T HAS been a year of contrasts for Cork film and television director John Crowley. Over the summer he was caught up in the critical backlash against the controversial finale of season two of HBO’s True Detective. Crowley had overseen the climactic 90 minute episode.
But that was then. As we meet in a hotel in Dublin he is now the toast of the industry, his big-screen adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s emigrant tale Brooklyn acclaimed as one of the year’s most important movies, with lead actress Saoirse Ronan regarded as a near certainty for an Oscar nomination. You’ll forgive him if he seems a little disorientated.
“I did True Detective straight after putting blood, sweat and tears into Brooklyn,” says Crowley (46), his Leeside accent modulated by 20 years in London and peppered with the occasional American inflection. “And then, after True Detective, I went straight to Australia to direct a play with Cate Blanchett and her company.”
Crowley is a respected name in theatre and has directed at the Abbey, and at the National and Donmar Warehouse in the UK. Among film-goers, he is perhaps best known for Intermission, a gobby 2003 movie starring Cillian Murphy and Colin Farrell as Dublin ne’er do wells on the margins of polite society.
Foul-mouthed and free-wheeling, Intermission was a huge critical success and opened doors in Hollywood. Crowley was offered major budget movies but turned all of them down. He’s waited until now for make a film with true commercial potential. Brooklyn is a 1950s-set meditation on the Irish migrant experience, with Ronan as a young woman from Wexford torn between love interests on both sides of the Atlantic.
Crowley fought hard to direct the movie, adapted for the screen by novelist Nick Hornby and co-produced by the writer’s wife Amanda Posey (and featuring Domhnall Gleeson and Emory Cohen as rivals for the affections of Ronan’s character). Without wishing to suggest a non-Irish director would have mishandled the material, Crowley feels he was ideally positioned to bring to life Tóbín’s thoroughly unsentimental vision of 1950s Ireland. He was certainly familiar with Irish-America — its often strained relationship with the old country.
“Growing up in the ’70s in Cork, there was what we used to refer to as ‘the Yanks’,” he says. “I thought we were the only people who had Yanks. That there were only five of them. I learned all my friends had their own yanks as well. They used to come home every second summer for one or two weeks — they would want to do the grand tour of the English Market, have Barry’s Tea, tripe and drisheen, black pudding.
“It was mind-blowing — they looked like a race of super humans. They were tanned, their teeth were white. They were glamorous, felt bigger somehow. Why on earth would they want to come back to Cork in the ’70s and taste the local food when they could have a hot dog on Fifth Avenue? It was beyond me. As you grow up you realise that their relationship to home was complicated and profound — and way beyond our cliches of Irish America.”
Crowley grew up on the Douglas Road in Cork, the son of a fireman and a stay-at-home mother. He attended St Anthony’s primary school in Ballinlough and later went to St Francis College Rochestown and Christians Brothers College. He grew up loving cinema.
“My dad enjoyed westerns and war movies,” he recalls. “You’d hound him to take you to a film. I vividly remember seeing Star Wars in the Capitol on the Grand Parade in Cork when it came out. However, it wasn’t by any means a cinephile background. It’s only later on that your brain wakes up a little bit and you become attuned to things a little differently.”
He studied arts in UCC, joining the ‘Dramat’ theatre society on his first day of college. He had it vaguely in his head that he might like to work in theatre (his older brother Bob was already a successful in the UK, and has gone on to become one of the most acclaimed theatre designers on the planet).
By his graduation in 1992 with an MA in philosophy he had an inkling his future was not beneath the spotlight but behind the scenes.
“The Abbey and the Gate started offering me work as director. And I got asked to direct at The National in London, when I was 27 and have been there ever since.”
True Detective was Crowley’s first foray into American television. He’s vaguely friendly with writer and show-runner Nic Pizzolatto and for that reason jumped at the opportunity to direct two episodes from the second series. Going in, he sensed that TD 2.0 might suffer a backlash.
“I got a lot of good and bad reactions,” he says of the finale. “I tried to keep my head down. I don’t take it personally.”
He contrasts directing for television – in which you are largely a gun for hire – with overseeing a movie. Crowley had to campaign for Brooklyn, telling Hornby and the producers that he could bring the personal experiences and insights that would deepen the movie and ensure it was more than mere period romance.
“I got a call saying did I want to read the script. I loved it and spoke about it passionately to Nick and Amanda and [co-producer] Finola Dwyer. I knew them a little bit – they had asked me to do one or two things in the past,” he says..
His first decision on winning the gig was to cast Saoirse Ronan , who, as a precocious 12 year old, was Oscar nominated for Atonement.
“Another [actress] who was not Irish was coming off the project that that point. My immediate instinct was Saoirse. She was the right age – had proved herself to be an amazing child and juvenile actress and had yet to give the adult performance people were for from her. To be able to make this film just as she was going from a young girl to a young woman was a real gift.”
“With Brooklyn, I put in blood, sweat and tears,” he says. “It was really important that we got it right. It’s a very small story on a lot of levels.
“Not a lot happens. However, it’s a story of huge scale too – a profoundly important story for the country and its history. I don’t want to overburden it. However, if only 10 people see it, it has still got to be gotten right. It would be very easy to let the story go off the rails, to falsely dramatise or sentimentalise it. We went to enormous lengths to ensure that didn’t happen.”