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Director John Crowley on making The Goldfinch: 'If you love the book you’re going to want to do the right thing by it'

The Irish director talks to us about the reaction to his new film, what drew him to adapting the book, and his thoughts on Brexit.

Image: Andrew Lahodynskyj

IT’S A FUNNY thing, to make a project as huge as a Hollywood film. Big budgets, big pressure, and a whole heap of moving parts to coordinate. 

Then the film comes out and in the time it takes for a tweet to be sent, a certain opinion can be cast over the entire thing. It’s something many filmmakers experience, the latest of whom being Irish man John Crowley, director of The Goldfinch. Crowley is a longtime theatre and movie director who also brought us the much-loved black comedy Intermission and the hugely successful Brooklyn.

The Goldfinch is an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. It was no small book to adapt. Quite literally, as it is a whopping 800 pages long, but the story it tells is also a big one. It brings us the tale of a young boy, Theo Decker, who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing. After she dies, he takes the priceless artwork The Goldfinch, which was painted by Dutch master Carel Fabritius. The boy clings to the painting throughout his life, as it becomes a symbol of his enduring love for his mother. 

It was a massive task to adapt such an epic, but Crowley – who grew up on Cork city’s Douglas Road – wanted to be on board simply because he loved the book.

“I read the book for pleasure,” he tells TheJournal.ie. “What I was left with after reading the book was the emotion of it, so that’s the thing that really struck me. Even though it’s a huge novel, at its core is a very small story, an intimate story about a boy who gets stuck in his grief.”

It must be difficult, I venture, to be a director in this era and knowing that minutes after your film is premiered there will be red-hot reactions online. While social media is a boon for fans and critics as it allows real-time conversations about films, it must surely be tricky for the filmmakers themselves to deal with. It could be argued that there’s not much time for a film to ‘settle’.

“I mean you know, reactions to the work – it’s always better when people are positive about it than not,” acknowledges Crowley. “You can’t control that. The only thing you can control is this piece of work and your intention.”

rev-1-GF-T1-0009_High_Res_JPEG Ansel Elgort

He’s not wide-eyed and naive when it comes to how things work in the world of criticism. Sometimes things go your way, sometimes they don’t.

“Listen, I’ve been around enough and I’ve spent a lot of time working in theatre,” he adds. “If you do any quantity of things, you will get great reactions and sometimes horrific reactions. Sometimes they’re justified. But once you see both extremes of it you realise it is not the be-all and end-all.”

You’re not, he underlines, doing anything for approval – you’re using your instincts to create the best piece of work you can at the time you’re creating it.

“That’s all you can control – and you would bend yourself into a neurotic pretzel shape if you focused on [the reviews],” he adds.

‘It was a real privilege to direct this film’

Crowley’s been in the theatre and film business a long time. Is it like he imagined it might be, when he daydreamed growing up?

“Probably not, no,” comes his honest answer. He says that when you’re younger you think if you start working on things you want to work on, “everything will be completely perfect”.

“You’re always trying to be the best you can with the material you have. The truth is it was a real privilege to direct this film and I feel very honoured to be given the reins,” he goes on. “But mostly when you’re making a film it’s so busy and so crazy that you don’t have to think about that kind of thing, you just try to trust your instincts.

If you love the book you’re going to want to do the right thing by it. You have to trust your own instincts.

rev-1-GF-08287r_High_Res_JPEG Crowley with Ansel Elgort on set.

So what drew him to the book in the first place?

He says he was taken by the “original way into that scene that Donna [Tartt] had created, and of course the worlds that are in the book – the Upper East Side, contrasting with Greenwich Village and the suburbs of Las Vegas”. 

“It all felt so inviting to try and visualise,” he says. The film flashes back and forth across time periods, with Oakes Fegley playing the young Theo and Ansel Elgort the older boy, 13 years later.

The visuals are indeed sumptuous, with attention paid to the set dressing and costume design to make sure the film has a timeless look to it in many scenes.

The adult Theo’s perfectly tailored suits and just-so glasses tell us a lot about what kind of person he projects himself to be. Similarly, the cosy knitted jumpers and patterned cravats that the character Hobie  (Jeffrey Wright of Westworld, in fine form as the man who takes in Theo) wears show us both that his attention to detail is exquisite, and that he has a heart of gold.

