“Miss Potter” is directed by Chris Noonan, produced by Mike Medavoy, and star Oscar-winner Rene Zellweger.
At a time when most young women of her class aimed only to make a good marriage, Beatrix Potter became an iconic figure, swimming with great fortitude against the tide. She created a series of books and characters that are as beloved today as they were a hundred years ago; since their publication they have never been out of print. She was also a distinguished painter and–had she been a man–her botanical drawings would have been snapped up by the Royal Horticultural Society at Kew Gardens.
Decade After Babe
Australian Chris Noonan committed to direct in spring 2004. The more he read, and researched, the more Noonan became fascinated by the woman, her life and her achievements. Signing Noonan for the project was inspirationalthe director of “Babe” had waited a decade before choosing his follow-up movie. I was offered every project under the sun, but I just couldnt work up any enthusiasm for them. And when I did find something, the producers didnt want to concentrate on what I found interesting about it.
Noonan on Zellweger
There is nothing over-produced or over-rehearsed about Renes performance, said director Chris Noonan. Theres real spontaneity. You know she has an anarchic, subversive sense of humor, and when you learn more about Beatrix Potter, you discover she had real wit, and was far earthier than you might suppose.
Independent Free Thinker
Those who immediately think cuddly bunnies and nursery plates when they hear mention of Beatrix Potters name, are in for a major shock. Miss Potter was an artist of infinite skill, her botanical drawings would have been accepted all over the world had she been a man. She was an independent free thinker who fell in love with her publisher, Norman Warne. She left a publishing legacy that has enchanted every generation since. She left vast swathes of Englands beautiful Lake District to the nation, in bequests to thethen infantNational Trust. And it is because of Beatrix Potter that the Lake District remains as intact and glorious today as it was when she first saw it over a hundred years ago. I dont think many people know a great deal about her life, said Noonan. A vision of Beatrix that Ive had from the beginning is a modern woman placed into the suffocating social environment of the turn of the 20th Century.
Long Journey to Screen
Miss Potter had a somewhat meandering journey to the screen. Richard Maltby Jr., Tony award winning writer of musicals including Aint Misbehavin, Fosse and Ring of Fire wrote the screenplay in the early 1990s. I knew Beatrix Potter because I had young children at the time, Maltby explained. We had the books. I read the blurb about her and it said she was unmarried. She wrote the books, moved to the Lake District, and after that she wrote no more stories.
I found it quite fascinating that a woman artist with such a rich fantasy life should give up writing. Maltby found a biography about Beatrix Potter while on vacation, and read it and was further intrigued. Because of his background in musical theatre, his first instinct was Miss Potter: the musical, only to discover that in the late twentieth century nobody wanted to make a musical.
The screenplay came to the attention of producer David Kirschner. Kirschner started collecting childrens literature when he was eight years old, graduating as an older person to collecting first editions (not just Beatrix Potter, but also Peter Pan and other English Classics).
For almost a decade Kirschner and his producing partner Corey Sienega, struggled to bring the project to fruition. Then a chance meeting between David Thwaites of Phoenix Pictures and Richard Maltbys agent at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 upped the stakes. Richard Maltbys agent said, Youre English, youll like this script, recalled Thwaites. He took the screenplay back to Phoenix Pictures where his colleagues Mike Medavoy and Arnold Messer also responded well.
It seems to me that the instinct you have for a script is based on how much you enjoy reading it the first time. Miss Potter was just a really lovely story and it was unusual, because it was about a character that was well known, but little known, Thwaites said.
The partnership between David Kirschner Productions and Phoenix Pictures meant that, at last, Miss Potter was confidently looking towards production. The first people whose blessing was needed was Beatrix Potters publishers, Frederick Warne & Co, guardians of the Potter imprint. Although now part of the massive Penguin publishing group, Warne & Co operate independently within Penguin. They approved the screenplay and were fundamentally involved in the production from the very start, offering help, advice and a massive amount of informed research material.
Maltbys screenplay tells Beatrix Potters story. It tells of her love for her publisher, Norman Warne and her striving towards an independent life at a time when her expected place in society was as a conformist wife. It praises her talented penboth as writer and artist. It tells of a woman whose life was a fascinating mix of professional achievement and private grief. She was a woman ahead of her time.
Beatrix Potters conventional, social-climbing Victorian parents did not view their daughters adolescent stories about animals and the accompanying drawings as having particular merit. They were even less enthusiastic about her affection for a man in trade and hoping for a more acceptable liaison, insisted the relationship remain a secret. To her mother in particular Beatrix was a mystery and a profound disappointment. Her father shared Beatrix artistic bent and was a talented amateur photographer at the dawn of the new technology. A wealthy man, he was able to indulge his hobby. It is almost certain that neither parent really understood the scale of their daughters talent.
Producer David Kirschner recalled the process of arriving at Chris Noonan as director. A host of directors had been interested in the project. For me, the animation and Beatrixs imagination, and seeing the characters from the point of view of this lonely, brilliant woman was what separated the film from a traditional view of a Victorian love story to something a little different. I must confess Chris Noonan was not part of my original directors list, but when I heard he was interested, that was fabulous. I have probably seen “Babe” more times than he hasIm the films biggest fan. What he has brought to the film is his gentleness, sensitivity and an element of the fantastic that is never cloying, never sentimental.
The producers were delighted when Noonan accepted to direct “Miss Potter.” They trusted his instinct and believed if anyone could tease out the marrow in Maltbys screenplay, it was the genial Australian. Rene Zellweger recalled that it was about a year after she became involved. I cant remember now who suggested him, but it just seemed so right. When you read the script its almost impossible to believe it isnt fictiondid this woman really lead such a colorful life of highs and lows Its almost Dickensian! It might go really saccharine if you chose a director who played into that melodrama. Fortunately theres no danger of that with Chris Noonanhe underplays it all, looks for the honesty rather than playing for the drama. He always looks for the reality rather than the fairytale.
I Don't Do Corny
There was a scene we were shooting one day, and I kept saying to Chris, Please tell me it wasnt corny, and he said, Oh, no! I dont do corny. There was this complete confidence from him from the get-go. Its wonderful to work with someone who has that sort of clarity of vision because it becomes very easy. Hes probably the nicest man on the planet he never raises his voice. At the same time he has fun and a child-like curiosityhes always looking around, discovering, talking to everyone. Its the perfect partnershipthe woman who created these beautiful stories that resonate with children, and Chris with his curiosity and gentle manner.
While executive producers Nigel Wooll and Louis Phillips set to work bringing in creative technicians to meet Noonan, casting director Priscilla John started to assemble a gifted group of actors who might fit.
The first choice to play Miss Potters secret sweetheart, publisher Norman Warne was Ewan McGregor. He and Zellweger worked together on “Down With Love” and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and were actively looking for another film to do together. McGregor, recently a celebrated Sky Masterson on the West End stage in Guys and Dolls, plays Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas three prequels to “Star Wars.”
Getting an actor into a role is a courtship, explained Chris Noonan. Ewan has the personality and charm that Norman Warne must have had. Hes playing Norman as a slightly awkward character. The chemistry between Renee and Ewan works wonderfully for the film.
Double Oscar nominee (for “Breaking the Waves” and “Hilary and Jackie”) Emily Watson plays Millie Warne, sister of Norman, friend and confidante of Beatrix. It is Watsons first role since giving birth to Juliet, aged five months when filming started.
Noon on the Cast
I find it unbelievable that I have such a cast, enthused Noonan. Ive always wanted to work with these actors. When I met the cast together and we discussed their characters and how they saw them, and how I saw them, I told them all that I just couldnt believe my luck. People Ive admired all my film going life assembled round the table it was amazing!
