Interview: Steve Coogan Talks Nonfiction Drama ‘Philomena’ and Altering Fact for Greater Truth

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What does it mean for a movie to be “based on a true story”? In the case of Philomena, it means borrowing real events and people and reworking them to fit a thematic narrative. Often that infusion of fiction and dramatization brings about a greater truth, and in this new release that greater truth being communicated is that there is still room for sincerity and love in this cynical, post-modern world.

Adapted from Martin Sixsmith‘s nonfiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee — or really just adapted from the epilogue — Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s award-winning script takes great artistic license with its source material, and that’s okay. The movie, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen), is an intelligent, funny, well-acted and honest, if not always factually accurate, account of a journalist (Coogan, as Sixsmith) and an older woman (Dame Judi Dench) investigating what became of the son that was taken from her 50 years earlier by Catholic nuns.

I talked with Coogan last week by phone about the relationship of both his script and his performance to the real story. We also chatted more generally about his approach to playing real people, including himself (in films like The Trip and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), his finally showing his genuine self in a new documentary (Steve Coogan: Stand-Up Down Under) and why people who criticize movies like Philomena for straying from fact are “just not very intelligent.”  You can read our conversation in full below.

Nonfics: Let’s start with your work on adapting the material. I know you first became interested in the story through a newspaper article, and then you read Martin’s book, but you’ve only worked with the epilogue. Why is that?

Steve Coogan: I wasn’t that interested in telling the story of the missing boy. That wasn’t what appealed to me. What appealed to me was a road movie between a liberal, intellectual cynic and a working class, blue collar optimist. That was the kind of dialogue I wanted to explore, and I thought that could be funny dialogue and illuminating and challenging. And a way of looking at how we view life and issues, like whether the intellectual person is happier than the more intuitive, formally educated older lady. I just wanted to tell a story that was authentic.

Martin is a cynic and I’m a cynic, but it’s sort of an anti-cynical film, even though at heart I’m cynical. I was trying to challenge my own cynicism. And also challenge the over-arching cynicism that seems to pervade every aspect of creativity these days, certainly in movies. I was getting fed up of the ironic, inverted commas cynical approach to things, as if that’s the only smart option. Which I think is bullshit. The most avant-garde thing you can do in narrative drama these days is to be authentic and talk about love. And actually be sincere. That’s the last taboo in this post-modern world, is to talk about love again. And be authentic and sincere and still be smart. You don’t have to be stupid to be sincere. You can still be interesting and have edge and have interesting conversations, as I do in Philomena about religion and faith and sex. And not be a cynic.

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Nonfics: What did the real Martin think about the idea of you not only of taking only that piece of his book but also portraying him as pretty much the main character? 

Coogan: Martin understood perfectly. I said I wanted to take this and use it as a model to talk about various things and look at what Philomena did and how she reacts to it, the notion of forgiveness and also about faith and religion and whatever broadsides I launch at organized, institutionalized religion. I wanted to dignify people of simple faith and all those things. But within that discussion and using their relationship for that, I said to Martin, “I want to make you Roman Catholic, and not only do I want to make you Catholic, which you are not in reality, I actually want to make you the subject of the story. Take you not as the author of it but as a character in the story with Philomena and have the book that you wrote almost be like the end product, the end of our story, that you sat down to write this book.”

And he was open-minded to it, but when he saw what we were doing with the script he got it. He said, “I see what you’re doing.” Fortunately, because he’s a writer himself, he understands the creative process. He, himself, within his book uses artistic license, so he was doing it before we were. He understood that and didn’t have a problem with it at all. He saw that I was trying to pull the characters apart from each other so I could put them back together at the end. He was cool with it.

Nonfics: How about the real Philomena?

Philomena, I guess, is not creative in that way, so she took a little convincing. Her daughter Jane was a little skeptical at first, as well as she might be with a comic coming up to her and saying, “I want to write something about your mum.” But then at the end of it she saw that she was dignified by the story, so she was fine with the way I went about it. Most of the fundamental facts are actually true.

Nonfics: You’ve played a few real people in your career, all of whom could be said to be fictionalized in some way, right? And then you’ve played fictionalized versions of yourself. Would you say these kinds of roles are similar? Do you find it impossible to get to the truth of a real character?

Coogan: No. Well, I don’t see this as me playing me. I see this as me using aspects [of myself] and putting them into a character who’s angry and cynical, but also there are aspects of Martin in there too. Martin felt like he was licking his wounds after he was fired by the government, and he said when he learned about Philomena’s experience he felt humbled by that and it put things into perspective and he learned a lot from it. Those things are the truth. I took those aspects and put aspects of my own skepticism and anger about religion. It was a fusion of the two.

