INT: Miss Potter
Its safe to say that Renee Zellweger enjoys hopping on the other side of the pond to practice her well accustomed British accent. Who can forget her lovable and memorable performance as the hilarious and adorable self-proclaimed spinster Bridget Jones that single handedly inspired faith and hope among all unattached women in the world? I was pleasantly surprised to see that she was just as sweet in person and eloquent to boot.
In her next film MISS POTTER (no relation to Harry), Zellweger embodies the role of Beatrix Potter, a distinguished painter and most importantly a British literary phenomenon of the early 20th Century who introduced The Tale of Peter the Rabbit to the world, empowering all women and leaving her legacy to children everywhere. In the charming film, Zellweger does a remarkable job in honoring the life of the modern, courageous, spirited and assertive artist who quietly rebelled against the social environment in which she was restricted, thus breaking all limitations and overcoming obstacles. Zellweger teams up with Emily Watson and her DOWN WITH LOVE costar Ewan McGregor, who plays her rookie publisher as well as the great love and loss of her life. Directed by Chris Noonan who gained fame for his 1995 movie BABE, the story is set in the beautiful and magical locations of Victorian England.
I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Zellweger, Noonan, Watson, McGregor over the holidays as they shed light on the making of this delightful film, interpretations of the heroic author Miss Potter, her environmental work and the legacy she left behind! See what they all had to say about the upcoming film MISS POTTER.
In proving ones self worth do you think you need to be eccentric or creative?
Renee Zellweger (RZ): Oh, I dont know. I dont know. Im sure (eccentricity begets creativity). I mean, I dont know how to answer your question from a general perspective. I can only tell you from my own experiences, and I wouldnt answer it very eloquently because Im not that self-aware. I had a lovely conversation with Ewan the other day about anything that might be strange about myself. I wish I had something to blame, and then I thought, Oh, wait, Im an actress. (She laughs.) Now it all makes sense.
I dont know if one begets the other or which would come first. I dont know. I have met a lot of actors and worked with a lot of creative people who need their medium. They need it. Its their basis and foundation, what helps them cope, how they channel their emotions or their inabilities to deal with other things. Its the way they communicate, an outlet. It gives them stability. It gives them purpose. Ive met those people. I dont think Im one of them. Its an important creative medium for me and it stops there.
I dont know that it is my first medium, this one, the acting. It was more accidental, but it has become very important to me in my life and I do need it. I cant explain to you why. As far as my perceptions about Beatrix, I just imagined that she has such a rich imagination because she had such an isolated adolescence and that she was living within such rigid parameters that were set by her mother in terms of expectations that didnt interest her or didnt come naturally to her. That was my perception, anyhow, that she needed her (storybook) characters as a creative outlet.
Chris Noonan (CN): I think Beatrix did need her creativity as an outlet because she was so restricted. Its very similar to the answer you just heard. She was so restricted in her expression in other avenues of her life, so restricted in her friendships by her parents. I think she turned to her writing. In a sense she created her own friends, and she turned to her writing to create personalities that she could relate to and maybe even people that could talk back to her. But a lot of this is just conjecture. We researched her life pretty thoroughly and we filled a whole lot of gaps, and I cant tell you whether we made the right choices in filling those gaps. Her life is pretty well documented, but that only gets you to a certain point with anyones life if its in the past and whos now dead.
Are there people alive who knew her?
CN: There are people alive who knew her, but theyre very old people now. So youre piecing these things together from anecdotes and from bits of writing that you found, and so on. When you start talking about peoples deep psychological motivations and so on, thats a very hard thing to conjure up when you look into the past. So you inevitably invent. You look at the evidence and you say, Now, what would it be that would be motivating her to do this? and you invent something that would fulfill that necessity in her life and you conjecture that thats what it is, and then you assert to the world that thats what it was. I hope that weve made the right choices, but cant guarantee it.
Where her books in your own life?
RZ: I knew a couple of her stories. I didnt know all of them. And I knew absolutely nothing about the woman. I remember the images as far back as I can remember anything at all. I remember Peter Rabbit being there. My mom read the books to my brother and I, but not all of them. There were other childrens books and authors who were more prominent in our adolescence.
