The White Crow screenwriter, David Hare, on working with Ralph Fiennes – and meeting Nureyev

Film, TV, theatre – David Hare’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt and probably worn out a few of them. From starting out as a playwright in the 70s, moving swiftly onto TV in the same decade and then into films in the mid-80s, he’s directed as well as written, becoming one of the highest profile Brits in the entertainment business with a glittering collection of awards and nominations to show for it. So far – because those screenplays keep coming, the latest being for The White Crow, which is released in cinemas on Friday.

The story of the early years of the international ballet superstar, Rudolph Nureyev, it traces his upbringing in rural Russia through to his student days in Leningrad and then his early taste of fame with the Kirov Ballet, culminating in the biggest decision of his life – to defect to the West when the company was on a visit to Paris. Hare believes the story is just as much about now as it is about the 1960s. He observes that, as well as The White Crow, both Cold War and Never Look Away look at the same issue. “They’re all about the same thing, people who can never be happy in the East, which is behind the Iron Curtain, but on the other hand they’re not going to be happy in the West because they’re not at home. I think it’s become a theme that people are beginning to think about. It was a time when the world was divided by solid borders and perhaps [now] it’s a time when borders seem to be going up again. Walls are being built and divisions between countries are getting greater.”

The Rudolph Nureyev portrayed in the film is far from stardom, although his defection to the West marks the start of that transition. His name and reputation, both as a dancer and as a person, have endured for many reasons. “A journalist today told me that he shouted out in his newsroom ‘name five ballet dancers’ and everybody named Nureyev first,” comments Hare. “His is the first name that comes up and it’s hard to remember anybody who’s had such command of an art form as Nureyev had for those 20 or 30 years when he was dancing.

“There were also the years when he became a monster when people were used to the idea and expected him to play up to his own selfishness.” Hare saw some of this at first hand. As a student, he would visit his best friend, whose mother was Russian. “Nureyev used to go and stay there at weekends because he liked to relax among other Russians and so, if I was there at a weekend, Nureyev would often be there. By then he was extremely famous, and extremely demanding and there was absolutely nobody in the household who was not devoted to his welfare, to how he was feeling – how are you? are you hot? are you cold? are you hungry? are you feeling OK? have you got enough cushions? So it was just non-stop service of Nureyev. And he expected that.”

The White Crow isn’t the first time Hare’s worked with Ralph Fiennes, although this time the roles have changed, with Fiennes directing – as well as having a small but pivotal role in the movie – and Hare wondered what to expect of him as a director. He found him “very, very collaborative. He wants your contribution, he wants your ideas, he wants the cameraman’s ideas, he wants the editor’s ideas, he wants the designer’s ideas, he listens to everyone. He’s obsessed with authenticity – the furniture inside the Pushkins’ apartment is copied from the real furniture – and everything about it is as authentic as he can possibly make it. So he’s very demanding about that, but he’s also unbelievably open.”

Hare believes that Fiennes’ decision to cast a dancer, instead of a high profile actor, in the role of Nureyev, is another illustration of this. Oleg Ivenko has never acted before and it was “a very bold choice. The financiers weren’t thrilled with it, but we kept saying that the best film ever made about ballet was The Red Shoes and one of the reasons The Red Shoes is so wonderful is that Moira Shearer was a ballet dancer who was doing some acting. And you’ve got to do it that way round. Actors don’t just walk or look or move like dancers.”

Hare returns to the television for his next project, although he’s reluctant to reveal any details. All he would say was that it’s a TV series for the BBC and it’s called Road Kill. We’ll just have to wait……

David Hare was talking to Freda Cooper.

The White Crow is released in cinemas on Friday, 22 March.

Read our review of the film here.

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