Magazine article Screen International

Steve Coogan, Philomena

Magazine article Screen International

Steve Coogan, Philomena

Article excerpt

Steve Coogan has embraced his serious side developing, producing, co-writing and starring in Philomena. Wendy Mitchell reports

Steve Coogan isn't laughing, or even cracking a smile. Not that the famed comedian and actor is being grumpy, just that he is extremely focused when talking about Philomena.

It is understandable: the lauded film is certainly his baby and it shows a new, more serious side to Coogan's professional ambitions.

It all started when he read a Guardian article about Philomena Lee in 2009. "I found her story really moving and it just resonated with me," Coogan says. "I wanted to a) break out of the sort of stuff I had been doing and b) do something that personally I just found satisfying.

"I found it depressing that there were not that many films around that were actually about anything. Films for an adult audience that had a point, a view about anything; that had the guts to say something sincere."

Yes, the man who was also well known this summer for tucking his genitals between his legs in the hilarious Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, wanted to make a film exploring more serious themes.

"Certainly in this country, cynicism seems to rule the day. It's everyone's default setting and it's debilitating and it's defeatist. It is almost the most avant-garde thing you can do today to talk about love, sincerely, and say something that you believe in, without inverted commas, without irony and to hold a point of view," he says.

"Where are the films about reaffirming what makes us human? It made me angry that those things sort of disappeared; no studios make those films any more."

Philomena certainly tackles some sincere subjects: it tells the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman forced to give up her child in a Catholic-run Magdalene laundry in the 1950s. Decades later, with the help of author and journalist Martin Sixsmith, she sets out to find her son. Despite her hardships, she manages to forgive the Catholic church for separating her from her son all those decades before.

Coogan grew up in a Catholic household, which gave him a personal connection to understanding a woman's faith. He also liked that the story could be told about the relationship between a woman of faith and a sceptical journalist. "I thought, 'That's a really interesting relationship,' and I projected onto it things that I wanted to project onto it."

Coogan's production company Baby Cow, run with Henry Normal, secured the film rights to Sixsmith's book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee. "[Producer] Gabby Tana was really supportive and pushed me and gave me the confidence to do it. She said she would produce it with me," he recalls of his relationship with Magnolia Mae Films' Tana.

Tana brought the project to Christine Langan at BBC Films, who came on board and suggested Jeff Pope to write it with Coogan. "I wasn't that keen on writing it at first, but I had an idea of the story," Coogan recalls.

He wrote the script with Pope, whose credits include Pierrepoint and TV projects including City Lights and Mrs Biggs. Coogan was more the master of character and dialogue, and Pope guided the overall construct.

"We would argue about things, healthy arguments, and I would act out the scene in front of him and play out all the parts," Coogan recalls.

The book was just the jumping off point -- Coogan estimates only about 20% of the script is taken from the book. Coogan and Pope based more on their own interviews with Philomena and her daughter Jane, and author Sixsmith.

The story could have become schmaltz in the hands of other writers. "Whenever we came up with a mode that was familiar to us and is familiar in narrative as we were writing, we said 'Right, let's make sure we don't do that thing because it is easy to do ABC of how to move people.' And I don't want to do that. I still want it to be restrained. When you repress the sentiments it gives it more power. …

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