Writer Ian McEwan and Saoirse Ronan first met when she was only 12 years old, working on the set of Atonement, which earned Ronan an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Briony Tallis. Now, the pair have reunited — with McEwan continuing to deliver provocative, award-winning novels and Ronan blossoming into an adult actress with two more Oscar nods to her credit.
McEwan was an executive producer on Atonement and has written numerous screenplays himself, but he left that film in the more-than-able hands of Christopher Hampton. This time he adapted his Booker Prize short-listed novel On Chesil Beach (which fittingly hit shelves the same year Atonement came to cinemas), another tale of sexual misunderstandings and tragic missteps.
On Chesil Beach (in theaters now) follows Florence Ponting (Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) on their fateful wedding night on the titular beach in 1962. Issues of sexual repression, societal pressure, and more threaten their idyllic romance, which we see through flashback.
In advance of the film’s release, EW called up Ronan and McEwan to find out what draws them to each other’s work, what it’s like having the novelist adapt his own book, and what fascinates them about the recurring themes of sexual misapprehension and fate.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Saoirse when you began making Atonement, you were only 12. How aware of Ian and his reputation as an author were you? Did you read any of the book or discuss his work with him at that time?
SAOIRSE RONAN: At 12, I was not aware of Ian’s work. I was still reading Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl at that stage, who are brilliant writers also. Since we’ve made Atonement, I’ve been reading lots of Ian’s work because it’s quite nice to become familiar with the work of people that you know and people that you get on with. I knew that I would want to be involved in another adaption of Ian’s one day, so I guess I was hunting through all the books that he had released to see which one we could do together next. Since Atonement, I’ve been very familiar with Ian’s work and I love it, and to be able to do this with him was very exciting for me.
On Chesil Beach, the novel, debuted the same year as Atonement hit cinemas. What has it been like for you to reunite at this point in your careers?
IAN McEWAN: It’s been delightful, hasn’t it?
RONAN: It has. We’ve had a lovely time. The lovely thing about reuniting 10 years later is that I’m obviously quite a bit older now and the fact that Ian wrote the screenplay for this meant that we worked much more closely together. That was lovely to have had such a special experience on Atonement when I was so young and to then come back together and actually work together and work something out together and spend time in the rehearsal room with one another.
McEWAN: It has been a very pleasurable reunification. I hold this view that past the age of two nobody really changes, so although Saoirse was a child then and a woman now, the unchanging bits are extremely striking. She was the star of the set then without even trying. She charmed us all. Everyone was in love with her. It was a very, very happy set on Atonement because of her. You yourself have said, Saoirse, that it was a very protective set too; the wagons circled around you. This time, you were outside that circle of wagons in much more dangerous territory, but yet you seemed to take it in your stride [and come] back with the same empathy and intelligence that you brought to that role in Atonement.
What attracts you to each other’s work?
McEWAN: Saoirse has a wonderful analytical intelligence. It’s a problem solving intelligence. She also is a joy to write for because she is supreme at giving the full-on quality of an inner life. Movies do suffer from not being able to give you the inside of someone’s head — Saoirse just turning away, saying nothing with a look, can do all that for you. One of the experiences of rehearsal was that I was very happy to cut lines because we didn’t need them because we were in the hands of someone with [the] supreme ability of conveying the inside of a character’s thoughts.
RONAN: One of things that I loved about working with Ian and that I really admired about him was how open he was to us coming in to be a part of shaping the story. Rightly so, there’s a lot of writers who are incredibly protective over their work. I understand that completely, but we really needed to knuckle down and figure this out together and for Ian to let us have access to his work in the way he did was amazing.
McEWAN: When I was writing the [On Chesil Beach] screenplay, it helped me to think of Saoirse delivering the lines. It was rather improbable because at that time she was about 16 or 17. The script then went into development hell, and we didn’t really start to get it near the screen until Saoirse was exactly the right age for it. But it was written for her — I really did type those words thinking Saoirse would speak them. It was really quite extraordinary the bad luck of the film failing as many projects do, but then suddenly reviving. It was deliverance.
