By Edward Douglas
With over forty years as an author and screenwriter under his belt, Ian McEwan is considered one of the top British authors, his biggest claim to fame being his 2001 novel “Atonement,” which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. This year, two movies based on McEwan novels, both adapted by himself, were released, the first being “On Chesil Beach” and the latest one being “The Children Act.”
Based on McEwan’s 2014 novel, “The Children Act” gets its title from a number of British legislations made dating back to 1908, set to protect the welfare of minors who might not be able to make decisions for themselves. The movie adaptation reteams McEwan with similarly acclaimed filmmaker Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal’) who directed McEwan’s very first screenplay for “The Ploughman’s Lunch” back in 1983.
The drama stars Oscar-winning actor Emma Thomas as British High Court Judge Fiona Maye, who presides over some of the most difficult domestic cases in family court, such as deciding whether to separate conjoined twins. Her latest involves a teenager (Fionn Whitehead from “Dunkirk”) whose beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness forces him to refuse life-saving transfusions needed during his treatment for leukemia. In order to decide the case, Fiona visits the boy in the hospital and makes a decision that will change both their lives. At the same time, Fiona’s husband (Stanley Tucci) has decided to have an affair with a younger work colleague, feeling like he’s unable to get any sort of attention or time from his busy wife.
NextBestPicture.com sat down with the author and filmmaker for the following interview. As you can expect, it was all very proper, even with my mentions of Monty Python, and the two long-time friends were good at playing off each other, as we got pretty deep into the adaptation process.
I missed both this and “On Chesil Beach” when they played at Toronto last year, but I was fascinated by “The Children Act.” I try not to read too much about movies in advance, so as I watched it, I thought it was about this judge who is having problems with her husband. I thought that was going to be the whole movie, but as with most of your work (including “On Chesil Beach”), there’s always more to the plot than such a simple premise. I’ve spoken to authors who have no interest in adapting their own novels because they’ve already written them once, but you’ve adapted a few of your own novels now. How do you decide that?
Ian McEwan: It’s a perfectly legitimate way to go, to just license the rights and then stand well back and enjoy it on the first night you get invited. Actually, the first time I wrote a screenplay was way back with Richard. In the ‘70s, we did a television film together, then we did a movie called “The Ploughman’s Lunch,” and it’s always been a parallel life for me. I’ve been there for many years. I’ve worked with Bertolucci fruitlessly for two years and did a movie with John Schlesinger on my novel “The Innocent,” wrote one or two other movies, and then stopped in the mid-‘90s after I had two that didn’t get made. I had just wasted so much time, but all through this period, Richard and I had been saying that we’d love to work together again. “The Ploughman’s Lunch” was what, 1981?
Richard Eyre: ’82, yeah.
McEwan: So, a long time, and yet, we’ve been friends all this time. Watching Richard’s stuff on stage and in the movies, I just knew that “The Children Act” was the one I’d like to work with him on, and so I showed him the novel well before it was published, and he said “Yes.” For me, it’s irresistible, if you can find the right working environment. Richard then introduced me to a producer that we had in mind, Duncan Kenworthy, and we were off and running.
Had you been reading all of Ian’s books over the years wanting to make one or the other?
Eyre: Oh, sure. I actually was going to direct “Atonement,” and I had the rights of “Atonement,” and then I had to pull out, because it got delayed, and I had a commitment to direct a theater show in New York. So I would have directed “Atonement,” but fate didn’t allow it.
McEwan: Exactly. But socially, we’ve seen each other over the years, and I’ve seen many of Richard’s theater productions, and without even being able to define the reasons why, I just sensed that something had at its center a set of moral questions would be something Richard would be able to do very well. And I also knew that actors love working with Richard anyway, so he’d be able to cast it perfectly, as indeed he did. The other thing from my point of view, of writing the screenplay, is the attraction of making a screenplay out of a short novel are very strong. Although I didn’t think in screenplay terms while writing the novel, when it was done, I did feel like this was something I’d really like to do. If I didn’t do it, then someone else might. There was that dog in the manger feeling about it, too.
Like I said, I don’t normally read too much about a movie before seeing it, so I didn’t even know who directed it when I watched it and had to wait until the end to find out. What interested you in this subject matter?
Eyre: Well, Ian talked to me about it when he was writing it, and then sent me the manuscript. I just loved the combination of the two stories of the marriage, of the personal and the professional, and the private and the public side. I also just loved a story that has inherent in it some kind of moral debate that is expressed through character. Action is not imposed from outside. It’s actually generated through the actions and the behaviors of the characters. I was very, very drawn to it because that’s the kind of stuff that I do. It’s just great to have the opportunity making a film that has that sort of complexity. It’s, of course, unusual, and it’s more often made in non-English-speaking films than in English-speaking films. We’re very dominated in our country by American movies, and by the need to simplify and offer redemptive endings. Forgive me for saying that we wanted to make a grown-up movie, and I don’t think that’s a dishonorable thing to want to do. It’s difficult because you have to persuade people to go see it, but when they do, I think, on the whole, they find it rewarding.
