Uncaging a Narrative: How ‘The Goldfinch’ Director John Crowley Brought an Epic Tale from the Page to the Screen

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While attending the world premiere of The Goldfinch at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival, director John Crowley (Brooklyn) took the time to talk about adapting Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the big screen. The 771-page epic story centers on Theo Decker, a teenage boy who is traumatized and guilt-ridden by his mother’s death during a terrorist attack at an art gallery and steals a priceless memento to prevent his memory of her from fading away.

Though The Goldfinch had four times the budget of Brooklyn, Crowley’s previous feature, this did not alter his filmmaking process. “I don’t mind being put in a tight corner; that comes from working in theater, where you are given three pounds fifty to stage Stalingrad,” states Crowley. “It bought us more prep time, which we needed because we were spread across Europe and two locations in America. Cinematographer Roger Deakins [Blade Runner 2049] and production designer K.K. Barrett [Lost in Translation] were able to find the locations that we wanted and prep properly. It also meant that our shooting days weren’t as insane as they might have been. But that said, considering the scope and ambition of the novel, there is never enough money and time. K.K. has also embraced being placed in a tight corner. He feels that restrictions create solutions, and that’s absolutely my philosophy. You can’t throw money at problems. It never makes it better. It just makes it look more expensive.”

Director John Crowley on set with actor Ansel Elgort (Adult Theo)

Whereas the novel has a linear structure, screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) decided to intercut between the past and present. “That for me was the big leap in terms of taking it from the page to the screen,” Crowley recalls. “We’re focusing on two shorter corridors of the story, which are the immediate aftermath of the bomb, and, as a young adult, when all of the events of the past have Theo Decker [played by Oakes Fegley as a child and by Ansel Elgort as an adult]so mired that they’re rattling him to pieces. He’s either going to have to deal with it or die. What it meant is that one could deal with the idea that the past was always sitting in the present. The younger aspect of that character was sitting on the shoulders of the older one. The intercutting allowed it to be a lot more cinematic visually, and to express some degree of internalization. I was influenced by the comment that the great British director Nicolas Roeg [Don’t Look Now] once made, which is: in the editing room, all time is available all of the time. I love the idea that the film creates its own relative time order. That is what Peter scripted. Then we were able to go much further in the actual edit in jumping back and forth.”

In order to achieve a reasonable theatrical runtime, not everything in the book made it to the big screen. “When Theo leaves Las Vegas, and up to where Lucius Reeve and Boris Pavlikovsky re-enter his life was less interesting dramatically,” notes Crowley. “It was really about questioning what are the most dramatic and relevant events to this version of the story, which was the way Theo got tangled in the sense of grief that he feels for his mother. The characters feeding into that issue dramatically became more relevant. Mrs. Barbour [Nicole Kidman] is bigger in the film than in the book because we can see how to use her dramatically in a way that was interesting for Theo’s journey.”

Director John Crowley on set with actor Jeffrey Wright (Hobie)

The stolen painting called ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius is central to the plot. “Painting and film is a tricky balance because it’s almost as if they talk different languages,” observes Crowley. “When you experience a painting in a gallery, you stand in front of it and your experience is immediate. The camera does something to the surface of a painting, which meant that you couldn’t rely on the power of the original painting. It became a question of how we make Theo care about it and make an audience care about what he cares about. People who cherish beautiful things and want to look after and pass them on to others is what the book is celebrating, as opposed to a narrower definition of somebody believing that a price tag on something can pay for it, shut up in a storage unit and kept off of the market. There’s an act of generosity in the creation of it, and that’s something I personally believe in profoundly. Theo gets stuck on the wrong idea about truth, falsity, illusion, and reality for a long time. It’s mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know character Boris [Aneurin Barnard] who gets him out of the far side of that problem.”

The idea that Theo’s memory of his mother is fading away guides the film’s visual language. “Theo feels a degree of shame and responsibility that his mother died, even though it’s a terrible tragic accident,” notes Crowley. “He believes that his inability to remember her in some sense is a refusal on her part to see him. That’s a difficult idea but folds itself into the visual language rather effortlessly with the brilliant Roger Deakins. Early on, that became part of our discussions in prep. It was a script choice in prep that you never see the mother’s face.” The book is often described as Dickensian. “One of the aspects of that is the way that Donna Tartt sends a young orphan through all of the strata of society so that you can see the nature of that society clearer. Theo gets exposed to one side of high culture with the Barbours [Nicole Kidman and Boyd Gaines]. He gets exposed to a different cultural understanding with Hobie [Jeffrey Wright], which is about looking after something, passing it on, and not being dishonest about what you’re doing. A feeling for beauty is given to Theo there. In contrast to that, you have an ahistorical backdrop of Las Vegas. The idea there, which I was quite taken with, was that everything Theo sees and touches shouldn’t be older than him and Boris. It should all feel that it’s completely outside of history. It’s the bleakest and most existentialist part of the story; the Las Vegas landscape was perfect for that.”

Director John Crowley on set with actor Oakes Fegley (Young Theo)

“We had the great [supervising sound editor] Skip Lievsay [Gravity] working on the film,” states Crowley. “It was an ear-opener to me, listening to him work. It helped to take us into Theo’s head and what he was experiencing in his world. The vividness of how Skip was able to do that and paint that sound was an astonishing thing to be part of. That’s the other thing the slightly larger budget allowed us to do, which was to have enough time in post-production to figure that out. Just like with Roger, it always starts with a conversation about character. You talk about the essence of the scene, work it out from there, and express that.”

Maintaining the tone throughout was not easy. “There’s a darkness that swirls around it all of the time,” states Crowley. “There are aspects of noir in the Amsterdam section, high culture in the Barbour section, and teenage slightly nihilistic despair in the Las Vegas section. It was quite a difficult tapestry to knit together into one whole. Brooklyn had a tiny story with a huge scale that was about two countries. This story is on huge canvas but is about something tiny, which is a person’s internal relationship with his memory, guilt, and shame. It plays out in a series of vivid backdrops. Backdrops were much more important than they were in Brooklyn. Getting the frame right for all of those pieces and for the pieces to add up emotionally was the biggest challenge and also the thrill of it. That was the bit that felt completely new to me as a filmmaker, and being able to play on that scale and go, ‘Here’s a great big grown-up proper adult drama and they’re saying, ‘Go for it. Make it.’”

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Warner Bros.

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