Interview by Roger Durling with producer Gaby Tana
Roger Durling: Everybody please welcome producer Gaby Tana. (applause) Thank you for being here Gaby.
Gaby Tana: Thank you for having us.
Durling: Steve, who wrote the screenplay and actually stars in the film, is the one who first started this project, right, and then approached you about getting the rights?
Tana: Well, what happened was, we were actually together. It was Thanksgiving about 4 years ago and he had come to stay with me and he had just read about the book in The Guardian newspaper. There was this little article with this wonderful photograph of Philomena and Martin Sixsmith sitting on a bench together, and it was actually that image of the two of them and reading the article that really inspired him and made him think that this was an extraordinary story. He’d never done drama before. He’s only known for his comedies and so he wasn’t sure if he would be taken seriously if he tried to do something like this. I encouraged him and said, “Let’s try and do it together,” and he said, “Okay.” He was funny. He said, “I can’t go and take a meeting without people starting to laugh.” So we started and I went to BBC films with the idea. We already knew it wasn’t going to be about the book but how the book came into being. Steve wasn’t even sure if he was going to write it at that point, but he had such a clear vision of it, I said he must write it but we’d find someone to co-write it with him. Christine Langan, the head of BBC Films, brought in Jeff Pope, which was an inspired idea. I think we’re going to see them collaborating a lot.
Durling: What do you think it was about the story that appealed so much to Steve and to you?
Tana: Well it’s about so many things: it’s heartbreaking; it’s about mothers and children; it’s about the Catholic Church; there’s the humanity of it all and her, actually.
Durliing: The book is not, as you mentioned, about the journey that you see in the movie. The book is different. When did Steve and Jeff and you decide that you were going to focus on the journey about the two of them and incorporate Martin into the story?
Tana: In fact, Steve and I figured that out really from the get-go before we even went to Christine Langan with the idea and Jeff got involved. I don’t even know if Steve’s read the book now. I read the book. Pretty early on we realized what was interesting was the relationship between these two people and that’s not what the book’s about. The book really was about Martin Sixsmith trying to find Michael Hess, Anthony.
Durling: There’s beautiful balance in this movie with this intellectual man and this intuitive character. Can you talk about the development?
Tana: It was very, very much about respecting this woman who has wisdom and who might not be as sophisticated but maybe has something that’s even more important than all of the education and all of the sophistication that Martin had, so that was something that was always important. Steve grew up in Ireland and there were lots of women that this reminded him of. It was about capturing the spirit of these sorts of special women.
Durling: How involved were the actual Philomena and Martin?
Tana: Very. That was one of the first things that happened. As soon as Jeff Pope got involved, we all got together and they spent a lot of time with Martin, Philomena and her daughter, so they drew a lot on the real experience. Philomena actually came and visited us on numerous occasions while we were making the film, as did Martin, so they were very much on site throughout the whole process.
Durling: When Steve got the project, did he always imagine himself in it?
Tana: No. It all kind of revealed itself pretty quickly. I think the more he became involved in writing the script and that character, the more attached he became to it. And also he realized this was the kind of part that he would die for and that nobody would offer him. This was an opportunity to be able to do something like that since he could hire himself. That’s how it happened.
Durling: There’s an incredible delicate balance, as we talked about, between the intuitive nature and intellectual nature of the two of them. But there’s also this balance of humor and drama. I mean, one moment we’re crying and one moment we’re laughing. Can you just talk about the development of that?
Tana: Well, it was definitely all there in the screenplay. What you see was what we shot because it was what was written on the page. But Frears, the director, was magnificent. He is a master, and when he’s right on he’s really right on. He was always highly attuned to making sure that it was right and that it was working. And it was amazing too, to have the writers on site through the process of making the movie. Steve was there and Jeff was there a lot of the time too, and just in terms of the way things were delivered, it was right. The tonality was right and Frears was very keen to make sure that it was working all the time.
Durling: When did he get involved into the project and how?
