From the Telegraph Weekend Magazine, 17 October 2004

Submitted by Karen

Lavender Blues

Charles's diary on the making of Ladies in Lavender

Towards the end of 2001, I was in Australia acting in a film called Black and White alongside Robert Carlyle and Kerry Fox. One of the books I packed was a volume of short stories by William J Locke called 'Faraway Stories'. (I had 'borrowed' it from a previous shoot in Budapest a couple of years before.) One of them - a poignant tale of two spinster sisters living in Cornwall whose hitherto harmonious existence is disrupted when a Polish castaway is washed ashore - had stuck in my mind as a possible vehicle with which to make my debut as a film director. I had written from time to time, tried adapting stories and writing original screenplays, but none was sufficiently good to take further.

Adelaide. November 2001 I think I could make a film of Ladies in Lavender. Despite its shortness and simplicity of plot - perhaps that's its attraction - it has a wonderful, fairytale quality. It also ends on what David Puttnam, when I asked his opinion on another book years ago, had called a downer. So, how to make it an upper?

I finished the first draft of Ladies in Lavender in August 2002. Throughout the rest of the year, I worked my way through three more drafts, until I felt ready to show it to my producing partner Nick Brown. Over tea on an uncommonly sunny afternoon in the leafy north London suburb of Crouch End, we decided to take my agent's advice that we should ask Nik Powell (who in partnership with Stephen Woolley has produced some of the most notable British films, including Little Voice, The Crying Game and Mona Lisa) to see if he could raise the finance.

It is hard to imagine two more different personalities than Brown and Powell. Brown - inscrutable, precise, a man of few words, deceptively unassuming. Powell - bullish, unkempt, hip, capable of having two telephone conversations at once while reading an e-mail; a social animal who can party till 5am but still be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a 9am breakfast meeting with a potential financier. We met in the chaotic office of his production company Scala in Soho. It was January 2003.

The one constant that had stayed with me since first reading the story was the casting of the two sisters. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were the only candidates. Nik opined that 'with these two it shouldn't be much of a problem raising the finance. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith? They kind of trip off the tongue.' Such optimism! Despite having no clear idea of when shooting would start, or indeed how much we could pay them both, the 'Great Dames' put their faith in my script and my unproven ability as a director and verbally agreed to play the two sisters, Janet and Ursula Widdington. Aside from their legendary talent, they both have more than a little cachet in the market place, and I knew that without their participation Ladies in Lavender would never happen.

With the help of the casting director Sarah Bird I met dozens of possible candidates for Andrea, the gifted young man who has such a devastating effect on the lives of the two sisters. Regrettably none seemed right.

Charles Dance directing Maggie Smith London. June 3, 2003 We're three months away from principal photography - hopefully! Half of me is excited, the other half scared shitless. I saw a photograph of a face that is exactly as I had imagined Andrea should look. It was a still from a Polish film called Wojaczek starring Krzysztof Siwczyk. I went to see Wojaczek at the Barbican and was very impressed both by the film and Mr Siwczyk. However, at the question-and-answer session after the screening I was disappointed to see that the young, dark and beautifully brooding face had matured somewhat since the film was made in 1998 and no longer had that innocence vital to Andrea. Perhaps I should go to Poland.

Monika Braid at the Polish Cultural Centre in London furnished me with s in Warsaw and Krakow, and I took myself off there. If I'd been looking for beautiful young actresses, I'd have been spoilt for choice, but actors? No. Back in London, Nik Powell had returned from the European Film Awards and was full of praise for a German actor, Daniel Brühl. 'He's in Good Bye Lenin!. Go and see it.' I did, and was duly impressed. A meeting was arranged with Daniel for the beginning of the following week. His talent and presence were immediately apparent, as was his willingness to learn to mime some extremely complicated pieces of violin-playing. I offered him the part and left it to Nik to begin negotiations with his agent.