I don’t necessarily see myself as having a problem. I played, for example, Paul Raymond in The Look of Love, the last film I did with Michael Winterbottom. And I felt that was I was playing someone else there. There wasn’t really any of me in that. That was Paul Raymond. I was trying to get who he was. The reason I played Martin in this way is I needed to have this discussion about faith and cynicism. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to play me because I know how to play me.” If I’m going to talk about cynicism, I better make Martin cynical. I know how to do cynical. Steve Coogan’s sometimes cynical. I’ll put some of the Steve Coogan cynic into him. So I could create that conversation.

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Nonfics: Is the real Martin funny? It seems like some of the odd couple comedy characterizations were probably added in by you as a screenwriter and the performer.

Coogan: In some ways, [in the film] Martin’s kind of the straight man, because Philomena says the funny things and Martin reacts to them. Martin gets laughs because of his reaction, expressions he gives to Philomena. But is Martin funny like that? No Martin is not. But is there a slight, initial awkwardness to Martin compared to Philomena? Yes, there is. So I take the kernel of truth and spin it. And spin it for comic effect. But it’s not a total invention. Philomena is very outgoing and verbose and outspoken and eccentric in some ways, so that was what led us to…

Most of the script was built up after I conducted interviews with Martin and Philomena. I wrote down things they said. With Philomena, I asked if she forgave them, and she said, “Yes, I forgive them.” And her daughter said, “No, I don’t forgive them.” I put that in the script. I asked Martin how he felt when he was fired. I asked Martin about some of the things he felt about what he was discovering and what he felt about his own mother and what he felt about Philomena. I interviewed the two of them and wrote the script based on those things.

And we didn’t improvise. Totally different from a Michael Winterbottom film. There was zero improvisation, whatsoever. The whole script was crafted and we stuck to every single line that was written.

Nonfics: Does it bother you when people complain about minor inaccuracies with this sort of movie?

Coogan: Those people are just not very intelligent who think that. Look at Richard III, look at Richard II, look at Henry V by William Shakespeare. There probably isn’t one line in there that any of the historical figures he depicts actually said in reality. But people don’t have a problem with that because they know in Shakespeare’s plays he’s shining a light on a greater truth. Nobody would accuse those plays of not being historically accurate because none of them are historically accurate. They’re just stories based on something that happened. And in fact if you look at Schindler’s List, even that story took huge liberties where five characters were melded into one because otherwise the story would become unwieldy. Anyone who understands the creative process will see that that’s necessary.

But I think there is an ethic at work. Basically, if anybody does anything bad in the story, then they definitely did it. If anyone wants to speak about specific facts or individual facts about the story and present them to me and question them, then I will either justify the artistic license or I’ll absolutely show that it’s essentially faithful to the truth.

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Coogan with Rob Brydon in ‘The Trip’

Nonfics: I recently noticed that people associate you with mockumentaries for some reason. I guess people call The Trip a mockumentary even though it’s not at all. But do you see any similarity between what you do and what mockumentaries do?

Coogan: Not a mockumentary, no, because we’re not aware of the camera. Spinal Tap is a mockumentary because you know there’s supposed to be cameras there and there are interviews. But we never talk directly to the camera. It’s kind of verging on it, but the camera isn’t supposed to be there. The definition of a mockumentary is where the camera is a character in the piece. Maybe 24 Hour Party People a little bit, because I talk to the camera, but that’s like me breaking the fourth wall, like House of Cards.

Nonfics: It’s almost like an inverse, because you’re playing yourself but fictionalized, whereas in a mockumentary its fictional people played as real.

Coogan: It’s like a meta-drama in that respect, because we’re playing with what’s real and what’s not, yeah.

Nonfics: You recently did an actual documentary, didn’t you? Of your stand-up tour in Australia. Is that the real you, for once? 

Coogan: It is true. There is no performance in there. There’s no irony. It’s just me.

Nonfics: Was it weird since you’ve often played a fictionalized version of yourself?

Coogan: Not really. It was my idea. I made the documentary. I said to someone, “Take a camera follow me around and let’s see what it looks like afterwards. If it’s interesting enough, let’s turn it into a documentary.” I looked at it, and some of it is quite negative. It’s not entirely sympathetic, but I’m not that precious about everyone thinking I’m cool all the time. I don’t really give a damn if some people see me in a negative light. So I said, “Put it out.” But it is me. I think it’s okay. It shows the insecurities of someone who is doing a tour and isn’t entirely happy. I wasn’t entirely happy, but that’s what makes it interesting. If I was going around with a big smile on my face saying everything was A-OK and all apple pie and everything then it would have been dull.

Nonfics: It’s funny that you say that because with some of the fictional versions of yourself you add in exaggerated negative aspects.

Coogan: I do that, but what I do is take what’s already negative and I crank the volume up to make it super negative.

Philomena opens this Friday in limited release and expands wider on November 27, 2013. 

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