It was some time during 1991 that Steve Morrison stopped me in a corridor in Granada, Golden Square and said – ‘Look I know you’re going to leave us sometime soon and go on to make a movie and I’d kick myself if I wasn’t involved in some way. Are you working on any ideas at the moment?’ I said I was. Granada now had a film company, set up by Morrison, which had just had great success with the Jim Sheridan movie, ‘My Left Foot’. My second screenplay with Derek Granger for ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’ had just been released so I suppose the timing made sense. Steve asked me to go and see Pippa Cross who was the new head of Granada Film. I went to see her in her cottage in Kent where she was on maternity leave and pitched her a, not as yet fully-formed, idea. It was based on the reaction I witnessed of people in Granada in Manchester when a guy came in with his baby one afternoon. It wasn’t just that they fussed around him, took turns with the baby, but somehow in the eyes of the women, all of whom he knew, he seemed to become different – more responsible, more mature, more attractive even. It was a sketchy pitch but Pippa was delighted and even though I wasn’t commissioned at the time, I took my salary and wrote ‘under the radar’ as Steve put it. It became the movie Jack and Sarah.
It was a frustrating time getting the film together as I was turning stuff down and being the eternal pessimist that I am, I never really thought the movie would actually happen. But it did and in the autumn of 1993 we had a great cast and team. Polygram had come on board to make the movie, thanks to Stewart Till falling in love with the script after Janette Day, a producer on the film, had slipped it to him at a dinner party. It seemed to me that making a movie had to be different from making a two-hour piece of TV – I just wasn’t entirely sure how. So I decided that my editor and DOP (director of photography) had to come to the table with all the experience possible. I managed to enlist Lesley Walker who was Richard Attenborough and Terry Gilliam’s editor and Jean Yves Escoffier the French cinematographer famed for Les Amant du Pont-Neuf. It was one of the happiest periods of my life both professionally and personally. I had two children under the age of two and was making my first film.
Casting babies is one of the most important factors in a movie so heavily reliant on them, like this was. Get it wrong and it can cost you your schedule. With babies a shoot becomes highly regulated and it’s preferable to use twins so you can swap them and continue to film with the time available. We needed two sets of twins, one at about eight weeks, preferably small for their age, and twins around twelve months. We found the smaller ones quite easily and then advertised in the Evening Standard for the older ones. One day my house in Islington was overrun with about twenty sets of twins. Forty, oneyear-olds tearing around laughing crying, generally causing chaos, as Jean Yves filmed them on a video camera and I tried to interact with them. It wasn’t going terribly well, as a lot of them were quite clingy and understandably un-cooperative and noisy (who knew a twelvemonth old doesn’t take direction?). It wasn’t helped by my own twelve-month-old daughter Sophia strolling up to the camera and smiling all the time and wanting to play with me. She was thrilled by the whole thing. Who could blame her? It was like Dad had organised the biggest playdate ever with forty other babies! How cool was that? She was in heaven.
Simon Channing-Williams (Mike Leigh’s producing partner) who was now producing the movie came round at the end of the day, to check out how things had gone. He was a great calming influence on the movie and I think Pippa and I both benefited from his experience. He asked how it had gone. I said pretty awful, but we had the younger twins. You don’t have the older? He asked. I was about to answer in the negative, when this quiet, unassuming, French voice (he was fantastically quietly spoken, Yean-Yves, which was one of his many extraordinary qualities – it completely dictated the atmosphere on set) said – ‘Yes we do. I think so.’ He then showed us on a monitor, footage he’d shot of Sophia wandering around, coming up to me smiling, playing and being, what I obviously knew her to be, at the time – the most beautiful baby in the entire world… SCW didn’t know who she was, was concerned she wasn’t a twin, but thought the footage was fantastic. We should take the risk with just the one baby. I was uncharacteristically quiet. He asked me why, Jean Yves laughed and said ‘It’s his daughter, that’s why and she’s perfect.’ In one moment Jack and Sarah became the most expensive home movie of all time. We were now ready to shoot at the beginning of January 1993 with Richard E Grant, Samantha Mathis, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Eileen Atkins. The most wonderful cast, I was, indeed, a lucky first-time movie director.
