Philomena is a British film that has lit up the BFI London Film Festival and boasts superb performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
Dench and Coogan were joined by screenwriter Jeff Pope and director Stephen Frears at the press conference to chat about the film
- Jeff and Steve you are writing together and yet you come from different backgrounds: one being comedy and the other drama. So how did that diversity served you in adapting Martin Sixsmith’s book?
Jeff Pope: I knew Steve a little bit. I didn’t encounter a comedy writer, I encountered someone who was fascinated and passionate about the story. The first six months before we even wrote a word was going over and over the story. The comedy works best when it hangs off reality and hangs of a real story.
The interesting thing about the process was being in the room with all of the characters: that was the one great advantage of working with Steve. He is a great mimic, and at any given point I was in the room with a nun, Philomena and with Martin. I saw myself as someone with a butterfly net just catching wonderful lines of dialogue that were in the style of the characters.
Steve Coogan: That sounds alright to me, I will go along with all of that. I have to thank Christine Langan at the BBC for introducing us. I initially didn’t want to write it, but I told her that I had this interesting story and that I wanted to pursue – I went to tell her my take on the story. She told me that I should write it, but I just needed someone to writ it with.
It was a real revelation as I learnt from him. We collaborated in the true sense, that 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 the detail of the characters and the dialogue. It was a real pleasure. Writing is as much fun as acting because you are there at the genesis of the thing.
- Judi what was the draw of this very human story?
Judi Dench: I heard that Steve wanted to come and read it me, that as the first that I heard about the film. He came and read to me and I immediately wanted to do it – before there was ever any tweaking to the script. You only have to hear the story and here about Philomena Lee, and that is irresistible.
- Philomena is based on a true story so did you feel the weight of responsibility of playing a real character on the big screen?
Judi Dench: That is really the only thing that concerns me when I am playing somebody who is alive… I played Iris Murdoch not long after she had died, and felt the responsibility very heavily on my shoulders. I feel with this film, long as we tell Philomena’s story and we are true – which Jeff and Steve have already done by writing the story – we must not sell her short.
She is a remarkable woman and I felt that we had to have absolute truth in the story. I know Philomena, but I haven’t seen her since she has seen the film, so I am looking forward to later to today to hear what she thinks.
Steve Coogan: From my point of view, I have played a handful of real people. There is a certain amount of artistic license but we were very ethical were we invented things. It as ok to take a bit of license here and there, but we honoured the characters.
I have seen Philomena and she is very pleased with the film – she has seen it twice now. The first time she was nervous, as anyone would be when you have to watch someone else portray elements of your life, but the second time she did enjoy it.
- There is a real emotional depth to your character so how much did the fact that you are mother yourself influence your performance?
Judi Dench: Every part that you approach has to be rooted in yourself – you have to make it so it’s not just words coming out. Every experience that you experience yourself you use because that is our craft. Having a daughter and a grandson, I could relate to the fact that this child you totally dote on is taken away. You go through every sort of emotion I suppose.
There are things that aren’t in your persona repertoire, but you have to understand them though reading, watching other things and listening to other people talk about them. Having said that, that is not my story and I have to relate it back to Philomena. It’s like a tangled piece of string and, in the end, you hope you come back to something that is as near to that person as possible.
- The film sees Philomena and Martin go on a journey together, so was that the same for the pair of you during filming? And what did you learn from each other?
Judi Dench: Steve does comedy and I do ‘serious acting’. I think that he should stick to that because he could seamlessly pass over into ‘serious actor’: I could no more get up and tell a joke to a lot of people than I could actually fly to the moon.
Steve Coogan: I told her to say that. When we were writing the script Judi was number one on our wish list, and out wish came true. We weren’t sure who was going to Martin: in the end I decided that it would be best if I did. I was very nervous about whether I would be able to share the screen with this iconic figure sitting next to me. I knew that I would have to pull my socks up and pull my finger out.
