On Chesil Beach director Dominic Cooke discusses using his experience as a theatre director while still relishing the tools that are unique to cinema. Read part 1 of the interview here. Read the rest of our On Chesil Beach Special Issue here.
After decades as a theatre director, Dominic Cooke made his silver screen debut with On Chesil Beach: set in the 1960s, the film is about Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), a newly married couple who struggle to talk about and connect during sex. The film is exactingly framed and blocked, meaning every movement the actors make is pregnant with meaning. Cooke masterfully translates his theatrical sensibilities to the screen, taking advantage of what film offers that theatre can’t: close-ups, macros, and the ability to move the audience wherever you want them (the frame, unlike the stage, isn’t static).
We first talked to Cooke when On Chesil Beach premiered at TIFF. I caught up with Cooke again before the film’s wide release to talk about how he approached framing, set design, and editing for the screen. We discussed how On Chesil Beach shares themes with Cooke’s production of Follies — which opened the night before On Chesil Beach premiered.
7R: How did you approach blocking On Chesil Beach?
DC: In some situations, I was very clear up front with precisely what I was trying to achieve. In other situations, I was responding more to what the actors do. I would rehearse with the actors, do staging, and then bring the DoP and show him what I’d done. You have an idea when you start, and you might have a specific idea of where you want to keep the actors within a particular frame. But often, they’ll do something organically which has more life and seems more truthful.
7R: The scenes inside the hotel room and in Florence’s house seem very precise and almost symmetric in the framing.
DC: We decided on the film languages that we would use for each setting. In Edward’s house, we were going to do a lot of unbroken shots with steadicam to keep it moving. We wanted a sense of movement and fluidity in the house. There’s a long shot following Edward up the stairs. There’s a flow about the house. That’s reflected in how all the doors outside are open. There are no boundaries in this space.
In the hotel, it’s designed to be very symmetrical. Everything is in twos. There’s two chairs outside the door. There’s two sideboards next to the window. Everything’s about couples.
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We had a thing with direction of the characters. If you imagine you’re in that room, facing the table, and the window is behind it. The bed is on the right-hand side. We stayed on that axis all the way through, in the dining area. In all the shots, up to that point in the movie, the characters are moving from screen left to screen right. So it’s like they’re moving toward the bed.
That gave us a framework for the choices we made during the filming.'In all the shots, up to that point in the movie, the characters are moving from screen left to screen right. So it’s like they’re moving toward the bed.'Click To Tweet
7R: On the beach, they’re mostly moving toward the left.
DC: The big moment happens, he ejaculates, and everything goes wrong — up to that point, everything was to the right. Then, everything is suddenly moving in the opposite direction, away from the bed.
Because of the fragmented nature of the structure, I wanted to do everything I could to give a sense of unity in other areas. It’s quite a big ask to keep asking the audience to go back and forth in time.'Because of the fragmented nature of the structure, I wanted to do everything I could to give a sense of unity in other areas.'Click To Tweet
7R: Did you shoot everything on location?
DC: The interior of the hotel room was in a studio because we wanted that and those shapes to be very specific and designed to do exactly what we wanted it to do. But everything else is on location.
7R: How did you approach designing that hotel room so you could block how they move through the space?
DC: We thought very carefully about what could be seen. From his point of view, looking at her, the bed is behind, so we could see the bed with her in the same frame. We wanted the window to be directly behind them when they’re sitting at the table, that sense of the beach beyond.
One of the first conversations I had with Suzie, the production designer was about how that space might work. We had a quite clear sense of the geography of it. As you said, every step toward the bed is meaningful. The bed is so charged. The space between the threshold area into the bedroom area and the bed should feel like a huge amount of space being crossed. We wanted a sense of it being a hard space to cross.'Every step toward the bed is meaningful. The bed is so charged.'Click To Tweet
7R: I would have thought of that as something you could get in theatre, where every movement and progression is meaningful. How do you think about that on screen?
DC: You have so much more control on screen because everyone is looking at the same thing at the same time. On stage, there’s a variation in point of view, especially in modern theaters where the audience is situated in different places. On film, you have all the advantages of whether you keep the camera still or move the camera. All these things give you a larger range of options. But you are doing the same thing.
In theatre at the moment, there’s been a strong reaction to what we call “naturalism”, which I think is a very misused word. For me, the space, the stage, whether it’s standing in for a real room or a more abstract space, it’s not really a room: it’s a representation of a world that reminds people of a room.
In film, you’re working with real spaces, but you’re trying to make them have a metaphorical meaning that reflects something about the characters, their circumstances, and their environment. Sometimes, it’s subliminal. The audience doesn’t necessarily recognize what you’re doing, but they have a feeling. I think most stories work on both those levels.'For me, the space, the stage, whether it’s standing in for a real room or a more abstract space, it’s not really a room: it’s a representation of a world that reminds people of a room.'Click To Tweet
7R: The camera is quite still.
