“Philomena” director Stephen Frears and producer, co-writer and star Steven Coogan participated in a conversation Tuesday night at Lincoln Center to discuss their Academy Award-nominated film. Eugene Hernandez, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Director of Digital Strategy, moderated the talk, which also included clips from films and questions from the audience.
“Philomena” earned four Oscar nominations, including for best picture, for actress (Dame Judi Dench), adapted screenplay (Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope) and original score (Alexandre Desplat).
The movie is the true story of Philomena Lee, an unwed Irish Catholic woman banished to a convent to give birth. The movie is the odd couple road trip of Philomena and journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) to find the son that nuns forced Philomena to give up for adoption five decades earlier.
Following are some highlights from the discussion with “The Queen” Academy-Award winning director, and the “Alan Partridge” comic creator:
Why Coogan wanted to work with Frears:
Because all his films manage to have substance and depth but they’re not overtly esoteric.
Jeff (Pope) and I didn’t want to the film to be this narrow sanctimonious self-important piece. We wanted it to be enjoyable and accessible but still imbued with something that was important.
Frears on Coogan’s role in the film:
I realized that Steve’s character and imagination informed everything. Therefore in a way he was the key figure.
I LOATHE the auteur theory.
It was his (Coogan’s) imagination that I had to understand and follow.
Click the images below for larger views and sharing options. All photos by Brad Balfour.
Coogan on why he wanted to make the film:
The reason I pursued this wasn’t just because I wanted to do something different, just to alleviate the boredom of being alive, but the other reason was because I was fed up, especially doing comedy, this sort of acerbic post-modern irony and cynicism that pervades everything in film, especially modern films, which tend to be a triumph of style over substance.
It struck me that what was once post-modern was once the avant-garde choice and is now the mainstream choice. It defines most movies and actually the most avant-garde thing you can do is talk about love.
The challenge of directing Dame Judi Dench and Coogan in scenes where there are conflicts, both religious and social, between the two characters:
Frears: I did NO work. I did NO work.
Coogan: The one thing he did do for me, I asked Stephen to keep an eye on me so that I wouldn’t become too overly animated opposite this very subtle, nuanced actress called Dame Judi Dench.
Frears: George Cukor didn’t tell Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy how to act. You get the two right people in the room, and the writing reflects the conflict.
On what Frears sees as his role as director:
I learned to shut up … You cast it right and you write it right and then you shut up.
Coogan on his script and how the experience of working with Frears was different than working with other directors:
Michael Winterbottom, for example, I didn’t want Michael to do this one because Michael throws the script away almost every day and says let’s just make some stuff up and I was damned if anyone was going to throw my script away. I crafted it. I spent a long time choosing these words carefully, and so Stephen was quite the perfect person for it.
Coogan on a line that Judi Dench took out of the script:
She didn’t want to say something patronizing to Philomena or to make her look foolish.
In some ways, she (Philomena) is a lot like all old Irish ladies, but when when we get to know her, she’s authentic, more nuanced and more three-dimensional.
On the eclectic nature of Frears’ directorial choices:
Frears: There’s a consistency in it. I hope it’s a sense of curiosity. It’s made my life very interesting.
On whether Coogan was intimidated by working with such an acclaimed actress, Dame Judi Dench:
Americans are very impressed by titles. We don’t give a shit about it.
Coogan on his rapport with Philomena and his appreciation of her faith:
I’m not a Catholic but there’s something about people who have that stoic simple faith that I respect, and so I wanted to get stuff off my chest, and also recognize that there’s something that’s still important about it that I don’t really understand but Philomena dignifies by her forgiveness.
What it was like for Coogan to meet Pope Francis last week at a screening of the film at the Vatican, especially since Coogan is vocal about being a lapsed Catholic.
I didn’t get into that with him.
We went on behalf of an organization in Ireland called Adoption Alliance that helps people like Philomena who have their children forcibly adopted. The organization traces where their children are and also helps the children of those unwed mothers find their mothers.
Pope Francis had heard of the film (“Philomena”) and his advisors had told him to come meet us.
The Pope was very nice.
Coogan about the experience of screening a film that is, in some scenes, highly critical of the Church and the nuns:
I had to introduce it and I said, look, this film is very critical of the church, but I think Catholicism is dignified through the character of Philomena and, therefore, we throw them a bone or an olive branch.
The film is consistent with the message of Pope Francis, which is a more nuanced, forgiving, compassionate message and less preoccupied with dogma
Coogan: In real terms, it was the first time I’ve ever done something not on the basis of advice from people around me, agents or managers or anyone else. I just did it because I wanted to do it and I hoped it would be worth it, so I feel I have my sense of vindication at this point.