by director Peter Cattaneo
When producer Rory Aitkin made me aware of the story of the Military Wives Choirs, I was instantly hooked. Here was a fascinating way of life which has never been seen on the big screen and the opportunity to make a film about the emotional pull of music and the cathartic power of singing together.
As soon as I started meeting real military wives, rich themes showed themselves: a fragmented group of people finding unity and camaraderie through song; women who are expected to “keep quiet and carry on” finding their voices. Screenwriters Rachel Tunnard and Rosanne Flynn built relationships with some very cooperative, courageous and candid military spouses whose stories were sometimes harrowing, but often hilarious. These are strong contemporary women—soldiers’ wives with a no-nonsense, bawdy sense of humour, and I was determined to translate this tonal balance between pathos and humour to the screen.
We shot at RMB Catterick, the military base in Northern England where the first Military Wives Choir was formed. The base supplied specific uniforms, vehicles, locations and advice. We used serving soldiers and their families as extras. The location for Kate’s (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) house was the actual setting for the first ever Military Wives Choir meeting in 2010.
To achieve an authentic sound with all the imperfections of amateur singers learning the ropes, I insisted on recording all the singing live on set. The cast practiced the final song before shooting, but I chose not to rehearse the early singing scenes to ensure a rough-edged spontaneity—although I would sometimes discover the cast attempting secret singing rehearsals behind my back!
I wanted to move away from preconceptions of traditional choirs and explored rock and pop music. I went through hundreds of songs to find tracks that thematically resonate with the story without being too on the nose. With musical director Lorne Balfe, we would discover which songs and genres translated best to choral arrangements.... I kept coming back to '80s electro/new wave pop—this is the music of our character's youth, makes a punchy juxtaposition with the austerity of military life and there are some classic tracks that everybody knows.
Kate and Lisa's (played by Sharon Horgan) relationship is the emotional spine of the film and working with actors of the caliber of Kristin and Sharon was an honour. The first time I saw them together, I knew I had a classic “chalk and cheese” combination. They have distinctive looks, different social backgrounds and contrasting personalities to complement each other perfectly. Both actors are equally comfortable in comedy and drama. They were so inventive on set, bouncing off each other, coming up with clever comic interchanges or digging deep into the emotion of the scenes.
With an ensemble of this scale, it was vital for the supporting cast to be delineated from one another with distinctive looks and characteristics. When this group of nervous actors were introduced to each other for the first time at a singing rehearsal, the ice was broken by the mutual embarrassment of singing in front of each other and they were instantly and permanently bonded. This is the most closely knit and supportive ensemble I have ever worked with, always chatting and joking between takes and still in constant touch with each other today—life imitating art as a group of women thrown randomly together are forever bonded by singing.
I hope audiences will come away from watching Military Wives having laughed and cried with the characters, feeling inspired by the courage of the women and uplifted by hearing them belt out some great songs.