Jennifer Merin interviews Chris Noonan re “Miss Potter”
WERE ALL PROFESSIONAL ILLUSIONISTS
Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Beatrix Potters 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 Britains National Trust, eventually donating 4000 acres of land and 14 farms to be conserved for enjoyment of future generations whore still delighting in her books.
Miss Potter is Australian director Chris Noonans second feature made ten years after his phenomenally successful directorial debut with Babe.
Why the hiatus?
I felt tremendous pressure following Babe. Its success wasnt a shock because I believed in the film completely. But everyone was asking, so whatre you going to do now? Subtext: prove yourself, says Noonan.
“The big stir made many people interested in hiring me. I didnt 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 didnt 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 storys so good, and shes such a fascinating person nothing like what youd 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 everyones upbringing. People should know about it.
Everyone knows Beatrix as a writer, but they dont 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 hasnt Beatrixs life been made into a film before?
NOONAN: Good question Ive asked that myself, and cant 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 films ending to make it work.
This is a strangely, unconventionally structured film defying basic rules. When telling a romantic story you dont kill the romantic lead at the end of the second act of a three act structure. Thats hard to recover from but thats what happened with Beatrix. It took a lot of figuring to make it work which we hadnt done when began shooting.
MERIN: Isnt that risky
NOONAN: Yeah. Initially, we thought Beatrix would mourn her fiancés death, then wed 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 Beatrixs fiancé) .
MERIN: Hes absolutely wonderful, completely engaging .
NOONAN: Isnt he ever? His performance is pure nothing showy, and for that reason, he wins you even more.
I wanted understatement from the actors. Im 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 its left to me to respond, and Im responding to situations thatre true and believable arcs in the story, Ill truly respond as though Im watching someones 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 allwhere 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 its Australian. In fact, Philip and I co-directed a TV series years ago .
MERIN: Japanese POW camps?
NOONAN: Yes, and developed this system. Its a theatrical approach, really, but it works well for films. Were all professional illusionists building a world for audiences to believe in if everyone on screen inhabits the same world, audiences believe its real.
MERIN: Why animate Beatrixs drawings? Doesnt that break the reality?
NOONAN: Thats Beatrixs personal reality. The animals her drawings are friends who fill her loneliness. (Published in New York Press)