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Philomena - Steve Coogan interview

Philomena

Interview by Rob Carnevale

STEVE Coogan talks about some of the challenges of writing the script for and starring in Philomena and the pleasure of working alongside Dame Judi Dench.

He also talks about the themes of forgiveness in the film and why it was important to make the script nuanced and what it was like meeting and chatting with the real-life Philomena herself. He was speaking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.

Q. How did collaborating with Jeff Pope on the screenplay serve the adaptation in terms of striking a balance between comedy and drama?
Steve Coogan: I have to thank Christine Langan at the BBC for introducing me to Jeff. Initially, I didn’t want to write it. I thought it was an interesting story and I thought I wanted to pursue it. And I told her what my take on the story would be together with my producer, Gabrielle Tana, who is the person who kicked me in the pants to get this all going, she said I should write it. But I said: “I’m used to writing comedy rather than drama.” But she said I just needed someone good to write it with and she introduced me to Jeff and now we’re bestest, bestest friends. And it was a real revelation because I learnt from him and we collaborated in the true sense. We both brought different things to it. Jeff would often talk about the structure and the rhythm of the whole piece and I was more about some myopic detail on character and dialogue. So, we both had distinct roles and it was a real pleasure. Writing is as much fun as acting, I think, because you’re there at the genesis of things and it’s pretty exciting.

Q. Did you feel a sense of responsibility portraying Martin Sixsmith on the big screen?
Steve Coogan: I’ve played a handful of real people, including myself, but when I played Martin, again, there was a certain amount of artistic licence. But we were quite ethical about where we invented things and where we didn’t. What we were quite specific about was that the fundamental facts of the story are intact and are true. And the way we wrote the characters was that it was OK if we took a little licence here and there, certainly with Martin. I think it’s 50% Martin and 30% me and 20% bits and bobs of something else. But the point is, we honoured the characters and the way they’re treated. I have spoken to Philomena since she saw it and she’s very pleased with it. She’s seen it twice now in fact. The first time she was concerned, as anyone would be, about being self-conscious watching some portray part of her life on-screen. But she’s happy. And the second time she saw it she enjoyed it because she felt dignified by the film.

Q. The characters go on a journey together and get to know each other slowly. Was it similar for you and Dame Judi after that first meeting and, if so, what did you learn about each other?
Steve Coogan: Getting to know Judi… I was obviously slightly nervous. When we were writing it, Judi was obviously No.1 on our wish-list and our wish came true. But when it came to filming it, we weren’t sure who was going to play Martin and in the end I decided that it would be best if I did [laughs]. But of course I was very nervous about whether I’d be able to share the screen with this iconic figure. I knew I’d have to pull my socks up and pull my finger out. But it was great because when I was on-set Judi and I didn’t spend lots of time anxiously talking about the subtext or the script, we talked for most of the time about anything but what we were dealing with. It was quite a difficult and heavy subject matter that sometimes it was a nice relief to talk about anything that sprang to mind. There was a lot of laughing. It was very relaxed. In terms of what Judi has said about the comedy, I was really playing the straight man here. All the funny lines go to Judi. It made me look generous and her look funny.

Q. Jeff spoke about your passion for the project when you first got hold of it. Where did that passion stem from? I gather your parents acted as foster parents when you were a kid? Did it come from that? Or did it come from John Thomson, a friend of yours, who was adopted?
Steve Coogan: Well, all those things you mention played a part in my being interested in it. And because I’m Irish and because I was raised a Catholic, it felt like I had some licence to talk about it and avoid the clichés, because there are a lot of clichés about faith. It’s true my family are very devout Catholics and I’m not. In a way, from a writing point of view it was an opportunity to address that in a grown-up way and in a way that was about tolerance and understanding and learning to live and love with people who have different points of view. So, part of that is where I’m from. In fact, even though I was raised a Catholic and am not one now, I actually think that a lot of the values I have now are because of my religious upbringing. And these are values I value very highly. But certainly those personal experiences informed the dialogue.

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?
Steve Coogan: Well, we didn’t want to be over-prescriptive and say ‘this is the correct way you should behave’, so it was important to articulate that and not to make everything so… we didn’t want to wrap everything up very neatly with a bow. We wanted to show that there wasn’t a neat resolution but a tolerant equilibrium that could be achieved in the lives of these characters, rather than any complete finality, or conclusive closure as the Americans say, on the whole thing. So, it was important to recognise the different feelings. You can admire what Philomena does without necessary thinking that it’s entirely correct. It’s quite nuanced but we didn’t want it to be overly simplistic. The script was also drawn from talking to Philomena and Martin and finding the truth from that. Sometimes you lead the witness but most of the time it sort of steers you towards a conclusion. You let it steer you rather than coming with these pre-conceptions that you just want to force on a story.

Q. What did you get from your one on one time with Philomena that isn’t perhaps in the original book?
Steve Coogan: Well, I sort of chatted to her a lot when Jeff and I were writing. We both spoke to her a lot. I think her sense of humour and her… stoicism is the wrong word because it implies a sort of granite-like quality. I think she wears her experiences quite lightly. I think her sense of humour is what came across and her general positivity. We tried to put that into the film. Her optimism… I think that’s on-screen because, of course, Martin is this person who hasn’t had anything like as traumatic an experience as Philomena and yet he’s rather self-pitying, which Martin did say that he felt at certain points in his life. Not after he’d spent time with Philomena. So, her glass half full mentality, I suppose. There’s a scene in the film where Judi, as Philomena in the film, grabs my hand and says “I did love him, you know”. Weirdly, in a case of life imitating art, that’s actually something that happened to me because I sat down with Philomena to watch some footage of her son that she hadn’t seen before, and she reached over to me and said that to me. So, I put it in the film as something that happened to Martin. She still has such a great connection with the child after all this time.

Read our review of Philomena

Read our interview with Dame Judi Dench