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'Philomena,' Harvey Weinstein's Best Oscar Hope, Comes on Strong; Why Coogan Dared to be Sincere

Awards
by Anne Thompson
December 16, 2013 11:58 AM
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Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena"
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena"

"Only as far as the film he made was the film I wanted to make," responds Coogan, "which is this: the manipulation is that the fact are facts. It's true [that the Catholic convent] did withhold information. It's all true. But the big thing about this film that drove me to do it: I was fed up with clever creative people doing post-modern ironic sneering art. I was trying to do a film which was authentic and sincere."

Sure, the real Coogan veers close to the character he's playing, the Atheist cynical urban sophisticate who does not believe in a higher power. "I know! I recognize, I'm sick of myself," he says. "Martin Sixsmith is that kind of anti-schmaltz, irreverent advocate, so that by and large we avoid those moments of sentiment. There's a duality. There's no correct answer, no spoon-feeding."

Even though "Philomena" "in the end looks more broad and accessible than anything I've done before," Coogan says, "I thought it was more of a risk because it's saying something sincere. That's far more risky than being cynical. It's opening yourself to potential ridicule. That's why a lot of people are scared of being sincere. People like to be less sincere, more post-modern. It's become the default setting that is annoying for smart people, it's limiting. It was a stretch for me. Not being sentimental, mawkish or indulgently syrupy and crappy, that's marketing a man's emotions. But the real ambition, saying something authentic, is the most avant-garde thing you can do. Talking about love. The intellectual word that intellectual aesthetes fear is love. Weirdly in 2013 we end up in a place where the edgiest spikiest thing you can say is love: how did that happen?"

Getting Judi Dench to star was key. "She was very important. She made it bankable and was important creatively. I wanted someone who was not just iconic and good at what they do, but she doesn't milk any of the sentiment. She's restrained, she did everything I'd hope she'd do. It appealed to her as an actor."

Coogan chased Stephen Frears hard to direct "Philomena.""He played hard to get," says Coogan. "I gave him an ultimatum. I had Dench and the financing and could go with someone else. Frears was not crucial as far as the finance was concerned. He gave good notes, talked straight, didn't talk endlessly about the fucking subtext. We argued efficiently, there was no time wasting, no political pussyfooting. He really brought something to it. Sometimes he would want to more clarity than I wanted, he'd want to make explicit what I regard as implicit." 

They sold the movie after Harvey Weinstein saw the trailer at Cannes 2013. "We held [the film] back, so we didn't wanted to give him the film until it was done. He had some notes, and some of them were good, some we resisted, the good ones made the film better, not many. Some things he wanted to do we didn't want to do --and didn't do." 

Mainly, Coogan knows that "Harvey is the award taskmaster, he's definitely given this film a platform so that it goes beyond being an esoteric East Coast film."

Frears had to agree that the film's ending be based on truth, Coogan says. As he was telling a true story, Coogan didn't want to change the resolution into the dramatic convention (SPOILER ALERT): "We honor the facts," he says. "I don't find God, and she doesn't find her son. She did find out that he was dead. He did bury himself for her to find. The moments of real transcendence for me are where she finds out he's buried at the convent--that's real. She forgives them--that's real. The right way to do things is not to provide complete resolution, but the kind that Philomena did find, a kind of serenity and equilibrium. Not everything is ok. It's just a way of moving on, a way to learn to live with what happened to you."

"Philomena" is the exact opposite of the work Coogan did with Michael Winterbottom on "The Look of Love," "Tristram Shandy" and "The Trip," in that it is entirely scripted, with no improvisation. But "The Trip," which will soon be followed with "A Trip to Italy," is harder to pull off than it looks. "Yes, there is bit of frustration in 'The Trip,'" he says. "I crank it up. If there are any positive developments in my career I minimize them. The more antagonism and frustration there is the funnier it is. If there is a kernel of truth, I channel it, if something's bugging you, you throw it into the mix. It's cathartic: 'this pisses me off.' I'll laugh at it. With 'The Trip' my fear was that it has to resonate or it's just narcissistic navel-gazing --not masturbation. That was my fear before I did it. We just did the second one. When you see a celebrity playing himself, it's irritating when they are saying, 'aren't I really cool?' It's not interesting unless it's a bit uncomfortable, you have to know that nothing happens unless you take the risk of failure."

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