Have you ever worked on a Jane Austen adaptation before?
BILL NIGHY: No, I’ve never been approached. The nearest I ever got was a Trollope. I did a Trollope on the telly which was called He Knew He Was Right, in which I played a love rat. Not my first or last love rat. Probably my last now! But there was a time when I had a nice line in love rats – lanky, shabby men who were a nuisance around women. But I have no relationship with Jane Austen whatsoever, in that I’ve never read any of the books, including Emma. I’ve never seen any of the films or any of the TV adaptations. Not for any particular reason, but that’s just how it fell out. And when I was approached about this, I wasn’t entirely certain because of the language. I fear the archaic language will persuade me into a kind of performance that I don’t like in myself. And I’m not immune to that. It’s like Shakespeare; I don’t do many Shakespeare for various reasons, not least because of that. I fear those conventions which are in place. And they’re in my head as much as they’re in anybody else’s. But then I met Autumn de Wilde and Eleanor Catton. We didn’t shoot a Jane Austen script; we shot an Eleanor Catton – the Booker Prize-winning novelist – script. And she is hilarious and one of the nicest people and incredibly clever, as is Autumn. But my first contact with the project was with Autumn de Wilde. She was so remarkable and different. The way she spoke about the film was very exciting. She comes from California. People say, ‘Oh it’s good that someone from overseas is, geographically, bringing fresh eyes to it’, which I think probably is true. I don’t know. I didn’t take the job because Autumn de Wilde comes from California. But she seemed to be much cleverer than I am, and she seemed to be quite wise about people and very keen on what Americans call ‘screwball comedy’. And also she’s just a very impressive person. I think you’ll see a lot of Autumn de Wilde films. I think she’s going to enter the language, I really do. She’s very eminent as a photographer. She has several books out, she’s done music videos with Beck, Jack White, Ryan Adams, Elliott Smith, Florence + The Machine. If you want to check out her video with Florence + The Machine, it’s very impressive. She’s very experienced, it just happens to be her first film. But I’ve worked with lots of first-time directors.
So Eleanor was around for you to speak with? That’s not always the case with writers…
B.N.: No. We were lucky. We would sit in Autumn’s flat and they would work out things for me to say, and it was very, very funny. They’re very funny. And they used to make each other laugh a lot. They’re both just wonderful people. They’re nice people. Good people. Smart and very funny. I enjoyed those sessions so much.
Did you then lose your initial fears?
B.N.: No, I wish I could say that! I lost some of my fears, but not my basic fear, that I would find speaking the language quite tricky. That took a little while. I don’t know if I ever got over that, but you hope for the best.
Were you given lessons in how to be an early 18th Century gentleman?
B.N.: I think there was a kind of boot camp for that! But I was working, and I came late, so they’d all done that by the time I got there. But on set, there was a dialect coach specifically for this kind of period. Autumn was very keen to be faithful to the period. There was no modernising of the dialogue. I very much adhere to whatever is written on the page. And also if you broke some period rule, in terms of etiquette, there was someone there to tell you otherwise. How to sit in a chair or how to behave around a woman
– what things you might do in the presence of woman, what things you wouldn’t do in the presence of a woman. Those things. Most of them you know, but there was always something you didn't quite know. We honoured the behaviour of the times.
How did you view Mr. Woodhouse’s relationship with Emma, his daughter?
B.N.: It did occur to me…he’s a valetudinarian, amongst other things. That is specified. There is not a lot of information about him, other than he’s been a single parent for what seems to be like a very long time. So he’s a valetudinarian, which is someone who is obsessively concerned with other people’s health, as opposed to a hypochondriac, who is obsessively concerned with his own. So that would indicate that he had what we would now call ‘control issues’. He does like to control the environment, which he can to a large degree be forgiven for, because if you did catch a cold or the flu in those days, it could as likely kill you as not. People died all the time. Babies died and women died in childbirth. But I do think in terms of his relationship with his daughter, it’s interesting. When he sees her getting into trouble, in terms of her control issues – in other words, matchmaking and trying to manipulate the people around her – and then the little bit of cruelty that she inadvertently exhibits during the picnic, when she comes a real cropper…he has compassion for her. And I think it’s informed by the fact that he is no stranger to the struggle that she’s got with her controlling impulses.