Despite Nik's tenacious efforts in bringing our various financiers together, we were nowhere near being green-lit - which would mean that the money's in the bank, everything necessary to make the film is in place, and barring a major catastrophe it will happen. (A question I often asked myself during this 'amber' period was, why is it that the UK Film Council's participation in a film's production brings with it so many more demands than are being made by any of the other investors? The answer is that they are investing public money in what is an extremely risky business.) Deals with any of the people who had verbally agreed to come on board at this stage depended for the most part on a lot of good faith and a word that should only be used with due caution - trust. Aside from securing the services ofthe cast, locations had to be found, and heads of all the other departments had to be recruited. There was also the problem of finding enough hotel rooms in Cornwall in late summer for a cast and crew of about 60. Not easy when hoteliers understandably want some kind of deposit even for a tentative booking.

London. June 14, 2003 Had another of 'those meetings' with Nik Powell.
'Nik, we need some money.'
'We haven't got any. We will have, but not now. Anyway there's no rush.'
'But Nik...'
'Look, we gotta get the cast on board first.'
'Yes, but Nik, without dates and no knowledge of how much money we've got we can't!'
'Trust me, Charles!'
Oh dear. I wish he hadn't said that. Actors of the calibre of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, and by now the irrepressible Miriam Margolyes, are in great demand and they are not going to wait around forever.

Various other vital elements of the crew had to be recruited, not least a director of photography, but like all the other department heads and the principal actors, it had to be someone who would be approved ofby the assorted financiers.

I had long admired the work of Peter Biziou, but tracking him down was not easy. He's like an old badger, when not working he goes to ground, somewhere in France. However, his agent passed on a message from me asking him to call. He did so, I got the script to him, he read it and liked it, and a meeting was arranged. Over dinner at his local restaurant, Biziou left me in no doubt that he would produce the visual appearance that I wanted for the film. Like so many other people, he agreed to join us with little or no guarantees. With a little money that Nik Powell had persuaded one of our financiers to loan us we were able to do our first recce in Cornwall.

The location we found, near Penzance, had everything. Cottage, beach, cliffs, the lot. We could sit there for a large part ofthe shoot, thereby saving time and money. There would be logistical problems about getting people and equipment up and down from the cottage to the beach, but like all our other problems they would be solved - they would have to be.

London. July 10, 2003 Took this evening off for a party at Hilary Heath's (producer, friend, and the ex-wife of Duncan Heath, head of my London agent ICM). As ever, a good crowd of the usual suspects were there, all of whom seemed to know more about the preparations for my film than I did. Alan Rickman sidled up to me at one point and in that languid drawl of his said, 'Charles, I hear you're going to direct a film.'
'I'm trying to, Alan,' I replied.
'Let me give you a piece of advice.' I hadn't asked for any, but let him proffer it nevertheless: 'Have a party halfway through the shoot. It's good for company morale.' There was I thinking I was about to hear something profoundly clarifying about the relative merits of geared heads or his preference for a particular size of lens. Bless him. Of course I'll have a party.

Until now, Nick Brown and I had been working from our respective homes with the occasional meeting at Nik Powell's office. Now that Caroline Amies and her art department had come on board we desperately needed an ofhce.

London. July 21, 2003 Today we took possession of our (temporary I hope) less than salubrious offices, above a WH Smith distribution depot between Shepherd's Bush and Notting Hill.

Having had an answer from the Film Council that the remaining 25 per cent of our production finance was going to be ours 'next week', Nik Powell was prepared to take receipt of a little more preproduction finance. The rent has to be paid somehow, as do the hire charges for office equipment, not to mention some people's wages. Last week was a nightmare. If one more person says to me 'we'll know tomorrow' (the answer to almost every question to do with this film) I'll thump them. There is still a risk - no green light yet - but the consensus is that it is a risk we can handle. I hope so. Spoke to Judi - she's in Vancouver gracing Vin Diesel's latest fllm. I suspect that what she's being paid for that could finance this film in total - and still leave some change. Maggie's in Venice for a badly needed holiday so hopefully she'll return raring to go. What would I do without them?

Another hurdle appeared today in the shape of the Film Council's script doctor, one Brock Norman Brock, or plain Brock for short. Nik P has informed me that before the Film Council will greenlight us they would like one or two amendments made to the the script. 'Why?'
'Oh, nothing too major. We just need to be a bit clearer in the stage directions.'
'But Nik, I don't want or need to spell out characters' intentions or motives for actors of the calibre that we have in this film. I've deliberately underwritten both the directions and the dialogue to give the actors as much freedom as possible.'
'Yeah, well, this is not for the actors, Charles, this is for the Film Council and if it's not on the page they can't visualise it on the screen.'
'OK. Nik. So perhaps you'd like to tell me exactly what needs doing and I'll get on with it. When do they want it by?'
'If you could get it done by tomorrow that'd be great - but don't bust a gut over it. I'll send you Brock's e-mail.'

