Emma Thompson is a two-time Academy Award winning British actress who recently got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She’s appeared in such classics as Sense and Sensibility, In the Name of The Father, The Remains of the Day, and Howard’s End. Not only is she a talented actor but she knows her way around a screenplay too. Her latest writing/acting collaboration is for the family film, Nanny McPhee Returns, a sequel to the 2005 hit in which she plays a nanny who has a magical way of teaching children manners and life lessons.
In Returns she’s joined by 5 new children and a new parent in need of help (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Thompson recently attended a round table interview in Los Angeles to promote the film and discussed how she came up with another story to add to the Nanny McPhee legacy…
Nanny McPhee Returns was originally called Nanny McPhee and The Big Bang but they changed the title. Thompson discussed the name switch as well as her decision to move on from director Kirk Jones, who did the first film to Susanna White who directed this one.
Emma Thompson: We asked Kirk because that’s etiquette and we would have loved him but he was just about to make a film with Robert De Niro and said “I’m sorry, I can’t” and we said “Oh, okay. You’re gonna go work with Robert De Niro.” So that was that. And with Nanny McPhee and The Big Bang, the Americans felt that that might be misconstrued by some people because the big bang could refer to something other than, for instance, an explosion. I don’t want to go into it farther. I’m sure you can extrapolate the necessary information. So it went to Nanny McPhee Returns, which I think has its own pleasant ring.
Since Thompson also wrote the screenplay she talked about how she came up with the story and what came first the characters or the plot.
ET: Story first. I’m writing the third one at the moment which will be modern so that’s very interesting because they’ll be dealing with communications and these machines and all of that. So it will be very interesting. Story first, superstructure of the story first, what’s the big story? And then, what’s the little story inside that? What’s the internal emotional plot? What’s that? Get that right, start creating the characters, and then the last thing is the lessons. It’s an interesting question because I know how to do that now. And I know how to start the movies now. Because the first one, I’d written this whole huge sort of introduction about the history of naughty children through the ages, which actually one day I would love to have the money to be able to shoot, but we tried shooting it cheaply and it didn’t work. Anyway, in the end, we just had Colin [Firth] do “This is the story of my family” and I thought “Oh God, well that’s never going to work!” and it worked beautifully. So this time I thought, I can’t remember what the original opening was, but still the penny hadn’t bloody dropped, it’s extraordinary how long it takes sometimes for something very simple. And I’d had this whole introduction and I’m finding out we’re never going to do it, oh God, let’s just have Maggie say “This is the story of me and my family.” So now, writing the third one, I’ve got the beginning. I know that it’s going to be somebody saying “This is the story of me and my family.” That’s all you need.
She also spoke about the studio’s input on the final script and the process between the first and the final drafts.
ET: There’s always a process of give and take. The first thing I do is I work on my own with Lindsay [Doran], my producer, who’s an independent producer. We work together for however long it takes, in this case,3 or 4 years, and then we take what we think is our finished product to Universal, Working Title at Universal and then we will get notes from them and we’ll look at the notes and some of the notes are very good. I remember Working Title saying “We’d love a little bit more magic in London,” which gave me the excuse to be able to write a lion coming alive and roaring and Nelson bowing on the top of his column which was a great pleasure. So sometimes you get a lovely note where you’re allowed to [add things like that].
Since Nanny McPhee is an international film, Thompson had to adjust some of the language used in it. Not because there are curse words or anything but because as a native Brit her version of English is slightly different than ours in the U.S. Certain words don’t translate very well.
ET: For instance, there are certain words like “syrup” for the syrup situation, that I call “treacle” in my country. Treacle is such a great word but I had to change it to “syrup” because the Americans I was told, would not know what “treacle” was. Sometimes there will be words or things that people will say that I have to change and I refuse.
But she didn’t have to change the concepts in the film because they were universal.
ET: I would say – parenting, war, absence, fear of loss, divorce, conflict between children – I think they’re all universal. I think that the language and the detail of what food you’re eating or how you eat it or how you wear your hair, that’s all different probably. But I think that the concepts are entirely universal.
The film’s story centers on a working mother who’s trying to manage her kids and a farm while her husband is off at war. Thompson discussed the single-mother theme in the movie and how women today can relate.
ET: I think that even when people are together and are bringing up their children together, unless they have servants, if one of you is working which necessarily that generally is the case, the one who’s at home with the children all week feels like a single parent. They do, because apart from everything else, then your person comes in, in the evening late not wanting to take over and put the children to bed and you’re going, “Right. That’s it. That’s it. I’ve had enough now. You can take over.” And they go, “Excuse me, I’ve been working all day. Now I want to stop.” I think that there’s a lot of anguish involved in parenthood and I think in the 21st century we are going to have to grapple with all sorts of issues to do with parenting and to do with work and the relationship between those two vital jobs. Because parenting is much more important than most of the work we do. That is the fact. The work we do is important because we need to earn money. But we’re probably earning much more money than we need, a lot of us, except obviously in the poorer countries where that’s a whole other argument. But here, we really do have to do a lot of imaginative thinking about how to work this one out.
Another major aspect of Nanny McPhee Returns is war. It’s an event that has a major effect on every character. We wanted to know how Thompson wrote a film that was family friendly but tackled such a tough subject.