It’s a wonderful cast. Would you like to think it might bring in younger viewers?
B.N.: Yeah, I do. Whenever I’ve done a period piece, which isn’t very often, as I’ve discussed, I’ve always put on the front page, ‘This is not a period piece’. Which is an obvious remark. But it’s no good to me. It’s of no value to me that the story and the characters – which don’t obviously exist – apparently all happened 200 years ago. That’s of no use to me. Because I’m going to be working in the moment. Similarly with this…it’s not an account of something that's happened a long time ago. It happens as the film happens. That might be semantics, but I don’t think so. It is modern, because everything is modern, in terms of people’s behaviour. In other words, they are timeless, I suppose is the word I’m trying to avoid! And the performances…Johnny and Anya are the principal players, they don’t do it in inverted commas. It’s not done as if we are referring to a time long ago, and in that way, it’s current, it’s modern. I love the fact that I would think, most of the audience won’t have seen these people, the actors, before. Or if they have they’ll have seen them in something very, very different.
People like Johnny Flynn bring a bit of rock’n’roll swagger to their roles, which also extends to Autumn…
B.N.: Yeah, she’s got that going on! She is a romantic – I think she would not mind me saying that. And she knows about romance. She knows what’s passionate, what’s desirable. And I really do think it’s different. It’s not quite what you’d expect, although as I say, it’s very faithful to the behaviour and etiquette of the times. The production design and costume design is a good example. It feels modern and yet it’s absolutely faithful to the period. It’s absolutely accurate. A lot of the times they film in houses that haven’t been touched for years and they haven’t got the money to do them up, whereas we had the money! They had incredible colours in the houses, which came as a shock to me. My
experience was the stately homes were all very dark.
What was it like when you did step on set? What was the atmosphere like? Did you all get on well?
B.N.: Yeah, honestly. I know everybody always says this, but it was one of the nicest jobs I’ve ever had. And the cast are adorable, and we had a really good laugh. There was always a piano on set. The incredible Amber Anderson, who is not only a wonderful actor and also played all that music herself – she’s concert-level as a pianist. She’s incredibly gifted. She could play at that level. There was always a piano there. So Johnny, who is also a musician, was always on the piano, and Angus and Edward, who played my footmen, were very, very good value. They would make up songs all day. So there are videos, all pertaining to the script and narrative. Every character, they all got different songs, and they’re very witty and very funny. We had a laugh. Everyone knew they were onto something. The producers were exemplary, so everyone was looked after. It was spring, a beautiful spring, and we were in southern England…
Did you sing yourself?
B.N.: There might’ve been a bit of that, I think. I hope it’s not on video. We had a laugh!
Where did you shoot on Emma?
B.N.: The locations were all around Gloucestershire, Sussex, all around there. And there were lots of horses and carriages – it was a great experience.
What was it like to work with Anya?
B.N.: She’s absolutely dreamy. Completely exemplary. Really. She’s incredibly gifted. She’s got about five movies coming out. You’re really going to be hearing from Anya Taylor-Joy. I feel it’s not my place to specify. When people say, ‘Do you have any advice?’…someone like Anya or Johnny, they don’t need any advice from me. She’s a considerable performer. She’s going to really be somebody and working with her was entirely pleasurable and desirable. All her preparation takes place elsewhere. When you’re working with her, she’s very, very bright. She’d obviously studied…maybe it’s instinctive. Who knows, who cares? But she was absolutely aware of the story moment by moment. They usually put the word fiercely in front of intelligent. I’m going to try and resist it. But she’s just very, very clever.
Do you think you might make more period films now after this experience?
B.N.: I think I’m probably back to square one! But you don’t know, you never say ‘no’. There’s always something that surprises you. So it’s possible.
You have done Heidi: Queen of the Mountain, so that is a period story, right?
B.N.: That’s true, I have done that. That’s a period piece. I’ve just done a Seventies movie, Minamata, with Johnny Depp. That was really lovely. We were in Belgrade. I love my job…
because I don’t know I’d ever make my way to Belgrade unless I was working there, and it was very pleasant to be there.