Darlings, what luck! Weíve had a visit from the stars and screenwriter of the excellent Atonement. They hung about for a word about that fabulous film (- click here to read Our review) and along the way chatted about the Wizard of Oz, collapsing cameramen, Rachmaninoff, Angelina Jolie, faking chemistry and hot sticky days. Never have we heard potty language so sweetly delivered as with James MmmmmMcAvoy’s delicious brogue.
MG: All of us in the Temple have been talking about that amazing continuous tracking shot in the scene at Dunkirk. Will you tell us what it was like to shoot that?
James McAvoy: It was pressurised, it was fraught, it was a massive gamble. Joe really went out on a limb and thought, ‘Well I can’t do what I want to do with this scene, anyway.” He said “Cos I need to get about 40 set-ups and I can only get about 50,” he was always saying - and that’s fair enough actually, that’s about pretty right on. So he just went, “I can’t get what I wanna get, because we can only have one day with these 1,000 extras and then we lose them” Y’know we had more money than most British films, but we didn’t have that much money. So he had to go ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna let it be mad and really gamble, big time. All in,” and we went for it. And he asked us what we all thought and we all went “Ffwuaaa… this is not going to be easy...” But he had a crew and a cast who with his helming and his rustling and corralling and his ability to galvanise people he had a crew and a cast who made it happen. And the great thing is, I think filmmaking is miracle, of collaboration and that one day was a microcosm of that experience. There was 1,800 people involved and any one of them could’ve screwed it up at any one time. We did three and a half takes, so two and a half times one of those people or more did screw up at any one time. The fact that we’ve got a take where nobody screwed it up is incredible, man. And it’s a testament to his audacity and his genius, I think.
Q: You and Keira have remarkable chemistry onscreen. Was that difficult to achieve?
JM: People always go on about chemistry like it’s separate from acting, and I don’t know that it is. I don’t know that it is. I’ve worked with people that I didn’t necessarily like and I’ve had chemistry with them and I’ve seen people who are very much in love with each other and its like, fucking dead - and they’re good actors, as well! So, I don’t know… We got on really well. We were both really serious about this film. We both loved these characters and we quite quickly cottoned on in rehearsals that we were on similar pages, if you know what I mean. And we had similar views on what was going to work and what wouldn’t. It felt like we both had an ally, really, we both had somebody backing each other up. Not that we needed it wasn’t like we were in the face of some tyrannical director who we didn’t believe in - collectively we felt backed up by him – but we just felt supported, y’know? And also when you can have a good laugh with somebody, you can communicate with somebody freely, when you can do that, you can start having that thing, chemistry, I suppose.
Q: Did you have much rehearsal time?
JM: Three weeks. Which, usually, you only get like even a week in British film, and it’s not necessarily well executed always. I think film people don’t always know what to do with rehearsal time. They see it as just a time that they can scrabble about and get people put into costumes and figure out what they’re gonna do with their hair. But Joe grew up in a puppet theatre, so he knows, he appreciates just how valuable it can be and what it can give you, if you’re willing to invest in it. Also we had three weeks, which really, really helped; he was in a slightly bigger budget movie than most British films. It was great we had a great time.
Q: What was it about Atonement that stayed with you?
JM: The thing that hit me was, it’s a very emotional piece, and yet it didn’t, I think, sink into sentiment. It engages your intellect as much as it engages your heart. I can’t lie and say that it never totally blows your heart away. I think that if you’re willing to go there and if you’re the kind of person who wants that, you can totally break down at any point in the film that you like, *laughs* especially towards the end. But I think the film is constantly asking the audience to come back from the brink. It’s constantly just at the moment when it could’ve remained on a close up that’s going *starts sobbing very dramatically*, you know what I mean? It just cuts back to the starting of the teaspoon, d’ya know what I mean, which makes your brain click in a wee bit more. Cos you go, ‘Oh, that’s clever,” d’ya know what I mean? And I think it could’ve been a big mush, otherwise, and that appealed to me right from the beginning of the script. The script itself treated actors like they had a modicum of intelligence. It didn’t overexplain everything to us and it didn’t overexplain everything to the audience, either in terms of dialog, I don’t think. And to find a film that was so epic, sweeping and romantic, yet be intelligent was nice to me, also the fact that it’s a very classic story, but it’s told in a very contemporary and modern way. The techniques that the narrative has imparted to the audience are thoroughly modern and I liked that strange … kinda, how that sat, y’know? And the structure’s really fucked up. The structure’s like, its three parts, and its all different sections; they’re very different visually, and I just thought, ‘This is brilliant.” People are going sit down and in the first five minutes they’re gonna think they’re watching a Merchant-Ivory film and then the word ‘cunt’ is gonna come and they’re all gonna go, *yells* “Whoa, what the fuck? What are we …? We’re not watching a Merchant-Ivory film! Oh my God!”, and I think that’s kinda brilliant, y’know?
