Jessica Swale is a playwright and theatre director, known for her plays Blue Stockings, Thomas Tallis and Nell Gwynn and adaptations including The Secret Garden, Far From the Madding Crowd and Sense and Sensibility. Summerland is her feature film debut.
We discussed making the transition from theatre to film, the production design and score of the film and collaborating with some of the older acting legends amongst the cast, as well as star Gemma Arterton.
I have to start by asking what gave you the idea to incorporate the Fata Morgana myth into a World War Two setting?
The folklore came first and the second world war element was a necessity, when I realised that if I wanted a young boy to arrive into the story and be put into care, then having him be an evacuee would make sense.
The Fata Morgana really came from the fact that I was thinking about what cinema can do and if I was going to write a movie (because at the time I was writing mostly for the theatre), I thought “if I’m going to write for the cinema, what can cinema do, how can it transport us?” So I was thinking about magic and how much I enjoy magic realism and folklore. So I started reading about various myths and the myth of Fata Morgana is one I found really interesting because it’s about a woman being bad. So I thought “I recognise this theme, I seem to hear this a lot in tales of folklore” so I thought “here is the beginning of a theme.” And that’s where Alice Lamb came from.
You mentioned there about transitioning from theatre to film – what were the skills that transferred well and what were the unexpected challenges involved?
It wasn’t as much of a leap as I expected, in terms of required skills because for me, the most important quality in a good director (having often worked as a writer with lots of different directors and seeing it from the outside) is the importance of being able to pull a story together and keep an eye on the whole story. You have to make sure that all the creative people that you’re working with contribute their very best ideas, so that what you end up with is much more than just what was written on the page. It’s a world created by experts – in sound, in lighting, in production design – and it’s much, much better than anything that I, as a director could imagine on my own. That’s the same in theatre and in film, I feel like it’s a collaborative effort and one of the elements I enjoy the most is working with a team, to find the most imaginative version of the world and the most detailed version that you possibly can.
Also, working with actors, I love to be playful in rehearsals, to try things out, to work out what a character’s voice is with the actor – that was a transferable skill. If you can really work with an actor individually and try to hone what you’re doing according to a way that suits them to work – for example, some actors will turn up with everything ready and aren’t particularly flexible, but they’ve done a huge amount of work before you start. Whereas others will find it as they go along and I think a good director bends their own behaviour and process in order to get the best work out of each individual actor and that’s the same in both.
I think what’s different in film and the trickiest thing for me, was the way that you have to tell the story out of sequence. So if you’re shooting scenes from the end before you’ve shot the beginning, by the time you get to the beginning, if you have a better idea for that scene, you can’t necessarily change it because you’ve already got the next part of the sequence. As a playwright and as a theatre director, I’m used to having time in rehearsals to move around, to shape-shift a bit and change gears as you work on different parts of the script and you can always go back and make changes or go forward. Of course, you can’t do that on film, so I learned quickly to not just focus on trying to get one scene done in one particular way, but for each scene to get different options, so that I would have more flexibility eventually.
Was Alice’s cottage a set or a real location? And how did you go about sourcing all of the details, in terms of production design elements (set decoration and props) for her cottage? Was it charity shops, mainly?
It was a real location, but of course we filmed it with our own materials. We were very lucky to find that beautiful house and it was so much like the house that I’d written in the script, which I’d described in an enormous amount of detail. So, when we went on location and found that house, I couldn’t quite believe that anything existed that was so similar to what I had imagined.
It was such a pleasure exploring Alice’s world and working out what would be in her house. A lot of details were in the script and of course, the production designer starts with the script – and goes to warehouses, to car boot sales, to antique shops, to prop stores – to try and find lots of individual pieces. Our production team – they are responsible for the really fantastic detail that they put together in that house, in order to create a world that had a sense of mystery and folklore but also that hints about Alice’s life in the past, as well as signs of a woman who lived on her own, a woman who is a workaholic and doesn’t have time for things like washing up.
What were you going for with the score? Do you think it was a really important element in nailing the tone of the film that you were looking for?
Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to work with Volker Bertelmann because he can write bright, comic motifs which help to lift sequences and which help the audience to understand that it’s alright to laugh at the beginning, even though it’s a film set in WWII, it’s supposed to be funny in parts. But he also writes incredibly emotionally, he’s in touch with something deeper, he’s a very soul-driven person and he really understands nature, he spends a lot of time outside. He often really experiments with sound as well, for example he puts forks and bits of tubing and all sorts inside his piano, to play around and see what sound it will create. There was something about that, the oddness, as well as the emotion of his music, which I thought was really important to capture in this film – to give it a sense of period but also a modern spin, at the same time.
You managed to assemble, in the supporting cast, some absolute acting legends – so you’ve got Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Sian Phillips – which must have been a dream. How did you go about getting access to them and casting them?
Well they each read the script and obviously found something in it that they personally felt strongly about, in order to agree to do it. With actors of that calibre, you don’t ask them to come in and audition, you send them the script and say “I really hope you like this, would you consider playing this role?” and I feel very lucky that they all agreed to do it. I think that they all had very particular relationships with those characters that they were playing.
Penelope really enjoyed Alice because she is cantankerous but she’s also got a twinkle in her eye and by book-ending this story, she gets the pay-off at the end.
Tom Courtenay is just the most generous and lovely man and has such a good spirit. He spent some time with Gemma and I before we started, to go through the script because he had some ideas for what his character’s backstory might be, so it was a real joy to work with him, putting that together.
And Sian Phillips was brought up in South Wales and remembers the evacuees very well that lived in her village, so it was actually really useful talking to her. She didn’t really have notes about her character, particularly but she had notes for me about other parts of the script. She said “actually I think we would have called the organisation this” or “I’m not sure if that’s what they would have bought in the shops” – tiny details from her own personal experience, so that was a privilege.
Finally, I just want to ask you about collaborating with Gemma Arterton, who I believe you had worked with before. Did you write this role with her in mind?
No I didn’t, I wrote this before we first worked together. We met on Nell Gwynn, a play I wrote which was in the West End and hit it off immediately. We have a similar sense of humour, similar politics and similar ambitions to make our own work. We very quickly fell into a pretty strong friendship with each other and spent a lot of time together. She had heard from somebody that I’d written this script and asked to read it, but it hadn’t crossed her mind that she would be right for Alice at all, because I’d written Alice as an older part originally. But she fell in love with the story and asked if she could be a producer on it, but she didn’t really think about the notion of being cast in it. When she told me how much she loved it and wanted to be involved because she believed in the story, that’s when I thought “hang on, if Alice was a little bit younger, that would make for an even more interesting story, it would be more original and I love working with Gemma.” I had made a short film with her called Leading Lady Parts with a bunch of other actresses and we had such a great time on that, that it was just a no-brainer for me, that it would be wonderful to work with her again, on such a different part to the other two projects that I’d done with her.
Now, we’re actually writing something together, a big TV series, which is a huge departure for her – the part in the television series and for me as well, it’s the most ambitious thing that either of us have ever done, so that’s going to be fun. But I think once you meet people that you enjoy collaborating with, that you can spar with creatively, where you know you can be really honest and challenge the other person, that’s where good ideas spark. We have a shorthand now when we’re working together, so yeah – watch this space!