RONAN: One of the things that I’m really drawn to in his work is the delicacy. His stories portray this delicate, fragile quality. It always shows how easily a relationship or a connection can fizzle out or fade if you don’t protect it; how one decision can completely alter someone’s fate forever. The idea that a life can be that fragile is something we don’t quite see enough in film. There’s so many heroes and heroic moments in films and to have a story so intimate where it really is just two characters needing to rely on each other, and open up to each other, and protect each other in order for them to be ok. There’s a great responsibility that comes with a story like that. I love working with him because there’s a great responsibility to it and a great amount of care needed to bring a story like that to life.
You had a very collaborative process in the rehearsal room. What were some of the discoveries you made through that?
RONAN: As Ian said that we didn’t need as much dialogue as we had to begin with. That’s always quite nice to plot out some of that and leave it up to what we do on the day and physically how we are with each other and how movement can become a part of the scene as well. That was quite nice to fine-tune the scene and discuss what was absolutely essential to make a scene work.
McEWAN: As opposed to a novel, which is a finished literary form, a screenplay is really more like a recipe. You might write it alone, but you know that it’s going to be an immense collaboration and that’s why I think it’s best to take a fairly collaborative and relaxed attitude to how you get to the final thing. The discovery is actually through the work itself. We had to thrust Billy and Saoirse back in time to a body language of emotion and sexuality that is entirely different from today. More restrained, more formal. Head back and held in really. That was a journey for all of us. I was only 14 at the time this movie is set; [director] Dominic [Cooke] would have been even younger. None of us were of 1962. We were all just feeling our way towards something. To do that difficult thing in the company of others is a real pleasure.
How does adapting your own novel change the process for you both?
McEWAN: I didn’t want anyone else to adapt this particular story. It’s very intimate, sexual, and I hope for an audience, very tender. I could see a thousand ways to make it more exploitative, semi-pornographic, or an over-sentimentalized story. I very much wanted to do it myself. Short novels go well into screenplays. Writers doing their own work tend to hug the shore a little. That is something one has to fight. You don’t want to let go of everything that’s in the novel, but there is a need sometimes to throw the whole thing up in the air and let the pages settle and put them in a different order. I’ve done it enough times now to know when to head to shore and when to head out to open seas.
RONAN: [It’s fantastic] to have the person who’s written it in the room with you and to know that if there needs to be any changes, you can just refer back to them and know that it will be authentic. There’s no doubt there at all. I [have] worked with really, really brilliant screenwriters who’ve done great adaptions of other people’s work, but it is a preference to have the novelist in the room for sure.
Briony in Atonement and Florence in On Chesil Beach experience tragedy because of misunderstandings surrounding sex. Why is that a theme you each return to?
RONAN: The experience of making Atonement was completely different because I was a child and so much of the subject matter went over my head. I was aware of it, but I didn’t fully comprehend the weight of it. Or maybe I did and just wasn’t aware of it. This time to be at the forefront of it, you have a different relationship to the work. I played a character in Atonement who was on the outside looking in and made a conscious decision to alter the world that these people lived in, whereas for Florence this is completely out of her control. She didn’t have a healthy relationship to sex, and it wasn’t really something that sat well with her yet. It was much more complex this time round because of the type of character I was playing.
McEWAN: Novelists have rediscovered a thousand times over that a sexual relationship becomes the kind of microcosm of all human affairs. Misunderstandings in love affairs are like misunderstandings in all human relations. Exploiting the gap between what people think and what they say, or the extent of their honesty or how true they are to themselves or true to others can be best analyzed when your field of operation is just two people, so the love affair becomes inevitably the central subject of so much literature. It is endlessly fascinating to us. Its permutations are infinite. If you think of literature as the exploration of the human condition, then the love affair becomes the field of play that best opens itself up to close, intimate, and tender analysis.