Q: There’s the scene in the kitchen when Briony comes to apologise, your character, Robbie is so full of rage he looks like he’s about to explode. I wondered if you played that different ways, was there a scene where you exploded, or pulled back even more?
JM: I think we always knew, this script is so brilliant, so brilliantly drawn from a great novel and Christopher Hampton did such a great job drawing the characters and the narrative out, that I think we always knew where we wanted to pitch it. Yeah, maybe we tried to go a little bit more and we tried to go a little bit less, but I mean really, we knew what we had to do, what we wanted to do. That scene and the scene in the tearoom, when they see each other for the first time in six years after he’s come back from prison, were the two scenes that really made me feel like I could do the script and made me want to do the film. He is ready to explode, he is ready to kill her, I wish he had killed her … *laughs* I find it really hard to forgive her.
Q: Another great scene is the one where Robbie and his mother were talking just before he goes up to the manor house and there’s huge amount of subtext about class consciousness. How did you approach that scene with Brenda Blethyn?
JM: We spent a long time on that scene, Brenda and I. Brenda is one of my favourite actresses, she is just wonderful. I was very honoured just to spend time with her, actually because she is quite a special lady as well as a good actress. We spent quite a long time talking about our relationship and as characters sometimes talking to each other in rehearsals. And there was a whole beautiful story that we had that was created in the absence of Dad. There’s real love between those two. I think they admire each other, and that admiration knows no bounds, I think. They’re kind of in love with each other. They don’t just love each other; I think they’re in love with each other a little bit. It's not necessarily what that scene’s about or what it explores but that’s why it feels so full, I think. And I think there’s that thing of the mothers can’t help but be proud and yet be terrified, as well, be scared. Yeah, I loved doing that scene. I don’t know what it’s about, but it was very full, it felt full.
Q: Is Robbie embittered by the way the family treats him when they’re at the country house?
JM: No, of course not. Well, he’s kind of been patronised, I suppose, his entire life, but I think that’s what makes Robbie such an amazing person, it’s what makes him worryingly unhuman - inhuman- not necessarily representative of the human race. He’s got no darkness, yet he has empathy for everyone, and I think he gets Mrs. Tallis, he understands why she doesn’t like him, why he challenges her, why he challenges her entire system. But what is he gonna do? Why should he be angry that she’s upset, she’s the one with the problem, all he’s done is had an amazing fucking life, it turns out. I think the thing you don’t get in the film is the relationship he has with their father. He’s got a closer relationship with their father than any of them do. He's the son that the other son should’ve been, and I think he takes a lot of strength out of that relationship. But he’s not bitter, that’s the amazing thing. He becomes somebody who gets bitter. He becomes somebody who’s tainted, and strangely becomes much more identifiably human, when be comes suicidal. Being suicidal seems to be a more human trait than forgiveness, and empathy, and chilled-outness, and openness, y’know what I mean? It seems to be.
MG: Will you tell us a little bit about working with Saoirse Ronan, who is amazing as young Briony?
JM: Yes! She’s brilliant in the film. Tell you what it is, she – when you’re looking for a kid, you’re just looking for someone who can act; you’re just looking for someone to be natural. And you go, ‘This is the script, and they’re gonna do whatever the fuck they’re wanna do, but I don’t care as the filmmaker, because they’re incredible and they can be truthful and which is the hardest thing to find. So, let them do what they need to do and all the other actors, fit in! Make it work somehow!’ And what’s incredible about Saoirse is she’s not like that. She was 12 years old when she made this film, I think – she lambasted me in a Q&A for getting her age wrong the other day - she was 12 years old when she made this film and she can imagine what it is. It’s not life experience that she’s drawing from but she can imagine what it is to be someone else, not just her being dead natural in front of a camera and I think that’s what’s remarkable about her. And I loved being with her. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve worked with a lot of brilliant kids in my career and it’s something that I hope I get to do a lot cos it means I can have a lot of fun that I wouldn’t necessarily have. It was a great privilege being with Saoirse, I loved being with her.
