Jonathan Cavendish Interview

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.

Shrabani Basu Interview

Victoria & Adbul is an interesting true story that is about to be released in Australian cinemas.  I had the chance to speak with the author of the book on which it is based, Shrabani Basu, to ask about her research and the film itself…

Matt:  Can you tell us what inspired the book in the first place?

Shrabani:  I’d heard a little bit about Queen Victoria’s love for curries and I knew she had some Indian servants who cooked for her.  I travelled to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and they have an Indian corridor with paintings of Indian rulers and soldiers.  In between them was a portrait of Abdul Karim where he was wearing red, gold and cream.  He did not look like a servant so that intrigued me.  I then saw a lot of photographs of him and it was evident that he was quite special.  There was even a photograph of him placed in the Queen’s dressing room which was placed below a photo of John Brown who was also a very special person to her.  I decided to do a bit more investigating and that’s what started the journey.

Matt:  Was there any interaction with the Royal Family or Buckingham Palace in putting the book together? 

Shrabani:  My first stop was Windsor Castle because that’s where Queen Victoria’s journals are kept.  I asked for permission to access the archives and read her journals.  She wanted to learn Urdu from Abdul Karim and there are 13 volumes of journals that she wrote in that language.  No one had seen them before because Western biographers wouldn’t have understood them and so they hadn’t been opened.  That shed a lot of light on the story.

I then went to Agra, India which was Abdul’s home town.  I visited his grave and found his family who had told me about Abdul’s own journals which were being kept in Karachi.  That led to me a third country, Pakistan.  It was a long process with 4 years of research and we finally got the story in the end.     

Matt:  Was there further information that came out after the book’s release?  I can imagine it would have got the attention of many people who read it.

Shrabani:  It was actually after the first edition of the book was released when Abdul Karim’s family contacted me.  In the press interviews for book, I was saying that I had been looking for the family but was struggling because Abdul had no children.  I didn’t even have names to go with.  They reached out which is what led me to Karachi.  The book was then updated for the next edition in 2011. 

Matt:  We’re talking about events that took place more than 100 years ago and a lot of records were not retained.  Were there gaps in the narrative or lingering questions that you’d love to have known the answer to?

Shrabani:  There always are.  There’s no end to gaps you want to fill.  There was a big gap for a while when I didn’t have his diaries.  I felt I hadn’t heard his voice yet.  I picked up some from the Queen’s Hindustani journals but I wanted to know more about him, his childhood and his family life but there were no records of that.  All of that was covered when I read his journals.  Also, when I found his descendants, they were able to provide me with an oral history that had been passed down through the family. 

Matt:  It does have the appearance of a truth is stranger than fiction kind of tale.  In your opinion, what was it that created that first connection between Queen Victoria and Abdul?

Shrabani:  Queen Victoria was Empress of India and she loved the country.  She really wanted to travel there but she couldn’t because the distance was too far.  It would have taken 6 weeks by ship.  Her advisors also didn’t want her going there for political reasons.  So it was India that came to her in the form of Abdul Karim.  He was fresh from Agra and he was a young man who gave her unfiltered, uncensored stories from the streets of Agra.  He told her about the festivals, the people and the stalls.  He cooked her a curry.  She then wanted to learn Urdu and suddenly she was transported into another world.  She was getting to know India, speak the language, taste the food, and living out her role as the Empress of India. 

Matt:  It’s always tough taking a novel and condensing it into a 2 hour movie.  What are your thoughts on it?  Were you involved much during the filmmaking process?

Shrabani:  I was a consultant on the movie so we discussed the screenplay and Abdul’s character.  I did have some early concerns about how it would be portrayed on film but it was in the hands of a very good screenplay writer, Lee Hall.  I also helped research costumes and sets in my role as a consultant.  We found photos in the British Library and these were replicated for the film. 

Matt:  Judi Dench portrays Queen Victoria has someone who seems to have grown tired of her role of Queen but she still takes delight in using her power against those who have a different view of the world.  Is that the Queen Victoria that you’ve gotten to know through your research?

