Writing Obsession: Nick Hornby on Brooklyn
Nick Hornby discusses his first rule of screenwriting, why he doesn’t trust characters without obsessiveness, and how indie filmmakers can “cast up” by creating interesting minor characters.
By Christopher McKittrick.
With Brooklyn, novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby adds another rich adapted screenplay to his filmography, this time one that explores the often-heartbreaking narrative of immigration and building a new life in a new world. In addition, Brooklyn follows Hornby’s previous adapted screenplays focusing on female protagonists after Wild and the Oscar-nominated An Education.
An adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 historical novel, Brooklyn follows a young Irish woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) as she leaves her homeland to begin a new life in Brooklyn, New York. Though initially terribly homesick, Eilis begins to assert herself and soon meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a working-class Italian American who instantly takes a shine to her. However, after building the foundation of a new life in America, a terrible family tragedy compels Eilis to return to Ireland where she feels pressured by family, friends, and a handsome, friendly man named Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) to return to her homeland permanently. Throughout Brooklyn Eilis discovers the importance of asserting her independence in an era when women more often fell in line with societal norms.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Hornby after the screening of Brooklyn at last month’s New York Film Festival, about his first rule of screenwriting, why he doesn’t trust characters without obsessiveness, how indie filmmakers can “cast up” by creating interesting minor characters, and what America meant to European immigrants of Brooklyn’s era.
Note that this interview contains spoilers for the film.
The first letter Eilis receives from her sister is very mundane in terms of the content, but because she’s so homesick it makes her break down anyway. Her homesickness takes up much of the film’s early narrative. Could you talk about writing that?
That is one of the things that the book and the movie are about, really. Homesickness is a very profound emotion because usually when it happens the worst, it’s when you realize that even if you do get to go back home, the life that you had there would not be the same. A lot of us feel it when we’re going to college. Even if you move in with a girlfriend, the act of doing that wiped out the life you were living before.
It’s a very powerful and scary thing. From the times I felt it in my life – just the impression of it, thinking “I’m not going to be able to find a way out of this fog” – I think John [Crowley, director] and Saoirse convey that beautifully with that first letter and her inability to deal with a customer at work, with her boss asking her if it’s her time of the month.
I think lots of people know what it’s like to be in the middle of that black cloud, and if the movie was going to work we had to convey that as strongly as possible. The juxtaposition of the banality of the content of the letter and the sheer misery of wanting to have that life, knowing what that life is, and not having access to it was written that way.
You mentioned her boss at work. Female relationships in this movie are fascinating because in most instances they start harshly and grow to warmth, as with her bunkmate on the boat and Miss Fortini, her boss. While the main plot is driven by the relationship between Eilis and her suitors, why are these relationships between Eilis and other women so key to this story?
It’s something very striking when you read the book and think about the lives of those girls. They quite often had to room together, often worked in retail or some kind of domestic service, and marriage was the only route to take you out of the situation you were in.
In terms of the harshness, I had trained as a teacher and there’s a terrible expression that old teachers use, which is “Never smile before Easter.” When you’re a young teacher you’re nice to the kids and you get torn to pieces, so the next year you never smile before Easter [Laughs]. It’s a way of marking out what the rules of this relationship are, and that’s certainly true with the woman on the boat. It’s “She’s not going to fuck with me, and she has to know that’s my bed and this is how we do things. If she understands that, then we can have a relationship.” The same thing applies in the shop – “You have to do what I say, and if you can do that then we can operate.” It’s a hard world, and to a certain extent you have to draw your grid, stand in it, and say, “This is mine!” and after that we can start to get on.
Switching to Eilis’ relationship with the male characters, in a movie with two suitors for a female protagonist it’s very easy to write one suitor as a great guy and the other as a jerk. That’s not the case in Brooklyn, of course. Even though Eilis is initially very negative toward Jim because she’s predisposed not to like him, she grows to like him. And obviously, Tony is written to be so sweet. As you’re writing, how do you ensure the audience is not going to immediately dislike Jim?