Q: You’ve been very lucky in the films adapted from books. Do you read the books on which the scripts are based? Do you find an advantage there?
JM: Yeah, I do… It depends really. If you’re making something that is incredibly faithful to the original then yes, it is an advantage. Last King of Scotland was faithful in its essence, but my character was such a departure from Nicholas Garrigan in Giles Foden’s book, that it wasn’t helpful to read the book. It got in the way and I had to try and forget it cos it was so different. But in this it was incredibly helpful, an amazing source that I returned to nearly every day.
Q: So you’re not basing your choices on screenplays adapted from books, then?
JM: No it doesn’t matter; a good script’s a good script. But if it’s based on a book and it’s faithful to the book, then it’d be ridiculous not to use the book. But if it’s based on a book and it’s not faithful to the book then you’ve gotta make a decision, whether you back off or have that conflict with the director and the filmmakers every day, *in nerdy voices* “Yeah, but in the book, y’see there’s this”, “But in the fuckin’ script it doesn’t, fucking shut up.”
Q: Going back to the Dunkirk sequence how is it trying to remain an actor in character while trying to hits the marks of the very difficult choreography an intricately staged shot like that required?
JM: Well, I live with that as an actor. I never let go of that really, if you do, you mess everybody’s day. The question for me was, how do I maintain connection with all the technical marks I need to hit; not just in terms of physically, but in terms of level, acting-wise and all that kinda stuff, while still feeling the emotion of that moment? You start to get overwhelmed with the emotion because it’s an incredibly moving day. Recreating something that is not something that happens a lot, to do it so well, to do it so authentically and to do it so massively doesn’t happen a lot. Also you’ve got pressure riding on it, so it amplifies the emotion and you start to get a bit overwhelmed. Then you realise that’s you commenting on it, that’s not you living it, that’s not probably not the way every soldier felt and it’s not necessarily the way that a soldier should feel. So you have to detach yourself quite a bit otherwise you do the actor just goes, *in stagey, weepy voice* ‘Ah, this is so big and scary and horrible.’ Which of course it is, but that should be the reaction of the person watching it, and indeed I’d let myself feel like that when I watched it two days later, and the rest of the crew did as well, we were all a mess together. But there’s a detachment that you have to try and achieve, I think, otherwise, a logistical nightmare of a scene like that would fail because actors wanted to feel it too much.
Q: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
JM: I’m not working on anything at the moment. I’ve got a thing coming out called Penelope in February with Reese Witherspoon and Christina Ricci. Then in March there’s a thing called Wanted, which is a big action-adventure thing with Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. Then after that I don’t have anything that I’m working on. I’ve got things that I’m about to sign off on, but should they not happen and fall apart at the last minute I shouldn’t really talk about them.
Q: Joe Wright has said he wanted to bring a style of acting to the film that was reminiscent to the style of acting in the thirties and forties. How hard was that to contend with as a modern actor and get into that mindset?
