Shore Leave: Dominic Cooke’s 'On Chesil Beach' is a bittersweet tale of young honeymooners

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As a child, Dominic Cooke gained insight into the creation of movies from his father, who was a film editor. “He was old-school and would sometimes change a cut by three or four frames to get it absolutely right.” Before making his feature film directorial debut with Bleecker Street’s On Chesil Beach, the native of London was a four-time Olivier Award-winning theatre director and playwright. “There is a lot of crossover in terms of the skills that you need to direct actors, but there is also a lot to learn,” he admits.

Having adapted the plays of William Shakespeare for the BAFTA Award-nominated television miniseries “The Hollow Crown,” Cooke shifted his attention towards the big screen. Of particular interest was a novella written by Ian McEwan about a young couple in 1962 attempting to consummate their marriage and in the process discovering that they have different attitudes toward sex. “I’m quite intuitive with the decisions that I make. I immediately responded to the detail and compassion in the writing. We did do quite a bit of work on the script for On Chesil Beach after I came onboard.”

Also serving as the screenwriter on the project was the originator of the story. “Ian McEwan was responsive,” notes Cooke. “You have to be respectful while pushing for what you think is right. It was a good relationship.”

The length of the novella was an asset while composing the script. “The usual problems that you have changing a novel to a screen is that you have to throw so much out, unless you’re doing a TV series. We didn’t have that problem. We took what was there, extended it and added quite a few things to make the ending more cathartic.”

A major part of the narrative is the incorporation of flashbacks. “We always felt that we needed to have the background to the relationship to see how Florence [Saoirse Ronan] and Edward [Billy Howle] got to where they are. How much of that and where it was we spent a lot of time on. We reordered some of it in the postproduction process. We took out some beautiful scenes that weren’t pushing the story forward.”

Most of the preproduction discussions between Cooke and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt dealt with scene transitions. “Some worked and others didn’t. They were long takes [that allowed the audience] to be with the characters within that space. Too much jumping around within the scenes would make the film feel too fragmented.”

McEwan had a precise vision about the settings for the story. “When I came onboard, Ian took Elizabeth Karlsen [a producer] and I around to some of the locations that he had in mind. I went back to production designer Suzie Davies and location manager Henry Woolley and we worked from that. The cricket club that we used is the one where Ian plays. The biggest complication was that we started shooting in late October. It starts to get cold and the leaves are falling off of the trees, and it’s supposed to be summer for a lot of those scenes—that was tricky.”

For the most part, the weather was agreeable for the principal photography that took place at Chesil Beach, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and London. “The beach was tough on the actors,” Cooke recalls. “It was mid-November. They were very exposed and in summer clothes. Our schedule was incredibly tight, so we had to move on the next day to another location. We finished shooting in December.” The last two weeks were spent at Pinewood Studios. “It was good to have that space for ourselves. The actors were relaxed by that point, so it was the right way around for us.”

Movies from the early 1960s served as an inspiration, such as The Misfits for how it dealt with outsiders and treated nature, Lawrence of Arabia, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and A Taste of Honey. “The key idea visually for the movie was that these kids are in the wrong place at the wrong time,” explains Cooke, who devised a detailed shot list that remained largely intact during the production. “If they had been born a few years later, perhaps there might have been the opportunity to have a different conversation about intimacy and sex because the world was changing. It plays against British period movies which are sentimental about the past.” The costume design by Keith Madden helped with the feeling of being out of place for the characters. “I wanted Saoirse Ronan’s costume to be quite at odds with the surroundings.”

Distinct color palettes and camera styles were used for the family households of Florence Pointing and Edward Mayhew, as well as for the hotel and beach. “We had a brilliant colorist named Tom Poole [from Company 3 New York]. Sean had taken a lot of photographs before we started shooting and graded them himself; he had brilliant ideas about how the colors should be used. We pushed the colors found in nature, while the manmade spaces were as dead as we could get them without losing too much detail.” A static camera was used to portray the formality of the Pointings, a Steadicam to emphasize the chaotic lifestyle of the Mayhews, and a moment-to-moment approach that focused on the body language of Florence and Edward in the hotel room to reveal what they were truly feeling.

Three-time Oscar nominee Ronan was cast early on as Florence, but filling the role of Edward was a complicated process. “We saw a ton of fantastic actors for Edward, but getting someone who had sensitivity, masculinity and could believably be from that period was tricky,” Cooke reveals. “We searched high and low. In end, we put Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan together, who knew each other from before. There was such a great chemistry between them that it was a no-brainer. The smaller parts were tricky, like Florence’s sister Ruth [Bebe Cave] and the waiters [Andy Burse and Rasmus Hardiker] in the hotel room because they’re so clearly written; we took quite a long period to get them absolutely right. I was relieved when Bebe Cave came in; she was fantastic. It is so tricky with families because the actors have to be convincingly related and the scenes are quite short, so you need to get who those people are quickly.” Different actors were not brought in to portray the elderly Florence and Edward. “It was a pragmatic decision. Having the faces that the audience has been looking at for two hours underneath some prosthetic makeup I felt would be a bigger emotional payoff.”

Minimal visual effects were utilized. “We did a bit of CGI mainly on the exterior of the hotel,” Cooke says. “I tried not to do it because we wanted to have a period feel.”

Music was originally written into the script. “I felt quite strongly that there wasn’t going to be a huge amount of score,” Cooke explains. “We were selective as to where we put it. The rest is drawn from their world, with the first section being Edward’s music while the last section is classical chamber music for Florence. I spent weeks listening to lots of music from the early 1960s and classical music to try to find the right bits for the right moments. It was clear when the music worked.”

The biggest challenge was the short production schedule. “You have to think on your feet and have to make compromises. Next time I will be much clearer in anticipating the amount of time I would want to have to make a movie.”