How Writers of ‘Brooklyn,’ ‘Suffragette’ and ‘The Danish Girl’ Made Period Movies Feel Fresh

Nick Hornby, Lucinda Coxon and Abi Morgan talk to TheWrap about the hazards of adapting historical material

This story originally appeared in the Actors/Directors/Writers issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Period films don’t have to deal with dated issues. Case in point: Suffragette, The Danish Girl and Brooklyn may take place in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s, but the topics they cover are as vital as today’s headlines. Brooklyn is about an Irish girl coming to the United States more than 60 years ago — in other words, about the hot-button topic of immigration. The Danish Girl tells the story of one of the first people to have gender reassignment surgery, a subject that is more prevalent in the culture of 2015 than ever before. Suffragette concerns the fight for women’s rights in Great Britain after World War I, with reverberations in the current treatment of women around the world (including, of course, Hollywood).

Three British writers were responsible for making timeless and timely films. Novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby brought Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn to the screen, while playwright/screenwriters Lucinda Coxon and Abi Morgan each worked for more than a decade on The Danish Girl and Suffragette, respectively. They spoke to TheWrap about the task of making the past present.

Nick Hornby, “Brooklyn”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 23: Nick Hornby attends a photocall as he delivers the first in the 2015 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters' Lecture series at BAFTA on September 23, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

(Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Brooklyn is a movie of big emotions, but without the kind of big conflicts you’d usually find in a film like this. It’s delicate, emotionally.

I think that was the thing that we were all the most conscious of when we were making it–the delicacy. It’s interesting that there’s no baddie, really. In terms of the central characters, they are all lovely and they all want the best for each other, pretty much.

But I guess the truth is that the experience of living is extremely painful. The intense homesickness, which I have not seen done on screen before, is a big feeling that we all have. And loss, of course. So it felt to me like there was plenty in there without having that conventional structure of obstacle/opposition/whatever. How many of us have baddies in our lives, actually? I don’t have any in mine. A couple of critics, that’s about as far as it goes. And yet, life is difficult and sad and occasionally exhilarating.

Director John Crowley has said that it had to be emotional but not sentimental. Do you need sensitive radar to figure out where that line is?

I felt emotional when I was writing it, and it never occurred to me that it would be sentimental. I just felt the weight of the story and the sadness that was buried in the story as a sort of weight in my chest. I have no idea whether that affected the actual writing. It could have been merely hopeful, like playing a piece of music that you love and hoping that ends up in your writing somewhere.

I tend not to write sentimentally — it makes me feel yucky if I think I’ve done something that’s sentimental. But I knew that we wanted to be close in on this girl [Saoirse Ronan], and to feel everything that she felt.

As an Englishman, did you feel connected to this very Irish story?

I think we’re quite similar, really, the English and the Irish. Of course, the English didn’t emigrate in the same numbers, but in terms of what life was like in those decades, I think our experience wasn’t so different. I read the book and thought, “I can do this.”

Your first few books were about guys of a certain age, sports fans and music fans. But the movies you’ve written — An Education, Wild and now Brooklyn – have young female protagonists. Was that a conscious choice?

After the first three books, I thought, “I don’t know if there’s anything else I want to say about certain guys.” I hoped that I had some sort of long career ahead of me, which meant that I would have to write about everybody. And after I wrote An Education, I got a lot of confidence — or, at least, any fear about writing about a young woman was taken away.

Emory Cohen as "Tony" and Saoirse Ronan as "Eilis" in BROOKLYN. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

(© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Also after An Education, one of the things that struck me is that if you write these big parts for young women, you get to work with the best talent in the world, because they’re not spoilt for choice. The guys are all like, “Yeah, it’s a nice indie movie, but someone’s just offered me $20 million to wear a superhero suit, so thanks for your interest.” Meanwhile the girls are playing the superhero’s girlfriend. And when they get these scripts where every single page is about them, it’s kind of amazing.

So we got Carey [Mulligan, for An Education] and Saoirse, and they are the best actresses of their age. That’s quite an incentive for a writer and filmmaker, to think that there is this untapped talent that actively wants to do what you’re interested in writing about.

Lucinda Coxon, “The Danish Girl”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 02: Writer Lucinda Coxon speaks at 'The Crimson Petal and the White' discussion panel during the Encore portion of the 2012 Summer Television Critics Association tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 2, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

(Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

How did you get involved in adapting David Ebershoff’s novel?

Gail Mutrux optioned the book in 2000, and in 2004 she sent it to me to see if I’d be interested in adapting it. They thought there was something in my sensibility, and they were interested in the fact that I was a playwright, which at the time I didn’t think was relevant. I had no prior knowledge of the story, but I was intrigued. So I started reading the novel and researching alongside it, to assess where the novel was fictionalized and how much of the original story was in there.