Tana: Well, early on we went to Judi, because we realized that there was nobody who could be better. After there was just a first draft of the script, Steve went to visit her at home, and he read her the first draft of the script and she signed on then. And then, while they were writing the next draft, they were really writing for her–and could–because she committed to doing it. At a certain point we had to say to Steve, “If you don’t sign up, we’re moving on.” Because he was saying, “Well, couldn’t we make it next year?” and we said, “No. We’re making it now. Judi’s available and everything is in place.” So he came on board. I guess we shot in November and he officially got involved in August.
Durling: You mention, which was really interesting, that Steve Coogan read the script to Judi Dench. I mean it’s publicized that she has eyesight issues. That must have been quite amazing, Steve Coogan seated next to Judi Dench actually reading a script to her to convince her to do it. You weren’t there?
Tana: I wasn’t there that day but then we all did some readings after that where we read different parts to help her before we started shooting it.
Durling: How does she memorize her lines? Does somebody—
Tana: She memorizes them. She’s extraordinary. She has somebody who is a very dear old friend of hers who helps her learn her lines and who was with us throughout the whole shoot.
Durling: You guys shot in Washington and you also shot in England. How long was the—
Tana: It was an eight-week shoot and we actually did all of the contemporary stuff first. And then we did 1950s Ireland afterwards. Actually, we broke for Christmas and came back and did 1950s Ireland. It was sort of split into two.
Durling: One of the things I love about this film is—and it’s towards the end of the movie—when she actually forgives. I know that some critics have complained, “How can this woman forgive this abuse from the Catholic Church?” Can you talk a little bit about that?
Tana: Well that’s true-to-life. I mean, it was the real Philomena who imparted that. I think that I’m sure she struggled with it for a long, long time and this is 50 years later. So she definitely went through a period where she lost her faith. She was a psychiatric nurse and I think through the years she has talked about being there for other people and watching people in pain. It gave her a great sense of humanity and compassion. It helped her regain her faith. I think it’s powerful.
Durling: How publicized—I mean because of personal interest, I was aware of the Magdalene laundries. How aware were Ireland and England of all of this stuff that was going on?
Tana: Well it’s sort of like a dirty secret. People do know about it and, of course, as you mentioned, the Magdalene sisters–it’s something with a lot of controversy about it. In fact, when the film came out in Ireland, it brought a lot of attention to the issue and I’m hoping it will have a very positive effect. We’re hoping that bringing this out into the open will be a healing thing for a lot of people who actually experienced similar things.
Durling: My follow-up question is, how has the reaction been of the Catholic Church in Ireland after the release of this film?
Tana: Well, they’re not very happy about it. (laughs) There have been attempts to claim that these things didn’t actually happen and that Sister Hildegarde was a lovely lady. In fact, there were people who came on the radio who said she was actually worse than we painted her.
Durling: Is she still alive, Sister Hildegarde?
Tana: We wouldn’t have—no, she’s not.
Durling: But you feel that the portrait of everything that happened is actually accurate?
Tana: Yes. And actually we had a screening in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago and there was a woman in the audience who came up to us afterwards and said that she had been a child from Roscrea. She congratulated Steve and everyone for having done something that was so true to the truth.
Durling: I told you outside, and most of you know, that I was raised by Catholic priests and that I was a victim of sexual abuse. One of the things that is very powerful about this film is what I mentioned earlier in that she does forgive. My interpretation is that the forgiveness is actually in order for her to be able to move on. That’s the one thing I learned the most. You have to forgive, because the moment you forgive is the healing process. I’ve stopped being a victim and that’s one of the things I admire so much about Philomena is that she stopped being a victim and now she is able to live.
Tana: Yes. And in revealing her story, which was the cause of so much shame. In fact, it was when her brother died that she actually felt that she could reveal this secret. He always felt that it was something that was still very shameful. It was when he died that she told her daughter and revealed it and felt that she could be set free.
Durling: Well congratulations, Gaby. Thank you so much for being here.
Tana: Thank you.