CN: I never read her books when I was a kid. I was aware of her because of all that crockery with her characters on it. I knew people who had that crockery, but I didnt have any. So I had a relatively Beatrix-free childhood, I think. Perhaps thats why Im so messed up today, you know; I didnt have that influence as a child. I dont know what else to say to you. I cant sort of fill in the gaps.
Emily Watson (EW): Yeah, we had them all. I read them all and loved them all and actually the copies that we had, had scribbling and writing that had been done by my aunts and uncles when they were children. They were fairly common in British households.
Ewan McGregor (EM): And yes, I had them read to me Im sure. A lot of, I dont remember the stories particularly when I was a kid. Like Rene and all the rest of us, I was familiar with her illustrations the images. And I supposed with Peter Rabbit, the Mr. McGregor reference kind of haunted me and my brother for a few years. (Laughs.) Its interesting that our parents would have had them read to them as well and possibly their parents as well so. And, I read them to my kids.
Did you have concerns for reaching a kind of jaded public at this time with this traditional and remarkably charming story?
CN: Well, we had a lot of violence and sex in the film, but we cut that out. You just make the film that you believe is going to bring some joy to people and that theyll find entertaining, and you hope that it finds its audience. I have no idea how big an audience this film will find. I have high hopes for it. One just trusts that your guesses are good for finding the audience, because you dont want to make a film that contains a number of messages and theyre not received.
You want to share your enjoyment in making a film with an audience and you hope they enjoy it as youve enjoyed making it. But theres no way of really predicting unless youre dealing in much more predictable genres than this. You know, if youre making a James Bond film, I think just the name Bond is going to guarantee you a big audience, but the name Beatrix Potter doesnt necessarily because there isnt a proven track record of Beatrix Potter reaching an audience. So weve just made the film that we loved, according to the ideas we felt were appropriate, and we pray that it will find its audience. Thats all I can say.
EM: I think its interesting that you referenced the violence in films. I think there is a place for that. I really do. Its a very violent world and there is a lot of the world that just sits there and dont pay any attention to what we see on the news or what we read in the newspapers and in a way filmmakers, it can be a way to shake society and say look This kind of thing is going on. I think there is a place for it as well. I dont think theres overkill. And maybe if there is a lot of violence in movies its because there needs to be.
RZ: I dont think that people are cynics. I think were cynical about manipulation and things that are disingenuous. Were very cynical about manipulation and Im not sure that its necessarily true that were cynical about simplicity. I think if things are honest, I think that theyre relatable. One of the things that we had discussed in the very beginning of this film was that theres a very fine line there, and this was not a woman who was overly sentimental. Chris, in a couple of scenes, wed discuss it and Id say, Oh, Gosh, please just dont let me corny. Dont let me be corny. Dont let me be schmaltzy. And he looked at me and he said, I dont do schmaltzy. I think that if youre talking about a film thats telling a human story that people will connect with, whether or not its simple based on its being founded in truth, on truthfulness.
Emily, do you think your character is a feminist or lesbian and was it a challenge to play a character treading a fine line?
EW: I think its very hard with us with our understanding of the way we view sexuality now to impose that on that time period. Obviously, there are famous known lesbians in and around that time, but I think probably that Millie has a crush on Beatrix because shes such a shining star. I think passionate friendships between women were a known thing. People used to write incredible letters and had passionate friendships but I dont think thats saying we should be judging relationships we have or categorizing it. If you turn around to Millie and said, Its a sexual thing. Youre a lesbian, shed probably have been horrified but then in another day and age, she might be. I dont know. All these things are relative I guess.
Renee, what made you want to take on the role of executive producer? Also, how far did you want to push the fantasy angle as the executive producer?
RZ: You have no idea how closely interrelated your two questions are. Thats where it all began. Chris and I and our friendship began over a conversation in a hotel lobby in Santa Monica, California, about that very thing. I was curious about it, having read the script, because I didnt believe in how it was being conceptualized on the page at the time. I was afraid of it. I thought it was gimmicky and kind of silly, and I wanted to hear what Chris feelings about it were, and then so many other questions came up, and I could tell that there was so much to discussion.
