For our special TIFF17 coverage of On Chesil Beach, we talked to Dominic Cooke about the value of rehearsing actors for film and minimizing cuts. Read part 2 of this interview here. Read the rest of our On Chesil Beach Special Issue here.
British director Dominic Cooke began September with a bang. Cooke has been working in the theatre for decades, including as the former Artistic Director of The Royal Court, and he directed two televised adaptations of Shakespeare for The Hollow Crown series. This month, his revival of Steven Sondheim’s Follies opened at the National Theatre to wide critical acclaim. In the same week, he made his big screen directorial debut with On Chesil Beach, a stunning screen adaptation by Ian McEwan of his own novella.
Set in the 1960s in a seaside hotel, On Chesil Beach follows Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) on their wedding night as they confront the awkwardness of their sexual inexperience — and worse, their inability to talk about it. As they fumble through dinner, sex, and a brutal conversation about what’s happened, we get flashbacks to the early stages of their romance: their meet cute, their growing affection and intimacy, and their complicated relationships with their parents. In the process, we see how deeply they care for each other, which makes their inability to communicate physically and sexually even more heartbreaking.
On Chesil Beach was one of the highlights of the Toronto International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere — but it still hasn’t found distribution outside of Canada. I talked to Cooke about the differences between directing for stage and screen, the value of rehearsal, and his interest in cutting as little as possible.
Seventh Row (7R): Because you didn’t have much time for rehearsal, how did that change how you directed the actors?
Dominic Cooke (DC): I think there’s a bit of pragmatism in every process because, inevitably, even if you really go prepared, and have all the prep time with the actors and the rest of it, you still always encounter unknowns. Every actor has their own process, and each part is so different.
We got Saoirse quite late ‘cause she was doing Lady Bird. This thing had to get shooting quite quickly. I talked with Saoirse quite a lot beforehand. I’d sent both Billy and Saoirse kind of a visual reference about the time period, showing them and doing the kind of thinking of the production.
I’d also done some separate work with, for example, Billy’s family, Edward’s family. I did one-to-one conversations, for example, with Emily [Watson] who’s playing Saoirse’s mom. Whenever I could, I grabbed people. But for proper rehearsal, we had about three or four days with the two of them. We focused on the backstory of the relationship in detail.