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Ian McEwan and the filmmakers behind The Children Act talk the challenges of getting serious films off the ground


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The Children Act stars Emma Thompson as a judge struggling to balance a failing marriage with a exceedingly emotional case regarding a young Jehovah's Witness boy who's refusing the blood transfusion that could save his life.

Based on the novel and adapted for screen by legendary author Ian McEwan, directed by his long time collaborator Richard Eyre, and produced by Duncan Kenworthy (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral), the film is a subtle and understated emotional rollercoaster.

Source: Rich Fury/Getty Images North America

Source: Rich Fury/Getty Images North America

We got to talk to these three filmmakers, who opened up about their creative process.

Richard and Ian - you’ve worked together before, and Ian you’ve described it as “sweetly uncomplicated” - why was The Children Act was perfect for your third collaboration?

Ian: The process was sweetly uncomplicated - Richard and I thought we’d like to do a State of the Nation movie, we were much taken with the Polish Vido Man of Iron series. 

I met Richard, he was running the National Theatre at the time, I took him out for lunch and showed him a synopsis of something I wanted to write, he liked it, I wrote it, Channel 4 came up with the money, and in months we were shooting it. I thought, well this is how you make movies. And I’ll spend the rest of my live interleaving movies and novels in the same way. And I spent the next 2 years working with Bertolucci on a movie that never got made. And then I began to understand just how difficult the process is at every level, and how heroic Duncan has been in keeping this on track. 

Richard: Well this is why Ian is a fiction writer, because most of that is untrue! Actually the first time we worked together, I had been running a theatre in Nottingham, then I was the producer of a TV strand of drama called Play for Today, and I commissioned Ian to write a film which I then directed. It was the first film I ever directed and it was called The Imitation Game. And it was like, but much better [laughs] than the recent The Imitation Game, but it was based on the same notion of Alan Turing’s Imitation Game. So we did that together for television, and then I wasn’t actually running the National Theatre when we made The Ploughman’s Lunch - I had just directed Guys and Dolls, and we both lived in Stockwell, and that was how we saw a lot of each other. That was how we painlessly did the Ploughman’s Lunch starring Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine at the climax. She was a bit over the top, but …

But then it was a long time and I was running The National Theatre so I couldn’t make films, and then we started talking about making another film together, and Ian moved very close to where I live in the country. When he was writing The Children Act, he said to me “I’m writing something that I think would make a film.” Then he sent me the manuscript, I loved it, then he wrote a script, and then we decided to approach the best producer that we could think of-

Duncan: -And he wasn’t available! So… 

Richard: … so that’s when Duncan came into the picture! 

Duncan - you have produced some of our best loved and our most successful films, but the London of The Children Act looked very different from the London of Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral. How crucial was it getting access to our legal institutions in setting the authenticity and the tone?

Duncan: We were determined to make it authentic, because there’s no point in making it a fictional world when the real one is there, but if we hadn’t had Sir Alan Ward, who was our legal consultant, we would have never had the keys to the kingdom. So Alan is a great friend of Ian’s and in fact, apparently, was the reason that Ian wrote the novel in the first place, because some of the cases that are in the novel are inspired by cases that were judged by Sir Alan. He’s this extraordinary man, now retired, and his name opens every door in the legal world and he got us in with just one phone call to meet with the Under Treasurer of Grays Inn - the person who actually calls the shots. So Ian and Alan and Richard and I went in and spent 2 hours sitting across the table from this awe-struck under treasurer. They were amazing, so we were given almost free access to the real places where the story took place. The concert at the end of the film is in the Great Hall of Grays Inn - a room in which one Shakespeare play, I can’t remember which one it was, was premiered apparently for Queen Elizabeth. It’s extraordinary to think!

So, the apartment where Fiona and Jack live used to be Alan Ward’s apartment, and it’s exactly where we filmed it. The interior we built at Pinewood - I’m sure you all want to live in that apartment having seen the film! But that was built, and the courtroom was also built, because we didn’t want to film in the one courtroom in London that everyone films in. You know, all of the TV shows are in this dark oak interior, and so ours is based on one of the actual courtrooms in the Family Division of the Royal Court. And it was built as an exact replica at Pinewood, but everything else [was real]. A journalist said early on, “I ride the bus every day down High Holburn, and I’ve always wondered what happens over those walls … and now I know.” And I think that’s part of the pleasure of the film - getting entre into this real legal world.

It was great to see an enhanced role for the clerk, played superbly by Jason Watkins - why did you make that change, and any others in the book to film adaptation?