Shrabani:  Absolutely.  It was a process of discovery for me as well.  When I started out, Queen Victoria was a very formidable person dressed in black whose most famous line was “we are not amused”.  I then discovered a very different side to Queen Victoria through her journals and realised how passionate she was about India.  Through her letters, I could see how she fought her household, her family and the British Prime Minister in defence of the Indians.  Most of the Brits were very racist.  They used derogatory names for the Indians in their correspondence.  She fought hard against the racism and also the class snobbery.  She was a feisty old woman and it’s wonderful.  It makes her very endearing.

Matt:  Abdul Karim is such an interesting individual given his closeness and influence over the Queen.  Is his story particularly well known in India?

Shrabani:  Not at all.  Nobody knows anything about him.  I went to find his grave in Agra and nobody knew where he was buried.  It took us 3 days searching through the graveyards of Agra before we finally found it.  It was a desolate grave covered in rubble.  I told people that he was important and he was the closest confidant of Queen Victoria and nobody knew.  I felt his story had to be told.

Matt:  Do you know if the film has had a chance to screen anywhere in India yet and what sort of reaction it might have received?

Shrabani:  It is opening in Indian cinemas on October 6.  It’ll be in English so it’ll be shown mainly in Metropolitan cinemas where there are a lot of English speakers amongst the middle class.  There is a lot of interest in it.  The book was a best seller in India for several weeks so I think it’ll do very well.  Everyone is very excited.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  Are there any books we expect to see from you soon?

Shrabani:  I’m working on something that’s required several years of research.  It’s still ticking away and I’m sure you’ll hear about it when it comes out.

While in New York a few weeks back, I had a spare evening in which to see a Broadway show.  I had intended to see Hamilton (which everyone has been raving about for a year) but made a late switch and saw Dear Evan Hansen instead.  It won the Tony Award in 2017 for best new musical and was still showing with its original Broadway cast – headlined by Tony winners Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones.  The show was written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who also wrote the music for the film hit La La Land.

Getting a ticket wasn’t the cheapest assignment.  For shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, where there’s huge hype, you have to book months in advance.  Because my trip was impromptu, I went through a reseller’s website called Stubhub.  Instead of paying $95 USD, I paid $395 USD for a back row seat (the view was still fine).  The lesson is to book early but it does illustrate how popular the show was.  Also of note was the ticket pick-up process.  Stubhub actually has a newly fit-out store in Manhattan.  You walk in, go up to the desk, and the tickets are waiting in an envelope.  It’s simple and easy.

I love live theatre as much as I love cinema.  I have such respect for the actors who go on stage every night and deliver faultless performances in front of an audience.  It requires so much more rehearsal than the medium of cinema.  It a shame we get so few quality shows in Brisbane.  If I lived permanently in New York, I’d be spending a LOT of money on theatre tickets and trying to make a go of it as a theatre critic.

It’s hard to describe the show itself but suffice to say it was amazing.  It’s about a high school kid, Evan Hansen, who suffers from anxiety and has few friends.  When another teenager at school commits suicide, he finds himself caught up in an elaborate lie.  Through a series of mistimed events, the family of the deceased student thinks that Evan was their son’s best friend.  He goes along with the ruse so as to avoid confrontation and to not further upset the family.  Unfortunately, things escalate to a point where Evan finds the lies difficult to maintain.

It’s a heavy subject matter and the fact it’s framed as a musical gives it a “dark comedy” edge (which I love).  I can’t imagine anyone else but Ben Platt in the lead role (he’s crazy good) but I’d still love to see the show make it to Australia one day.  We waited 6 years for The Book of Mormon so hopefully it doesn’t take as long for Dear Evan Hansen.

The quality isn’t brilliant but you can watch a 4 minute clip of one of the best songs (performed at the Tony Awards) by clicking here -

As a side note, I loitered outside the theatre afterwards to get my playbill signed by Ben Platt.  It’s a nice memento and it’ll provide a lasting memory of an amazing theatrical experience.

Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen



Edgar Wright Interview

He’s been one of my favourite directors for some time and so I was thrilled to speak with Edgar Wright while in Australia for the premiere of his new film, Baby Driver.

Matt:  I was in New York City last week and saw it in a format known as 4DX.  It was the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like that with the moving chairs, blasts of air, lights coming on and off.  As a director, is that something you control?  Is there someone in a cinema adding all those effects?

Edgar:  I didn’t have anything to do with the 4DX thing but I’d love to try it actually.

Matt:  You’ve got a great reputation in the industry after films like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.  How easy is it finding the cast for a film like Baby Driver?  Are people like Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey lining up to work for you or does it take a bit of negotiation on your part?

Edgar:  I was really pleased that Kevin and Jamie responded well to the material.  I think it was partly because of me, partly because of the script and partly because it was all set to music.

Matt:  Tell us a little about Ansel Elgort.  I follow him on social media and he comes across as such an extrovert who shares so much about his life – the complete opposite of his character in this film.  What did you see in him and what did you think made him a perfect fit for this role?

Edgar:  I think that’s very much a generational thing.  Baby is a personality that is entirely different from Ansel because he’s introverted and does an accent.   What’s important is that Ansel has this confidence which is important for the role as Baby has to convince us that he’s the most badass getaway driver in the business.  While part of him is introverted and quiet, he has to be much stronger on a physical level with his actions speaking louder than his words.

Matt:  I think I read you’ve had an idea for a film like this for some time.  Is that true?

Edgar:  I’ve had the idea for years so it’s been a very long time.

Matt:  So how easy is it translating it from an idea in your head to a workable script on paper?

Edgar:  It wasn’t easy.  Because it’s such a visual film with the soundtrack being a big part of it, it was tricky to explain on paper what it was going to look and sound like. 

Matt:  I’m not saying anything new in remarking about the great use of music in the film.  It’s almost as if you started with the song and designed the scene around that.  Can you explain how you broadly picked the music and how early it was incorporated into the script?

Edgar:  The opening song inspired the idea 21 years ago.  With the songs, I’d listen to them and then write down what I wanted to happen in the scene.  Before I’d even written a word, I’d earmarked 8 or 9 of the songs.  It was an interesting process to let the music lead me.

Matt:  The film has been very well received so far.  It’s had some great reviews and is doing nicely at the US box-office.  What was it like in the week or so leading up to release?  As a director, do you know you’ve got something works or are you still nervous about what reactions await?

Edgar:  You’re always nervous about the commercial response.  I was getting anxious in the days leading up to release because I knew we had a great cast and then we got some great reviews.  You think “if this tanks then I really don’t what I’m going to do.”  It was a big relief to have it connect with audiences.

Matt:  The film has been very well received so far.  It’s had some great reviews and is doing nicely at the US box-office.  What was it like in the week or so leading up to release?  As a director, do you know you’ve got something works or are you still nervous about what reactions await?

Edgar:  They do but I’m superstitious about that stuff so I ask to be taken off those emails.  All I can do is make the movie to the best of my ability and then promote the movie tirelessly.  Beyond that, it’s not up to me.  You’re in the lap of the gods at some point.

Matt:  I’ve been following your journey across the world in promoting this film.  You’ve had Q&As with the likes of Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson and then you had dinner last night with George Miller.  What’s it like interacting with your peers in that way?  Do you learn a lot from each other, do you share ideas, or are you talking about anything else but movies?

Edgar:  George Miller is actually doing the Q&A tonight.  One of the nice things since Shaun of the Dead is the world getting smaller and being able to meet my heroes.  It’s extraordinary.  These are people who I have admired for years.  I was talking to George last night about my filmmaking process and the number of things we had in common was fascinating.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What are we going to see from you next?

Edgar:  That is a very good question.  I’ve been promoting this film since March.  I started trying to write something and I failed miserably because I’ve been doing endless interviews for Baby Driver.  At a certain point, I’m going to sleep for a month, resurface and then figure out the next thing.