JM: It was a joy to do that. I had theatre training and I did a lot of work in theatre. I had a classical training in a conservatoire in Glasgow and things that I learned were probably a thousand miles away from the things that they learned. I didn’t do any film training in anything at anything, so that was a bit of a joy. Playing with styles is something I try to do in every film. I don’t think an actor should go to every film with one technique. I think you should become the type of actor that’s required for the style of the film or the thing that you’re doing. So that requires you to change, and this was just an extension of that. It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve done, in saying that, and I think it was easier for some of the cast than others, some of the cast are quite posh and some of aren’t. Saoirse, me, and a few others, it just took us a bit longer to get our heads on, y’know, and that was just our journey and what I loved was that did it together we sat round a table with this many people at it and we wouldn’t just go away, go home and work on accents, we would do it together so that the style of acting had a cohesive bond that made us feel like the film had a style instead of each actor standing out with different things. It was an absolute joy. And it doesn’t work with every script, it works with particular scripts. It can work with contemporary things, as well, the style not just with the accent, not just the speed with which you speak. The things like talking on voice the entire time, like I am now, never really whispering unless you’re dying or you’re trying to be stealthy. Never letting your energy drop at the end of a line, always letting your energy drop at the end of a line and giving it to people, it’s very theatrical, y’know? But only people would do that in film and let it work. Also, it was an artistic trait at the time, but it was a social trait at the time, this lack of ability to express; keep things bottled up and don’t let them out, so when you come to drama and you have that social constraint, you have a great potential because things always come out in drama, even in that period. However, when they do come out they fucking explode and that’s dead exciting cos it amplifies everything, and I love that. I really love that. Because quite often in these days, you go ‘I quite like her’ and in a couple of days you’re holding hands, y’know and God knows what else you're doing … and then … it’s just so different, isn’t it? It’s just so wonderful, these things that can’t be said, and I love that.
Q: Could you talk about the chemistry between you and James? He had his comments, let's hear yours…
Keira Knightley: *laughs* Well, I bet I know what his comments are. I should imagine that he said something along the lines of 'it's our job, acting.' *laughs* And it is. I think it has a lot [to do with] it was a fantastic script, a great director. We really got on. I think he's a sensational actor. Working with him was really, really exciting. I think as far as chemistry goes, you can have the best actors together – and in fact they can be in love with each other – and for some reason you won't have chemistry on the screen. I don't think anyone ever knows what makes that final bit of chemistry work. If they did then you'd make sure you worked with people like that all the time. I think that obviously it helped that we got on. Obviously the script is fantastic. So maybe that's the answer, but actually I don't know.
MG: I'd like to know about the research you did to make Cecilia so elegant. There were times where Cecilia’s poses and actions were very reminiscent of Bette Davis and those glamourous stars of the thirties. Did you look at those films going back?
KK: I did. It wasn't Bette Davis, though. Well, it's always a bit of Bette Davis. It was Greta Garbo quite a lot – with the smoking thing. Marlene Dietrich. And Katherine Hepburn, because I always go back to Katherine Hepburn. I love that quality that she's got. But the real main inspiration for this was Celia Johnson, from Brief Encounter. I watched it just on a loop for about two months and actually would be very happy to watch it on a loop forever. As a cast we all watched a lot of David Lean and Noel Coward and those collaborations, which we served. And then Brief Encounter. We watched a lot of news footage from that time as well. The accent is such a specific thing and it's completely lost to my generation – the British sort of 1940s stiff upper lip. It was the height of the stiff upper lip, really. We all wanted to watch it together so that everyone was on the same page. I think it wouldn't have worked if one person hadn't done it. We did a lot of research into the accent and finding exactly what we wanted and what part of it we didn't.
Q: Did it help having worked with director Joe Wright before?
KK: Yeah. I love working with Joe. I loved him the moment I met him. For some reason – I think chemistry between actors is very rare, and I think chemistry between actor and director is even more rare. We have really good creative chemistry for some reason. I don't know why. We speak the same language. I think very often… you know, acting is all about emotions. Everybody intrinsically has the same emotions, but we describe them differently. Sometimes on the set, that can feel literally like a language barrier. With Joe… we describe emotions the same, so we kind of had our own language. We just hoped we understood, that I understood what he wanted, which is always helpful.
Q: What are some of your favorite films this year?
KK: Of this year? I just saw Michael Clayton, which I thought was wonderful. Tilda Swinton in that was unbelievable. All the performances were great. I really loved Into the Wild. I thought that was a very inspirational film. Actually, the DOP [director of photography] for that one, who also did A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is one of my favorites. I thought that film, as a first-time writer/director, I thought that was wonderful. Chazz Palmenteri, the guy that plays the dad… oh my God, that scene with him and Shia LaBoeuf in the bath – just amazing. Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose. I think that is one of the most extraordinary performances I've ever seen.
Q: And from the period of the film?