I learnt so much from this movie. During prep Jean Yves flew over from Paris to spend two days with me in London. I assumed this meant going through how we were going to shoot the movie, the look etc. But I was wrong, Jean Yves didn’t work like that. We spent two days in the office going through the script page by page, scene by scene, word by word, with him asking me what I meant by certain things. How did I want the audience to feel? We even made some cuts and moved a few scenes round. Lighting wasn’t mentioned once, until I asked him, ‘Do you want to talk about the look of the movie?’ A Gallic shrug, followed by a ‘Non,’ and he went back to Paris. This was all new to me. One of my favourite DOP’s at Granada always read scripts just the once, then worked from the running order and never looked at the script again. This was something quite different. JY told me the look of the movie would evolve, just like everything else.
Jean-Yves was quietly demanding of himself and everyone else, including me. He was immensely supportive and exacting in his standards. This included behaviour. He expected everyone to be as passionate about the project as he was, as I was. The camera crew admired him, but found him demanding – in the right way. But one day in Acton, a Friday, we were lighting an interior sequence. Jean-Yves wanted a light in quite an awkward place, in the ceiling above a stairwell. It was difficult to fix. The electricians had become frustrated at his methods and had started to be a little vocal about it. Instead of learning new ways they were a little stuck in the mud and resistant. The spark trying to fix this paricular light lost his temper and used the ‘C’ word which upset JY. Not for himself, but because the spark was standing right next to an actor, in this case Eileen Atkins. He’d told me previously that he was having a problem with the electricians attitude and at the end of this day he came to me and said he couldn’t work with them anymore and we’d need to find a new crew. By Sunday. I said that was pushing it but I’d speak to SCW. No need JY replied – I’ve sacked them. I couldn’t believe it! But on Sunday he’d got a new crew with a gaffer who was actually a DOP himself, but wanted the chance to learn from JY. He knew all of JY’s movies. It was plain-sailing from then on – well as plain as sailing can be on a movie.
Jean-Yves also operated the camera on the movie, which I found really helpful as a director, as there was only one channel of communication. He was lighting quick in the way he shot – not the way he lit, but the way he shot. He was so certain and deft in his camerawork. It was extraordinary. On the tech recce (or scout as the Americans call it) we came to the exterior of Jack’s house for a scene where he comes to talk to the builder on the roof at the beginning of the movie. Jean Yves asked how I saw it, I explained – Richard enters the front door then we cut onto the roof with him appearing out of the skylight to talk to Niven Boyd. He made notes, then saw me shaking my head slightly. He asked what was wrong. I said it didn’t matter, it just wasn’t the way I wanted to shoot it, but I’d been told I couldn’t get the shot. What I wanted was for Richard to enter the front door then the camera crane up, and over the top of the house to reveal him popping out of the skylight to talk to Niven. All in one shot. But there wasn’t a crane high enough in the UK to achieve it. JY thought for a second then said quietly ‘I know a man in Belgium,’ he turned to SCW and said ‘We’ll do Tim’s shot.’ At lunch in Leadenhall Market he told me I always had to ask for things however difficult they might seem, despite all the arguments posed against them, to achieve the movie I saw in my head and not take no for an answer. It was my job. A couple of weeks later we came to the crane shot. JY’s plan was to get the crane we’d hired in the UK take it off its mount and put it onto Pierre’s crane on the back of his truck. A crane on a crane? It sounded crazy. SCW and I had scheduled a full half-day to get it done. Pierre drove overnight from Belgium and arrived that morning. The UK grips were a little sceptical but worked away with Pierre and were absolutely thrilled when they’d done it. We had two rehearsals and then we shot it with JY operating the camera remotely as Pierre operated the crane. Two takes and it was done. It wasn’t yet ten o’clock.