Most of the time we talked about anything but what we were doing: it is a heavy subject matter and so it was nice to talk about anything other than the script. It was very relaxed. In this film I actually play the straight man and I gave all of the funny lines to Judi.
- Stephen what was the draw for you to this story?
Stephen Frears: It’s a good story. On top of this tragic story was this romantic comedy or odd couple story and I liked the challenge doing both these things at the same time. It was very interesting, very moving and very funny.
- Steve, Jeff talked about your passion or this project earlier and I was wondering where your passion for this story came from?
Steve Coogan: Because I am Irish and I was raised a Roman Catholic that I did have some license to talk about it and avoid the clichés: there are a lot of clichés when it comes to faith. My family are still devout Catholics, and I am not and so, from a writing point of view, I wanted to address that in a grown up way. I wanted to look at the ideas of acceptance and tolerance and how we have to learn to live and love people who have different points of view.
I was raised a Catholic, even though I am not one now, but I do think that a lot of the values I have were because of my religious upbringing.
- Philomena is a woman who has been through a lot and yet she is a woman whose faith is rooted in forgiveness, how do you approach something like that?
Judi Dench: I like to think that in those circumstances I would behave like that, but I know that I wouldn’t. The power of forgiveness is what the film is about. We know about the issue of children being sold and adopted but what is so extraordinary is how these two people come through something like that: both of them do.
She is one of the most considerable people that I have ever met. While she has lost her son, she does gain something else: in a way she gain another son. Her faith is as strong as strong as it was before. I wish I could say that I would behave like that.
- My question leads on to that. Philomena is someone who forgives while Martin is very angry. So how important was it to downplay those emotions?
Jeff Pope: In talking to Philomena and her daughter, Philomena had arrived at a place where she could truly forgive: it wasn’t forgiveness on an intellectual as it came from within. She really had chosen those people who had caused her so much pain.
Her daughter, a next generation Catholic, she had a more modern and pragmatic look at the world and didn’t forgive. We decided that that is how he would play the end: Philomena had this wonderful act of forgiveness, while Jane’s point of view was represented by Martin. It was also a way of venting what we thought the audience would feel.
Martin Coogan: We didn’t want to wrap everything up neatly at the end, there wasn’t a neat resolution but a tolerant equilibrium that was achieved in the lives of these characters. We didn’t want the end to be overly simplistic.
- Judi did you find this role traumatic? You have built a strong relationship with her and you are re-living the past. So how did that feel for you?
It is the responsibility that you feel to that person: I felt a huge responsibility when I have played Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and Iris Murdoch. I met her before we started filming and so I had an essence of what she was like: she made me laugh a huge amount. You then have to just get on with telling the story that is there and telling it as positively ad truthfully as you can.
When we had the wrap part and we were all sitting around and I was talking to Philomena, then they said ‘here is a bit of the film’. I can’t remember the bit of film that we saw but when the little boy came on said ‘oh look at him’. I was totally aware of hand on my shoulder, because this is her personal story. You don’t want to over dramatize it but you don’t want to under-dramatize it, you just want to be truthful.
- You have all talked about spending time with Philomena, so I was wondering what you got out of your one on one time with her that perhaps wasn’t in the original book?
Steve Coogan: I chatted her a lot and her sense of humour I what came across, as well as her general positivity: she wears her experiences quite lightly. Martin is a person who hasn’t had anything close to these kinds of experiences and yet he is quite self-pitying. But she really does have a glass half full look on life.
Judi Dench: It was her passion for the boy: every time that I have spoken to her she would talk about how much she loved Anthony/Michael.
Steve Coogan: There I a scene in the film where Philomena grabs Martin’s hand and says ‘I did love him you know’. That was life imitating art as that happened to me. I sat down with Philomena and looked at some footage of her son and she reached over and said that to me.
Stephen Frears: she wore her tragedy so lightly, you would never know that it had happened. She was terrific.
The BFI London Film Festival runs 9th - 20th October.