Philomena: Interview–Writer-Star Steve Coogan

You’re a producer, co-writer and one of the leads in Philomena.

In 2010 I read an online article in the Guardian while I was in New York. The headline read: ‘The Catholic Church sold my child.’ It was an interview with Martin Sixsmith about this book he had written, ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,’ and it contained the details, the bones of the story. I was very moved by the article.  Soon afterwards I bumped into Gaby Tana, the producer, and told her about it. She said: ‘It sounds an amazing story, do you want me to co-produce it?’ I got in touch with Martin, found out from him the rights were available, so I optioned them – in the hope I could develop it as a project.

What was it about Philomena’s story that felt special?

I already wanted to find a project I could believe in and do something with, between the other normal things I do, which are mostly comedy. This one touched me and spoke to me, with regards to my own background as a Catholic. And I thought the story was very universal. It’s about mothers, babies, children – something everyone can identify with. Also, the story took us to America and Ireland – the New World and the Old World. I thought it would resonate with a lot of people, particularly because of that Irish-American connection.

What captured my imagination was a photograph of Martin next to Philomena on a bench. And they just struck me as an odd couple. Martin was a journalist, an intellectual, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated man who had got to know this retired, working-class, Irish nurse. Their relationship struck me as interesting.

Opportunity as producer?

I didn’t intend to write it at first. But while I found the book interesting, it wasn’t the story I really wanted to tell. So I needed to find a co-writer. Gaby set up a meeting with Christine Langan at BBC Films and she suggested the screenwriter Jeff Pope. I knew of Jeff and liked his work. I’d seen Pierrepoint, which he wrote, and I really loved. He’d produced Mo (the TV biopic about politician Mo Mowlam) and Appropriate Adult (a TV dramatization of the case of serial killer Fred West), so I knew he had the right sensibility.

And when we met, we really hit it off. We had lots in common and really connected. That’s what propelled the project. We developed a script and wrote it together – both of us between other projects. It was a labor of love. We crafted a story that became a road movie, in a way, about these two people who have different world views but come to accept other world views and change how they view their own lives. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but the story is about tolerance and understanding. That really is what it’s about.

Martin’s sophisticated and educated, while Philomena is humble

Jeff and I also wanted the story to be about intuition versus intellect. He and I met up with Philomena and Martin several times, chatted to them and drew on those meetings. A lot of their conversations in the script are based on them.

What made you also decide to play Martin?

You get strait-jacketed. I love doing comedy, but I’ve done it. You get hungry for something more. I love laughing and making people laugh, but I’ve never been defined by funniness. I’d hate that. I don’t want to sit back. I want to do things that are creative and a challenge. So you do things outside your comfort zone that risk failure.

I want to explore life and different issues. I’d rather use comedy as a weapon in my arsenal to do other things. It can be used to sugar the pill of serious material. How do you make a story like this an enjoyable, uplifting experience? Challenges like that make it exciting. One way, of course, is to introduce elements of comedy between these two people – and that makes you laugh.

Was it hard playing Martin?

Things about it were. It’s a bit of me, a bit of Martin. A lot of it comes from Martin’s experience. It’s a composite, really.  The hardest thing was resisting my comedic instincts. Martin often visited the set when I was playing him and I told him to watch me for what we called the ‘mug-o-meter’. He ‘directed’ me, like traffic. He said very few words, but he would motion his hands to say ‘less’ or ‘more’ or ‘slow down’ in terms of the way I played him.

Martin had several comments and notes about the script, and they were creative and critical. They weren’t like ‘this happened, this didn’t,’ it was more like advice about how to make the script better. And of course he knows, because he’s a writer himself.

Judi Dench as Philomena.

When we were writing, I said to Jeff: ‘It would be amazing if we had Judi Dench to do this. So let’s aim high.’ But we hit the top when she agreed to do it.

What did Stephen Frears bring to the process?

Stephen makes you justify stuff. He’s fastidious and rigorous in a way that’s very good. I was a bit intimidated by him at first because of his canon of work. But we were able to have robust discussions about the script. He’s far more collaborative than I thought he’d be. It was a proper dialogue. We talked a lot about the story and the fact that it has elements of tragedy as well as comedy. Stephen mentioned the films of Billy Wilder, who he loves. And I’m a fan of Jack Lemmon, who appeared in a lot of Wilder’s films. Together they made films that aren’t easily defined – they’re many things. They managed to walk a line between what’s funny and what’s tragic.