KK: Casablanca. That's just one that's got to be. All About Eve. *laughs* Again, For Which We Serve and my favorite has to be Brief Encounter. Is it Rachmaninoff that they play? What is it they play? It's not Rachmaninoff, it's something else. There is a piece of music – the only piece of music that they play all the way through – and it's just brilliant. There are lots of films that I like. *laughs*
Q: What other films are you working on?
KK: I've just finished one called The Duchess, which is based on part of the life of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, who was a political hostess in the 1780s. I've just done that with Ralph Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling. Before that I was working on a film that my mum's (Sharman MacDonald) written about Dylan Thomas and a group of friends that surrounded him – and an act of violence that happened and the circumstances that led to the act of violence. That was with Cillian Murphy, Sienna Miller and Matthew Rhys.
Q: Was it kind of hard getting into Cecilia's mindset? Early on in the film she was kind of icy.
KK: I never saw her like that. I mean, yes, yes, she is. But I never saw her like that. I always completely understood it. I think that's why I fell in love with her from the moment I read the script. It was because I saw her so clearly. I think that very often in film you have characters that are black or white. What's fascinating about her is she's probably a very good person, but she's behaving like a bitch. I think we all do. I think you very rarely see that. I just love the different layers of her. I think the fact that in the book it completely describes how she's feeling. It describes that long, hot, sticky day that's completely airless. And that need for a cigarette that's making her even more on edge. I found her totally fascinating.
Q: What was the hardest scene to shoot?
KK: I don't know. We've been asked that a lot and I don't know if hard is the right word. I think every film is always challenging, and should be. But because of this three weeks' rehearsal we had, we were all so prepared. I wouldn't say that anything that stuck out in my mind as being particularly difficult. The one that I loved doing, found challenging and really exciting, was the Swallows teashop scene. That was actually one of my favorites when I read the script. It's partly because what they both want to do is sort of pour out into this melodramatic… you know, they want to say everything, but they can't. So it was a really interesting process of trying to think about all the things that wanted to be bursting out and then repress that – which was actually what we were doing in the whole of the film, really. Because it's all about what's not said as opposed to what is said. But in that one it was fabulous to keep that balance between being too melodramatic and too overemotional and keeping it in check.
MG: Can you tell us about working with Saoirse Ronan who plays young Briony?
KK: Yeah, she's amazing. She is twelve and she's got this thick Irish accent, then she comes out and she's got this pitch perfect 1940's British accent. I think what's incredible with Saoirse is that's not taught. That's not taught. So where does that talent come from? It's just… it is extraordinary. People keep on saying 'What advice are you giving her?' I would never dream of giving Saoirse Ronan advice. I'll take advice from her, but I certainly won't give it.
Q: You seem to like things from historical periods and the chance to wear costumes. Is there some fascination with history?
KK: I've always liked history. I've always been fascinated by it. It's not particularly that I'm going I want to do things that are historical. It's simply been the stories that have interested me. You know if I find a contemporary story that interests me I'll certainly do that as well. For some reason or another, the female parts… there are always much fewer good roles for actresses than there are for actors. Most of them that I've read indeed have simply been period pieces as opposed to contemporary pieces. It goes in swings. It will come; there will be a point when stuff that is interesting is contemporary, as well. But, I haven't so far. *laughs*
Q: You talk about female leads. You have played some of great female characters – you have power and you get to be a pirate – Elizabeth Bennett is an icon. How do you get away with that?
KK: I've been very lucky. I was very lucky with a lot of them… that they just happened to be the ones that I got. I was auditioning for lots of different roles and they were the ones that they offered me. So, I have no answer for that.
Q: Do you think it's an important thing to do, though?
KK: I think as a woman what I'm interested in is seeing interesting female roles onscreen. I'm not interested really in seeing women that are very much the secondary, token woman… which there always are, and that's fair enough. But as far as being a cinemagoer I'm excited when I see female roles that have a bit of different layers to them. That can be something inspiring. I think that's important.
Q: Part 3 of Pirates of the Caribbean comes out on DVD today. I know that Pirates was planned out as a trilogy, but they left it open for the possibility of more. Can you see going back to that?
KK: I can't imagine doing another one. That was an amazing experience. It really was, totally extraordinary. But no, I think three for me is probably enough. *laughs*
Q: Did you read the book of Atonement before you did the movie?
KK: I read the book, yes. I read the script first, but then I read the book as soon as had said yes to it. It was a fantastic blueprint.
