Directing your debut feature film is always a major achievement. But this having come relatively late in his life, Stephen Brown is probably enjoying it more than most. The fiftysomething is relishing the round of premieres, festivals and award nominations that have followed his assembling of a remarkable cast for an adaptation of John Banville’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea. It’s a career defining moment that Brown was not sure he would ever experience, but persistence, talent and maybe a little luck got him over the finishing line.
Although a rookie director, he has vast experience in the industry, with assistant director credits on movies like 1984, time spent on youth TV programmes including The Word back in the early 1990s and a successful career in the world of corporate films. However, as he jokes at home in Stamford Hill: “I was determined to make a feature film before I shuffled off this mortal coil.”
It should be pointed out that Brown is nowhere near that point — indeed his boyish enthusiasm for his art has been a huge factor behind his success — and whatever the box office take, he is happy with the job he has done.
Yet the question remains: How does a first-time director bring a project like this to fruition? Brown ponders momentarily. “Well, this was always my dream and I suppose I was always keeping my eye out for material that would resonate with me. And five or six years ago I read John Banville’s novel [about a man grieving over the loss of his wife, who revisits the scene of a traumatic childhood holiday on the Wexford coast] and enjoyed it immensely, although it was a challenging read. I took it to my long-time friend, the film producer Luc Roeg, and he liked it too, so we got in touch with Banville about the rights.”
Brown was surprised at how approachable the author was. They met for a chat over lunch during which Brown gave him his vision for the film. Not only did Banville agree to sell Brown the option for the movie. He also volunteered to write the screenplay.
Next came the challenge of finding a cast — and particularly a star. Brown’s first thought was Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, who “loved it [the script] and immediately said yes, which helped us with two other vital aspects of our film development. Because Ciaran is such an actor’s actor, he enables us to gain the trust of other actors. So we approached the likes of Charlotte Rampling, Sinead Cusack and Rufus Sewell and their attitude was that if Ciaran was on board, they wanted to read the script.”
So by the time Brown and his team were ready to attract finance for the film, they already had a prize-winning book with a screenplay by the author and an all-star cast. What was not to like? Well, the British Film Institute sent back a sniffy reply to the effect that Brown was hardly an emerging talent. But this was thankfully an isolated response.“Nobody else gave a hoot about my age.” The Irish investors were far more open and Brown was able to begin filming in County Wexford.
The filming was not without difficulties but there was no friction behind the scenes: “A lot of people told me to be wary of novelists writing the screenplay. The reverse was true for me. John is a very generous spirited man, a very good mentor to me and we became friends. He had a very clear headed vision of how to adapt the book but he was happy that when he had written it, it was up to me to do with it as I wanted. The film is a distillation of the novel. There’s a lot there in a literary sense and I had to compress it into a more frugal representation. Without being pretentious, I would like to think that we have captured the poetics of the novel and delivered it in a way on screen that you go on this wave of a journey with the central character.”
Filming took place on the same beaches that Spielberg used to make Saving Private Ryan. And because the deal the producers struck meant that both filming and post-production were in Ireland, Brown spent a lot of time in Dublin. “I was away for a long time which was tough for my wife and family but I loved every moment. I became very good friends with the shul community in Terenure which was a great antidote to the film stuff. I was made very welcome and after a couple of kiddushes I couldn’t move in Dublin for bumping into people that I knew.
“There’s a strong connection between Ireland and the Jews through art and literature. We somehow speak the same language and it goes back to Joyce. I think Joyce’s understanding of the Jews was immense — he somehow got us. I felt very much at home as the only Jew on the set.”
There has been a warm response to the film on the festival circuit. It opened at Edinburgh and has since played at the Galway Fleadh where it closed the festival in the presence of the Irish president. It has also played as far afield as Buenos Aires, Prague and Seoul and was nominated for the Iftas (the Irish equivalent of the Baftas).
It is safe to say that the experience has given Brown a taste for the director’s life. The Muswell Hill Synagogue member has a long held ambition to make the “ultimate north London Jewish film”. But whatever his next project, the die is cast. “I’m a film director now,” he chuckles. “This is the only way forward for me and I’m going to carry on even if my children don’t eat.”
The film is released on DVD on May 12