From Brooklyn to Montauk

Colm Tóibín's journey of discovery.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Volker Schlöndorff with co-writer Colm Tóibín on set for Return to Montauk
Volker Schlöndorff with co-writer Colm Tóibín on set for Return to Montauk Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

John Crowley's Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan with Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, adapted screenplay by Nick Hornby, is based on Colm Tóibín's novel of the same name. On set with Stellan Skarsgård, Susanne Wolff, Isioma Laborde-Edozien and Mathias Sanders for Volker Schlöndorff's Return To Montauk (Rückkehr Nach Montauk), Tóibín, who is the co-writer with Volker, points to the face of Liv Ullmann on camera as inspiration, to Saoirse, and now Nina Hoss. Niels Arestrup will take on "W", the art collector.

Brooklyn author Colm Tóibín makes a point
Brooklyn author Colm Tóibín makes a point Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Colm spoke to me off the record about the Montauk project at last year's New York Film Festival. Right before I was being included as one of the extras with Margarethe von Trotta and Pamela Katz on the steps of the New York Public Library, he told me, this time on the record, all about the writing process and the fun he had with Volker.

Return to Montauk is the story of a writer, called Max Zorn (Skarsgård), who comes to New York on a book tour where he meets again the woman (Hoss) who inspired the novel he is presenting and whom he had an affair with 17 years ago. Was she perhaps the love of his life? Can they begin again where it ended, in stormy Montauk, many moons ago? Based on real-life occurrences and people from, as I was told by Volker Schlöndorff, his and Colm Tóibín's life, Max is an amalgam in search of love regained.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Volker told me that the script is inspired by Max Frisch's Montauk but really actually about your life and his?

Volker Schlöndorff, Colm Tóibín, Mathias Sanders and Isioma Laborde-Edozien with Stellan Skarsgård under the umbrella
Volker Schlöndorff, Colm Tóibín, Mathias Sanders and Isioma Laborde-Edozien with Stellan Skarsgård under the umbrella Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Colm Tóibín: Well, you see what happened was that we worked together over a long period of time and we can only work really for 15 minutes at a go on the script. Because, you know, you're concentrating on a line or on a scene and then, of course, the rest of the time we just talked. So bits of the talk would then make their way in. We'd stop to talk and say - Oh my God, that line! Or that story or that idea! And we'd stop chattering and it would become script.

You know, I was teaching at Columbia on a Monday and Tuesday. So Volker would come around 9:30 on Wednesday morning and we'd work Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Or Saturdays as well. But he would often disappear for a week or two and come back. So we'd have loads of things to talk about. I mean, we know people in common and then we'd talk about ourselves. So every 15 minutes we'd work.

AKT: What you are describing does fit perfectly with the structure of Max Frisch's Montauk, doesn't it?

CT: Yes, I suppose the stop - start, stop - start of the text. But it moved so far away from the text that by the end there was nothing from the text there, except, of course, that Max [Stellan Skarsgård] would have read the text. Being a good German, he would know the importance. The word Montauk for Germans means a different thing because that book is a seminal book in Germany.

Nick Hornby, Saoirse Ronan, producer Finola Dwyer, Colm Tóibín and John Crowley at the New York Film Festival
Nick Hornby, Saoirse Ronan, producer Finola Dwyer, Colm Tóibín and John Crowley at the New York Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Absolutely.

CT: I mean, we had a lot of fun. We laughed a lot. Sometimes, I would just say: "Volker, okay, I'm just going to write this. I'm not going to show it to you. Just give me five minutes." And I would work and I would show it to him and we would double up laughing. Or, in the case of a big scene at the end, quite early on - it was one of the reasons why Volker became interested. I mean, we were sort of working on it the way that you work on projects.

And then I went on my own and I wrote a last big scene at the end. And it's a big risky scene that would require a great actress and require a great director, a great cinematographer and great lighting. Most directors would just say: I can't do it. It's a long, long narrative.

Most directors would say: This is film - you got to break this up, you got to make this visual, you got to do something with it. I'd say: No, no, can we be Europeans for a change? Can we go back to the face? To Liv Ullmann? Can we go back to that great idea?

New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue
New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: In Brooklyn you had something a bit like that, no?

CT: Yeah, with Saoirse's face. But this is before Brooklyn. So that was what really electrified him [Volker]. That is what really got him to say "Oh my God, I want to make this!" That was what got him very excited.

AKT: One person I was hoping would make his way into the film is the friend, "W", from childhood. Is he at all in any way present?

CT: You mean Walter? Did he survive in the script?

AKT: Did he?

CT: Oh, yes. But he speaks French! Ask Volker!

Read what Margarethe von Trotta and Pam Katz had to say on the set of Return to Montauk.

Coming up - Volker Schlöndorff speaks while shooting in New York.

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