Q: Did you talk to Ian McEwan about it?
KK: Yeah….Well, no, not before. He actually came on set a couple of times. He was very nice. Then at the London premiere he came up to me and said 'It's interesting. It works so well, but you played it so differently than I'd written it.' And I thought, ‘No, I didn't, I played it exactly… ‘*laughs* It's really funny. I think that's what's wonderful about the characters; people have such different ways of seeing them. I obviously saw it differently than Ian McEwan saw it.
Q: What made you decide to take on adapting Ian McEwen’s novel, Atonement?
Christopher Hampton: Well, it’s a long story, actually. I applied for the job cos I read the book when I was on holiday at the end of 2001, and I thought, ‘There’s real potential here, if you did it right, it could be really a good movie.’ So, when I got back to London, I contacted my agent and said I would love to do a screenplay of Atonement, and she said, “Well, join the gang.” There were a lot of writers interested in doing it, and Ian McEwen had it in his contract, he was executive producer, he had retained the right to be consulted on, and indeed choose, effectively, the screenwriter. So, I had dinner with Ian and set out my feelings about the book and how it maybe should be done, and obviously I passed the audition. Now what I said to him what I was intending to do didn’t actually bear much resemblance to what we ended up with at the far end, because that’s the way it goes, you know, you work on something and get deeper and deeper into it… Now I started with a different director, I started with Richard Eyre, and worked with him for just over a year, I think, and did maybe three drafts and consulting at the point of each draft with Ian. And at the end of that period we had a script with sort of a framing device, which began with the old woman arriving back at the hotel, which her childhood home had been turned into and you saw her from time to time in the course of the film, you heard her voiceover reflecting on this, that, or the other. The book, as you know, is in these three big chunks and what I’d done was kept the first half pretty much as you see it know, but with the Dunkirk sequences and the hospital sequences, which happen at the same time, I had combined them and cut back and forth between the so that we saw Briony learning to be a nurse and we saw Robbie Turner in France fighting his way back.
Anyway, at a certain point, one of those things happened which often happens with films where you think, ‘Well they’re not gonna make it, they’re scared of this project.’ There’s a silence that’s been going on just that bit too long. At which point Richard Eyre was offered Notes on a Scandal, and off he went. So I got at that point, introduced to Joe Wright, who said, “Yeah, well the script is fine, yes, but can we start from scratch?”
Q: So how different was it to work with Joe Wright after starting the project with Richard Eyre?
CH: Well, it was different mostly in that their approach was very different. What Joe basically did was he set about kicking away the crutches. He said, let’s try and do it without a frame so that the audience at the end of the film is as surprised as the readers are at the end of the book. He said, let’s take away the voiceover, try and convey everything without that particular help, and let’s try not to worry about the linearity of the story, let’s get back to those three big chunks. Another thing that he did, I don’t know whether we might have arrived at this anyway, but he certainly raised the idea, I think when we started we thought we were going to have to have one actress playing Briony at 12 and Briony at 18. So we were thinking maybe we would get a 15 year old actress who could age down and age up. That was the first thing that came into everyone’s head. As we were working on it and putting it back into those blocks, we sort of realised that with the Dunkirk block there would be 20 minutes between seeing the child and seeing the 18 year old and that would probably make it much easier for us to cast two actresses. That was probably the single biggest decision that we made because to have that child - leave alone the fact that the actress Saoirse Ronan is absolutely brilliant – to have the child in the first half of the story really, really explains the story in a way that wouldn’t have been explained by an older actress pretending to be a12 year old, I don’t think. I can’t see how it would’ve worked. So we did all those things and more, really, and eventually after another year of various drafts with Joe, Joe and I went away to Italy for two weeks and just went through every single page. And he’s very obsessive, Joe, like most of the really good directors I’ve worked with are completely obsessive; so right up to shooting he was ringing up and saying, ‘Now, page 18…” and he would email me his rewrites of scenes and say, “Well, this is not right, but something like this,” Then I would try and work out what he wanted and write it and email it back again. Or, I would say, ‘No, this is not a good idea,” which we had a good enough relationship for me to be able to do that.
Q: Was the Dunkirk sequence written as one continuous shot?
