The Interview: John Crowley on 'The Goldfinch', adapting other people's work, and non-linear storytelling

The Interview: John Crowley on 'The Goldfinch', adapting other people's work, and non-linear storytelling

Even though John Crowley has pinged back and forth from England, the US and Ireland since the '90s, his Cork accent is still impeccably present in every conversation he has.

Indeed, even speaking to him over the phone with a dodgy line, you can still hear the melodic tones of his Douglas Road upbringing without the faintest hint of losing it - despite the fact that he's directing the likes of Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson on film or working with Woody Harrelson in theatre on a fairly regular basis.

Pressure, it seems, doesn't seem to affect him, and he's not forgotten how a Cork person should sound like.

As he talks brightly and vividly about 'The Goldfinch', his latest movie which sees him adapting the polarising novel by Donna Tartt, Crowley remarks that adapting other people's work is really - when you come right down to it - remembering what struck you about it in the first place. But does that, in turn, mean you have a pressure to be faithful to the book, or do you follow your own path with it?

"I had a very vivid memory of what it felt like to read the book," John explains, "and that's your compass - what you responded to it. That's your best bet. If you're true to that, then you have a chance at being true to something in the book."

"I wouldn't know how to second-guess book fans and, also, I was very keen that I didn't want to make a book that wouldn't play to an audience that didn't read the book. That said, if you loved the book, you're not going to start ripping it asunder, you're going to try and capture what you think was special about it."

'The Goldfinch' was, by all accounts, an incredibly polarising novel. Stephen King loved it. The likes of The Sunday Times UK and the Paris Review hated it. It spent thirty weeks on the New York Times' bestseller list, and won the Pultizer Prize in 2014. If there was any pressure in adapting it, Crowley didn't seem to show it when talking about the movie.


Crowley points to a section in the film and the book, about how if you love something and it talks to you across time or a culture, your responsibility isn't just to consume it, but to see it for what it is, how important it is and pass that on. When it comes to transposing a book to another medium, however, it's not enough to simply - in John's own words - "lob the book on the screen."

"We gave it a completely different structure, but that was necessary to transfer it into a different medium. There's no way of doing the whole linear story in a single film," John argues.

A linear approach to story isn't something all that common in his output, to be fair. 'Intermission', for example, plays out across the city of Dublin with diverging and intertwining stories. 'Brooklyn', meanwhile, splits itself across Ireland and the US and the push and pull of the past and the future.

'Boy A', a haunting adaptation of Jonathan Trigell's novel of the same name, deals with a young man attempting to hide his past and his story unfurling through flashbacks to a horrific crime in his youth.

When he talks about editing 'The Goldfinch', John references Nicolas Roeg, a director whose work includes the likes of 'Don't Look Now', 'The Man Who Fell To Earth', and, most pointedly, 'Bad Timing', a movie told in a non-linear fashion about a relationship between a psychology professor and a young woman that hides a dark secret.

Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Barbour and Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker / Credit: Warner Bros.


"The idea of playing with two time frames was always there, and then in the edit, we took that idea much more forward. The one filmmaker I thought about a lot when I was making this was Nicolas Roeg, who said ' an editing room, all time is available, all the time...' and I love that idea that a film creates its own relative time frame," John believes.

"You can express the idea this young man (Elgort's character), even though he's different to when he is now, he still has the same problems, the past still rests on his shoulders and it's going to sit there until this problem explodes or kills him."


For all the ideas and high-minded thinking about story and relative time and all this, the nuts and bolts of making a film is never far from his mind. When discussing how he and cinematographer Roger Deakins were able to walk through the areas of New York and the like where they were filming, he points back to 'Brooklyn' - the Colm Tóibín adaptation - and how he often had to hide parts of Enniscorthy because it didn't look like the village in the '50s and focus on Saorise Ronan.

By the end of the interview, we've moved off 'The Goldfinch' altogether and are on to his theatre work, discussing 'A Very Expensive Poison' in the Old Vic. Written by Lucy Prebble, the play takes on the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and casts 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' star Reece Shearsmith as Vladimir Putin.

He's working on a musical adaptation of 'Local Hero', Bill Forsyth's comedy-drama about a sleepy Scottish village being bought by a Texas oil company in the '80s, with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits providing the music.

In all of this, it seems, John Crowley doesn't feel the slightest tinge of pressure, whether it's dealing with reviews for 'The Goldfinch', tackling complex political conspiracies on stage, or untangling the intricacies of someone else's work.