DC: We very nearly shot Edward’s house handheld. But since we were committed to using the techniques of 1960s movies, being grossly economical and simple with our shots, we decided not to use handheld. We thought it was too attention-seeking. We thought that style of film would be too obvious. But that was a hard call. We decided to use a smoother approach in part because the structure of the story is so fragmented.
I used handheld quite a lot in Hollow Crown. I love handheld. You can use it for a static shot or a wide shot, and you still get that slight edge.'We were committed to using the techniques of 1960s movies, being grossly economical and simple with our shots.'Click To Tweet
7R: When I talked to Benedict Andrews about the difference between theatre and cinema, he said, “cinema is an inquiry into time. Duration or emotional time is the special property of the cinema.” This seems especially true of On Chesil Beach which is so much about the weight of this short period of time in a hotel room, plus the flashbacks, and then later, the flash forwards. How did you think about time and duration in the film?
DC: It’s about rhythm, I think. There are certain beats where you want the audience to feel the passage of time, or the awkwardness of the gaps when the characters couldn’t come up with conversation, or were stumped. Sometimes, we worked to create a scene of time passing very slowly. The good thing about cutting away to flashbacks and moving the story along is you could create a sense of connection between the memory and story.
7R: Your production of Follies at the National Theatre is also about time and memory and how spaces affect that. You’ve done stories about these ideas on stage and screen back-to-back. What were the differences between the two projects?
DC: It was an unconscious decision [to do two pieces with such similar themes back-to-back]. I was doing the preparation for Follies while I was doing post-production on this movie. But during the process, I was really aware of how extraordinary it is that the two pieces are so different, but both about people making choices in their early life that define their later life, and the cost of those choices.
You find that you’ve been drawn to certain ideas at certain times of your life. You can’t really say why. A Jungian would probably see some deep unconscious drive to resolve something in yourself.
Obviously, they’re hugely different, formally. They’re also different sensibilities. McEwan and Sondheim have very different ways into the material. Follies is about whether it’s possible to address the choices that were made and change direction late in life, or whether one has already invested too much in this decision. It’s looking further down the line than On Chesil Beach.
7R: Were there ideas that translated from one project to the other?
DC: The depth of that experience was more available to me going into Follies because I’d been thinking about it so much. It took quite a lot of work in post-production to land in On Chesil Beach. So when I started working on Follies, I had already been thinking about how deeply people become entrenched in often bad and unhealthy decisions in early life.
I literally finished On Chesil Beach on the Friday, and I went into Follies on the Monday. We did the opening night of Follies in London, and the very next night we opened the movie in Toronto. So they literally went completely up against one another.
How hard it is if you make a fork-in-the-road decision in early life, how hard it is to admit yourself that the decision was unhelpful. I’ve seen that in life a lot. People close to me, in my family, are making unhealthy decisions, and hold onto them for dear life as a defense mechanism. As one gets older, it becomes harder to give that up for some people because they’ve invested their whole life in preserving this reality.
For Edward, that has absolutely tragic consequences. Similarly, for Sally in Follies, she’s mentally ill. She’s deluded. She’s taken it to a very extreme place. Nonetheless, she’s still stuck in this idea she has of herself from thirty years before. She hasn’t been able to evolve her sense of herself as time has gone on.
Going into my conversations with the actors on Follies, it was really helpful coming from On Chesil Beach because I’d reflected so hard on those questions.
7R: Ian McEwan said he wrote voice-overs for the film, but you didn’t end up using it. The soundtrack of Edward’s music and Florence’s music is really important in the film. How did you think about when and how to use the music?
DC: My instinct beforehand was I didn’t want to use a lot of music, because I could see that there’s something about the delicacy and ambiguity of what had been written. Score pushes the audience into a very particular emotional response. I thought the writing had more nuance than that.
The diegetic music was written very clearly into the script, like the bits of Mozart, a Rachmaninoff piano duet, and the pop music he’d written in. All of those pieces of music were very specific. They really do create a very important feel. I knew I wanted to honour those and start with those.
When we were in post-production trying to work out what the music would be, we started playing with all sorts of different temperatures of stuff. It evolved. You hear the blues pop over the titles. We’re in Edward’s world of music at the beginning.'Score pushes the audience into a very particular emotional response. I thought the writing had more nuance than that.'Click To Tweet
Then, when we get into the story of their relationship, we’re totally in her world musically. From that point until the point where she leaves the hotel room, it’s all chamber music. There’s some score in there, but it’s still keeping within the classical world.
Dan James, the composer, kept it very light and simple. We tried heavier orchestration, but we found it swamped the film. The film is a bit like a chamber piece in itself. It couldn’t take too much. It felt manipulative to over-score it.
