I need a love story. Whatever the film, I don’t
know how to tell the story unless there’s something emotional
happening at the center of it all. It doesn’t have to be boy-girl,
it could be any combination; young man/old man (Thunderheart), or
girl/mountain gorilla (Gorillas in the Mist). I remember when
we were editing Coal Miner’s Daughter, that despite all
the music and color, whenever we took our eyes off the central love
story between Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones, the movie came unstuck.
Amazing Grace came to me as a bio-pic about a God-fearing man,
William Wilberforce, who wanted to make the world a better place. He
became obsessed with the horrors of the slave trade between Africa and
the New World and it became his destiny to destroy it. He took on the
British Government, the powerful Sugar Industry (on which most of the
United Kingdom’s wealth depended), and the King. Steven Knight
(the screenwriter) and I stayed with the central idea, but rather than
make it a portrait of the man, we made it about the politics—the
horse trading, the cut and thrust, and the backroom coalitions that
are at the heart of political action.
Our story is about using the power of politics to do good things, to
make life better, a notion that hardly resonates in modern times. But
as we started to figure out all the intricacies of the plot, I realized
that I didn’t have my love story. There was a girl but she came
into the story in the third act so that wouldn’t do. There was
also a deep and complex friendship that Wilberforce had with another
young political icon (William Pitt), but somehow you couldn’t
hang the whole story on that. So if the girl wouldn’t come to
the story, then the story had to go to the girl. We developed a totally
new structure to tell the anti–slave trade story within the framework
of Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) and Barbara’s (Romola Garai) whirlwind
courtship and marriage.
It gave us a lot of advantages. It freed us from the bane of bio-pics—linear
storytelling, so we were able to cherry-pick our history. In Wilby’s
telling of his early successes and disappointments, we could compress
the action and dump great chunks of dead time without disturbing the
rhythm of the story.The emotion of the courtship added heart and soul
to the political storytelling.
It also gave us some headaches. Once you start messing with time, to-ing
and fro-ing between the past and the present, it can create difficulties
for the audience. It gets hard to figure out where you are, and although
it’s a 101 rule of filmmaking to be ahead of the audience and
not play catch up, you don’t want to lose them by creating confusion.
Each time-change has to be carefully signposted and then the creating
of parallel worlds works well. It’s the sort of thing that film
does brilliantly. As a novice documentarian, I’ll never forget
watching Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’ haunting “then
and now” vision of the Holocaust death camps. In a 30-minute short,
he created as much emotion and power about the subject as I’ve
One drawback of the device is that it positively invites criticism.
Like, wouldn’t Barbara already know the story she’s being
told? Well maybe, but perhaps she’d like to hear it from the Man
The other love story in the movie, between the young political meteors
Wilby and William Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister at the age of 24!),
dramatizes the great personal cost of the shifting political sands.
Never overtly sexual, Ioan and Benedict Cumberbatch (Pitt) played it
for all the emotional nuance they could muster. As the battle to destroy
the slave trade unfolds and the stakes escalate, the tensions between
the dogged and uncompromising Wilby and the pragmatic Pitt send the
relationship into a tailspin. The political divisions between them and
their ultimate reconciliation, when placed into an emotional context,
puts meat on the bones of the story.
Politics of any period can be tricky territory for movies, so all the
more reason to be mindful of the words of Oscar Wilde, “without
love there is no understanding.”