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'On Chesil Beach': Story Of An Unconsummated Love And Marriage

May 19, 2018
Originally published on May 21, 2018 12:40 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"On Chesil Beach" is the story of an unconsummated love and marriage. You might wonder, in this day and age, how interesting a film can that be? Very. Ian McEwan has done the screenplay based on his acclaimed 2007 novel. It's the first film directed by Dominic Cooke. It stars Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as Florence and Edward, a just-married young couple who spend what turns out to be their only marital night - actually, not even a night - in a hotel along the beach in Dorset, where the young lovers fundamentally and irreparably misunderstand each other with everlasting consequences.

Saoirse Ronan and Ian McEwan joined us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

IAN MCEWAN: A pleasure.

SAOIRSE RONAN: Thanks for having us.

SIMON: Ian, is it painful to render your own novel into a screenplay?

MCEWAN: It would be much more painful if I let someone else do it, I think, especially with this. It's a very tender, intimate story. And actually, it was a fascinating process - lots of challenges. There's no dialogue in the novel between these two characters. It's very - written very much from inside their heads, the first half of the novella. So finding a language for them was an interesting challenge.

And then because time had passed, there was an opportunity to have some rethinks on one or two things - some scenes I wrote for the movie that I might have included in the novel had I thought of them at the time. And you've got to find a way of getting the inner feelings of characters onto the screen, and I'm very lucky to have Saoirse and Billy in there.

SIMON: Saoirse Ronan, was the author on set?

RONAN: Ian and Dom and Billy and myself rehearsed for about a week before we started to shoot, which was very exciting for me because Ian and I had met 10 years prior during "Atonement." So it was great this time to actually - to feel like you're really sort of collaborating with the person who's created all of this for you, you know? So yeah, you came and visited set quite a bit, didn't you?

MCEWAN: I mean, when things are going well, Scott, there's not much place for a writer on set. There's nothing to do but eat bacon sandwiches all day.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEWAN: So my visits were sort of more courtesy visits than anything else.

RONAN: You could've been in it, though.

MCEWAN: Yeah...

RONAN: Could've been an extra in it if you wanted to.

MCEWAN: I wanted your part.

(LAUGHTER)

RONAN: That was actually a running joke when we were rehearsing - that Ian secretly wanted to be Florence.

MCEWAN: Yeah, I did.

RONAN: (Laughter).

MCEWAN: I would've made a much better Florence than you.

RONAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MCEWAN: Can we face it? Face it.

RONAN: I got the part, so (laughter).

SIMON: Saoirse Ronan, what did you want to put into Florence?

RONAN: I think, you know, with a character like that, a person who comes from that sort of class system in that time, you really want to make sure, even though they're quite reserved, that she's got a fire to her. Obviously, that was in the book, and that was in the script anyway. And it was really just about me searching for that and finding it. You know, for me, because she was a musician and she had such a passion for that, that was where her fire came from.

SIMON: May I ask you - your performance in "Lady Bird" - I must say, my favorite film last year - was widely praised.

RONAN: Thank you.

SIMON: You were an American from Sacramento. This film, you have a proper British accent, different than what we're hearing now. Does taking on an accent help you take on a characterization?

RONAN: It does, yeah. And it's actually only recently that I wanted to use my own accents in a film. And it's just a really great way for me to separate myself from the person that I'm playing.

And I also - I suppose because I've grown up doing them as well, I've become so fascinated with how people speak and how that can really influence how you communicate, how you interact with people. You know, like, my accent is - my Irish accent is very, very sort of forward and lyrical, and you'll find that most people in Ireland are like that. A Californian accent is more laid back, and it's a little flatter. And so, yeah, I find that an accent can say an awful lot about a person.

SIMON: Ian, as you note, of course, the story's set in the - at the beginning of the 1960s. Were young British couples really that naive about the facts of life?

MCEWAN: I think people knew the facts of life, but still, they had to cross that line from innocence to experience. And I personally don't think we've reached any kind of commanding heights on this now. We live in a time when people in their mid-teens are faced with problems of a very different sort - not repression, but just peer pressure, social media, boys watching, you know, erotic, athletic pornographic stuff on the Internet, girls being told how to look, how to feel, how to - you know, what shape they should be. I think it warps expectations because we still don't have, for all this openness about sex, much discussion about emotional truthfulness.

It's really striking, when we've had screenings for the film, how the youngest part of the audience, in their late teens and early 20s, really respond. And I had that when, I think, when the novel was published - loads of letters from 17-, 18-year-olds. So naivete comes in all forms. That's, I think, what I want to say.

SIMON: Saoirse Ronan, I found myself almost shouting at the screen on a couple of occasions - oh, come on, kids. Just give it another try.

RONAN: Yeah. And, I mean, I know even for me playing that, it was frustrating 'cause you know that it can so easily be solved, or at least it can so easily be understood. And I think from Florence's point of view, there's obviously a dark past there that she hasn't really confronted yet or even fully comprehended, so she doesn't really have the language to explain that to him. And, therefore, he can't understand, and they end up not being able to sort of meet in the middle. It was frustrating to play because you know that these two people really do love each other, and this is the only point in which they just can't find common ground, you know?

SIMON: Yeah. Ian McEwan, have you plundered any more pebbles from Chesil Beach recently?

RONAN: (Laughter).

MCEWAN: Actually, I did. It was never - it was one of those stories completely generated by the press. I mentioned in an interview that I proved to myself that the stones do get smaller as you're walking on the beach. I walked a 5-mile stretch of it, and I had about six pebbles on my - bits of shingle on my mantlepiece. A journalist then phoned the local council and said, are you allowed to take the pebbles from the beach? And they said, no. And what's the fine? Two-thousand pounds.

So before I knew it, I had a wonderful, light-hearted silly season press storm on my hands. And then I had Dorset County Council phoning me to thank me because 60,000 extra people had come to spend money on the Dorset coast following this press storm. And then the council were begging me to come down to the beach and give a reading on Chesil Beach itself. So it was a sort of metafiction of the story. It was a piece of summer silliness, but all in good heart.

SIMON: Ian McEwan and Saoirse Ronan - she stars in the writer's adaptation of his novel, "On Chesil Beach." Thanks so much for being with us.

RONAN: Thank you.

MCEWAN: Thanks. Take care.

RONAN: Bye.

MCEWAN: Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.