How Ian McEwan, Novelist, Became Ian McEwan, Movie Consultant
Posted May 11, 2018 5:21 p.m. EDT
In fall 2016, author Ian McEwan found himself in a somewhat unlikely spot: A seaside village on the southern coast of England, in rehearsals with a film director and two young actors.
The setting was Dorset County, the director was Dominic Cooke, the actors were Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle — and the film was “On Chesil Beach,” based on McEwan’s 2007 novel and for which he had written the screenplay. (The film, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, will be released in the United States on Friday.)
McEwan, 69, is no stranger to having his work adapted for the screen. Five of his novels have been made into films, ranging from “The Comfort of Strangers” to “Atonement,” and he wrote the screenplay for one of them (“The Innocent”), as well as having written screenplays for other writers’ works, including “The Good Son” (based on the novel by Todd Strasser) and “Sour Sweet” (Timothy Mo).
But this time he wasn’t expected to keep out of the way.
“Films are, by convention, a director’s medium,” McEwan explained in a recent interview. “The screenplay writer can often find himself in an awkward position in the process. You might generate all the material — scenes, characters, plot, god knows what else — but you find yourself fairly low down in the pecking order once the filming begins. No one wants you around.”
On this occasion, McEwan was working with the director to answer the actors’ questions on the characters they would play — Edward and Florence, a newly married and sexually inexperienced couple in 1962 — and explaining the repressed era during which the action was set. (As McEwan writes in the novel, “They were young, educated and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”)
“There was no one better to have with us during that time,” Ronan said of McEwan in a recent email. “We had a limited amount of time to develop and discuss the characters’ relationships and dynamics before the shoot began, so Ian being there to answer any questions we had was fantastic. He was also open to our interpretations of the characters, and really wanted this to be as much of a collaboration as possible.”
For his part, McEwan said the rehearsal period helped him refine his screenplay. Hearing the actors speak his lines made him realize, he said, “that less is more — and so I would take out things here and there.” One factor to the openness of this filmmaking process might have been that this was Cooke’s debut as a feature film director, having spent most of his career in theater, including seven years as artistic director of the Royal Court Theater, having directed such award-winning productions as “Clybourne Park” and “The Crucible,” and, most recently, the rapturously reviewed revival of “Follies.”
“A theater director is used to the idea of finding out what’s the best way of realizing the play,” McEwan said. “They are very much more open, I think, to the idea of the screenwriter as an equal collaborator.” (Coincidentally, the other film McEwan has coming out this year, “The Children Act,” was directed by Richard Eyre, whom McEwan refers to as “a theater man down to his toes.”)
For his part, Cooke said he found McEwan a wary partner at the beginning of the process, when producer Elizabeth Karlsen suggested the two of them meet.
At that point, the script had been around for about five years, with Sam Mendes originally attached as director — “He went off to make two Bond movies,” McEwan said. “Ian was quite cautious,” Cooke said in an interview in London a few months ago. “Not so much because of me, I don’t think, but because five years had passed since he first wrote the screenplay, and a couple of other directors had come and gone. And my guess is that he thought, ‘Until I know this is really happening, I’m going to hedge my bets.'”
But that meeting went well. Over lunch at the Charlotte Street Hotel, in central London, the two discussed their mutual passion for classical music. (The Saoirse Ronan character, Florence, is a violinist in a string quartet.) “I was convinced that someone who came in without a deep love and understanding of classical music would quickly be telling me that we had to make Florence into a pop star,” McEwan said. "Dominic was very reassuring on that point.”
He added, “We were off and running pretty quickly after that."
Cooke said he was immediately struck by McEwan’s screenplay.
“The quality of that writing, the specificity of it, the way he had imagined that story and those characters’ lives — it was all there,” he said.
Cooke agreed that his background in the theater was an easing factor in their working relationship. “I’m very used to that dynamic of having a writer alongside me,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t challenge them. It doesn’t mean that you don’t occasionally try to make them think differently about what they have written. But you are starting from a place of faith, really. I found Ian remarkably collaborative, especially for a novelist, which can be a very solitary undertaking.”
That relationship even extended to casting, with McEwan being the first to raise the idea of Ronan playing Florence. She had played Briony in the 2007 adaptation of “Atonement” (for which she received the first of her three Oscar nominations, the others being for “Brooklyn” in 2016 and ‘Lady Bird” this year) and the two had stayed in touch. (“Ian is exactly the same,” Ronan said. “Wicked sense of humor.)
“I wanted her from the beginning,” McEwan said. “And when I mentioned her to Dominic, he was very excited.”
The five-year delay in production turned out to be an asset. “The screenplay languished and I moved on to other things,” McEwan said. “And there was a great fortune in that. Because when I started, Saoirse was probably in her midteens and in no position to play such a part. But by the time Dominic and I began to work on the project, we had both seen and loved ‘Brooklyn,’ in which she was brilliant. And I thought, ‘Well, this is just a magnificent opportunity.'” Over the course of his career, McEwan says he is frequently offered the chance to adapt his own work. “Whether I say yes or no, depends on what I’m doing at the time,” he said. “For example, with ‘Atonement,’ I was deeply into another novel and I didn’t want to break my stride, and I was extremely happy when Christopher Hampton stepped in. And with ‘Comfort of Strangers,’ I mean, who wouldn’t want Harold Pinter? I guessed — correctly, as it turned out — that the material, which was full of threat, was just up his street.”
But he says that, from the beginning, he was determined to adapt the film version of “On Chesil Beach.” “It’s a very intimate, very delicate story,” he said, “and I really didn’t want anyone else to do it.” Fidelity to his work seems to be an often elusive quality in filmmaking, which may be one reason McEwan has frequently cited 1993’s “The Cement Garden,” a low-budget film directed by Andrew Birkin, as his favorite adaptation. “Maybe I’m so fond of it because it is so faithful,” he once told an interviewer, adding that “practically every sentence” ends up on the screen.
But McEwan acknowledges that his own work for the screen may not always please the author in question. “I’ve adapted other people’s novels, and it’s always been kind of sad to watch two-thirds of it vanish,” he said with a sympathetic sigh. “It’s an act of demolition.”