I thought it (executive-producing) would be an interesting opportunity to learn how to collaborate creatively in a different way and to participate on a more substantial level, instead of just meddling and having opinions, making it legal to meddle and have opinions. I talked to the producers and I spoke with Chris and it just seemed like it would work. They said yes and it went from there. We just discussed things that I wouldnt usually participate in, in terms of the meetings and making decisions about things. Id usually just have an opinion about it and maybe throw it out there, invited or not. I cant help myself. But in this case, we got together and we sat on many couches, many late hours in many hotels in different parts of the UK and threw everything on the table until the sun was coming up sometimes, to try and solve some problems. It was fantastic. I enjoyed it very, very much, very much.
CN: That was a matter of fine judgment. The initial drafts of the script had a far more sophisticated set of animations, much more dominant animations, which had Beatrixs drawings come to life on the page and then jumping off the page and into the real world came these 3-D CGI creatures, which would have required us assigning voices to the creatures. They were like fantasy characters. They were true fantasy characters.
But we all felt, in fact, that the core of this film is a delicate series of human emotions and human relationships and that, for one, if we went that far into CGI and animation it would start making it look like, really, the key people in Beatrixs life were her animal creations and, two, that she was a bit crazy, that she imagines a rabbit jumping off the pages, standing next to her and she has a little conversation with it. Immediately, you think Beatrix is a little bit loopy. So we were pretty unanimous in feeling that a different approach was needed to that.
But I felt that there was something very valuable in having her animations exist in their own right in the film because, as an artist, Beatrix gave expression to her inner life, to her psyche through her art and through her stories, and that having creatures that we could animate and even have conversations of a limited nature with her would give us access to her inner life. She was a very private person who wasnt one to talk about herself endlessly, by all account. So it gave us access to her without having to resort to the clumsier cinematic devices like having a voiceover of Beatrix saying, I was feeling very depressed at that or This made me very happy. Theyre clumsy devices and they tend to produce corny results, and we didnt want that.
So then it was a process of finding the level of that animation and the style of that animation, and I was very strongly of the feeling that we should remain as faithful to Beatrixs artwork as possible, because theyre beautiful drawings, her drawings, and to get beyond that would seem to be sacrilegious, in a way, if youre making a film about Beatrix Potter. So, we went on a search for animators and found this wonderful, wonderful woman who was born and brought up in the Lake District, who was a devotee of Beatrix Potter, who had been an animator on Roger Rabbit and was very thoroughly trained in traditional film animation.
She didnt do any computer animation. And she was also a really lovely person with a wild style; like she had dreadlocks and piercings, not exactly what youd think of as a Beatrix Potter devotee. But she was a Beatrix Potter devotee. Her name is Alyson Hamilton and she sort of stayed with the film from the early stages, from the time that we were designing the animation sequences, through to the very tail end and made a really great contribution, I think. So I had to deal with that in the editing and deal with the integration of that very delicately and with some wit, I think. I was anxious that they be introduced in a witty way rather than as a look at me, look at me. Arent we clever doing this sort of animation? way. So that was the aim.
Emily, what is your take on your character as a very independent woman? Did you see her as being nice to her friend or really what she felt?
EW: I think its probably complicated and a bit of both. I think the lady doest protest too much. Shes not this lady walking around declaring her manifesto- this is who I am and Im not marrying you sort of thing. She does it with great fun and shes good fun and she thinks they had signed up for their sisterhood and then feels deserted. But I think its all credited to the screenwriter. Probably inside of her is the most horrible churning of Oh my God, Ive made such a fool of myself.
I think shes afraid of honesty and probably is lonely and wishes life had been different. Its very difficult for us to imagine all that. Basically you lived with your parents til they died and then she lived with her brothers and went visiting for tea and that was it. Had love come her way, there is a real distinction. We didnt see marriage about love in that period. It would have been a financial transaction. In the heart of the film its saying that love is the most important thing and go for it.
Renee and Ewan, talk about the re-teaming since Down With Love. Did you have fun?