Dance having lunch on set There then followed a lengthy e-mail correspondence with Nik Powell as a go-between. Robert Jones of the UK Film Council (who like all of our proposed financiers was a potential executive producer) was on holiday, but Brock apparently was able to approve any changes in his absence. We had still to cast the remaining principal characters - with 'approved' actors.

I had bumped into David Warner at the Festival Hall a couple of months earlier but it had been too brief a meeting to talk about Ladies in Lavender. If he was available, and wanted to do it, getting 'the Hamlet of his generation' to play the supporting role of Dr Mead would be a coup indeed. On receipt of the script he rang me to say he would love to join us, but was worried about driving the period car. I told him to start lessons immediately and that we would pay. I didn't tell him we had no money. Five down, one to go.

I sent Natascha McElhone the script in the hope that she would be interested in playing Olga (the mysterious 'other woman' with whom the two spinsters must compete for Andrea's attentions). She rang me and was very complimentary but didn't see what she could bring to it. 'Apart from your talent and your beauty?' She demurred in the face of such blatant schmoozing. I even came clean about the lack of money.

Sisters Janet and Ursula (Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) with Olga (Natascha McElhone)
To my astonishment there was some doubt as to whether either of these two actors would be approved. Meanwhile, Sarah Bird, the casting director, was ing the other actors I had in mind for the remaining supporting roles. The great Freddie Jones rang me on receipt of the script to say, 'Piss-poor part, but I'll do it because I'm in love with Judi Dench.'

I was continuing to re-work scenes without the need for persuasion from anyone else, but I really didn't see the need for some of the major additions that Brock or Robert Jones were apparently insisting on. Especially as they would involve extra expenditure from a minimal budget that they would shortly be demanding should be reduced. With no hope of getting any more money from other sources it seemed a strange way to be helping us.

London. Saturday, July 27, 2003 Have received four pages of notes from Brock. They came as a shock, as did Nik Powell's covering letter that my agreeing to some if not all of the suggestions was yet another condition for the Film Council's long-awaited green light. What Brock is now suggesting would make Ladies in Lavender a completely different film. Surprisingly, he says that he preferred my original ending. It's becoming very clear that despite knowing how impossible it is to please all the people all the time, attempting to do so is a continual burden. I wish I knew more about the business of filmmaking. As it is, I have to take so much of what Nik says as verbatim. Surely there must be a better way of raising finance that doesn't take us so dangerously close to the wire.

July 31, 2003 Nik called suggesting amendments to my latest response to Brock's notes. 'Change the word "wary',' Nik advised, 'I don't like the word "wary". And what about Olga having a conversation with Andrea along the lines of "How are things in Poland etc..." so that we can learn about his back story.' I told him that was called exposition, and that I had successfully avoided that all the way through the script and I wasn't going to resort to it now.

I'm beginning to think that Nik could succeed Alastair Campbell as the government's spin doctor. On the subject of doctors, I asked Nik about Brock Norman Brock. 'Well, he's intelligent - I quite like him. He's apparently an authority on the 100 greatest pop tunes and can play 'em all on his electronic. keyboard. I think he's also a contributing editor to the Erotic Review.'
'Ably qualified to hold such an exalted position at the UK Film Council then,' I replied.

Christ, I'm pissed off. Every day we hear of another condition that has to be met before they will greenlight us. I should be getting on with producing a shooting script instead of trying to come up with script changes that I neither like nor think the piece needs, purely to satisfy whoever. Why can't Nik Powell and my agents fight for us on the aesthetic front as well as for the money?

Last night, by way of light relief, I was the guest on Graham Norton's show. He's outrageously camp and seemingly without any nerves. It was great fun and gave me a chance to plug the show and have something of a break from the all the stress.

