Steve Coogan may be best known for his quirky, edgy comedy, but the variety of talents he has at his disposal has been demonstrated in recent films like “What Maisie Knew,” in which he gave a strong dramatic performance as a neglectful father, and it’s even more apparent in “Philomena,” which he and writing partner Jeff Pope adapted from a non-fiction book by Martin Sixsmith, whom he also plays in the film directed by Stephen Frears. It’s the story of a worldly, cynical journalist who joins forces with the title character, a devout middle-class septuagenarian, to search for the woman’s son, whom she gave birth to out of wedlock in the Irish Catholic convent where her family sent her, and who was effectively sold by the nuns to a wealthy American couple. While initially dismissing Philomena’s story as a mere human-interest piece, Sixsmith grows increasingly invested in it and angry over what was done to the mother and child, a reaction in stark contrast to that of Philomena herself.
“I’ve been doing comedy for over twenty years in the U.K., and I enjoy it,” Coogan explained during a recent Dallas interview. “But I wanted to look for something different, something with a bit more substance. I also enjoy producing and I like writing. I wanted to get to grips with something that was about something rather than just being comedy for the sake of comedy—which is great fun, and I always try to put a bit of substance into the comedy that I do, but I wanted to come at it from a different angle.
“Also, twenty-five years ago I trained as an actor and got involved in comedy by accident—a very fruitful accident. But I always wanted to do something more nuanced, which is what I trained to do. I wasn’t getting those opportunities, because part of the problem with being successful in comedy is that you get stereotyped and type-cast. So the only way to break that was to do something myself, and I came across this story and wanted to use the comedy to sugar the pill of some difficult subject-matter.
“I optioned the book, and went to meet [Sixsmith]. Actually his book is very different from the film. I didn’t really want to do a film of his book per se. The book deals with the missing son. I wanted to do a story that involved him, as the author, in the story, which was slightly unconventional, but I knew that there was an opportunity to explore things that I thought were interesting, and have a conversation with the audience, if you like, about class, education and intellect versus intuition.
“There was a photograph in the article I saw in the newspaper that prompted all this. The photograph was of Philomena and Martin as they sat next to each other. I knew who he was, because he was a BBC correspondent, this Oxbridge intellectual liberal, and she was a working-class retired Irish nurse. I thought that was a real contrast, a real odd couple. And I thought I could tell that and talk about stuff that was worth talking about, yet find comedy in it.
“Partly the film is about cynicism, and how he is cynical, and Philomena is not cynical despite what happened to her, while he hasn’t had anything as bad as bad happen to him. I wanted his cynicism challenged by her serenity and her authenticity.
“I am not religious, but there are people in my life who are religious, and through the film I didn’t want to dishonor them. I wanted to make a distinction between churches as institutions and the people within those churches, good people who dignify their faith by what they do—and that’s who Philomena is in this film. I think she is the kind of hope for the church, individuals like her—unremarkable in some ways—who dignify their faith, rather than the hierarchy.”
In the story Philomena is contrasted with one of the nuns responsible for separating her from her son, who to the end justifies what she did. “She is [rigid and unyielding],” Coogan said, “but when I was writing it, I said to Jeff that sometimes the rigid, unyielding position of the church means that some of those nuns are victims in their own way—of a system. That’s their tragedy, and I wanted her to believe the things she was saying, however uncompromising, however wrong.”
Once the screenplay was finished, Coogan approached Judi Dench to take the title role. “Judi was involved before Stephen,” he said. “She had made it clear that she was very interested—I went to the house and read her the story, and she responded straightaway.”
Then Frears was mentioned as a possible director by a friend at the BBC. “I thought he was interesting, because all his films are very different,” Coogan recalled, “and I thought he’d serve the material rather than wrest it from us and go off in a different direction—which is exactly what happened. But the other thing about him is that he’d worked with Judi before, and I wanted Judi to be comfortable, because this is a big ask—she’s playing the lead role and it’s quite demanding. And I wanted to be sure she didn’t have the added concern of wondering whether she’d get on with the director. I said Stephen Frears would be interesting, and she said, ‘Oh, do you think he’d do it?’ And I thought, oh, that’s a good sign—because I was sort of fishing to see what she’d say.
“She said that would be great, so I said let’s try to get Stephen on board. Stephen had already phoned up and said it was interesting. He was not familiar with the world, by his own admission. He said, ‘Look, I’m a Jew, not a Catholic. This is your stuff. But tell me about it.’ And in a way his separateness from it was an asset, because he had an objectivity about it and acquiesced sometimes when it came to the content.
“But he was always rigorous when it came to making it clear. He’d say, ‘I don’t know what this means, what does it mean? Explain it.’ He kept putting me on the back foot, in a good way. He would make me spell it out for people like him, so he stopped it from being too esoteric and made it accessible. You hear about directors banning writers from the set—they don’t want them to interfere. But it was funny—he’d sometimes shout at the top of his lungs, ‘Writer!’ knowing that I was in the scene, as though I were somewhere else. It was a real joy.
“For me the whole process of making this film couldn’t have been a better experience—it was like a dream. Everything about it—Judi’s presence in the film, what she brought to it, working with Stephen—it was an unforgettable experience, like a blessing to be involved in it. Everything I wanted the film to be, it turned out to be.
“And beyond that, it’s a revelation to me, because no one asked me to pursue this project. I did all by myself. I spend a lot of time taking advice from people, and I thought I’d do something I wanted to do, and see if anyone else likes it, see if people respond. And I feel I’ve been vindicated because other people like this too, other people respond to this conversation—not an arrogant prescription or protestation. I wanted it to be something where no one has the monopoly and at the end of the story people have to learn to respect their differences. No one wins the argument, they don’t have to—they just have to respect each other.”
And Coogan reiterated that such a message was best delivered with a dollop of humor. “I don’t people walking out of the cinema feeling depressed,” he emphasized. “I want people to feel somewhat elevated by what they’ve witnessed.
“When I was writing with Jeff, and he’d ask ‘What do we do now?’ I’d say, let’s find out the truth first, before we start inventing stuff or creating stuff let’s find out the truth, because that might give us the answer. Sometimes it did. Often it did.
“To me it was always about trying to dignify [Philomena’s] simple faith but allow people to be angry, and to explore all those preconceptions we have…and bring some humor to it, and to show that you can have a conversation about important issues and not upset people if you frame them in the right way. It can be quite an enjoyable conversation. I wanted it to be a film that’s about something, but is enjoyable to watch. You can laugh with people you disagree with. Without being too pompous, it’s a way of bringing together people who are different.”