From the Telegraph Weekend Magazine, 17 October 2004
Submitted by Karen
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.
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.'
'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
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
'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.'
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.
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
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
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.
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?'
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