Jennifer Merin interviews Chris Noonan re “Miss Potter”

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WE’RE ALL PROFESSIONAL ILLUSIONISTS

Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Beatrix Potter’s other characters are familiar to most people, but few know about the life of the surprisingly feisty Victorian lady who created them.

That should change quickly– thanks to the enchanting “Miss Potter,“ starring Renee Zellweger as Beatrix– from young adulthood to middle age– surviving her tortured relationship with her overly critical mother, defying convention by publishing her books, becoming a famous woman of independent means, suffering the tragic death of her publisher/fiancé and enrolling as prime supporter of Britain’s National Trust, eventually donating 4000 acres of land and 14 farms to be conserved for enjoyment of future generations who’re still delighting in her books.

“Miss Potter” is Australian director Chris Noonan’s second feature– made ten years after his phenomenally successful directorial debut with “Babe.“

Why the hiatus?

“I felt tremendous pressure following “Babe.” Its success wasn’t a shock because I believed in the film completely. But everyone was asking, ‘so what’re you going to do now?’ Subtext: prove yourself,” says Noonan.

“The big stir made many people interested in hiring me. I didn’t want to jump aboard the first train entering the station, nor do rehashes of rehashes. I wanted to do original work– work that made a difference. Those projects are few and far between. So, I made TV commercials to put bread on the table. And fiddled with my own ideas– some are still in development. And I came across two scripts I liked, and thought I could do something with– but, in both cases, the producers didn’t like my take on the scripts. They had other ideas…

MERIN: Did they flop?

NOONAN: Yeah, one got made and flopped.

“Miss Potter” was the first project that came along that really moved me. The script moved me to tears. That was the alert that made me think carefully about this one.

MERIN: What about “Miss Potter” intrigued you?

NOONAN: Her story’s so good, and she’s such a fascinating person– nothing like what you‘d expect. I suppose people think of her as a Victorian fuddy-duddy, and not of interest to modern people. But everything I found out about her while reading the script won me over, and I thought this story should be part of everyone’s upbringing. People should know about it.

Everyone knows Beatrix as a writer, but they don’t know what a remarkable person she was. I knew nothing about her before I read the script. Then, I had to make this film.

MERIN: Why hasn’t Beatrix’s life been made into a film before?

NOONAN: Good question– I’ve asked that myself, and can’t answer. I find it amazing.

MERIN: Did you develop the script, or shoot what given to you?

NOONAN: I worked a lot on the script, removing anything that seemed fake. Initially, there was much that didn’t ring true. I sought to remove those false notes. The original writer, Richard Maltby, was open to changes. We still talk to one another, so he didn’t resent my intrusions.

MERIN: In this milieu of genre films– crime, sci-fi, horror, slick comedies and others that involve high tech and violence– was it tough to get this rather traditional period-biopic-love- story produced?

NOONAN: It was a long process. When I signed on, it was only partially funded. My first task was to figure out how much we needed to make the film. Then there was a period of raising money from various sources– we have a mosaic investment structure. It came together slowly. While we were shooting, Weinstein Company signed on– and we got funds that allowed us to readdress the film’s ending to make it work.

This is a strangely, unconventionally structured film– defying basic rules. When telling a romantic story you don’t kill the romantic lead at the end of the second act of a three act structure. That’s hard to recover from– but that‘s what happened with Beatrix. It took a lot of figuring to make it work– which we hadn’t done when began shooting.

MERIN: Isn’t that risky

NOONAN: Yeah. Initially, we thought Beatrix would mourn her fiancé’s death, then we’d start another romance with the man who eventually became her husband– but in preliminary editing, we realized audiences would fall so in love with Ewan (McGregor, as Beatrix‘s fiancé)….

MERIN: He’s absolutely wonderful, completely engaging….

NOONAN: Isn’t he ever? His performance is pure– nothing showy, and for that reason, he wins you even more.

I wanted understatement from the actors. I’m allergic to overstatement of emotion in films. For me, when actors demand responses from me, indicating what my responses should be, I withdraw. But if it’s left to me to respond, and I’m responding to situations that’re true and believable arcs in the story, I’ll truly respond as though I’m watching someone’s real life. I hate corn, and I hate overstatement of emotion.

MERIN: How do you get actors to underplay?

NOONAN: It starts with casting. You cast people who have that ability. And with “Miss Potter.“ I ran a two week workshop, a boot camp, for the entire cast– servants and all–where we discussed our approach to the film. A historian talked about the world at that time, and we learned about wars were being fought, and about etiquette of communication between the classes, which was very important in Britain…

MERIN: Is boot camp an Australian thing? Philip Noyce told me about boot camp for “Catch A Fire”…

NOONAN: I think it’s Australian. In fact, Philip and I co-directed a TV series years ago….

MERIN: Japanese POW camps?

NOONAN: Yes, and developed this system. It’s a theatrical approach, really, but it works well for films. We’re all professional illusionists building a world for audiences to believe in– if everyone on screen inhabits the same world, audiences believe it’s real.

MERIN: Why animate Beatrix’s drawings? Doesn’t that break the reality?

NOONAN: That’s Beatrix’s personal reality. The animals– her drawings– are friends who fill her loneliness. (Published in New York Press)

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).