After having received acclaim at the Toronto and London Film Festival, HOPE GAP comes to the Cambridge Film Festival, and with it Director and Screenwriter William Nicholson. Cambridge is home in many ways to him, having studied at Christ’s College in his youth, and with his daughter also having attended university here – it feels only fitting to have such a personal piece brought back to a place of memories. Associate Editor Elle Haywood meets with Nicolson at the Light Cinema before the first screening, to discuss the film:
Elle: Congratulations on the premiere of HOPE GAP in Toronto, how did you find the initial reception at the festival?
William: It was wonderful! We had a gala, and had two screenings, with both the venues being about 1500 seats – so around 3000 people watched it and it was marvellous! First of all, because it was full both times, which surprised me – I thought who are these people?! Secondly, they just loved it, the response was very very powerful. The first screening Annette Benning was there and she came on with me, and we had a Q&A at the end which was great. However, the second one was just me, and I came on stage having already done a small intro and there was this wave of love which was just amazing. It’s a very emotional film and its kind of about me. So I kind of choked up, it caught me completely by surprise. The questions were almost statements in a way, people saying “that’s exactly what happened to me, were you listening when I was talking” – and things like that. It was a very good feeling. What was not so good was out of Toronto came some very poor reviews, and I realised there’s a certain kind of person who just doesn’t want this film, and that’s alright – that’s how it is. Not all films are for all people. I’ve watched it have such a strong effect, and that is very pleasing.
Elle: Do you also think perhaps that’s where some dislike comes from it, that some may find the story hits too close to home or their lives?
William: I don’t want to say that because that gets me off the hook too easily! In many ways it such an old fashioned film. It’s very strongly to do with the emotions of those characters, it’s not using cinema in the way that a lot of people do now. To be honest, I think I’ve used a lot of cinematic devices. But I can see that to a certain sort of cineaste, someone who loves film, that it could be dull and I accept which is fair enough. I would say well I know that you don’t see it but don’t put off the people who are going to like it. Because the people who are going to like it, they’re going to like it a lot. And they’re going to like it because of the quality, I believe, of emotional truth.
Elle: Has that made a difference in how you work? Trying to utilise the two different skillsets of being the writer and the director – and projecting yourself into the film, how different has this project been?
William: It’s hugely different. I wrote it for myself to direct and planned how I was going to shoot it almost from the beginning of writing it. The crucial difference is that I am in charge of directing the actors, and this is a film that depends upon the actors. Their ability to convince you that it’s real emotion is critical. I think being there in the room with them as they performed made all the difference to me. To say that, me directing the actors wasn’t me saying do it this way / don’t do it that way – they were amazing they knew what to do. They brought to it things I didn’t realise. What me directing meant was taking advantage of what I was being offered. That to me was very important, as it was a very personal film – I wanted to control that. I’ve been on so many sets where I am the writer and not the director, it can be extremely frustrating, and with this, it was a complete joy.
Elle: It sounds very powerful for you getting involved in so many levels as it’s a very personal film – and so with this flexibility over the decisions, in terms of casting how did process work, did you have anyone specific in mind?
William: I always wanted Bill Nighy, I didn’t know who I would be able to get for Grace. What was important for financing the film was that the actor has a name, and that limits the field. I needed to find actors who were able to play 60 which is the age, that’s a range between a 50-70-year-old but the ones who have enough name to bring in finance are few which was quite a worry. Then we realised we could open it up to Americans, as you find nowadays that Americans and Brits can play each other well. That brought Annette into the frame. I had seen her most recently in 20th Century Women, which she was completely brilliant in, and then also for Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool – the issue was that this would be in England. We approached her, and it took her a while to decide, she loved the script but I think she had a question about me as a director which is fair enough. So we met up in New York and had a really great time, and she decided there and then she would do it. Then with the third part, which is as important – which is the young man, me basically – I auditioned and met with several named actors of the right age, and I didn’t quite feel comfortable about it. Someone then suggested Josh O’Connor, so I said yes alright. I saw God’s Own Country, thought it was brilliant and wanted to meet. When he walked in, I immediately knew he was the one I wanted. His name really didn’t mean anything, and so the financers said they wanted one of the more famous names – but I wanted Josh, and they said okay. He had been offered another very good part at the same time, and he chose to do mine and I can tell you I was very happy about that. He is simply wonderful, and I think he’s going to be a terrific star in the future. Before my film comes out, people will have also seen him as Prince Charles in The Crown which is coming in November, in which I’m told he’s brilliant, and what he does in this film is also astonishing.