Of course, the same thing happens when you’re reading the book. The moment you meet Jim you think, “Oh, no, no! Don’t! That’s not right!” The obvious thing to do is to make sure every beat and line Jim has fights against your initial perception. When she gets in the car she says, “What are you doing here?” When he says to his friend, “Maybe we’ll go to the bar and find some friends to talk to” and when she says, “What are we not good enough?” He says, “We were told to keep out because you needed some time with your friend.” She’s on the back foot with him from the first exchange because he was being thoughtful. It wasn’t what it looked like at all. Then when they’re walking into the bar he speaks very movingly about Rose’s death and he says, “It was the saddest thing to happen in the town that I can remember.” Again, I think the audience can’t help but respond because you haven’t given the audience any time to make up their own minds, actually. He has to be a fundamentally decent, nice guy from the first second because you already dislike him, so he has to fight against that the moment he comes on screen.
It was really interesting technically because when you get to that bit in the book it’s nearly over and she meets this guy. You think, “No way, there’s no way you’re going to convince me that this guy is a viable alternative.” Then within ten pages you go, “Ah, shit! Now I don’t know what she should do.” It made it very simple because I knew every second that you saw Jim he had be doing something that would win Eilis and the audience over. There was no time to mess around with him.
Religion is a major undercurrent throughout the film. For example, the whole reason Eilis is in America is because a priest helped her, and God is mentioned in each one of those wonderful dinner conversations at Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house. Why is religion so important to this story?
Because it was important to Irish people in the 1950s. The Church permeated everything and was incredibly important. Last night one of the questions from the New York Film Festival audience was “Why didn’t she just divorce Tony if she wanted to live in Ireland?” and Colm [Tóibin, author of the novel] had a brilliant answer. He said, “My mother didn’t know everything, but she was absolutely sure that were two people in Hell. She knew that Adolf Hitler was in hell, and the other was Elizabeth Taylor!” [Laughs] It was Elizabeth Taylor because of all the divorces. There was no doubt in Colm’s mother’s mind that Elizabeth Taylor was going to Hell, and that’s why Eilis doesn’t divorce Tony. Divorce was kind of a big deal then [Laughs].
In the same idea of the importance of religion, a lot of your writing features characters that have an almost religious devotion to something. In High Fidelity it’s music, in Fever Pitch – either version – it’s sports, everything 90s pop culture in About a Boy, Tucker Crowe in Juliet Naked, even Lucille Ball in Funny Girl. Why do you tend to write characters with such obsessions?
Because I don’t trust people who don’t have it. But obsession performs different functions in different works. For Sophie in Funny Girl Lucille Ball is pure role model and she’s the motor for ambition, while music in High Fidelity it has the opposite effect, it actually retards everybody and stops them from doing anything else [Laughs]. But I guess the people I respond to the most are people who are inspired by something outside of themselves and something outside of wanting to make money and taking care of their kids. There’s got to be something more, and I always want to find that thing in other people. What’s your thing that isn’t just about getting through the day? I think most people have one.
Unlike the other letters in the film, the audience isn’t told what was in Eilis’ final letter to Jim. Did you consider revealing it in the film, and why did you think it was stronger just to leave it implied?
I don’t think we ever talked about it. I think that it’s the kind of thing that if you do try it you realize that it’s dramatically inert. You basically know what’s in the letter. I think that you absolutely believe that Eilis told him the truth and so you can write the shit out of that letter and hope that it’s the most moving letter ever, but you are still telling the audience what they already know at a really, really crucial part of the film where hopefully everybody is already in bits. The words they would hear would slightly drag against the images because it’s something like, “Dear Jim, I hate to tell you this but I am already married and as you’re reading this I am on my way back to Brooklyn.” The first rule of screenwriting is don’t tell the audience what they’re already seeing.
And it’s such a perfect shot when Jim is reading the letter, too.
It’s amazing! I just thought trying to write something that somehow rises above the information that it must contain wasn’t a job I wanted to take on. I think you can always feel when you’re straining as a writer. I can feel when I’m straining for effect and the strain comes from trying to do an impossible job.
Last time we spoke we talked about how you have been focusing on female-led projects lately. Both An Education and Brooklyn feature women who are trying to advance their educations in eras where that was uncommon. Do you see other similarities between Jenny and Eilis?
They’re different characters. Jenny is way more sassy and engaged than Eilis. Eilis is very watchful. One of Eilis’ big moments – though it’s such a tiny moment – is that dance when she’s with the awful girl, Dolores (Jenn Murray), and Eilis decides, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be this put-upon girl who does anything anyone asks me. I’m going to stand with the bad girls.” That’s a really big thing for her, but it’s taken her quite a while to get to that point. Jenny would have just not gone to the dance in the first place, she would’ve gone and done something else. In terms of young women whose choices are limited by the time their living in and they’re trying to pick their way through that, then yes, there is a sort of version of one in the other.
