It’s an enviable portfolio. Artistic director of the National Theatre, a TV BAFTA, an Oscar winning film ….. the list goes on, but Richard Eyre would be the first to admit that, ultimately, his natural habitat is the theatre. But his clutch of distinguished movies – Iris, Notes On A Scandal – demonstrate he’s not confined himself to the stage. If anything, the two complement each other, as his latest film, The Children Act, illustrates. And his years in the theatre have influenced his approach to directing.
“There’s something about the theatre that’s a surrogate family,” he reflects. “Every time you do a piece of work in the theatre you’re getting a group of people in a room, you’re choosing the group you want to work with and you’re making a social unit out of them. You’re trying to make the healthiest possible unit so that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. And you don’t necessarily get that with film.
“Overnight I became a TV producer for the BBC and, because I’d been a director, I thought I want to make films, I’ve always loved watching films. And I thought it such an enviable and fascinating possibility that I could make films, but I was pulled back to run the National Theatre and only came back when I made Iris. Theatre and films are so different. The vocabulary and syntax of film making is so utterly different from theatre except for the fact that in both media you’re working with actors and telling stories.”
His theatre approach to working with actors has translated wholesale to his movies, especially The Children Act where he spent a great deal of time talking with both Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci who play a husband and wife in crisis. “We sat around talking,” he recalls. “I love to spend time with the actors just before shooting so we sat in a room and talked and read the script. Some film directors hate rehearsals, they don’t very much like actors and don’t want to talk about it. Their approach is to just do it and then do another take.
“I think that’s a misunderstanding of the actor’s job, which is to be spontaneous but simulate spontaneity, fake it. You don’t want them to make it all up on the spot. They have to be informed, know what the choices are and then something else utterly unexpected will emerge, but they need to have a sense of the landscape of the character. So we’d talk about what they do, where they go to dinner, who does the cooking. It’s a way of getting to know characters so that when you come on set you’re familiar with their world.”
Eyre is full of praise for his cast – Thompson, Tucci and Fionn Whitehead, who plays the teenager at the centre of the story and who only made his big screen debut last year in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Yet, with himself in the director’s chair, a script by Ian McEwan and a glittering cast, he still found it difficult to get the film off the ground. “It wouldn’t have been made without them,” he says, frankly. “It’s so hard now to get an independent film – and a grown up film – made generally, not just in this country. It’s very hard for films to get their money back, unless they have a massive advertising budget, which is why a small film can’t spend a lot on marketing. That’s why it’s wonderful when the likes of Moonlight or Manchester By The Sea get traction and recognition. Without Emma and Stanley the film absolutely wouldn’t have got made and it’s slightly scary because it means that one person in the world – Emma – has everything pretty much on her shoulders. She was our first choice for the role and our only choice.”
He also pays tribute to the man who inspired the novel, the film’s legal advisor Alan Ward. Having given Ian McEwan the original idea, he then provided Eyre and his team with the access they needed to the legal profession. It took them behind the scenes, a place full of ritual and tradition where only the judges and their clerks can walk on the resplendent red carpets. The film also shows the public face of Thompson’s judge, presiding over the family court. He may be away from the theatre for this film, but Eyre knows full well that its setting is about as theatrical as it gets.
Richard Eyre was talking to Freda Cooper.
The Children Act is released in cinemas on Friday, 24 August.
Read our review of the film here.