Stage and screen directing legend Richard Eyre discusses the real-life stage that is the courtroom in The Children Act and directing for stage vs. screen. Read our review of the film here.
Richard Eyre’s The Children Act is a showcase for the great Emma Thompson, one of the best actresses working today who doesn’t get nearly enough meaty roles to sink her teeth into. The film was the first of two consecutive screen collaborations between the pair: they also made a film of King Lear for the BBC in which Thompson plays Goneril.
In The Children Act, Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a British High Court judge dealing with her husband’s (Stanley Tucci) infidelity while she must decide whether a Jehovah’s Witness boy (Fionn Whitehead)— who is nearly eighteen and thus almost an adult — should be forced to receive the life-saving treatment he rejects. In the process, she forms an inappropriately intense bond with the boy, who starts to see her as a romantic figure and a mentor. Thompson lends her trademark intelligence to this complex part, while elevating rising star Whitehead in the process.
The film deals with Fiona’s public and private life and the very theatrical rituals of the court, making Eyre, a giant of the theatre, a perfect fit for the film.Eyre is a screen directing veteran: his Hollow Crown episodes of Henry IV are among the best works of filmed Shakespeare, and his movies range from Stage Beauty to Notes on a Scandal. But he’s best known for his work in the theatre. From the mid-1980s to mid- 1990s, he ran the National Theatre in London, where he directed Daniel Day Lewis in his last play as Hamlet, and Ian McEwan in Richard III, which McKellan would later turn into a film.
Back at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, where The Children Act had its world premiere, I talked to Eyre about directing for film vs. theatre, what was theatrical about this story, his lifelong friendship with Eyre, and the great Emma Thompson.
Seventh Row (7R): You do so much TV, film, and theatre. What was it about this story that you felt was really well suited for film?
Richard Eyre (RE): It was actually Ian McEwan’s initiative to say to me, “Let’s make a movie of it.” Ian is a very old friend of mine. We’ve been friends since 1978; that’s nearly 40 years. We’ve made two films together: one TV film and then a feature film, in the ‘80s. Since then, we’ve repeatedly talked about doing another movie together.
About five years ago, when he was writing The Children Act, he said to me “you know, I think that there could be a film from this novel, and if there is, I’d love you to direct it.” He then sent me the manuscript of the novel. I was slightly apprehensive because if I hadn’t liked it, that would have been trouble. But I loved it! And I agreed with him that it would make a wonderful film.
We talked about how it might be approached and how the novel could be adapted. He worked on the screenplay. And then we approached Duncan Kenworthy, who I think is a wonderful producer, and asked him if he would produce it.
7R: I spoke with Ian McEwan a couple days ago, and he was saying how much he loves working with you. How has that collaboration evolved and deepened over the years?
RE: You know, we’ve both been through a lot. He lives near me, I see Ian now maybe two or three times a week. We’re just very good friends, so how thrilling to be the age I am, and to have such wonderful friends, gifted friends, who one can work with. Life doesn’t get any better than aspiring to do good work with good friends.'As training for filmmaking, the theatre is appallingly bad. Although you learn the language of working with actors, in the theatre, you are always looking from the same point of view.' - Richard EyreClick To Tweet
7R: I really loved how the film was blocked and how you use entrances and exits. People almost orbit around Emma Thompson’s character. How do you think about the frame as compared to the visible stage? What are the similarities or differences?
RE: As training for filmmaking, the theatre is appallingly bad. Although you learn the language of working with actors, in the theatre, you are always looking from the same point of view. You’re sitting there, and there is the stage in front of you. Film is diametrically opposite because you are constantly the point of view of the audience — also, the use of dialogue and size of shot and whether you move the camera.
I love working in film. It’s so different from working in the theatre: the way you use time, and you compress time, in film, or you express time, and the way you can get inside people’s heads in film. It’s a wonderful medium. It’s sort of quite literal, you know: if you are in the street, you sort of have to show the street. In the theatre, the glorious thing is everything about it is poetic. You can say, “I’m in a street,” and you’re in the street. Put on a different hat and you say, “I’m ten years older now,” and you can do it. The audience actually are your collaborators in that suspension of disbelief.'In the theatre, the glorious thing is everything about it is poetic. You can say, 'I’m in a street,' and you’re in the street.' - Richard EyreClick To Tweet
It’s interesting what you said about entrances: a judge has a sort of off-stage life, and then they’re on stage in the courtroom. I consciously wanted to show that feeling of backstage being like backstage in a theatre, except this one is rather more luxurious than most backstage theatres because the judges have a red carpet. Nobody but the judges and their clerks go into that world. Then they cross the corridor, and on the other side of the corridor, they go on stage in the court and have to leave their personal lives behind in the way that an actor does.
7R: You also spend a lot of time where you see her putting on her costume, almost.
RE: Exactly. And it is a costume. We have that scene which is real: that is documentary footage of the judges in procession going from Westminster Abbey to the House of Parliament, and there they are in 18th century clothing. It’s so bizarre.'A judge has a sort of off-stage life, and then they’re on stage in the courtroom. I consciously wanted to show that feeling of backstage being like backstage in a theatre.' - Richard EyreClick To Tweet
A: It really is sort of theatrical. How did you think about that with regards to performances and off-stage/on-stage?
RE: It’s more a structural thing. It’s more in the script, not so much in the performances except that they perform what’s in the script, and the script is structured between the public world and the private world. That’s a persistent thing throughout the film.
7R: In the film, you are working with a very green actor with Fionn Whitehead, and then Emma Thompson who’s one of our greatest actresses. How do you think about approaching directing young actors, especially when they have to go up against great veteran actors?
RE: It absolutely depends on the generosity of the older actor. So I did a film with Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal, where we had a 16-year-old boy, and she was wonderful with him. She gave him the confidence to be able to… and that was difficult as they had to do lovemaking scenes. She endowed him with the confidence. Emma likewise gave Fionn the encouragement, the confidence, and the security, and the patience. It wouldn’t have worked if she hadn’t been that generous.'Emma Thompson gave Fionn Whitehead the encouragement, the confidence, and the security, and the patience. It wouldn’t have worked if she hadn’t been that generous.' - Richard EyreClick To Tweet
7R: There are a lot of two shots between them. I’m such an Emma fan that I expected I’d be looking at her all the time, and I was actually looking at both of them. I really felt that sort of collaboration that was going on.
RE: We rehearsed a lot so by the time that we started shooting, she knew Finn, they had some sort of bond. I knew him and we trusted each other.
I love talking to directors who work on stage and screen about the differences between the two mediums and how their approach differs in each, and we often write about how they borrow from each other. Previously, I talked to Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews about his first feature Una and what he gets on film that he can’t get on stage. For our Special Issue on On Chesil Beach, I talked to theatre director Dominic Cooke about directing his first feature, how his approach to directing actors changes, and how the film influenced his production of Follies at the National Theatre. I’ve written about how Journey’s End works as a screen adaptation of the famous play, and how Sam Mendes borrowed from his recent production of King Lear when he made the James Bond film Spectre.