What about a more modern character like Cheryl in Wild?
Well you can’t use the times in the same way. So Cheryl’s plot was all internal, a difficult childhood and the overwhelming grief that came when she lost the one person she had that was looking out for her and the way she chose to respond to that, which was perhaps not what a priest would’ve advised [Laughs]. You know, take a lot of drugs and sleep with a lot of guys. So you’re dealing with an internal state rather than external pressures. Internal states are always harder to write about, actually.
There are three supporting characters that stand out to me because of their dialogue: Miss Kelly, Mrs. Kehoe, and Tony’s youngest brother. Do you enjoy writing scene-stealing characters like that, or do you find them more difficult to write because they have moments where they have to hit the audience and then get out before the next scene?
I absolutely love writing minor characters. One thing that I think I’ve realized is that minor characters are where it’s at in terms of lifting the quality of a film. You have to take care of your leads, but if people love minor characters you’re on a different plateau. Then it feels like the movie is being made with love and care. For a start – and this is a huge thing – if you’ve written a proper part for a minor character you’re going to an actor of an altogether different magnitude to do it. There are not too many of those Mrs. Kehoe scenes and it’s probably just two days work. But there are not millions of those parts, and we got Julie fucking Walters, Oscar-nominee, to do this part and having a blast with it as well. If you don’t provide that kind of stuff for those roles you might get a good and competent actress, but you’re not going to get someone who sets the screen on fire. We got Rosamund Pike in An Education and she really gave that movie an extra something just being Rosamund Pike in that part.
But again, if you haven’t provided something for them to do, you’re not going to get them. Independent filmmakers especially talk all the time about “casting up” because you need all the help you can get, and the best way to cast up is to make sure that the minor characters are interesting, funny, different, and memorable. Then if you want to send the script to a really good actor and say, “Look, it’s a day or two day’s work, but you get to say this” then something really great could come out of it.
Is there ever any concern that you could overuse a minor character and that character would lose something?
It’s not that the character would lose something, the movie would lose something. You have so little room and time that if you start to indulge something that you know works but isn’t going to advance Eilis’ story then the cost is too great, I think.
What do you think America meant to European immigrants of the time period of Brooklyn?
I know kind of exactly what it meant because I lived through a milder version of it. I was a kid in the 1960s and I read Marvel Comics. For me it was the adverts in the back of the comics that made me think, “People can buy this stuff in America? These bug toys and x-ray specs?” We had nothing like that at all. I think Americans cannot understand just how different it was to live in U.S. society then. We just envied everything. There’s one line in Brooklyn where Eilis is talking about the winters to one of her customers and she says, “You’re only cold outside here.” Even in the 1960s and the 1970s there were so many parts of England where you were cold inside. Nobody had central heating because the housing was incredibly old. Lots of people still had outside toilets. You had movies that we didn’t have. We didn’t want to see our own movies; they were rubbish. We wanted to see your movies, but we had to wait a year for them. Colm was talking earlier on about being a huge fan of Saul Bellow, and he said he could remember when Humboldt’s Gift came out. It was only a rumor that someone had heard because it was not published in the UK and there was no way of looking the reviews up.
I wanted to go to America so badly, but in the 1960s that felt like saying that I wanted to go to a premiere of a movie that I had written. It felt like an ambition on that kind of level. If you projected into the future and told me that not just me because of my books but teachers and nurses I know would visit New York several times in their twenties because it’s fun, it would’ve been like, “What kind of world is this, where people can just do that?” Of course, the 1950s were something else because you had to go through that incredibly painful, miserable journey. I always think of that scene where Eilis is sick on the boat as basically a labor scene. Before she can get to America, she has to go through this.
Now it’s completely leveled out – we have central heating, we have the same movies, you have our TV programs, and everything has kind of melded together. But then, your hamburgers and everything were beyond our imagination. Europe was financially and physically ruined by World War II. For those years between 1945 and 1980, this was a country that we could only barely imagine.
If you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to check out our other interview with Nick Hornby: Externalising Inner Turmoil in Wild.