My first day as a film director was starting to unravel. I’d
planned to open with a cricket scene, a perfect image, reflecting the
perfect life that the hero thinks he is living. He is quite wrong as
it happens but he believes it and so we must see it. I’d chosen
a beautiful house in a lovely setting to demonstrate all this perfection
and we repaired to our hotel to await the morning when I would begin
my new career.
Nervous and exhilarated, I logged on to the internet to learn tomorrow’s
weather. Slowly the image materialised before my eyes, a large black
cloud showering thick drops of rain. A red, jagged piece of lightning,
carefully drawn at its centre, slashed across the grey sky. I stared
at the screen in complete silence for about five minutes. Then I prayed.
Few mortals have prayed so fervently. In the event, God, perhaps through
the influence of my late mother, took pity on me. Despite the forecasts,
the day dawned bright, the cricketers played their game beneath the
shining English sun and I was able to breathe normally again.
What interested me about the novel on which Separate Lies
is based are its themes of choice and doubt. In the last analysis, we
must try to make films we want to see and I am always uncomfortable
with an absolute white-hat/black-hat morality. I don’t like being
told by filmmakers who is the hero and whom I am “rooting for.”
I prefer characters who are neither good nor bad, who transgress but
regret, who ask too much and adapt too little. I suppose my goal, in
more or less everything I write, is to make the audience change their
minds as the story progresses.
It was Tony Hopkins’s wife, Jenni, who suggested A Way Through
the Wood by Nigel Balchin and she was right. The book had just
the moral ambivalence that I was looking for. James Manning (Tom Wilkinson)
cannot adjust to change, believing himself essential to the smooth working
of both office and home. He lives a fantasy and pretends it’s
truth. Initially (I hope) we want to punch him but, by the end, Tom
breaks our hearts. Similarly, his wife Anne (Emily Watson) extracts
herself from his tyranny and then regrets the pain she has caused. While
their friend, Bill (Rupert Everett), is selfish, self-indulgent, callous
and yet finally the wisest of the three.
It is my belief that almost anyone who has acted, produced and written
for the screen must want to direct, given the chance. But the lucky
few who are allowed the opportunity soon learn that a good deal of directing,
like a good deal of government, is to do with simply looking as if you
know what you’re doing. As an actor, I’ve watched hapless
directors over the years struggle with the problems of weather, traffic,
recalcitrant extras, bolshie stars and failing light, and the ones I
respect are those who always make it look as if everything is completely
under control. Taking my inspiration from them, I decided to be cheerful
as I blocked off roads in the heart of the City, or built earthworks
to support huge camera towers or faced a downpour on the day of the
crowd scenes. Like Deborah Kerr in The King and I, I whistled
a happy tune to persuade myself I wasn’t afraid and, in the end,
I wasn’t and nor, I would like to think, were the crew. Even so,
I remember my key moment of personal affirmation.
It was a night scene, near the end of the story. James is with his
wife outside her flat. It’s dark and wet and I had chosen a bleak,
Edwardian building near the Albert Memorial where, years ago, a great
aunt of mine (the model for Maggie Smith’s Lady Trentham in Gosford
Park) lived and so I had the strange sensation of being there in
all my stages of child, boy and man. There was a vast crane with a rain
machine, trailers, lights, cameras and actors and at the centre of this
mayhem, me. Yet, somehow, from all this chaos of wet and crowds and
people running about, a scene emerged which I am pretty sure is one
of the best I have written and one of the best I have ever seen acted.
After that I felt confident that anyone who watches it will forgive
me for the dreams I have dreamed.