Further exchanges of notes and responses between Brock and myself via Nik Powell continued to take up most of my time. They had become quite ludicrous. Having secured Natascha McElhone's services, the focus of the script changes now seemed to be about ensuring that we capitalise as much as possible on her beauty and sex appeal. It was apparently not enough to describe her character as 'strikingly attractive', I should also have been describing how sexy her apparel was. I replied that as the first time we really see her in all her glory she has been riding a bicycle, she is hardly likely to have been wearing anything seductively revealing. However, not wanting to be seen to be difficult I changed the direction 'She gets on her bicycle and rides off down the lane' to 'She hitches up her skirt and rides off down the lane.' (Come the day of the scene, the costumer designer Barbara Kidd had dressed her in a pair of beautifully cut trousers. Well done, Barbara!)

The notes continued in this facile vein: 'When she touches him on the arm, could she touch him flirtatiously on the arm?' 'Could the silk dressing gown she's wearing in scene 75 be loosely tied?' In an attempt to put an end to all this buggering about, I insisted that Brock and I meet personally, no more 'go-betweening' with Nik. Before that, another recce had to be done in Cornwall.

Cadgwith, Cornwall. August 6-8, 2003 Good day at the Widdingtons' cottage location. Supper at the excellent Summer House. Pity they can't put us up for the shoot. If we had the money to offer them a holding deposit they might have been able to. Met one Nigel Legg, who seems to be Mr Fixit for everything we might need in the village. It will make a perfect Trevannic (Locke's fictional village). Suggest we rise early enough to see the cove at its low-water mark. We're going to have to be so organised when it comes to shooting on the beach - our low-tide working time is about two and a half hours.

Judi Dench has her make-up done while discussing a forthcoming scene with Charles Dance. London. August 9, 2003 Still no sign of our green light. I wouldn't mind betting we won't hear till next Monday. Difficult to know who to believe. Nik keeps his cards pretty close to his chest at the best of times and he's away at yet another film festival. He seems to be doing a valedictory tour of all the festivals before assuming his post as director of the National Film and Television School.

August 11, 2003 Our space at Ealing Studios has been lost, apparently due to an administrative error. Shepperton is full, and Pinewood has only a small cramped stage to offer us. Despite the degree of compromise that Biziou and Caroline Amies say it will impose on us, it'll have to do. Yet another hurdle appeared shortly afterwards. Apparently - I can't emphasise that word enough - the Film Council was unhappy with the financial structure being put together by Nik powell, and now offered us nearly �300,000 less than we had budgeted for.

London. August 14, 2003 Joined Maggie and Judi for their fittings at the costumiers Cosprop. They are both so easy and undemanding. I have worked with far less talented people in my time whose involvement in a project brings with it such costly and time-consuming demands that they leave a trail of nervous breakdowns in their wake. They have no idea what's going on in the production office, nor will they. Had a calm, quiet supper at the Chelsea Arts Club, with the delightful Michael Parker. He's a great editor, from whom I know I will learn a colossal amount.

August 15, 2003 Today we moved into proper offices at Pinewood Studios - and I've got a named parking space! Heady stuff.

August 24, 2003 More polishing and honing of the script. I guess I'm trying to pre-empt my forthcoming tutorial with Dr Brock. Went to Twickenham with my family to see the Rolling Stones. Fantastic! Jumpin' Jack Flash was a gas gas gas! God, I needed that.

August 28, 2003 Today I finally met Brock Norman Brock. At the appointed hour, there was a knock on my office door and there standing before me in neo-Victorian dress and sporting a lavish facial hair arrangement that resembled a young Benjamin Disraeli was my nemesis of the past few weeks. Despite this rather theatrical appearance, he proved to be reason itself. During the course of our meeting it became abundantly clear how misleading Nik's information about the Film Council's demands had been, and how very different their working methods were to Nik's modus operandi!

Went to Nigel Hess's place to listen to some of the score. He's written some terrific music, and it looks like we're going to be able to get not only the massed ranks of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at a knock-down price, but also the great Joshua Bell to play all the violin stuff for the soundtrack.

When I got back to the office I detected a more anxious atmosphere than usual. We had sufficient cash to pay people for only one more week, and with no clear sign that we were going to get any more we were legally obliged to give everyone notice on Friday of that week. Nick e-mailed Nik stressing the urgency of the situation. Eventually we got a reply. The Film Council were perhaps prepared to green-light us, but only on the condition that we shave another few thousand off the budget. They also insisted that in view of Nik Powell's imminent departure for the green pastures of the NFTS we had to find a replacement - and one that they would approve of.