Elle: That must be one of the most exciting parts is getting to work with seasoned actors and fresh talent together, as they bring different things to the table. Did you do many reads through or preparation beforehand?
William: We rehearsed for about 8 days with the three of them, and it was really valuable as it allowed them to feel their way into the parts, and allowed me to communicate how I saw the parts which I did. But we also did actual blocking in a rehearsal room with tape on the floor which showed everything where it was going to be on the set. The cinematographer was also in the room, so she would watch and then we could talk about how we were going to shoot it. We only had 5 weeks so it was quite tight, it wasn’t a very expensive film.
Elle: How much did you get involved in the editing process?
William: Our editor was Pia Di Ciaula – a completely brilliant editor, in fact, she got the BAFTA last year. She was editing as we were shooting, which is the normal way it happens, and I was seeing the dailies every day at lunchtime. At the end of each week, she would send through everything we had shot rough edited. And so the time we had finished shooting, we had a rough edited version of the film, and then I went into the cutting room and we worked on it. She is really responsible for the editing, and I was really impressed with what she did. All the detailed editing was her; my role was to make the big calls – make the hard cuts. But it was a very smooth process, as I had planned for it to go together in a certain way. I walked her through it beforehand. What happens when you’re shooting is you have someone beside you making notes, and I’m saying – tell Pia that is the shot I want, it’s a very efficient system. I think it’s fairly normal, I think some directors want more serendipity but I was very planned.
Elle: Is this a project you’ve been working on for a while, how long has this been in the works?
William: It didn’t occur to me until a few years ago to make it as I thought I’m getting on a bit, if I ever wanted to do this then this is it. This is the one I wanted to do, this is mine and it’s personal and it’s simple. Once I had decided to do it, the only question was can we find the money to do this – and can we get the cast? The deal was this is mine – you don’t get to give this to another director. Once we had got underway with it, I was fully on board. It’s quite frustrating to be the writer on films, it’s also wonderful as you get to work with so many directors who are incredible, and do things that I could never do in a million years. But there are things that I can do that they can’t. it’s more to do with emotional structure, and to be able to be in control of that – you need to know where the scene is going and where it is going emotionally and I need to be sure of that. It was very pleasing for me. I thought a lot about how it’s going to look, it’s shot in a little town where I live. I spent a lot of time before the shoot deciding on how and where it was going to be shot. You could hang these images on a wall – they’re very beautiful and composed. I even spent a lot of time watching trains going in and out, to decide what the position was going to look like in the final cut. I really enjoyed that, it was a whole new side to my thinking about my work to visualise it. I knew I was going to like it but never had the opportunity before got to write it into the script and do it.
Elle: So are you just revelling and enjoying in the moment of the film, or is your mind already planning ahead for your next project?
William: Yes, it is, I’m way ahead and keeping on the go. But at the same time, I do love the film – and I told the distributors that I’ll go anywhere to promote it. I’ll do Q&A’s anywhere – I just want people to come and see it.
Elle: It’s such a pleasure to have you at the Cambridge Film Festival, and it wonderful that you’re embracing all aspects of its release and reception.
William: I don’t want to force anyone to like it who won’t, but there are also so many people who will. I mean, how many people actually get to make a film? So I’m damn well not going to run around moping – I’m going to enjoy it.
Elle: Thank you so much for giving us such a profound insight into the film and helping to understand all the work that goes on behind the scenes. Do you have any parting words for the audience, any message you would like to share with them?
William: I would say – treat this film as if it is about you. Interrogate it, have you had any experiences like this, have your parents or your own children had any experiences like this? Ask yourself – does it ring true? Too much cinema gets away with a cheat on the emotions, it’s quite easy to ramp up emotions either from frightening people or through creating artificial drama. Very few films try to be true to how people’s emotions actually work. I’ve tried to do that, but only the audience can tell me if I’ve succeeded or not. I would say, it’s about real life – of a certain type of person of course, but I don’t want to exclude anyone. I can’t see why someone who comes from a completely different society, and culture can’t recognise the emotions at play here. Completely different worlds, but the emotional truths and humanity is there. I would ask audiences to engage with that and see what comes out. It’s quite a painful film, but in the end, there’s optimism there I hope.