Because we didn’t use score or diegetic music in the hotel room, we thought a lot more about the soundscape. The sounds of nature, the sounds of sea. There’s a musicality to the soundscapes that we worked on later on.'The film is a bit like a chamber piece in itself. It couldn’t take too much. It felt manipulative to over-score it.'Click To Tweet
7R: The sounds at the dinner table really stood out — the cutlery is so deafening and awkward. How did you approach the sound?
DC: We were using what I call a heightened realism. There’s a slight sense of point of view of the sound. We use natural sounds, but they’re very much what it feels like.
In the dining room and the bedroom, you can hear the sound of the sea. You can hear the pull of the outside, like it’s what she’s hearing and feeling — that there’s still the possibility of some kind of nature escape. When they cross into the bedroom area, the sound is very dead. It’s just the sound of the ticking clock. You don’t hear the sea much anymore. You’re very much in a world that’s closed, like man-made pressure. It creates some subliminal atmospheres and heightens the story.'We were using what I call a heightened realism. There’s a slight sense of point of view of the sound. We use natural sounds, but they’re very much what it feels like.'Click To Tweet
7R: At TIFF, you mentioned you were really interested in using as few cuts as possible in the film. How did you approach the editing?
DC: A lot of the editing was actually about structure and rhythm. We played around with different versions of the flashbacks. We cut out quite a lot. There was beautiful stuff with Edward’s family situation, scenes with the father and the mother, that we had to cut out, because it was diverting us off the story at the centre, which was Edward and Florence’s relationship.
We did quite a lot of work on how to tell the story of the abuse flashback, the precision of how to move between flashback and present day. Also, how we told the story of Edward going to the concert — there were lots of different versions of that. We shot scenes of him in the foyer, which we decided not to use, because in the end, we wanted more of him with her, so we don’t see him until she sees him. It was working out which version had the most impact, which version was the purest.
But when they saw one another at the concert in the end, I asked Dan James to score, as an experiment, something that would work with the Mozart in that scene, and that would take us into the feeling of when they first met. It was quite revelatory. You can’t put score on top of Mozart. That’s sacrilege. It really helped taking us out of the reality of the concert and into their inner world. Those kinds of things made a world of difference to the feeling of watching it.
7R: You shot a lot of these scenes in one take. How did that affect the rhythm when you were editing?
DC: Sometimes, I managed to cut into those things. The long shot from Edward opening his exam results to the moment he goes to the phone box to call his friend — that’s one shot. We tried cutting from Edward running up the stairs and just cut to him going into the twins’ room. Rhythmically, that was quicker. But somehow, it took you out of his experience. Sometimes, it was more about how did it feel to be him. And sometimes, it was about pace and moving the story forward.
From that point forward, we wanted to sustain that feeling of searching for someone. So when he makes the decision to go to the phone booth, we overlap the dialogue and we sped up the cuts. From the moment he leaves the house and then arrives in Oxford, there’s a series of quite quick cuts.
7R: I know you shot the long scenes in one take so the actors could keep up the intensity.
DC: The most challenging ones were where we just kept the camera rolling, and we didn’t provide any options to cut out. When we shot one-setup scenes, we tended to do quite a lot of takes so we’d have more options.
It was key not to break the actors’ emotional temperature in that scene on the beach. I knew that we would be intercutting in the scene. While we did long takes in that scene, we did quite a lot of setups. It was originally a 12-minute scene. It was such a complex and long scene.
You needed to be with each of them, with their point of view, and you needed to see them, more objectively, as a couple stranded in this fairly brutal landscape. What was surprising was some of the wide shots we used of the two of them looking down the beach. We used those a lot more than I expected. We needed a wider perspective of the two people.
7R: The final shot on the beach is one of those wide shots, which starts out with both of them, and then we pull back and down until you can no longer see the boat on the beach, and Florence walks out of the frame. How did that shot get developed?
DC: When we first went to the beach, Sean and I felt that the environment was so strong, it’s just really about being clever and economical about where we place the camera. But once we got closer to shooting, I thought about shifting perspective to allow you to see the gap between those two people permanently opening up. That idea came to me, but I had no idea whether we could actually do it because the mechanics of getting a crane over there and where we were placed on that shingle. I had no idea if it was technically achievable. It was about Sean and I sitting down and really designing that shot.
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To the great credit of our producer, she got why this shot was important. It’s hugely costly to get a crane over there. But we designed the shot very carefully. It took ages to set up. And we actually lost takes. But it turned out exactly as we’d hoped. It’s a metaphor for emotional space and isolation.
We love to talk to directors of stage and screen about the differences between directing for each. We got into this a bit with Dominic Cooke in our initial interview with him at TIFF. We went deep on stage vs screen with Benedict Andrews for his debut feature Una, which was based on the play Blackbird — a play he had previously directed on stage. In our review of Spectre, we looked at how director Sam Mendes borrowed ideas from his National Theatre production of King Lear (which we also reviewed). When we talked to Eddie Redmayne about his performance in The Theory of Everything, he also opined on the difference between the process for an actor when acting for stage and screen.