We’ve got a great group of Boxing Day releases in Australia and one of those which is definitely worth seeing is Breathe. I recently spoke with producer Jonathan Cavendish about what was a very special project…
Matt: Can I ask a little about your background? How did you get into film producing?
Jonathan: I studied history at university and I felt that I didn’t want to be limited by facts any more. I wanted to be able to tell stories that aren’t factually based and so I made a whole series of comedies like that such as Bridges Jones’ Diary.
Matt: I have to ask the most obvious question then – how did you end up producing a film based on the life of your own father?
Jonathan: As a film producer, you’re constantly looking for good stories and it took me a bit of time to realise that the life of my own parents was actually an extraordinary story. I saw it as a wonderful example of what people can achieve with adversity but it’s also a joyous example of how life is possible in even the most dire of circumstances.
Matt: Can you talk to me about the choice of Andy Serkis as director? He has countless acting credits to his name but this is his first shot as director of a feature film.
Jonathan: We are partners in a company called The Imaginarium and we create all sorts of marvellous characters for our films and for other people’s films. This film is slightly out of Andy’s wheelhouse but he’s an incredible director of actors. He saw in the film something just as transportive as films he’s been in like Planet of the Apes and Lord of the Rings.
It’s actually not the first film he’s directed but it’s the first one to be released. He directed an amazing performance capture film which is very much based on The Jungle Book which we’re currently doing with Warner Bros. It’ll be coming out next year and has Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch. We shot that film first but because it takes a long time in post-production, there was a pause where we could jump in and take advantage of the availability of Andrew Garfield and Clare Foy to make Breathe.
Matt: William Nicholson is an Oscar nominated screenwriter who was behind films like Shadowlands, Nell and Unbroken. With no previously written book to draw from, how did he put together the screenplay for this film and delve into the details of your father and mother?
Jonathan: Well, he and I spent a lot of time together. We did a movie together Elizabeth: The Golden Age with Cate Blanchett. After that, I told him about my parents’ stories and he said he’d love to write a screenplay but under one condition – that I didn’t pay him until the film actually happens. His thinking was that since the film is such a personal story and that my mother is still alive, it would be wrong for anyone else to have ownership of it in case it didn’t get to the point where it was worth making.
He and I worked on it together for 6-7 years in between his films and my films. We revisited it every 6 months or so. He was blessed with an incredible, analytical, razor sharp intelligence but he’d forget everything that he’s written as soon as he’d written it. He’d jump on a train every 6 months to visit me in London and would read the script on the way and he’d go “gosh, this is really good, the first act is great but the second act needs a bit of work”. He was very resistance to the idea of change and making it better and better.
He spent a lot of time with my mother and people who had known my father. Over time, he built up a very accurate, dramatic and moving picture of their lives.
Matt: One thing I found interesting about the film, and perhaps I’m wrong on this, is that the first half is about Diana lifting the spirits of Robin but the second half sees the roles reversed with Robin lifting the spirits of Diana? Is that how you saw the relationship between your parents growing up?
Jonathan: My father was 27-year-old who was incredibly fit man with everything in front of him. Suddenly, over a 24 hour period, he began to lose movement of his arms and legs and by the end of it, he was entirely unable to move. It was how he remained for the rest of his life and my mother was only 24 at the time. My father was given days, then weeks and then months to live but he did want to die. He was shipped back to England and he told everyone he met to turn his machine off. He wanted to free my mother who by then had a baby which was me.
He didn’t want to go on but my mother refused to let him do that. She talked him around and persuaded him that there was a life and together, they broke out of hospital. Once my father was home and pioneering a new way of life, he never looked back. He and my mother formed this extraordinary partnership.
It wasn’t that my mother needed cheering up but it was my father that came up with the projects that gave them momentum and the drive to go on and change the lives of thousands across England and Europe.
Matt: We’ve got two great actors here in the leading roles – Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. How were they chosen? Did you have to work hard to get them or was it the other way around?
Jonathan: We’d been looking for a while for the right actor to play my father. Many brilliant actors wanted the part but none of them absolutely right and I was starting to wonder whether it was a psychological condition on my part that was stopping me making the film. Perhaps I didn’t want to make that final huge move to make a film about my parents’ life.
Once I met Andrew over dinner in Los Angeles, I instantly knew that he was the right person and had the right qualities. He was a brilliant technical actor but he also had the characteristics to play the part. Literally a few days later, we met Clare Foy for the first time who had just finished the first season of the Netflix series The Crown which hadn’t aired yet. She was very much life my mother in many ways in terms of looks, sense of humour and strength of character. We immediately knew that the film should be made and could be made.
Matt: What’s it like seeing yourself portrayed in the film? Are those scenes were you interact with your father fictional or are they based on actual events that took place in your life?
Jonathan: Everything in the film happened. That’s kind of the point of it. If you’re going to make a movie like this, there’s no need to make stuff up. The emphasis in the film is on the extraordinary relationship between my parents that has them as much in love on the first day they met up until the day my father passed away. In the film, my own character isn’t marginalised but is really a symbol of their marriage rather than a person we spend a lot of time focusing on.
I’m also the timekeeper so I go from being a baby through to a 20 year old and that helps mark the passage of time throughout the movie.
Matt: One thing that’s touched upon in the film, albeit briefly, is euthanasia. It’s a subject that’s getting attention in Australia at the moment with a push to legalise it at a state and national level. What are your thoughts on the issue?
Jonathan: I think the only thoughts you can have on such a huge issue come from your own experiences. My father willed himself to live and did so enormously happily for many years. He was only expected to live for a few days but he ended up living with his condition for 36 years but there did come a point where the quality of his life suddenly deteriorated below what he thought was acceptable for himself and my mother. At the end of his life, he had more control over his leaving than any of us will ever had.
My experience of that was joyous. The fact that he knew that he was going allowed him to say goodbye and have some wonderful and humorous experiences take place. I’m therefore a huge supporter of the idea of euthanasia but I acknowledge that many people will disagree with that point of view on moral grounds.
Matt: You’ve had a chance to take this film around the world and screen it at festivals like Toronto and London. What feedback have you been receiving from audiences so far?
Jonathan: The response has been quite extraordinary. I’ve made many films all over the world but this has had the most extreme audience responses with people being very moved, laughing and feeling like it’s touched them in some way. It’s made them feel better about life. What problems they had going into the cinema were dissipated by the experience. I’ve had thousands of letters and emails from all over the world. We’re very lucky.
It was the film that Andy Serkis and I hoped to make. The actors were so extraordinary. Not just Andrew Garfield and Clare Foy but also people like Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander and Diana Rigg. It was great to see them attracted to this story in the same way that audiences have been.
Matt: Well I hope you paid Tom Hollander twice since he technically appears as two separate characters in the movie.
Jonathan: That’s right! My mother had two very funny, very eccentric twins as brothers who would bicker in an amusing, loving way. Tom played both of them quite brilliantly and he’s still joking with me that he should have been paid twice.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? Any plans to transition from producing to directing?
Jonathan: We’re finishing The Jungle Book at the moment which will be out in a year. We have all sorts of projects we’re working on at the moment. One of them is a performance capture version of Animal Farm which we’re translating to modern America. It’s what we think George Orwell would have done if he were around today – he’d be satirising North America and business and politics. It’s a very funny film which I hope will get people to stand up and think.