Ian: We more or less kept the clerk in - it’s an extraordinary relationship - he knows everything, and we kept him close, with an unstated knowledge of what’s troubling her … he witnesses her falling apart in private and yet keeping everything together in her professional life, and never speaks. He witnesses the kiss - that very transgressive kiss towards the end of the film - and it’s beyond question that he would never raise this matter with her. So it was a fascination for us to bring that to life. It’s rather like having Batman in the old army days, and the valet does know the soul of the master.

Richard: On the adaptation from the novel - reading a novel is a reflective act, and it’s not in the present tense. You rarely sit down, start a novel, and read to the end in one sitting, whereas film by definition exists in the present tense. And so the dynamic, the pulse and momentum of a film has to be wholly different, and we were concerned that it should edits as a film with the qualities and the momentum of a feature film, rather than attempt to replicate the dynamic of the novel. So there are quite substantial changes to the narrative from the novel which were within the script, and then changed further when we were editing. 

It’s mentioned in the film that it’s unusual for judges to visit bedsides - is there actual precedent?

Ian: Well absolutely! Alan Ward presided over a case of a teenage Jehovah’s Witness boy, and did go to his bedside. Now admittedly, this was when the boy would have been a ward of Court, 25 years ago. It’s unusual, but not without precedent. So Alan told me his story - he went to the boy’s bedside, they talked about football non-stop, he ruled as usually happens that the hospital could treat against the boy’s will. Afterwards the boy made a good recovery and he took him to a football match, he happened to know all the directors - Manchester United - and the boy met all the stars. And then seven or eight years later, Alan saw in a footnote that the boy in his 20s had got ill again, had gone back to hospital, and then died there refusing the transfusion. 

Alan told me this story while we were waiting for a concert to begin, and I thought “This is a gift. I’m hearing a short novel.” It rarely happens like that for me. 

How difficult is it to get serious adult movies off the ground these days, in a world full of Marvel sequels?

Duncan: It’s quite hard! It was not easy, but then when you start with a novel by Ian McEwan, and you have Richard Eyre directing it, and Emma Thompson starring in it, it becomes a lot easier. But still as you say, it’s not a Marvel extravaganza, because that’s what movies have sort of become now - all those movies that we all watched in the 70s don’t get made any more. So it was an act of faith in the end, because distributors always reduce it down to “well, if it’s not very good, if it’s not very well made, can we still get an audience to go and see it?” And everyone will go and see a film with Emma in it, so Emma was really our saving grace.

We’ve even said that Emma was so perfect for the role that we probably wouldn’t have made the film anyway, whether we could have or not, if Emma had not taken it on. But it comes at a price - you have to scale down because if it’s only women over 50 who are going to see it - they make these very quick calculations - unless the film is good. And I love the film, I’m so proud of it, and in this circumstance I think everybody will go and see it, and then it’ll look like the kind of thing to have made. But to make a film that’s got serious intentions about real things is quite hard at this stage. 

Can I ask about the time you spent at the High Court observing judges, and what that experience was like and what you learnt from watching actual judges in action?

Richard: I was with Emma for most of the meetings [with judges], and one of them said to us, “You have to understand that every single case that we’re adjudicating contains pain.” This is the family division, so it’s divorce, custody, cruelty - nobody comes in front of them by definition who is, as it were, there for a laugh, or has committed a crime and hopes they’ll get away with it. Everybody’s lives in front of them are in some way damaged and on the whole very very severely damaged, if they’ve got that far. And so constantly dealing with pain, not in the way a surgeon deals with pain, where you can detach it and the patient is anaesthetised, but you’re sitting there looking - on one side of the court there are people in agony, and on the other side of the court there are people in agony. 

Ian: I was at Alan Ward’s house for dinner one night, long before any of these thoughts of The Children Act were on my mind, and there were a few other judges sitting round the table, and what surprised and amused me was the extent to which they knew each other’s judgements. They knew them as pieces of literature, and they teased each other and they quoted each other. And then I found myself with a book of Alan’s bound judgements on my lap, and I thought what a treasure this is. It’s as if the whole of the 19th century novel is being played out and encapsulated in very elegant prose in two and a half thousand words. And it’s not only pain - sometimes there are conflicting goods - goods that collide, and again a decision has to be made. And yet our movies, our novels are full of the criminal courts - this is a great treasure trove neglected.

The Children Act is in cinemas on August 24th, distributed by Entertainment One.

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