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Steven Coogan Talks 'Philomena,' Why Kyle Smith's NY Post Review Was "Stupid" & Taking 'The Trip To Italy'

by Kevin Jagernauth
December 23, 2013 1:07 PM
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Philomena Steve Coogan

One of the most impressive elements of the film is its nuanced look at faith and people's relationship to it. When you wrote the script, what were you trying to get across?
I'm an atheist but what I get fed up of, is people either being on one side of an argument or another. That kind of reductive, over simplistic approach to things isn't what...those are my views but I don't pretend I have all the answers, and neither should religious people pretend they have all the answers. It's just known there's nuance in these things. To me it was kind of a conversation with myself in some ways about religion. 

I'm from a religious background. The people in my life who are religious, who I love, I don't have to agree with them to love them. So to me the thing I was saying was—it wasn't like I set out with a statement in mind—I wanted to show that no one has a monopoly on wisdom. The one thing that I'm saying, if anything, is people who have more certainty—fundamentalists of any kind, whether they be fundamentalist right wing American Bible bashing creationists, or the Taliban, because to me they’re one and the same type of thing—they're both intolerant peoples who do not broker doubt or nuance. That's one thing I don't like. You might say that's just a wishy washy liberal way of looking at things but wishy washy liberals don't shoot people because they disagree with them. That's all I know. 

I sometimes feel that in criticizing organized, institutional religion, we sometimes diminish those of simple faith and we can learn something from those people, who live their lives in a dignified way and are not overly materialistic, but they live what they believe. They don't say one thing and do another. Philomena is not an intellectual but she lives according to her values. That's something that we can all learn from. So all those things you're talking about, to me it's kind of a conversation out loud.

"It's almost weird how much he misunderstands the movie. But I have to say, it's also politically nuts because if he thinks he's harming the movie, he's doing anything but."

I'm sure you heard about the New York Post review calling the film an attack on Catholics.
I wrote a letter, with Jeff Pope to Kyle Smith. I have to say he does himself a disservice and he does the people who have political empathy in him a disservice, in reinforcing the view that people of his political perspective don't understand nuance. They don't understand the fact that I'm not claiming to have all the answers. I'm not claiming a simplistic view of the world. I'm saying, "You know what? Some of what she says is right." 

In all his criticism he just very quickly skips over the whole tenant of forgiveness which is one of the linchpins of Philomena's faith and is one of the most pivotal moments of the entire movie. I just think his review shows him to be stupid. It's as simple as that, it's like, "Doesn't he get it?" It's almost weird how much he misunderstands the movie. But I have to say, it's also politically nuts because if he thinks he's harming the movie, he's doing anything but. There's always going to be a certain sector of American society that thinks that anyone that doesn't show absolute certainty, or broker any kind of doubt is the enemy. Things that are intellectual, that offer doubt, they see doubt as weakness. To have doubt shows that you're strong enough to see...people out here don't understand what the word duality means. You can hold two opposing views to be true at the same time. It doesn't mean that you're stupid, it just makes you compassionate and empathetic.

I'm going to take things a lighter direction. When are you going to write the spinoff movie based off the novel in Philomena?
Well that was my favorite piece of writing. Jeff was sitting at his typewriter looking over his shoulder going, "Surely that's enough" I was going, "No there's more." He's like, "What happens next?" I go, "The guy with the one foot does this," and he's going, "This is going on too long, you can't go on this long." I said, "It's worth a shot. It might be really funny. It might be funny that it's really long and boring, or it might just be long and boring. But it's definitely worth a shot." I kind of got too into it in a way. I really like the twist where the guy shows up at the end. I genuinely think it could be, if you applied yourself to it with real rigor, you could turn it into a proper movie.

Did you talk to Michael Winterbottom about possibly working with him on Philomena?
I didn't tell Michael about it, I ran it by Andrew Eaton, his producer. I've worked with Michael so much, I think it's important that I go off and do something different. It was kind of like he's the only person who was good enough to give me these breaks, I thought it was important to find someone else. Also, Michael's approach is very free form, and I felt like I wanted it to be really close to the script. The way Michael works is great, it's liberated me from a lot of things, but there's a lot of craft in this and I didn't want to start improvising around it. 

I knew Judi would be comfortable with Stephen and that was important because it was a big ask to get her to do the lead role in a movie that's quite demanding. When you make a movie certain things have got to go right, the one thing I didn't want to go wrong was not being sure about the relationship between the leading lady and the director.

The Trip to Italy

Working with Rob Brydon on "The Trip" and now "The Trip to Italy," how do you and Rob Brydon know what the line is? You guys play these heightened versions of yourselves and you prod each other pretty hard.
Well, it's hard. Because sometimes we both crossed the line with each other and it's difficult. It's a family, in fact sometimes people have arguments with their family, their brothers or sisters or there's tension. You know you can trust your family even if they annoy you sometimes. I guess it's the same way with Rob. He's sort of like family, so it doesn't matter if we have...sometimes we stray into real arguments. But that's what makes it exciting and interesting. Weirdly it only happens when we're filming. At the end of the day Rob and I go to dinner and we get on great for real. We have to kind of seek out tension, sometimes that becomes real tension. But we've shook hands before and said, "Look, if we do this we can't take it personally." We can't just avoid unpleasantness. We have to take the risks that we’re going to annoy each other genuinely for it to be interesting. So it's kind of like a Gentleman’s Agreement.

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  • Ken Puck | March 5, 2014 11:34 PMReply

    Absolutely love Steve Coogan. "The Trip" was one of the funniest movies I have ever seen...I was gasping for air. He is just amazing!

    But I'm a Republican and a HUGE Kyle Smith fan, so I won't be spending money to see "Philomena." Republicans and Christians take quite a beating from Hollywood, yet they're the backbone of America. Don't need yet another movie using them for pincushions.

    Sorry, Steve. Catch you next time.

  • Northern Star | December 23, 2013 11:39 PMReply

    Coogan's assertion that "right wing American fundamentalist Bible bashing creationists" and the Taliban being "one and the same thing" is EXACTLY the sort of outright ignorance he claims to abhore... how many people have the Taliban murdered, mutilated, and massacred since 1996 (and that's not even counting their alliance with al-Qaeda)... how many people has the American stereotype he described killed? The former is in the TENS OF THOUSANDS whilst the latter is around ZERO! Grow up Coogan and stick to what you know about...

  • Jeff | December 23, 2013 8:08 PMReply

    Obviously the Catholic Church isn't free of sin, but it's probably the least offensive major institution in human history, and has done some pretty great things too

  • Lucifer | December 26, 2013 5:56 AM

    "Least offensive major institution in human history"!! Wow Jeff, you clearly live in a parallel unverse...

    Northern Star - abhor, no e in the spelling of the word!

  • Lucifer | December 23, 2013 6:47 PMReply

    Excellent piece. I am really looking forward to seeing this movie. I'm not sure what Kyle Smith's problem is - a combination of jealousy and a deeply mired myopia when it comes to acknowledging the sins of the Catholic Church perhaps?

    I grew up Catholic and the "saintly" nuns used to try to drum it into us in Primary school that all Protestants would burn in hell! Also it was suggested that we could identify "undercover" Protestants by having them show us their tongues, as Jesus would have left a black mark on them! I kid you not, and this was in the early 1970s...

    The Butcher Boy was an excellent film. I loved the book and the movie did not let it down in any way. The Magdalen and other movies were, in my view, equally well done.

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