I was just amazed by the love story between Einar and Gerda [Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander], really. And once I found out more about the real story, I was amazed by the portrait of the marriage and the two artists. It was period, but it also felt fantastically modern–ahead of us, in many ways. I think the importance of sharing that story with people was kind of overwhelming. I became such a bore about it that friends were afraid to catch my eye at parties.

So I worked on the script and everyone loved it and I thought “OK, here we go.” [Laughs] That was a decade ago.

Eddie Redmayne stars as Lili Elbe, in Tom Hooper's THE DANISH GIRL, released by Focus Features. Credit: Focus Features

(Focus Features)

You said that at first you didn’t think your being a playwright was relevant. Did it become relevant?
I can see now that it was. I knew I wanted something that was very intimate, almost claustrophobic, where you are almost under the skin of the marriage. And there is something about that that is similar to writing a play, where you stay under the surface of the material for a very long time. And I hope that’s part of the intensity of the film. I stripped out the obvious fictions and the extraneous characters in the novel, and I kept the focus very tight. It was really about the couple and the art and the spaces in between.

Is the film truer to the actual events than the novel was?
It is truer. In the novel, Gerda had become Greta, and she’d been Americanized–she was an orange heiress from Pasadena. But it was quite a superficial change, and she was emotionally the same. And when I met David, to his credit and my great relief, the first thing he said was, “I’m really sorry about that thing about Greta being American. You’ll have to fix that right away.” But he had done a lot of the difficult spade work, and his novel is still very present in the movie, I think.

Danish Girl EDDIE REDMAYNEIt’s been more than a decade since you began working on this story about a transgender person — and now we have Transparent, and Caitlin Jenner…
It’s bizarre. One of the reasons it’s taken this long is that the subject matter was commercially toxic. We had big actors and directors who were keen to be involved, and we almost made the film several times. But it was very, very difficult to finance because of the subject matter. It’s remarkable that the zeitgeist has shifted and all this progress has been made. And I couldn’t be happier that we can talk about transgender issues so openly now, because the truth is we’re all much more alike than we are different.

There was a terrible moment when I thought, “We’ve been ahead of it for a decade, and now we’re almost behind it!” People have stopped short of accusing us of jumping on a bandwagon–which is good, because, my God, I’ve been pushing this bandwagon up the hill for a very long time.

Abi Morgan, “Suffragette”

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Writer Abi Morgan attends the "Suffragette" New York Premiere at The Paris Theatre on October 12, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

(Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

What was your reaction when director Sarah Gavron came to you to write a movie about the suffragette movement?
I didn’t look at the material for about six months. I thought, “Oh god, corsets and period?” But I looked at some of the testimonials working women gave in the Houses of Parliament, and I found them so moving. Always, if I get really interested in the research, it pulls me in. But it took me forever to write it. It’s horrific how many drafts I did.

Unlike adapting a novel, if you’re trying to capture a movement you’re starting from a much vaguer point.
Absolutely. It’s all about what you leave out. I did a version that was completely Downton Abbey-esque, around an upper-class character. I don’t know what I was on. But into that I brought the character of a seamstress/laundress, and I became more and more interested in her. And when I started to look at the hierarchy of the movement, I thought well, they keep referring to the foot soldiers. Who are these women? They aren’t all middle-class, Mary-Poppins-bashing-the-tambourine women. And I came back to the testimonials, and though, “Oh, it’s you. And you had so much to lose. If you were in prison for a week, you lost your job.” I felt that the economics of what it meant to be a woman at that time were really interesting, and that’s what made me home in.

It’s a very tiny story, but I hope it has bigger political effect. This film is about feminism, and has parallels in the modern fight against inequality.

In this image released by Focus Features, Anne-Marie Duff portrays Violet Miller, left, and Carey Mulligan portrays Maud Watts in a scene from "Suffragette." (Steffan Hill/Focus Features via AP)

(Steffan Hill/Focus Features via AP)

Were you thinking about that current political resonance as you were writing it?
No, not at all. People keep saying, “Did you want to write a feminist film?” And I don’t think like that. But with the digital age we have such a growing social activism, and we can’t ignore the global inequalities. We can YouTube the stoning of a woman in the Middle East, or the gang rape of a woman in India, or just the basic inequalities of a sweatshop in the U.K. I think it’s ignited a growing feminism and activism amongst the generation underneath me.

And then running parallel with that, you do get excited about working with so many women. The core producers, director, writer, production designer, costume designer — all women, except for one male producer. Usually when I write a movie, I’m lucky if I get one good actress. But suddenly, I could think, “What if we had two or three great actresses in a film? Or a great ensemble, like Scorsese has with men?” And then it just became fun to make the movie together and share stories, and just be on the set with that many women.

Click here to read more from the Actors/Directors/Writers issue of TheWrap Oscar Magazine.

OscarWrap-Actors-Writers-Directors