A couple things I really connected with, the first being the law aspect of it, because I never really understood British law outside of Monty Python sketches with the big wigs. I also had leukemia myself, so I was curious how you would handle that aspect since I never know whether filmmakers will handle it properly. How did you research those two aspects of the story, both in writing the book and making the film? Do you know any judges you could go to or oncologists for the medical aspect of it?
McEwan: On the book side and the movie side I had a friend whose name is Alan Ward, who is now retired, but who was a long time in the family law and then in the appeal court. He was the one who told me while we were waiting for a concert to begin of a case he once presided over of a Jehovah’s Witness boy refusing blood for religious reasons and Alan had gone to the beside. They mostly talked about soccer, and that was the beginning for me. He told a fascinating story of a case, and I thought even as he was saying it that this would be a wonderful plot of a short novel. Once Richard had expressed interest in directing this, I met Alan Ward for a meal and a drink in his club, and at the end of it, asked him if it came up, would he help us on the film, too?
Eyre: He opened a lot of doors for us.
McEwan: Yeah, he did.
Eyre: I met a lot of family court judges, spent a lot of time sitting in courtrooms, and we had a medical advisor, whose an expert oncologist, so we did all the work fairly thoroughly.
McEwan: There was a great difference in the help Alan could give me on the novel, as opposed to the help he could give Richard on the movie because I didn’t need to be in the Royal Court of Justice. You could walk through as a pedestrian, but to take a film crew in there was very, very difficult indeed. When you wanted access to the RCJ and all kinds of other places because Alan was such a respected figure…
Eyre: But I wanted the procedure to be exactly right, so that nobody new could look at the film and say, “Well, they didn’t bother to get that right,” which always undermines authority in a film.
McEwan: It’s so much more demanding for a film since you have to see it, whereas, in the novel, I got a fair amount of the procedure from Alan, but I didn’t have to describe exactly what everyone was wearing all the time. Whereas in a movie, you’re much more vulnerable with every last detail to get it right.
Maybe more in the UK than here, because Americans might not realize if something is off. Like I said, I only know about British law from “Monty Python”…
McEwan: No, that’s a pretty good guide, but it only takes you so far, but for all of us, it’s a set of mysteries. We’ve talked about this before. On the one hand, you have this old-fashioned procedures and hierarchies and ways of addressing people and so on, and underneath it all, you have incredibly hard-working people, especially in the family division, trying to bring some kind of calm or reason to situations that are often irresolvable. We tried to get that across – a woman who has to decide 7 or 8 times a day important issues of family breakdown or matters of children, so on and so forth. Actually, it was Richard who didn’t want to film in the usual dark-paneled courtrooms of which we’re so familiar as watchers of movies [but instead] to get a much more hard-working environment of a brand-new courtroom and a corridor and tiny offices alongside it. I thought it was great that in the very first instance -- and I think it was so much finding the visual equivalent of what was important in the novel – was to have [Fiona] come out of her office, and you see the judge as it were… Judges disappear in court to be upstanding. Now, we see her wiping coffee off her dress, full of the concerns of a disintegrating marriage, and being able to enter with her. Actually, it’s that process, that transition from what can be easily be done in a novel but is actually much harder to get right in a movie.
Eyre: The thing is that in a novel or a script, you write “She crosses the street.”
McEwan: (chuckles) Of course, or “it’s raining.”
Eyre: “It’s raining…” You’d have to have a street and rain…
McEwan: Yeah, it doesn’t cost much to have it rain in a novel. “A tsunami Is seen approaching…”
Had either of you worked with Emma before on other projects?
Eyre: I have known Emma for a very long time, since she started, and we talked on and off about working together, so it was great to have a project that we could do together, and it was great. She’s fabulous to work with. She’s utterly collaborative and brilliantly skillful and supportive of all the other actors., and it was great. She’s fabulous to work with. She’s utterly collaborative and brilliantly skillful and supportive of all the other actors. She is impeccable.
I think she’s a ringer as is Stanley Tucci, who can do anything, but Fionn is an amazing find. I know he was “Dunkirk” – I would not be able to tell you which soldier he plays...
McEwan: Yeah, somewhere in there was Fionn…
How did you find him and know he could hold his own against Emma?
Eyre: He just came in. The casting director Nina Gold had a list of boys, and we saw I think ten, and he was actually the first one, and he was so striking and so clearly fitted the description in the novel. He had an angelic quality to him but absolutely down to earth and articulate and bright and unpretentious and not cocky. So he was fabulous.
Were you able to do any kind of chemistry read with him and Emma?
Eyre: We cast him, and then I spent quite a bit of time with him and Emma just doing scenes and talking round the characters.
