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‘Brooklyn’ Director John Crowley on His Own Irish Journey

John Crowley directs Fox Searchlight’s “Brooklyn,” about a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) going from Ireland to America. He spoke with Variety about his own emigration and early influences, including brother Bob Crowley, the Tony-winning stage designer.

Where were you raised?

I was raised in Cork, with one brother and two sisters. My brother is 17 years older than me. In 1974, when I was 4, he went to England, to the Bristol Old Vic. Starting in 1980 or ’81, my parents sent me once a year to see him. He’s great fun, and happens to be a great designer. I spent inordinate amounts of time watching tech rehearsals. That was the beginning of my artistic education. I grew up hearing his opinions on aesthetics and the importance of story.

That changed your goals?

When I was 11, I wanted to be a fireman, which my dad had been. From age 11 on, I wanted to be involved in theater. Films seemed too exotic; films were made in America, Ireland had no film industry then. Theater was glamorous, but familiar. As a freshman at University College Cork, I directed Chekhov’s “The Bear”; it felt quite right, so I continued directing. I worked summers in London, which always felt like my destination. I was doing menial work, and would go to the repertory cinemas. Wim Wenders’ “Paris Texas” absolutely floored me. I hadn’t seen anything like that, the existential poetry of isolation. That was a big moment, and so was seeing “Bad Timing,” by Nicolas Roeg.

Did you go to movies a lot?

When I was a kid, I would go to “event movies” with my sister. “Star Wars” and “E.T.,” I remember those vividly. I wasn’t a film nerd but I remember the way a film would stay with you for a long time. When I was about 15, one of Bob’s friends was working at a film studio. It was incredibly exciting. The camera and arrangement in front of the lens — it doesn’t do what the eye does. This was the first “What’s that about?” moment.

How did you start your professional career?

When I left university, I was accepted as a four-month intern at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. That was the first time I set foot in America. America is very important to me. I came back to Ireland and applied for a green card. But I didn’t have a clear plan, I couldn’t afford it. When Bob had left Ireland in the 1970s, things were grim; but in the early 1990s, it was beginning to happen. There was an openness in the arts community in Dublin. I began working at the Abbey Theatre, directing “The Crucible.” When I was 27, I was asked to direct at the National Theatre in London.

From Ireland to America, then back. When you read Colm Toibin’s novel, did you think “This is my story!”

No. I was hit with the emotional impact of the book. When I moved to London, I was confused how weird it felt. And when I’d spend time in Ireland with my mates, it was: “Have I made a terrible mistake?” That’s what it feels like to emigrate, to be in exile. It’s the double-ness, when you go away and you come back. I had thought rather naively that you just travel and expand. It never dawned on me that there would be this other thing pulling you back. It made no sense to me until I read the book, years later. Colm took a hard look at the journey from there to here — and his genius stroke was to go from here to back home again. That’s the big leap in this piece of writing and I think Nick Hornby captured that in the script. Which seems to be what a lot of people are responding to.

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