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    Gay Director Makes Auspicious Debut with On Chesil Beach

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Out gay filmmaker Dominic Cooke’s directorial debut, On Chesil Beach, is a stunning adaptation of Ian McEwan’s eponymous novel. The story, which is set in 1962, unfolds at a seaside hotel where Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan) are spending their wedding night. As they awkwardly prepare to consummate their marriage, the past, present and future of their relationship unfolds. On the phone from the U.K., Cooke chatted with me for the San Francisco Bay Times about On Chesil Beach, which opens May 25 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema 5.

    Gary M. Kramer: You are primarily known for directing theater. What struck you about this story that you wanted to bring it to the screen for your film debut?

    Dominic Cooke: The first thing was the quality of the writing and how complex it was. How delightful those central characters are. There was amazing empathy for their situation and struggle and that world. I was born four years after the film was set. I remember that uptight formal repressed English world McEwan brings to life so vividly. I had not seen that moment in film. It was refreshing to make a film about sex and intimacy.

    Gary M. Kramer: What struck me about the film was your concentration on details like Florence’s shoe, her fist, or other close-ups that signified something possibly ominous. Can you talk about your visual approach to the story?

    Dominic Cooke: Those close-up shots and details were their bodies telling the truth. They were (revealing) from the characters’ nervous systems and they draw the audience’s eyes. We wanted to do something more sustained and in keeping with the period of the 60s; to use the camera to tell the story more than the editing.

    Gary M. Kramer: There’s a line Edward has that is very telling. He says, “I wasn’t my family, I was me. Life had just begun.” I understood that in the context of the film, but it also sounds like something a young man might think having come out as gay. What observations do you have about creating one’s individuality?

    Dominic Cooke: I think the idea of living other people’s lives is something you understand as a young person—you conform to an idea of doing what’s right. They are trying to find their own truth and who they really are in a world that won’t allow them—rather than their parents’ expectation of who they should be. They are caught up in being what’s expected of them, and they don’t really know who they are.

    Gary M. Kramer: You use flashbacks to flesh out the characters and provide background on their lives. Can you talk about creating the narrative?

    Dominic Cooke: You start with two people in a hotel room and what’s led to the situation and the awkwardness that’s there. We wanted to unfold that like a jigsaw. One thing that’s really important in the flashback is that the couple is incredibly well suited to one another. And when they don’t have the pressure to be in bed together, there is a lot of harmony. But they live with a lot of ghosts and history that have been handed to them, and you need a sense of all of that.

    Gary M. Kramer: The film has a wonderful sense of claustrophobia—even on the beach! Can you describe how you created the film’s mood and tone? We feel every awkward moment in that bedroom.

    Dominic Cooke: One of the ideas we worked with was this idea of two people in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are living in their parents’ and grandparents’ world. The interior spaces were 30–40 years old. They were in the wrong environments. The beach is hemmed in by water on all sides, so they have pressure in that space. We contrasted them in nature, their own world, without pressure and connection and relaxation in nature. We used oppressive colors to make them feel hemmed in the world created by their parents. In 1962, the sixties revolution hadn’t kicked in. They are in postwar austerity and Edwardian values.

    Gary M. Kramer: There is also a plea for the couple to “live by their own rules.” (Florence references a gay couple her mother knows that do this). Can you talk about the theme of going against society?

    Dominic Cooke: I think the film is very much on that side. Florence says that their marriage doesn’t have to be defined by what the outside world says.

    Gary M. Kramer: Why is it still important to be as individualistic today?

    Dominic Cooke: Same-sex relationships don’t abide by conventional ideas. LGBT folks make their own stories and are not defined by mainstream society’s expectations of what they should be.

    © 2018 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer