Jan Chats with Director Christopher Noonan about his Film ‘Miss Potter’

Jan Chats with Director Christopher Noonan about his Film ‘Miss Potter’

(First Posted in 2007)

What a surprise: I walked into a critics screening of MISS POTTER with minimal background and low expectations (“Oy, Peter Rabbit? I don’t think so!”), but walked out delighted to have met her acquaintance. Luckily the publicist was able to add me to Chris Noonan’s schedule when the came to Chicago on a press tour a couple of days later. In AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ the Tony Award-winning musical based on the life of legendary jazz musician Fats Waller, Fats often ends his scenes on a note of wonder: “One never knows, do one?!?” Indeed!!!

Jan
Welcome to Chicago, Chris. Tell me, did MISS POTTER have a long development process?

Chris
Actually, no; not for me. But yes for Richard Maltby; he’s the writer of this movie. He’s a lyricist for musicals.

Jan
So the IMDb is right and this really is the same guy who won a Tony award for directing AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’?!?

Chris
Exactly. Now I think: “How incredible! This is his first film!” Maltby, I don’t quite know how he got the idea, but he got the idea. I think he just happened upon the story of Beatrix Potter’s life. It’s like what brought all of us into this; everyone, when they come across this story, they think: “My God, why doesn’t everyone know this story?” This is such an incredibly dramatic story of a life with a wonderful outcome. We know her stories, but we have no idea about Beatrix Potter, yet Beatrix Potter is one of the biggest selling authors ever.

Jan
So what’s your answer to that? Why don’t more people know her story?

Chris
Well, I think it’s because she was a woman and because she wrote children’s books. Broadly speaking, we’re not really interested in children, as a society. And particularly at that time, women’s lives were not the stuff of legend. Women didn’t cut it.

Jan
I was frankly amazed, Chris; I went into the screening room on Monday knowing nothing about Beatrix Potter, and I met an incredible woman—a proto-feminist and a proto-environmentalist. She should be at the top of today’s pantheon, absolutely.

Chris
There’s a lot of other stuff that she did too. Potter was a very accomplished naturalist, a real scientist. She came up with a notion of how fungi reproduced. She submitted her work to the Royal Society, the main British scientific body, and they rejected it because she was a woman. But I couldn’t get all this into the movie. It would’ve been too dense. So I couldn’t get into all the intellectual detail of her life, but I tried to get it into the movie in one way or another.

Jan
Well, I’m fascinated because one of the things that came through so beautifully was Andrew Dunn’s cinematography. What’s communicated, totally visually through the cinematography, is how much Potter loved nature and how nature inspired her. You present Potter as someone with an incredible eye, and a brain that sees the details of nature.

Chris
So that’s what got me into the story. In fact, a combination of the fact that a sense of wonder that I didn’t know anything about her, and really, I should’ve known. I should’ve been taught this in school. I should’ve been told about her life. She was a pioneer in the world. And the other thing was just how moved I was by the script, by the recounting of her story in the script, and I thought to myself: “This is so strong.” 

Jan

So Maltby came to you, since you were the director of BABE?

Chris
No, Maltby went looking for a producer. His first draft of the script was a musical. He wrote it as a musical. He wanted it to be a film but he wanted it to be a musical version of a film. Luckily for him he went to the least likely producer to ever respond to something about Beatrix Potter and that was a guy called David Kirschner who was the producer of the CHUCKY movies. Can you imagine a less fertile place to go? But unbeknownst to him, Kirschner was a devotee of cartoon drawings and illustration styles over time. He has an amazing collection of book illustrations from 500 years ago to the present day, and Kirschner loved Potter as well, so Maltby just found the perfect place.

Jan
So did Maltby go through what you show at the beginning, where everyone is initially rejecting Potter’s work?

Chris
I’m not sure. That’s a good point—maybe this is the story of Maltby’s life? So anyway, Kirschner and Maltby worked on it for I think two and a half years, worked on the script. David Kirschner felt that there was no market for this story as a musical and urged Maltby to move it towards a dramatic treatment and they did that together. Kirschner guided Maltby towards a more dramatic treatment. They got a draft of a script which they were happy with and they tried to get it financed and no one was willing.

So eventually they ended up at Phoenix Pictures with Mike Medavoy and David Thwaites. David Thwaites is an English guy, young, and so Mike Medavoy is a major, major American producer and has done ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and some amazing stuff. David Thwaites was working with him and Medavoy liked the idea and said: “Well he’s British, he’ll probably like it. He’ll probably know what to do with it.” And so Medavoy gave it to Thwaites to develop, and a partnership was born, but they kept developing the script. One of the great things about this film is that it’s got a lot of producers in its credits.

Jan
Yes, I saw that.

Chris
But they are all there for a reason. The great thing about Phoenix Pictures—and Medavoy, Thwaites and Kirschner—is they all agree with the primacy of script. They all agree that you do not make a movie until you have a script that you like, one that works.

Jan
So this thing was like three years or so down the line before you ever even got involved.

Chris
More like seven.

Jan
So how did you finally get involved?

Chris
So they developed the script and then when they got a script that they liked they started trying to interest an actor. The first one to jump at it was Cate Blanchett. So when it came to me, it came to me with Cate Blanchett attached to play Beatrix. Cate suggested me to them. She said: “The person to direct this is Chris Noonan. I’ll do it if he directs it.” Cate and I had worked together on a couple of little Australian TV things is all and so it came to me with Cate attached. I got very moved by the script. I thought the story was amazing, and as I said, it was a revelation.

So I signed on. But Cate, like most actors, you attach yourself to a number of projects before they’re financed, and she was attached to three, and one of the other ones got financed before this did. She actually pleaded with us to delay shooting it so that she could go off and do the other film, but none of the producers were prepared to wait because it had been a long, long time in development. They had approached Renée early on and she’d express some interest in it, although she hadn’t jumped as fast as Cate had. So to cut a long story long, we decided to go back to Renée.

Jan
It’s amazing when things fall together.

Chris
I know. There is no one more perfect for this role. Sometimes fate plays a hand in some way or another, and it’s one of the great mysteries of life.

Jan
Well, speaking of Australia, I brought Sarah Watt to Chicago last March for a screening of LOOK BOTH WAYS. We even had some of her animated shorts sent through the diplomatic pouch via the Australian Consulate here in Chicago. Have you seen it?

Chris
Oh right. I love LOOK BOTH WAYS. It’s a brilliant film. It’s brilliant.

Jan
Well I thought of it now because of the animation. One of the things that’s hardest to do in a biopic is getting inside the person’s head. So what I loved in LOOK BOTH WAYS, and loved in MISS POTTER as well, was the use of animation. I could completely believe that this was a lonely girl whose best friends really were her “animals,” and you made me believe that. So talk to me about animation.

Chris
I love the use of animation in this film. In the original script I read there was actually much more animation in it, but it was a very different style of animation. It had the characters coming to life on the pages as they do in the final version, but then it had them jumping off the page and coming into the world as 3-D characters that occupy human space in the world. They would sort of sit in a chair opposite Beatrix and they would have conversations with each other. I felt, and Renée felt, that this was taking away from the heart of the film—which is an incredibly dramatic, emotional story of this woman’s…

Jan
Her coming to love?

Chris
The coming to love, the losing of love, and then the coming to love again. That was the heart of the film. That was the universal story.

Jan
Speaking as a “career woman” myself, to see two characters who fall in love as they’re working together, well, it’s such a fabulous affirmation. It’s what really happens in life, but we rarely see it in films. Here are two people, workaholics really, and you show them learning to work together.

Chris
Yeah, that’s right, exactly.


Jan
For example, I absolutely love the scene where they’re in the print shop and Potter’s fussing: “No, no, no; it’s too muddy, too dark.” Potter wants to see it on the page the same way she sees in her head. Is it the same for you with animation? When you’re trying to explain what you want to other people, do you have the same problem she had? If they can’t “see it” themselves, do they worry that it’s going to be “too cute”?

Chris
Yes, exactly. When the screenplay had a three-dimensional “Peter Rabbit” going boing, boing, boing around the room, coming up and talking to Beatrix, there was something terribly schmaltzy about it, like a gimmick. I felt that was going to overpower the real story, which is what’s in her heart, what she is going through as a person. Potter knows what she wants to do. Where she got that from I don’t know, but she knows what she wants to do and she’s trying to do it in quite a humble way and yet the world is not ready, is not open to her. And Norman Warne is the first person to take her seriously.

Jan
Now talk about the music because I’m very interested in…

Chris
In us having two composers?

Jan
Yes, because Westlake has not done very much besides BABE…

Chris
Portman wrote basically one theme: the “Lake District” theme. The Lake District theme is sort of at the front and the end of the film and it’s used a couple of times through the film, but the rest of it is all Nigel Westlake. I love his composition. I just think he’s done a brilliant job. He takes us right inside Potter’s character. I worked very closely with Nigel throughout the whole process. Rachel came in towards the end and I didn’t have as close a relationship with her, but I’m very happy with the music that she contributed. I love the score. The first thing Nigel wrote was the melody for the music box (“When You Taught Me How to Dance”).

Jan
I wondered if that was actually a song of its time or something new?

Chris
It’s believable as a song of its time, which was his challenge. Nigel came up with that melody in a day. I said I wanted something that I could base a whole lot of other parts of the score on, and he came up with something very simple yet very provocative. I think the score serves the film so well.

Jan
I definitely agree. So, last question: BABE was released in 1995… What have you been doing since BABE?

Chris
BABE was my first feature. So you make a first feature and it’s an unbelievable, runaway success… It’s very hard to follow a success. I found it really difficult. I was looking for something, I was looking for my next project, but with a huge success like that, you feel like you built up so much capital that it’s really dangerous what you choose. If you choose something that’s a flop, you ruin, you just destroy all that capital that you’ve built up.

Compounded with that, most of the films that are made are only financed because someone has been able to prove by “mock science” that it’s going to be successful. “Mock science” means showing that this new idea is just like this other idea that was successful in the past, hence all the copies of BABE, and all of the copies of every successful film that comes out of left field. So I was presented, over time, with a whole series of scripts that were extremely derivative, that had no spark. It was just shocking.

Jan
Well, MISS POTTER is a lovely film, Chris, and I definitely hope lots and lots of people see it on the big screen, so they can fully appreciate Beatrix Potter’s accomplishment as well as your own.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (1/5/07)

Photo credits for Miss Potter: Alex Bailey © The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

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