I like to credit myself with changing the British filmmakers’ attitudes to lighting urban scenes at night on this movie. At the time everyone in the UK seemed to light night with great big cold, blue lights, moonlight I guess. but whenever I went out at night in London, the prevailing colour I saw was sodium. So I told JY that I wanted to light the night exterior scenes yellow, which of course he loved and embraced whole-heartedly. I think the night scenes in the movie look great and it wasn’t long before I noticed a lot of night shoots on TV in the UK being more sodium than cyan. I’m sure someone will call bullshit, but I don’t care, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Having your own baby in a film isn’t as easy as you might think. The Dad in you often gets in the way of director. Sophia was going through a clingy stage which meant that whenever she saw me and I walked away. she’d howl the place down. So I had to be hidden from her when she was needed for a scene. Samantha had become great chums with her though and had taken her to loads of nanny and baby play-groups in north London. She had bonded with the baby brilliantly, but unfortunately Richard just hadn’t had the time to do the same thing. So Sophia was a little wary of him. ‘She hates me,’ he’d say, ‘the baby fucking hates me,’ she didn’t, of course, but by the time we came to shoot one of the pivotal scenes between the two of them, things hadn’t improved much. Weirdly we shot ‘Sarah’s’ first birthday on Sophia’s actual first birthday, which was a funny coincidence – she’d tell people later in life that Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Richard E Grant and Dame Eileen Atkins were all guests at her first birthday party, which is kind of true. Anyway the scene required (bloody writers) Jack to watch the home video footage of her birthday back on his TV, with baby Sarah going up to the screen when she recognises herself, then coming back to the sofa, cuddling up to her father and watching the TV together, as Jack looks at a picture of his late wife on the mantelpiece. Richard thought we should rewrite, Sophia was never going to do it, but for me it was a challenge and we should give it a go. So enormous planning went into the shooting of this scene. A barricade was built for the crew and myself to hide behind. The cameras hidden behind drapes – one on a wide and the spare a reverse on Richard. We all rehearsed what was to happen. It had to happen in silence, no cues, no shouts of ‘action’, no boards. At lunch the crew withdrew and Richard sat down on the sofa on the set while Sophia and her real life nanny appeared and they all had lunch together and played for an hour. The crew and I then quietly reappeared and took up position, all hidden from the baby. One thing I knew about my daughter was that she loved seeing herself on home movies on a TV set and would always walk over to the tv to have a closer look, sometimes touching her image. So the cameras start rolling, the nanny quietly withdraws from set, then the birthday footage starts to play on the other side of the room. Sophia is immediately drawn to it and totters over to have a look. I whispered to Richard – ‘call her back but use her real name’. He did so, ‘Sophia, Sophia, come here,’, she turned and realised he seemed as excited as she was about her being on the TV, so walked over to him and sat next to him on the sofa where she remained cuddled up for about 3 seconds. But that was enough. At the end of the day we then set up a tighter shot of the TV. I knew that she would be happy to see me, her Dad, having not seen me all day. So we ran the footage again. Sophia walked into shot, attracted to herself on the TV again, she touched the screen this time, then I called her name. She turned saw me gave a me a big smile and tottered over. The whole thing cut together beautifully. One of my favourite scenes in the movie – whether that’s just because it reminds me of what we had to do to shoot it, I don’t know.
Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Ian McKellen all arrived on set on the same day for their first scene, together. I was bricking it. I travelled in a car from base to the location with Judi and Ian feeling a bit like a competition winner, not quite believing I was there. I remember thinking to myself ‘I’m in a car with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and they’re in my movie,’ (I’d been really taken with Trevor Nunn’s production all those years before.) We began to shoot a scene in the living room with all three of them, when the bottom fell out of my creative, little movie director world. Judi had the funny line of the scene and it was falling flat on its face. Was it the writing I began thinking to myself? We went for a couple more takes but it still wasn’t working. Then, horror of horrors, I worked out what the problem was. It was a question of emphasis. But what could I do? I wasn’t about to give Judi Dench a line reading. We went for a couple more takes, with that tell-tale sign of a director in trouble – no notes and no credible reason for the repeated takes. Finally after about the sixth, Judi beckoned me over. I knelt beside her and she whispered ‘Do you know what’s wrong with the scene?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Is it something to do with me, because you see, I think it’s something to do with me,’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. Pause. ‘Are you going to tell me what it is?’ she asked politely. I’m pretty sure I screwed my eyes closed as I said, ‘It’s the ‘and’ in the middle of the line. You need to emphasis the ‘and’ then the joke will work.’ ‘Okay,’ she whispered.
We did the take. Perfect. Funny. Thank God. I was about to leave for the next set up when Judi called me back. I knelt down and she said quietly, ‘Much easier if you just tell me, dear,’ and smiled that wicked, mischievous smile. What a joy and a privilege to work with such people. She hadn’t embarrassed me and at the same time given me huge confidence.
We had another scene in a car with Richard and Eileen. Short and, I kind of thought, perfunctory – a necessary bridging scene, if you like. But then Eileen did something with a line that was so extraordinary I thought I couldn’t have written it. It wasn’t how I heard it when I wrote it, but her reading of it simply transcended the writing. It was so simply emotional. So true. As I said to her, she made me look much better than I actually was. This is why working with actors is such a joy. The great ones bring things you never imagined – even when you wrote it.
There are many stories about this movie but I’ll leave it with just one more. It shows, to my mind, where the experience I’d brought into the crew paid off enormously. It concerns my DOP and editor. We were due to film a scene on Primrose Hill with Richard and David Swift playing his father, where Richard’s character cracks and his father holds him and consoles him. I’d chosen the location for the view of London from the hill. They would be sat together on the bench at the top of the hill, with London spread out in front of them. But when we got there it had been snowing, and it was thick fog. I couldn’t believe it. Visibility of about twenty feet, if that. No shot. I sat down with my head in my hands knowing that a reschedule wasn’t possible, then Jean-Yves came over and asked me what the problem was. I told him – no shot. His reply was – ‘Don’t look for the shot you came for, look at what is here, look at the shot you can have. It’s beautiful. The perfect setting for this scene. The movie Gods are smiling on you.’ And he was right. We shot it without the view that, let’s face it, everyone uses, and it was perfect. It was like the fog enveloped them. Gave them privacy. It enhanced the emotional intimacy of the scene.
Now this scene on Primrose Hill was – I can’t be exact – towards the end of the first act of the film, number 35 for the sake of argument, and Lesley Walker, the editor, then added her heft of experience to JY’s. It had been interesting working with her. At the beginning of the cutting process she couldn’t give a hoot about perfect cuts, good performances, continuity all of that stuff. I began to be concerned until she explained that she was trying to find the shape of the movie. The rhythm of the whole, before she got down to all that other stuff. To concentrate on that first, was the wrong way round. Find the shape of the film, then go in and fix the detail – the cuts, different choices of performance. If you did that first, it’s possible you’d never successfully find the shape.
One morning we were going to look at a cut – I firmly believe in the way you don’t tell a DOP how to light a scene, a sound recordist how to record it, you don’t tell a good editor how to cut a movie, you let them do their work, look at it from their detached perspective, and then you refine it – and she told me she’d done something a bit extreme. She wanted me to take a deep breath and not say anything till we’d finished watching. What she’d done was take scene 35 and put it somewhere around scene 90. A good thirty minutes later into the movie. Not where I’d written it at all. And it was brilliant. It’s hard to explain why. I think it worked better because shed taken it out of a run of sad, emotional scenes at the beginning of the movie, where he was mourning the loss of his wife and put it in a place where things were beginning to resolve themselves. This context made it all the more powerful and meaningful. Like it dragged him back to the reality that grief was a long process. It was something I would never have thought of doing and was hugely better being later.