EM: Um, well, when Rene and I were making Down With Love we had a fantastic time. And I think its safe to say we are both really proud of it and loved it deeply, and we had a great deal of fun. But the comedy in the film was very specifically a kind of 60s type of comedy. I kind of wanted to play it although it went against the grain a little it, because nobody really plays comedies like that anymore.
And it was difficult to learn and if you didnt time it absolutely perfectly it didnt work. So, it was quite hard work and occasionally we would be struggling through a scene and look at each other and just go, Gosh, if we could just play it straight forward - a scene. So, we talked about it and we both enjoyed working with each other very much kept in touch and then Renee called me up and said, and asked me to read this, which was exactly that. A lot more free flowing to it. Finding the scene in front of the camera. Its useful and its great fun to work with Renee again. It was a good time.
RZ: It was hilarious, because youre working in a different way when youre doing stylized work like that Down With Love. We had no point of reference about whether or not we nailed it, because theres no way to tell. Cut, moving on. Id go, What do you think? Did we get it? And hed say, I dont know. Do you think we got it? I dont know. (She laughs.) We thought how great would it be to just act and see what happens.
Again, like he said, we were looking for some things (to do together), and then I read this script. Chris and I had been discussing our wish list of people, and right away, straight away, there was just no question in my mind. My plan was to beg and grovel shamelessly that these people would agree to participate one (Watson) having just had a baby and not wanting to leave the house, and the other (McGregor) whos perpetually booked no matter what because hes on everyones wish list, too. So I read that scene where Beatrix and Norman are alone for the first time in her room, and theres so much subtext to that, so much meaning compacted into the tiniest little gesture.
And I knew that Ewan would understand the delicate nature of that and the vulnerability that was necessary for that. He has such a gift for communicating those things honestly. It was just such an enchanting moment in my mind, and so it had to be him. I talked to Chris and Chris said, Oh, yes, of course. Of course it has to be him. And thats when the begging began. Luckily, they came to play. Just to go further with it, that day on the set, it was mesmerizing, really. He was focusing on some technical things going on (something about keeping time to the music), dealing with that and had absolutely no idea, unbeknownst to him, the six-foot-seven steadicam guy, and Chris and myself and everybody in the room, we were just enchanted. It was more than I had imagined when I read the script. So, anyway, there we go.
Renee, which authors or books have inspired you?
RZ: I dont think shes weird. I had this conversation earlier. I dont think its strange at all that she speaks to her work when shes in that creative place in her mind, when shes conjuring this world in her mind, this imaginary world. Its not strange at all to me. I love her eccentricities. I think shes brilliant. I think shes completely complicated in the most wonderful way, and Id love to have known her. In terms of my own stuff, thats really interesting. You know, I dont know specifically. It changes, you know. I pick something up and find it completely inspiring because its a different kind of prose. I love Carmac McCarthys writing. I loved Charles Frazier. You could smell those words. I mean its unbelievably rich prose.
I mean, what, do you mean like as a kid or do you mean now? You mean now. I like African-American writers and I like Southern writers. There are elements of the subculture that are exquisitely rich, just historically. Theres a musicality to Langston Hughes work that jumps off the page and it makes me need a pen. I need a pen. I need a pen. I need a pen. I need a pen. Hes probably my favorite. And theres just so much emotion. Its kind of like in Latin cultures. You find this kind of passion for all elements of life. I find that the same in African-American writers, just this passion for things. Sorry. I need a pen. I need a pen.
Rene, is this the type of movie your fans expect from you? Do you think this is a chick flick?
RZ: I dont think this is a chick flick at all. I dont think its a chick flick. I think its far more complex than that. Its not meant to be female entertainment. Its an important, important story, and its a beautiful story, and I dont think Ive met a guy yet whos seen it and didnt connect to it, or cried. Its just real. Its a human story, the most powerful kind of story, to take advantage of the impact this medium can have in terms of moving a person making you self-aware in a way, making you recognize something different, making you question things, learning something, growing as a person.
I dont think its a chick flick. I think that underestimates it in a terrible way, and I dont think thats true, that there are people out there who have expectations of the stuff I do. And, no, its not a conscious decision, but Im curious, and I know that if I feel like Ive been there before, I dont really have much interest in repeating myself and going there again.
