Exclusive interview with On Chesil Beach director Dominic Cooke

On release now in selected Cineworlds, On Chesil Beach sees Ian McEwan adapt his own Booker Prize-nominated story. This powerful drama explores the courtship, marriage and tense honeymoon between young couple Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), set in 1962 prior to the famous British 'youthquake'.

The movie is the feature film debut of esteemed theatre director Dominic Cooke, a veteran of productions such as The Crucible, and whose work has also extended to award-winning Shakespearean drama The Hollow Crown on TV. We caught up with Dominic to discuss the making of the movie and what it was like working with these two accomplished actors.

On Chesil Beach
is your feature film debut so what was it about this story that encouraged your transition from stage to the big screen?

Well yes, I've done theatre and television but I've always loved cinema. It was just a case of finding the right script. And this one really jumped out at me, in large part due to the quality of the writing. I've spent a lot of time reading scripts as a theatre director, and you subsequently become attuned to quality.

It was beautifully written. I loved the honesty of it. I loved the compassion inherent in this story about two young people struggling to connect in a world that has given them no such skills to do so. It's prior to the cultural revolution of the mid to late 1960s and I loved the depiction of that stuffy world. There were lots about it that appealed and made me realise that I'd love to adapt it.

You mentioned the script there and somewhat unusually, Ian McEwan adapts his own novella. What was the nature of the collaboration with him on the script?

Well what happened was, the script had first been written a few years prior to production, and then the initial team attached to the project moved onto something else.

It then languished for a bit. Liz Carlton, my producer, rediscovered it, so it had already been around for a while. Then, when I first came on board, I talked with Ian about where I thought it could go, although it did feel quite evolved already as a script. It wasn't one that needed a massive amount of rethinking.

Obviously, I then read the book, which I hadn't done before. And finally, the whole thing began to move forward, and we sat down together, thinking about the various acts of the film, what was happening and where things were going.

Some other bits also needed clarifying. When I first read the script, the scene with the train accident, for instance, wasn't in it, and I thought that was a key moment of backstory that needed to be in there. A lot of the work was on the last section of the script.

So much of Ian McEwan's work is about getting inside the characters' heads and exploring what they're not saying to each other. How much of a challenge is it to take something that's internal and put it on to the big screen?

The key thing with that, I think, is getting the right actors. How do they convey things through body language? And how do they convey the period? That's what successful casting is all about. And both actors in this movie convey a very complex inner life. On the big screen, there's a space in which you can see all of that happening.

Talking about Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, how extensive was the process in discovering the right actors?

Around the time that Ian and I first met, Saoirse's film Brooklyn came out and I loved the movie. She was just perfect in it.

Having watched that, I thought she would be an ideal Florence because of her ability to convey both an outer and inner reality, simultaneously. There's also a delicacy, a gentleness, a fineness about her that was perfect for Florence. And of course, she already had a great relationship with Ian's work, having made Atonement. When On Chesil Beach had first been adapted into the script, she was too young to play the part, but she was exactly the right age when it finally came to starting production. So, I met with her and we just connected.

Finding Edward was much harder. A lot of young actors don't have that singular type of masculinity in them. We met a lot of great actors who didn't necessarily have the right feel for either the character or the period depicted. We then met with Billy and put him together with Saoirse and their chemistry was great. Billy can communicate thought between the lines, so we knew we'd found our Edward.

Although there are several characters in the story, essentially this is a very intimate tale about two people, for the large part holed up in a Dorset hotel room. Both actors are incredible in conveying the awkwardness and trepidation of the new marriage, so how much rehearsal time went into that?

We did do a few days' rehearsal. It helps enormously when you get actors of this calibre who are so highly attuned. Both of them had a sense of storytelling and were also very curious, ready to tackle what the story beats were as well as working on the internal lives of their characters. I was pushing them all the time to go deeper, internally, and then to show that.

There's this tension between what's going on beneath and what their characters want to show outwardly. A lot of the awkwardness comes from what's not being said. There's also a claustrophobia to that hotel room in terms of how poky and unromantic it is.

Was there anything that translated from your extensive theatre background into the making of this film?

Yes, a lot. I mean, this is an actor's film, really. It's a film that relies a lot on the details of performance. The language of working with actors becomes second nature to a theatre director. This is a movie about psychology and inner lives, so the process of working with the actors wasn't unfamiliar to me, given my theatre background. I could mainly focus on those areas while pulling together in a wider sense with my brilliant design team to make the thing work as a piece of cinema.

Yes, because your cinematographer Sean Bobbitt has worked extensively with director Steve McQueen in the past on films like 12 Years a Slave. What was the visual approach that he brought to this?

He's a real artist is Sean. He's very collaborative. And what I love about his work with Steve McQueen was I couldn't see the joins in their work. I couldn't tell which bits were Sean's and which bits were Steve's. Each of their films has such a distinctive look, depending on the subject matter, and both of those things were important. He's also an actor's cinematographer, and I think it helps that he operates the camera himself. That's all the better for absorbing the nuances of an actor's performance.

I didn't do any storyboards on this film, so by the time we got on set, we thought a lot about, for instance, the films of John Huston, in which he would only cut when he absolutely needed to cut. We also kept all green colours out of the interior scenes, because green is said to have a psychological and emotional impact on the viewing audience. By removing it, we create our own kind of impact.

Going back to Saoirse Ronan, she's an extraordinary actress who rarely puts a foot wrong in anything. To what extent did her involvement in the film help raise its profile?

Well it was very simple, all of a sudden, the finances fell into place! Not only that, but her involvement hastened the interest of other actors for key roles in the movie.

You filmed on the real Chesil Beach in Dorset. What kind of impact does that have on the actors? 

It's certainly a beautiful location but it's also hard to work in, which adds something. It's kind of wild and also weirdly claustrophobic. There's a hemmed in quality to it. So all of that was taken into consideration. We all went there on a recce, Sean and I included, and we immediately decided there and then. The producers, naturally, were wondering how on Earth we were going to make it work.

Dominic, thanks very much!

My pleasure!

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