with Martin. I think also that was a way of venting what we felt the audience would feel at that point, in that there is an anger as a viewer watching this story.
This isn’t particularly anti the Catholic Church. We were very careful to… if there was any finger pointing it was not at the original events that saw her son taken away. You can’t judge them by modern standards. What we felt was a more legitimate target was the way that it had been covered up for so long and they were artificially kept apart.
Q. What did you get from your one on one time with Philomena that isn’t perhaps in the original book?
Jeff Pope: I hope audiences think when they start to watch the film that they know where it’s going to go – that she’s going to find the boy and be reunited. But then she makes her discovery and she gets to his grave, she says “he knew I’d find him”. So, again, it’s the way her mind works. It’s such a positive spin – not “oh God, it’s my child buried in the ground” but “he knew I’d find him, that’s why he got himself buried here”.