CH: No, it was not, at first. In fact, what we did is we were much more faithful to the book in that sequence, too, and if you’ve read the book you’ll know that it’s all about these huge columns of refugees traveling north through France, being attacked by German fighter planes and strafed, and bits of ragged conflict between the retreating soldiers and the advancing Germans. We had all that, we had all those things in the script and it was a budget problem, they wanted to make the film for 30 million dollars, they insisted on making the film for 30 millions dollars, because they felt all along that it was a risky venture, and so that was the obvious section to start weeding out. And eventually, we thought we could make a virtue of this by just having these three soldiers in some sort of Wizard of Oz or something in some phantasmagorical way, walking up through these landscapes and then suddenly arriving at this teeming hell. As we got closer to it Joe said, “Could we take all these various scenes, these montage images that we have and do them all in one shot?” And then we only have to have the extras, 1,000 extras, we only have to have the extras for one day. So it was. It was pretty nerve-wracking because we started rehearsing at 6:00 in the morning, it was entirely weather-dependent, the weather was fine, we started shooting at 4 in the afternoon and we got three takes done, the third of which was done at “magic hour”, when the sun is shedding these beautiful lights. Then embarked on a fourth take, in the middle of which the steadicam operator fell over.
I mean the guy had been walking backwards carrying this vast thing through the sand all day, so I’m not surprised. And the third take, as it turns out, was the only one that was workable.
Q: Can you talk about writing the twists of the story? You have two protagonists, one of whom is also the story’s antagonist.
CH: Well, in a way the sleight of hand that we operated is that the book is about Briony, as she is the central character and the backbone the whole book. We somehow felt that we'd have to shift the focus. We’d have to make the film about what Briony was interested in rather than only about Briony, and Briony was obviously interested in and obsessed with these two. As a child she’d been in love with this man, and all of that was very interesting, but we needed to spend some time with those two characters together and we needed to sort of admit to ourselves that their relationship was sort of the centre of the film. So we just kind of danced around those problems as best we could.
Q: It sounds like you had a lot more involvement in this film than other writers get.
CH: In the end, it really all comes down to the relationship between the writer and the director and sometimes I’ve had very good relationships with directors. Stephen Frears has it in his contract that the writer has to be on the set. Joe’s not like that, we cut off and I didn’t go to the set much. I went on Dunkirk day and because I speak French I worked on the French language sections, and I put my head round the door once or twice. But when he embarked on it he knew what he wanted, he didn’t need the writer. It's all depends on the individual director and what their temperament is, really.
Q: What were you thoughts on casting Vanessa Redgrave?
CH: He did a very smart thing, Joe. This is really good thinking for a director, he cast the child first. Most people would be tempted to cast the 18 year old first. He cast the child first, and then he had to find two actresses who would plausibly the grown up versions of the child. Vanessa was always on quite a short list of distinguished old English actresses. I think Vanessa is the one who can most reliably be expected to break your heart, really. She just has something tragic about her face that works terribly well and she did sort of look like her. And then Joe rehearsed the three actresses together a lot so that they all devised kind of ways of walking and mannerisms that spread from one section to another.
MG: You’ve made a name for yourself adapting powerful and difficult stories, A Doll’s House, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and now Atonement. I understand there’s a rumour that you might next be working on another remarkable book with a complicated narrative, Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell?
CH: I’m not doing that anymore I started out on that, but I slightly fell out with them on the topic that I often fall out with, which is that they seem to want to go too far away from the book for my taste.
MG: I’m sorry to hear that. What is your attraction to these complex stories?
CH: I love doing them, I love doing the big crossword puzzle. All screenwriters get fired from time to time, and I have been 5 or 6 times, and it almost always has to do with an issue to do with my saying, ‘This is not how it is in the book’ and ‘Why do you want to change it? The change that you’re proposing is not as interesting as what the book is proposing.’ You never know, it’s a long process, I wouldn’t rule out going back. I have also in the past had experiences where they say goodbye you and they come back and ask you to come back again. It was a really, really interesting piece of work to do, so I don’t regret it, but it’s in the hands of someone else now, I think.
~ Mighty Ganesha
December 4th, 2007
Extra special mitzvahs to Mr. Brad Balfour for his generous and invaluable assistance.
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