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.
I thought one thing that I really need to do is break down the very long scene on the beach into a shape that could give them some key shifts and changes in the scene. Because I wanted to shoot it without breaks. We did do lots of different set ups, but we shot it the whole way through in about, say, seven setups. I thought with a scene as emotionally charged as that, you don’t want to start and stop. You need them to be in the zone and to be responding to one and other. We did do a lot of work on that.
In an ideal world, you really would benefit from really proper, thorough rehearsal. Then, you turn up on set, and the actors are absolutely ready to go. On Hollow Crown, the last thing I did, they’re just more ready to go and more relaxed.
7R: I can’t imagine not rehearsing Shakespeare, but…
DC: Well, Shakespeare you need to, because of the language. But that was again very pragmatic. We had six weeks rehearsal, but none of them was available the whole time.
There was one scene that we rehearsed several times: it was the scene where Richard III kills Henry VI. I happened to have both of those actors together quite a lot, so we rehearsed it quite a few times. We didn’t shoot for about three months, but it was amazing how much the detail of the rehearsal came through when we shot it.'It was amazing how much the detail of the rehearsal came through when we shot it.' - CookeClick To Tweet
It just allows you to start much further down the process. The actors owned the choices. If you do that work together, they will go away, and when they’re learning it, when they’re prepping to actually shoot, the choices are more detailed. They’re more on the same page. They’re making choices that are about the overall idea of the way the story is being told. For me, it’s invaluable.
7R: As opposed to making them on their own?
DC: Yeah, exactly. Actors do a hell of a lot of preparation to work on screen because of the time pressures. But actually being able to make it coherent, rehearsal is invaluable.'There’s a school of thought that rehearsing takes away spontaneity. I don’t think that’s true.' - CookeClick To Tweet
I know there’s a school of thought that says that rehearsing takes away spontaneity. I don’t think that’s true. I think if you really embed everything, there’s more room for spontaneity. There’s more room to try different things. I’m very open to that.
In an ideal world, if I do something else on screen, I’d love a really proper rehearsal, like a proper theatre: three or four weeks of solid rehearsal with everyone there. Then, everything will be richer I think in the end.'In an ideal world, I’d love three or four weeks of solid rehearsal with everyone there.' - CookeClick To Tweet
7R: So much goes unspoken between the characters in On Chesil Beach. How did you approach working with the actors to determine how to do that?
DC: There were two ways of doing it, frankly, in very simple terms. One is to get the camera really close so you read the inner lives. We talked very much, as we were shooting, about what should be revealed and what should be concealed. It’s a time where one hid emotions, especially in the UK, and one still does in the UK, but at that time, very much so.'We talked about what should be revealed and what should be concealed. It’s a time where one hid emotions.'Click To Tweet
The other thing was to shoot relationships and try to get the camera at the right distance. Sometimes, you want to see the context of the couple. Sometimes, you want to be up close and just see their physical relationships — the detail of a hand or a foot, because the body reveals so much that the mind is trying to control.
The real challenge is to find two actors who had really vivid inner lives that would transmit. Both Billy and Saoirse have that: their inner worlds are very clear. Especially on the big screen, that does come through when you want it to come through. We were very lucky to find brilliant people who could do that.'The real challenge is to find two actors who had really vivid inner lives that would transmit.'Click To Tweet
7R: I really liked how you used two shots in the film. How did you think about those two-shots? What do these that give you that you can’t get on stage, especially for this story?
DC: Shawn Bobbitt, the cinematographer, and I looked at a lot of period movies. On the previous thing that I’d done, the Shakespeares on screen, we’d have two cameras going all the time, sometimes three. What that leads to, which is a very contemporary style, is a lot of cuts.'Movies from this period—we noticed how few cuts there were. So much of the film is made in the camera.'Click To Tweet
When you look at movies from this period and before, and one that I was really interested in was Misfits, which was shot or made around this time. We noticed how few cuts there were and how so much of the film is made in the camera. The way, in those days, was to use the camera and to really think through the framing as a proper narrative device rather than the kind of talking heads approach, which is more televisual and is quicker and easier.'The way, in those days, was to use the camera and to think through the framing as a narrative device'Click To Tweet
We always started from the position that we would try and shoot every scene in the minimal number of set ups. There were a lot of scenes that were just shot in one. That was partly to do with keeping an intensity to the story: there are an awful lot of two shots in it. It’s partly about keeping the camera picking up the relationship between these two people.'That was partly to do with keeping an intensity to the story: there are an awful lot of two shots in it.'Click To Tweet
It’s also a pragmatic response to the fact that the film is, in its structure, quite choppy. We jump back and forth. If there’s too many quick cuts, internally, the film is going to feel very, very, jagged in a non-helpful way.'That’s another thing I’d like to explore more: how few cuts you put into a film.' - Dominic CookeClick To Tweet
That’s another thing I’d like to explore more: how few cuts you put into a film. I love these experiments that there’ve been in recent years, of you know, Victoria where you’re just doing things in single shots, or Birdman. I think it’s the most filmic way. It makes you really think through your language properly rather than just turning up and turning the camera on someone and seeing what happens.
This interview was originally published on October 2, 2017.
At Seventh Row, we regularly analyse the relationship between directing for stage and screen in essays and in interviews with directors of both. For his first feature film, Una, after decades as a theatre director, we talked to Benedict Andrews about the difference between directing for stage and screen. When Sam Mendes’ Spectre opened, we looked at how it pulled ideas from his recent production of King Lear at the National Theatre. And we recently looked at how the plays Journey’s End and The Deep Blue Sea were successfully adapted for the screen.