London. August 29, 2003 Why are they shafting us? And in stages! We now have a pretty clear choice. Either we make it for what's on offer or we don't make it at all. No choice, we make it.

Cornwall. September 2, 2003 In Cornwall for the technical recce - 17 days' filming to be discussed in detail in two days. Poor Mary Soan (first assistant director) has had so little preparation time and is eager to get as much information out of me as I can give her. But some of her questions I simply cannot answer. Such as, 'Where do you want the sea for this scene?' What am I, King Canute? September 14 D-Day minus one. Liz Karlsen has joined the team and is proving to be a more than suitable replacement for Nik. Extras are being fitted for their costumes and Fae Hammond and her make-up department were nervously awaiting the arrival of the Great Dames. Judi arrived at about 2.30 and put everyone (including me) at their ease. Maggie got there a few minutes later and despite a horrendous drive down from Sussex was in good humour. In fact they were both rather skittish. My son Oliver was, I'm sure, very nervous. This is his first job as a runner, and everyone tells me he's doing fine. He's obviously under a lot of pressure - I'm so proud of him. Tomorrow we go over the top!

September 15 Bloody hell - we've made it. Adelaide to Cornwall in 18 months. I expected the clapping of the first slate to be a momentous occasion with congratulatory handshakes but it passed almost unnoticed. Despite the number of films I've acted in, the skill and ingenuity of designers never ceases to amaze me. Caroline and her team repainted and dressed a cluttered and quite ordinary local ironmongery to give us an utterly convincing Penhaligon and Hallett, our gentleman's outfitters. As usual, the novelty of having a film circus come to town attracted quite a crowd of intrigued onlookers. I wonder if they still think it's a glamorous profession? Seeing the Great Dames quietly giving another demonstration of why they're held in such high regard probably convinced them it is.

September 30 At about l0 this morning Nick sidled up to me by the monitor. He greeted me with the weakest of smiles. 'Hi, Nick,' I said. 'Hi, Charlie,' he replied. I asked him what was wrong. He said. 'You don't want to know.' 'On the contrary' I replied. 'If you're going to stand next to me with the look of a man who's lost all love of life, I want to know why.'

It couldn't have been worse. Apparently there is insufficient money in the bank to pay the crew, and unless that money was forthcoming by noon the shoot would stop. I asked him how long this situation had been going on. 'Quite a while - 'cos you know we're still not officially green-lit.' I didn't know. Nick had, as ever, kept news like this from me, rightly believing that with everything else I had to do, to think about how to get round this was something I could well do without. 'So what are we going to do, Nick?'

The German actor Daniel Brühl, who plays Andrea, had to learn to mime complicated violin playing During this crisis meeting I could see Liz Karlsen standing dangerously close to the edge of a cliff - not, as I rather bleakly thought, contemplating suicide, but merely trying to get a good signal for her mobile phone conversation with Robert Jones at the Film Council. Apparently Nik Powell's ploy of bringing in our sales agents as added investors to the film had failed. The conditions that they were now demanding were unacceptable to the other investors, and unless one of them was prepared to put in a lot more money, we would suffer a fate shared by so many films of late. We were about to be aborted.

Liz was now trying to find a way to salvage the situation. lt was still only 10 o'clock, so we moved the set up to a nearby field and continued shooting. At about l1, Liz came running down to the monitor waving her mobile phone, and while not exactly squealing with joy was at least wearing the happiest countenance I'd seen her wear for some considerable time. She handed me her phone and bade me listen to Robert Jones. He had the best possible news, which was confirmed by fax later that day:

'The UK Film Council has this morning taken the decision to almost double its investment in Ladies in Lavender in order that an acceptable financial structure can be agreed and successfully concluded. Whilst we are far from comfortable with this situation we appreciate that the responsibility to the crew and artists is paramount at this time.
'We would like to thank you for your forbearance and trust that you will give us every assistance in closing this transaction speedily whilst the UKFC remains at risk.
'We would also like to congratulate you all on the rushes received so far and would like to wish you all a successful completion to the production.'

'Ladies in Lavender' opens on November 12

� 2004 Charles Dance for The Telegraph

Back to The Archive