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.
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.