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This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Usually all you have to do is hop on the L train, but for producer Finola Dwyer, the journey to Brooklyn took much longer. After acquiring the rights to Colm Toibin’s best-selling book — which Nick Hornby adapted for the screen — Dwyer knew that everything had to be just right in order to pull off a period film that director John Crowley could shoot in three countries on a roughly $10.5 million budget. In the yearslong preproduction process for Dwyer and her producing partner, Amanda Posey, patience became just as important as finding the right brownstones for this 1950s tale of a young Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) finding new life and love in New York.
How did you originally get involved with Brooklyn?
I read the novel, and it was very much my mom’s story. She went from Dublin to New Zealand in 1951 and was very homesick. And I met Colm [Toibin] just by chance one weekend in New York through a friend at this rare-book fair. His agents were in conversation with someone else, but he said, “If you want it, the book is yours.” It was just really one of those totally meant-to-be moments.
Toibin actually has a small cameo in the movie, as an immigrant at Ellis Island. How did that come about?
I told Colm that John [Crowley] and I had discussed it, and if he’d like to be an extra in the immigration scene, it’d be fantastic. He joked that he was hoping he’d be cut out so that he could go around telling everybody how we’d left him on the cutting-room floor.
Which character would you say was the hardest to cast?
Tony. We had to find a guy to play against Saoirse. A lot of guys who read [for the part] were a bit older, in their early 30s, which was visually too old to go with her. Names can help financing, and it can also help find your audience, because if people recognize names, they go, “Oh! That guy’s in it? I like that guy,” but after a while, it was just like, “We’ve got to find the right person.” You know, honesty and innocence and openness are really kind of hard to find in a lot of these younger actors. They do superhero movies. So it took a long while to have [someone with] the right personality and feel and age. We found Emory Cohen sometime in October, and John had cast Saoirse in January, so it was months before we found our Tony. There was no point to hurry if our guy wasn’t right. It was like, we have come this far and waited so long, let’s be patient.
The budget was very tight, but was there anything you fought really hard for?
Well, I spent close to six months negotiating with SAG to allow us to shoot the two days in New York without turning it into a full-blown SAG movie because the financing was so tight. That was one thing I would not give up on. We couldn’t find the brownstones anywhere else; they just didn’t exist. We needed to place our audience in Brooklyn with that first scene of [Saoirse] walking down the street with those brownstones. And Coney Island we couldn’t find anywhere else. We hadn’t imagined we could actually shoot there because we thought it would have changed too much for the period. We got into New York [from Montreal], and the next day we shot on Coney Island; it was the last day before it started up for the summer. If we hadn’t shot that day, we couldn’t have gotten it.
The film premiered a year ago at Sundance. Did you ever think at that time you would be an Oscar contender a year later?
I always knew Brooklyn was something special, but I didn’t want to talk about it because you want to make sure things work out. With Saoirse, you just know that if we get the script right and put the right team together, she would have an Oscar-worthy role and movie. It’s about finding the best film in what you have.
• Studio Fox Searchlight
• Release date Nov. 25
• Domestic box office $32.3 million
• Director John Crowley
• Cast Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson
• Top awards and noms BAFTA and PGA best pic noms; Globe, SAG and BAFTA noms for Ronan
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