Most of my movies have been contemporary. I always write my own stories,
and it has usually felt right to set them in the immediate world I find
around me, as my natural inclination is to make films about ordinary
The only disadvantage of drawing from now is that sometimes it’s
difficult to know what to leave out—after all, we’re completely
surrounded by layers of everything. To put it another way, being hard
close up to things makes it less easy to see them in perspective.
So when I glance back at another time, it’s like looking down
the wrong end of a telescope, or through a tunnel…I have a more
selective, a kind of distilled view, and that helps, although I always
do masses of research, to fill out the details.
But in many ways, making period films is much harder than doing modern
ones. Movies like my Topsy-Turvy, which was
set in Gilbert and Sullivan’s world of 1885, or my new Vera
Drake, which takes place in London in 1950, pose real difficulties
for independent movie-makers like me, who operate outside the studio
system, with very low budgets.
One of the biggest problems is shooting urban exteriors. Of course,
it’s easy in countryside—a field or a forest or a beach
looked much the same in 1885 or 1950 as they do in 2004. In a contemporary
film, you can just go out and film on a real street, and let people
and buildings and cars just be themselves, often without knowing they’re
in a movie.
But when it comes to period city scenes, you need plenty of dough if
you want to build replica streets or to hire horses or old cars or whatever
it is. Or you can do it by using all the new tricks of digital technology.
Either way is expensive. You’ve got to be selective and inventive,
and just have very few street scenes…or miss them out altogether,
and hope that the stuff that is on the screen will be so interesting
that the audience won’t notice!
Then there’s all the work that goes into making a period film
look and feel authentic. This means not only the right costumes, furniture,
props and locations, as well as the correct catchphrases, food, popular
music and so forth, but also managing to get the spirit of the period,
through the choice of tones and colours, and the way the cinematographer
shoots the film photographically.
All this takes a great deal of team-work, and Vera
Drake was a great creative experience for everybody who worked
on it—on both sides of the camera.
By the time we came to shoot the picture, each actor could tell you
every detail of his or her character’s life in World War II. Even
the poor guys who had been prisoners-of-war in Burma, although they
preferred to keep their experiences to themselves.