CN: I dont think its a chick flick at all. Its a love story, and in the contemporary mores of Hollywood, if somethings got violence in it and a lot of cursing or whatever its seen as a male movie, and if somethings got a love affair in it its seen as a female movie. I think thats an incredibly limited way of looking at things. I know so many men who have watched this movie who have been moved to tears by it and have got a lot out of it. You know, the world has moved on, and I just think thats a very outdated way of categorizing movies.
EW: I think its very difficult to ask a question of an artist to ask them to define themselves by their place in the market. I think it just doesnt make any sense. You do things, make things you love because you have to. When a director that you have admired for years calls and asks you to do it, you say ok, ok, ok. I dont really think about that stuff when you make choices on compulsion to have an interesting life.
EM: I dont have anything else to say. I agree with everyone else.
What is your next movie?
RZ: Its a psychological thriller. And the animated BEE MOVIE with Seinfeld who is hilarious funny. But can we talk more about Miss Potter something? Because I dont think its a chick flick.
What do you do or use as an outlet to deal with the tabloids and wind down from your daily job?
RZ: (She laughs.) I go to the gym, and I run and I spend time to physically get it out (of my system).
But I didnt mean celebrity, I meant creativity. Ive met eccentric people who need, need that medium, need it for stability. They need it. Theyre true artists. Thats why when people ask me, Oh, wasnt this person weird? or Wasnt that person difficult? I say, No. No, theyre not. Theyre true artists. True artists.
Rene, I last saw you on the set of Case 39.
RZ: At the insane asylum. (Laughs.) Its a family film.
Babe was a huge international success, but were only getting your second film in a decade-plus. Why so long Chris?
CN: Well, I sort of sat in a hole, very depressed No, not really. Its very hard to follow a success. It puts a lot of pressure on you and it makes you really want to follow it with something thats equally successful. I was offered many, many, many, many scripts in that period and every time I read one I got more down about what was on offer.
Can you talk specifically?
CN: No, Im not going to do that. Im not going to slander films. But they all seemed to be very derivative, and thats sort of the nature of the film industry these days, it seems to me, maybe not so much right now, but in the last 10 years. Its very easy to get a film up that you can say, Its just like this film that was a success last year, or Its a cross between these two films that were both successes last year, than it is raising the money for a movie that is completely original and no one has ever seen anything like it before.
Thats the kind of thing Im interested in more than Im interested in remakes or rehashes of already made movies. So I found it very hard to find anything that I was interested in. I developed a couple of movies. I co-produced a movie in Australia for a first-time director and I kept looking and kept depressing myself by reading scripts. And this was the I cant say its the first script I read in that process that really moved me, but it was one of the first scripts I read that moved me because it seemed to be genuine. The emotions of the film seemed to be genuine. It seemed not to be a manipulative emotional film. It seemed not to just be pushing buttons. It seemed to be much more about the reality of life and I really, well, I shed a tear over the script and was immediately interested in it and pursued it from there.
How long did it take from there?
CN: I guess that would have been about three years ago that I first read the script. A lot of time passes with most films, and this was just the latter stages of the development of the film. It had been developed already for about five or six year by one of its producers and its writer. So one has to be very patient in developing films.
This is also a movie about people coming out of their clichés and emerging into their true selves. How did you identify with your characters in that way?
EM: Wow. I dont know. I dont know. I think there is something that he wanted to I think there is something interesting about that when he meets Beatrix his brother is upset that they are going to publish the book and immediately she says, Well it must be like this, this and this. And, I imagine she must have been a tough cookie to deal with. So, when she meets Norman, hes so nervous about being a publisher that he immediately meets her demands or enthusiasm with goals of his own, because they seemed to be a perfect match in terms of the passion towards her work. I dont know that it was about I dont get the sense he was trying to prove himself.
CN: Im going to be equally frustrating for you, because I dont think I have approached this script from the point of view of intellectual analysis of themes and that kind of thing. I think its much more an intuitive process for me, and so I havent got a ready answer for your question. I think thats the critics job to look at the film and youre doing the critics job by pointing out to us that this is a theme in our movie.