ET: When I said to Lindsay, I think it would be good if there was a war background, but I don’t think you should be too specific, I mean, it is going to be Second World War but not so that you’d really know. I don’t want references to Germany so the enemy plane just has “enemy plane’ written on it. The idea being that I wanted the father to be absent. Now, in present day wars because it could have been a modern war, that could be either the father or the mother because both sexes now go to war, which was something that the early feminists thought would put an end to war, but it hasn’t unfortunately. I thought if it is the Second World War, then it’s a good hundred years later, I can really change up the feel and the look and the conflicts can be very, very different. But we saw other people about the direction. Quite a lot of the blokes said I’d really like when they go into London to see a lot of bombed out craters. I said, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think this is about war. This is about absence, the possibility of loss, the possibility of jeopardy, but it’s not about war. It’s about the small war that occurs between the two groups of children.” So it was a perfect backdrop to create another actual war between two factions, which is the same thing.
From the page to the screen, McPhee is a character who gradually goes from hideous to beautiful as her children’s behavior improves. Thompson discussed the hair and make up process and how long it took to go from drab to fab.
ET: Sure. There’s varying degrees of it. There’s the X factor degree where it’s the full thing. When she arrives, she’s in a wig, hat, full makeup, fat suit, all the stuff over the fat suit, the clothes, and that constricts the ribs so you can’t quite breathe and plus you’ve got a prosthetic nose on and a mouth piece and I can’t talk and you’re getting little sore bits everywhere. So you’ve got to be rather zen when you’re in that state. You’ve just got to let it float over you because it’s very uncomfortable. Even though it was brilliantly designed, it’s just 8 to 12 hours in that get-up is uncomfortable. And it takes about an hour and a half to put all of that on. Maybe an hour and three-quarters at the beginning of the shoot and then it gets faster. The final bit takes just as long because the makeup artist has to comb my hair to do all this. It’s very funny actually. And then there’s nice little intermediary bits where I don’t have a monograph, I’ve got a nice little button nose, and I don’t have the earlobes and things like that. So it is a little bit of me coming in in the morning and going “What level is it?” It’s level 10? Oh God!” And you’re always very relieved when it’s over.
She and co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal were great friends on and off camera, and Thompson thoroughly enjoyed working with her.
ET: It’s bliss. As you can imagine, it’s much easier than working with someone you’re not trusting of and you don’t like [laughs] which can sometimes happen. I think on a film like Nanny McPhee, it’s vital that you cast people you know are — what we would say in my country are company members, people who play with the team, support the team. Maggie was so fantastic with the kids. She really did mother them. The girls were in floods of tears when she left on her last day. It was so touching. However much I like his acting, I’m not going to be casting Russell Crowe in a Nanny McPhee movie. Do you know what I mean? That would be too difficult. Not that he would do it. Cue the phone calls. [Laughs] “Crowe is McPhee!”
As for her working relationship with the film’s director Susanna White…
ET: Susanna is a great collaborator. When you’re making a film and there’s often between 8 and 12 characters in a scene and 5 of them are children, you need to have as many eyes on the process as possible. So we would just share the task when that was necessary. For instance, when we were shooting the scene when the bombs come into the field and there’s all that stuff with the children, Susanna is over on the other side of the field by the monitors, so she can’t come running backwards and forwards. She can’t run in the barley because every time you move on the barley, you flatten it and the art department goes “Oh! Don’t flatten the barley! We haven’t shot that scene yet.” And everyone gets very tense. So, Susanna would say “I need a bit of something from her” and someone would relay that to me. We just worked together like that all the way through and that was great.
When it came to her younger co-stars (the child actors) Thompson found them delightful and hard workers but she learned that even the best young actors can’t fake fun. There’s a scene in the film where a batch of pigs escape the farm and with a little help from McPhee take part in some synchronized swimming. The sight amazes the children causing them to burst out into laughter. When the scene was initially shot, they were laughing at poles and tennis balls (because of CGI), which unfortunately didn’t get the reaction they wanted so Thompson took matters into her own hands and jumped into the pond! She got the real reaction she was looking for from the kids and they use that footage in the movie.
ET: They were looking at me being dragged into the pond by the first AD and pushed right in and then I swam out into the middle and did a little bit of synchronized swimming of my own and then I got out and started to splash them as well. Luckily it was a beautiful day and hot so I was quite pleased to get into the water. It’s difficult for children to laugh when there’s nothing to laugh at. It’s difficult for actors but for children it’s really hard, so that was necessary. Actually I believe there’s a little extra on the DVD that has that bit because I think one of the cameras turned around and took it.
In the film there are a particular set of lessons the children have to learn before McPhee leaves, and here’s how Thompson came up with them…
ET: What I do is write the story first and then decide what lessons might work, might pertain, might be useful because that’s the best way round. First, I can’t start with lessons because that’s not a story and some of the lessons are ironic. Yes, they’ve learned how to share nicely with a pig and an elephant and a goat and a cow. You know, it’s not really them learning how to share nicely. But of course, you know that after they’ve shared with a particularly unpleasant smelling goat, they’re going to share pretty well because they don’t want to share with a goat anymore.
As for the big question we all want an answer to, “How does it feel being THE Nanny McPhee?
ET: The reaction of the crew because when I come on as Nanny McPhee, they’re all very respectful. All these huge guys say “Good morning, Nanny McPhee.” They never call me Ann. They don’t call me Emma. And I’m on set a lot just in civvies because I’m not on every day but I’m here. I’m on set all the time. But as long as I’m Nanny McPhee, they don’t come near me. It’s hysterical. It’s nice. I like it. I get a bit of peace.
Nanny McPhee Returns opens in theaters nationwide on August 20th.