Playing Miss Potter's parents are two of Britains most consistently excellent acting talents, Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson. Anton Lesser plays publisher Harold Warne and Phyllida Law is cast as Mrs. Warne, the publishers invalid mother. Lloyd Owen plays solicitor William Heelis. As the 11-year-old Beatrix there is Lucy Boynton and young Bertram is played by Oliver Jenkins.
As the whole ensemble began to take shape with stellar names both in front of the camera, and behind it, critical choices were made.
Oscar winning production designer Martin Childs took up residence in the office opposite Chris Noonan at Pinewood Studiosboth with their doors open, leading to a freely flowing dialogue as decisions large and small were debated. The first thing I do is to soak up the period, looking at contemporary paintings, and finding little clues that help. Because this story takes place in several time frames I tried to find out whether there were any handy developments in technology that we could use. Electricity was becoming commonplace in peoples homes and that enabled us to establish a different look for the interiorswhen Beatrix is a child in the film, the interiors are lit by oil and gas lamp; when she is an adult, interiors can be lit by electricity.
A similar sort of revolution was happening outsidea hundred years ago there were cars, which there were not when Beatrix was a child. Little things like that become a shorthand for establishing the period. Even the less observant viewer can pick up on the fact that there is electricity, and there are cars, not just the clip clop of horses hooves. Childs is an enthusiast, and he and Chris Noonan instantly bonded.
Costumer Anthony Powell
They were joined during pre-production by another great talentthe triple Oscar-winning costume designer Anthony Powell. Powell, with his genius for research came across a wonderful collection of photographs by Beatrix father, Rupert Potter, and these became a template for everything that followed.
Ive had enormous freedom, Powell said. When you work with the production designer and the director it becomes like a tennis match, and you toss out ideas and bat them back and forth and after a while its difficult to remember who thought of what. I did huge amounts of research, not just of the Potter family, but the whole social history of the period.
What appealed to me was that I thought the script was absolutely charming, and the sort of script that doesnt get written anymore. When I heard that Noonan was going to direct it, I knew I wanted to do it, because “Babe” is one of my all time favorite films.
Beatrixs clothes were terribly simple. I felt she cared nothing for convention or what people expected her to do or how they expected her to look. She was well brought up so obviously she wouldnt go to a meeting with the bank manager or the publisher looking a total mess, but equally she didnt look like the girls and women of her age.
Zellweger has tremendously strong ideas and that has made it a curious and interesting experience, commented Powell. Ive gone for a contrast between the way Beatrix looked and the way other women looked. In the late 19th century and early 20th century it was the full flowering of the belle epoch. Women tended on the whole to be overdressed, over coifed, over hatted, and Ive tried to make that point.
Powell says that every film has its challenges. Fortunately he had the resources of John Bright and his company Cosprop who have a unique collection of antique clothes and copies, the quality of which is such that you really cant tell what is antique and what is a copy. In many cases if they are original 19th century clothes they are too fragile to use, but they can be used for inspiration, he said.
Noonan chose Andrew Dunn as his director of photography. Dunn is a quietly authoritative figure whose previous films include The Madness of King George for Nicholas Hytner, STAGE BEAUTY for Richard Eyre, GOSFORD PARK for Robert Altman and MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS for Stephen Frears.
Noonans choice of editor is Robin Sales who worked on many of the Richard Sharpe action films for television before making the break into movies with Mike Leighs lavish TOPSY-TURVY, about Gilbert and Sullivan.
Childs and his crew faced the task of building the sets within sheds in the middle of Isle of Man fields. Childs team rose to the challenge and out of horizontal rain, sleet, snow and mud, gradually the Potter home emerged. At the risk of sounding negative there is always one set of circumstances that is different from the rest, recalled Childs With Miss Potter it was, lets shoot the film in the Isle of Man rather than on sound stages. I designed the sets I wanted and the challenge for the art director was to fit those designs into the barns they found in the middle of fields. We got there in the end, but it makes you realize how much you take for granted in a real film studio on a real sound stage.