Its not a theme thats consciously driven me through the movie, but its something that I find very interesting, that its there, and I think we all, as creative people, we instinctively arrive at decision as to how we make a story play. And often the threads of those decisions can be brought together and a thematic line can be seen in them, but (it can) be one that wasnt actually intended. It wasnt one that we set out to do. But thats sort of the magic of the creative process anyway.
RN: In what respect? Well, from the inside, when youre trying to make decisions about how to maybe show the evolution of a character throughout their life, you make creative choices about how to show that, on that day or in the way they dress, theyre mannerisms, how they change, how they carry themselves a little bit differently, things like that. Its subtle and its truthful in terms of making the choices for the moment.
There are a few of them you have to plan in advance, like wardrobe changes for example. For Beatrix, I spoke with Anthony and we decided that when she was under her mothers influence she was going to be more uptight and more rigid and more formal. And as she begins to find her own legs, well, were going to show that her clothes get a little bit less tailored, and shes going to grow a bit. You know, shes going to spread out. You know, with the landscape shes going to take up a little bit more space, not only in her life but to find her voice, and so her clothes should be the same to reflect it.
There are subtle things like that, if you want to draw a parallel with the Norman and Beatrix characters. Theres a definite common bond there between the two of them, who kind of lived at home, kind of were the caretakers, kind of didnt have massive social existences, and they have this common denominator in this creative effort that they shared. That was part of their affection. He (McGregor) and I discussed it as being this thing that they shared in terms of finding their own. It was more subtle than that. It was subconscious. It was not something that either one of them was consciously aware of. They just started to collaborate and liked it. You have to be responsible and pay attention to that in some respects, but theyre so loosely tied. Its more about being accurate on the day as per the script requires as per that moment in telling the story requires.
Can you talk about Potters environmental importance and farmland preservation?
RZ: Im going to skip that and go straight to my sex life. My mother would be proud. OK, lets see, what can I tell you about her environmental contributions? I was very surprised. I knew nothing about it. And just recently I was reading about the things that she did with the Girl Scouts, in terms of accommodating them, teaching them and helping them learn how to survive on their own in the wild, all sorts of things. I had no idea about the land. I just didnt know of the magnitude of the contribution that she had made in that respect.
I didnt know that it was responsible partially for the future of the farming and the...I mean, obviously one begets the other, but I didnt know. Still, I cant tell you too much. I kind of stopped with gathering my information that pertained to this part of her life, because it was such a finite period and there was so much information. I could do better to pull Chris and Emily in on this, because they could help me remember with what theyve collected. What was it, 4000-something acres she started to collect? She was a founding member of the National Trust...
CN: A lot of that land was working farms, so its not virgin land or virgin forest or anything like that. Its much more that she fell in love with the land as it was in the Lake District, and just didnt want to see tourism develop there and that kind of thing. So she wanted to be part of this organization to preserve it.
RZ: She referenced feeling the encroachment. She definitely envisioned that it was going to happen inevitably if she didnt participate in something like that.
EW: I think for Americans to appreciate how important it is in the UK, if you visit there now, there are places with natural beauty, there are so many people there, and its so small and everyone is so grateful for the small bit of preservation that has been done. It they had eaten it up, there would have been no wilderness now but for Americans its a different thing because its such a huge country but it is so important for the UK.
RZ: It does feel encapsulated. When you go there, it feels encapsulated, like theres a point of entry and a point of exit. Absolutely. When you get to the preserved land, or the English countryside in quotations, I didnt get that feeling, that endless sort of ongoing wilderness before you that you might get in Northwestern, uh, Northeastern, uh, Midwestern America today. I feel it here, too, so I can imagine, because it is quite small and precious (England).
EM: Thats why we invented the Midge in Scotland, which is a tiny mosquito because were not up there. (Laughs.)
Is there a statue of Beatrix Potter in England? Is she a national heroine?
EM: Shes on the back of the 25lb. note. (Laughs.)
Are you currently filming The Tour with Hugh here in NY?