I think I mentioned earlier that I was surprised when you meet his character and learn about his case, you think that it would just be another case on her docket, and then we’d go back to her relationship with her husband. I didn’t realize he’d play such a large part in the story later on.
McEwan: Also, his arrival in the movie is quite late, so it’s like we’re saving him up. You quite nicely showed us his sick room, but not his…
Eyre: Just sort of a teaser shot where you can just see a body in the bed.
McEwan: And he’s prayed before by the Jehovah’s Witness in the only meeting we see, and he’s mentioned…
Eyre: But the audience sees him at exactly the moment that Fiona sees him.
This premiered this at Toronto last year, so you’ve had a chance to see the movie with an audience. I’m guessing you’ve also seen it with an audience in London as well.
Have you seen it with an American audience yet and do you think they’ll understand some of the film’s nuances?
McEwan: I haven’t seen it with an American audience.
Eyre: The Canadian audience was very generous to it. I don’t know. I just don’t know, which is exciting, and I’m a little apprehensive. I did a QnA in London the other day for a regular filmgoing audience, and I said, “Sorry, but I have to leave because I’m going to New York tomorrow morning,” and they all said, “Oh, it’s going to be great. They’re going to love it there.” So we’ll see.
I guess because I myself had leukemia, I can relate to that aspect of Fionn’s character and why transfusions are so important, but I’m not sure how many others would connect to that.
McEwan: I suppose the attraction of the Jehovah’s Witness is that there’s a very clear prohibition that is faith-based runs against all human instincts – to let a child die for want of a fairly straight-forward matter, so it’s a perfect encapsulation of religious faith and that moment in which the secular state and sincerely-held religious believe run into each other. We did our best, and we’ve talked about this a lot, in giving the Jehovah’s Witnesses the kindest and best and most sympathetic space in which to express their beliefs. I don’t think we’ve had a murmur from the Jehovah’s Witnesses or have you?
Eyre: No, I haven’t heard a murmur, and I think we’ve been entirely fair to their views, and I think Ben Chaplin, who is a marvelously authoritative actor, is very persuasive. He makes a case very, very persuasively.
McEwan: As does Fionn’s part. From his hospital bed, he makes the case.
Eyre: Yup, absolutely. That was very, very important to us that the case was properly made, that we didn’t diminish the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we didn’t parody them and we didn’t satirize them.
McEwan: We tried also to put across that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and whatever you might think about their beliefs, clearly derive a great deal of community and a sense of belonging. So, the Ben Chaplin role, he was once a drunk but now has found his milieu and is supported.
Eyre: And it’s a family.
McEwan: But you know, in the end, Fiona’s the judge and he must not be allowed to be a martyr to his religion and his best interests. In the Children Act legislation, its very first sentence is that when a court considers a matter like this, the paramount consideration has to be the child’s interest, not the parents’, not the God’s, and that actually says a lot because – it might be obvious -- but it’s quite easy for a judge to say that it’s not in his best interest to be dead.
You must have the benefits of having the book being out there that there were issues with the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses were handled, they would already know about it from the book, theoretically.
McEwan: It’s still a big leap, though. I mean, everything is under this kind of scrutiny with a camera lens that’s with a novel, so I think we went to really great care, and Richard certainly delivered that sense of warmth in the casting itself. I mean, Ben Chaplin could have been some other actor who might not have gotten that incredible sincerity.
Eyre: But there’s also such a difference in the process, the way you assimilate a novel, which is very rarely in a single sitting, is it? It’s all broken up, and you read a line, for instance, Stanley Tucci’s line, “I think I want to have an affair,” and you read that on the page, and it’s so wildly different from seeing an actor say the line and time it in the way he brilliantly does it sort of reflectively and slightly apologetically and protracts the line…
McEwan: Takes a breath. Pauses. And then her reaction… the stunned silence.
Eyre: So that’s how it becomes three-dimensional in a way that a novel isn’t, except the third-dimension in a novel is supplied by the reader.
McEwan: Most of the novel is interiors of Fiona, so the hardest bit is to break out of it.
Eyre: And that’s where Emma is so brilliant, because you can see into her thoughts, and that’s just a remarkable facility.
I also think that Stanley Tucci playing Fiona’s husband would allow viewers to be sympathetic to him, but a lot of other actors might do it and be thought of as a pompous windbag.
Eyre: No, absolutely. I totally agree.
McEwan: It played very well for us with Stanley’s earthbound feet on the ground quality of him [that he does] with authority, so that this becomes almost about the Anglo-American cultural difference when she’s just not speaking and is sort of skulking, so that Stanley can say, “How do you think we’re going to solve this with your silence?” It plays usefully to the notion of the tight-lipped English woman who would rather suffer in silence, and Stanley wants to admit his mistakes “but let’s how the row, let’s have a discussion.” Let’s talk.
Eyre: I think his being an American really exaggerates and emphasizes that, which is great.
“The Children Act” opens in select cities on Friday after playing on DirecTV. Check out the trailer below.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW
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