Then there’s the art which features heavily in the film, both in the scenes in the art gallery in The Met where Theo’s mother dies, and in the home of the Barbours, the family Theo moves in with after the incident. Creating the explosion scenes necessitated recreating certain rooms in The Met, while the paintings were recreated by printing images on photographic paper, and then texturing them to make them look aged.

The explosion itself is depicted in a more subtle way than you might think. The cinematographer Roger Deakins has explained: “It’s very much about Theo’s memory of the event, and we both thought it would be stronger if it was about the details and not the overall devastation. John very much wanted that when Theo wakes up in the dust, it is like he is in this kind of void really, almost to mirror his senses. And so we built on that.”

‘The past sits on the shoulders of the present’

Screenwriter for the film was the Oscar-nominated Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who Crowley describes as “fantastic”. Straughan wanted to focus on two distinct time periods in the film, and Crowley says that rather than the linear approach, flashing back and forth was “the only way to tackle” this.

“We were able to cut back and forth, which allowed us use an intimate language, and allowed us to visually land the image. The past sits on the shoulders of the present,” says Crowley. As the film shows, the same problems that were there for young Theo are there for older Theo too, despite the passing of years.

In order to adapt the book for screen, they did have to shift the order of some of the events around to present tense.

“We wrote a scene that was never in the original,” adds Crowley. “You have to be able to land what you’re focusing in on dramatically, especially with Hobie. We wrote that big explosive scene between him and Theo, which wasn’t in the book.”

The director says that by creating new scenes like this, you hope that “what you’re doing is being very true to character and the spirit of what was written, rather than re-writing the book”.

rev-1-GF-FP-0042_High_Res_JPEG Ansel Elgort.

The film boasts a high-profile cast, including Nicole Kidman. She plays Mrs Barbour, the mother of a school friend of Theo’s in New York, who takes him in after his mother dies. But Theo is forced to move when his no-good father (Luke Wilson) and girlfriend (Sarah Paulson, in a wonderfully trashy turn) turn up. That’s where the Las Vegas section of the film comes in. 

Kidman told one interviewer that she wanted to get on board when she saw that Crowley’s name was attached to The Goldfinch. “It’s very nice, very flattering,” says Crowley when this is put to him. “And maybe a bit daunting. I didn’t want to disappoint her expectations. I enjoyed working with her, especially [because of] the work she’s been doing in the past four to five years. There’s been a real renaissance in her career, it’s phenomenal.”

He describes Kidman as being a very dedicated worker. “When you see her up close she is incredibly hardworking and diligent, her preparation for it began long before she arrived into New York for rehearsal.” She was “delightful on set”, he adds. “She could not do enough work on set – she always wanted one more [take].”

rev-1-GF-13566r_High_Res_JPEG Finn Wolfhard and Oakes Fegley/

Crowley is a director who truly loves working with actors. “For me one of the greatest pleasures of directing, whether theatre or film, is working with actors and figuring out no two are the same,” he says. “Figuring out specifically what will help this actor is a great task and a great problem to tackle ultimately; in both media you have to have an instinct for narrative in your story. They vastly differ on a technical level, and the [creative] process is very different.”

He describes himself as “lucky to be able to jump back and forth” between theatre and film. “They really shake you up and challenge you”. While filmmaking can be a long and drawn out process, there’s a totally different sense of speed to theatre, one that Crowley describes as “thrilling” and “terrifying”. 

Next up for Crowley is Local Hero, which will be on stage in the Old Vic in London in 2020. In the works is also a film adaptation of Midwinter Break, the novel by Irish writer Bernard McLaverty. 

But in between all that, there’s the matter of living in London – his base for two decades – during Brexit. He describes the British exit from the EU as “really shocking”: “It’s very hard to make sense of why the country is doing this to itself.”

“Like a lot of people who come here, there are certain things that I love about this country,” says Crowley. “You don’t realise what they are until they are challenged or sidelined. It seems surreal.”

The Goldfinch is in cinemas from Friday.

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