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5 questions with author Ian McEwan about the film adaptation of On Chesil Beach

From the Paul Schrader-directed 1990 adaptation of the novel The Comfort of Strangers to the acclaimed film version of best-selling book Atonement, the work of English wordsmith Ian McEwan has been spellbinding moviemakers for decades.

But these days, the 69-year old scribe has been taking a much more involved role in the reimagining of his written fiction into film. Not only will audiences soon see McEwan’s own screenplay adaptation of 1987’s The Child In Time, but fans can also enjoy the author’s own rendering of 2014’s The Children Act come to life. Before that reaches the silver screen, however, McEwan remodeled his 2007 novella On Chesil Beach for cinemas (opening at Eau Claire Friday, June 1).

The story of two young apprehensive newlyweds on their wedding night, McEwan has crafted an examination of the sexual repression and societal pressure in early 1960s England with help from a stellar performance by Saoirse Ronan (who earned an Oscar nomination for her work in McEwan’s aforementioned Atonement). We recently sat down with Ian McEwan to discuss screenplays, Ronan and why the novelist has taken the reins and begun turning his own books into blockbusters after a lengthy hiatus.

Q: For someone who hasn’t been directly involved in writing screenplays since 1993 with your adaptation of (Todd Strasser’s novel) The Good Son, this has been a busy year?

A: It’s true. It feels like I’ve had lots of involvement because I’ve been executive producer on all the others and I’ve been very involved. Also, I did two screenplays in the mid ’90s. After The Good Son I became a sort of A-list Hollywood writer (and) I wrote a brilliant screenplay, one of my best, for Geena Davis. It was Flies, after The Fly (David Cronenberg’s 1986 thriller co-starring Davis) and that didn’t happen for very complicated, contractual reasons between her and 20th Century Fox.

Q: So what was it about On Chesil Beach that urged you to adapt the book on your own rather than allow another writer to take over?

A: I could just see someone else doing it and me hating it – that was the problem. And it was a very agreeable experience, actually. I kept the structure – which was a hotel room and flashbacks, which worked perfectly well in fiction as in movies. Flashbacks are part of the grammar of both, so it’s quite easy. Then there were the usual problems of finding dramatic equivalents to interior states or narrative summary. Narrative summary is very hard to do in a movie so they had to be replaced by other scenes, but writing those were a real delight because I already knew these characters and I knew how they would behave in these scenes.

Q: Let me ask about distinguishing movies from books. Why is there so much more freedom within a novel to have a loose structure and ending?

A: Well, films are literal. It’s either there or not there. And they are not designed really to give you that thing which is so delightful in fiction, which is flow of conscious states and the ability of the novelist to not only report on emotional states but explore it and write a short essay on it, (and) this cannot be done in movies. So finding the equivalence was interesting, and yet to keep the spirit of the original at the same time.

Q: Did you have Saoirse Ronan in mind when you started to write this adaptation?

A: No, because when I wrote the first draft of On Chesil Beach, Saoirse was maybe 16. So the great opportunity was when I met (director) Domenic (Cooke) for the first time in London, I said to him, ‘I really like Saoirse Ronan – would you please meet her’ and he did. I mean, he hadn’t seen Brooklyn at that point, so that was useful because it was just out. So he saw Brooklyn and loved it and then met Saoirse and I was so relieved when I got this email that read, ‘No one else can do it’.

Q: What is it about Saoirse Ronan that makes her such a great actress for your work?

A: There’s sort of a fierce honesty to her acting and she is just a master of transmission of emotions. So she helps in that process – telling you what the emotional state is. I mean watching it again yesterday, that look of troubled fear on her face – it did make me laugh almost because it was so good — that sort of sick look of apprehension and yet there’s a sense that she has to go ahead with it. They’re locked into the story that they’ve got to have sex on their wedding night. I mean, I could easily just imagine writing movies that had Saoirse in it. That would keep me writing for years.

On Chesil Beach opens Friday, June 1 at Eau Claire Market Cinemas.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.

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