What does it take to bring together one of the film industrys most respected actresses and one of its rising stars A fairy tale for adults, says director Bharat Nalluri of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” which teams Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.
The Oscar-winning McDormand says, This is a stylish and entertaining story about making choices and living with the consequences and right away I could clearly see myself playing the title role.
Adams, the Oscar nominee recently seen starring in the hit Enchanted, adds that the film is a female-driven story that originated from a female perspective; the journey is about finding out what and who is right for you, what is truly best for you, and about being true to yourself even as you step outside of your comfort zone.
The film takes place in the London of 1939, as re-created by the filmmakers on location in the U.K., including at the storied Ealing Studios. As the oldest film studio site in the world, Ealing itself was a vital part of London in 1939.
First published in 1938, the novel “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” was written by Winifred Watson (1907-2002). The author wrote 6 novels in total and was a bit ahead of her time, says producer Stephen Garrett. Her books were about women changing their lives, flouting convention, and addressing class tensions and extramarital sex. Her other works, more dramatic than Miss Pettigrew, were well-reviewed and popular. But writing was phased out of her life during World War II and the concurrent and subsequent commitment to her husband and newborn son.
My father and I tried to get her to write again, but she wouldnt, remembers her son Keith Pickering. She told me she had written Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in six weeks, from start to finish. She would go over dialogue in her mind while she was washing dishes, and then write after finishing the dishes. She knew it was a winner, and she was absolutely right.
Producer Nellie Bellflower, Oscar nominee for “Finding Neverland,” offers that the power of Winifred Watsons story lies in its ability to make the reader happily believe that anything might be possible.
The novel had very nearly made it to the big screen once before: Universal had optioned the successful book with plans to make it into a movie musical with a top star of the time, Billie Burke (best-known as Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz”), as Miss Pettigrew. But WWII spurred Universal to make different and more serious movies, and so the tale awaited rediscovery as a viable motion picture.
In 2000, Watson herself was rediscovered by the London publisher Persephone Books, which reprinted Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day to renewed critical praise. The Guardian asked, Why has it taken more than half a century for this wonderful flight of humour to be rediscovered The Daily Mail cited the books message that everyone, no matter how poor or prim or neglected, has a second chance to blossom in the world. The author herself enjoyed the renewed attention, finding it all rather nice, and citing the novel as her favorite of her works; I always had a fondness for Miss Pettigrew
During the reissue of the novel, the U.K.-based Garrett first came across it when I read a synopsis in The Bookseller. I then read the book and it moved me and made me laugh; I found it to be extraordinarily uplifting, completely captivating, and life-affirming.
Miss Pettigrew embodies the dashed hopes and expectations of anyone whose life hasnt quite worked out as they might have hoped it would. Miss Pettigrew couldnt be further removed from my own life experiences, but when I finished reading her story I thought the world a better place. I wanted to make a film which could capture that spirit and have that effect on audiences.
He adds, You realize quite quickly that this is not your average British period film. This rather prim woman with very little experience of the real world finds herself amongst a bunch of rather racy types. Over the course of the next 24 hours, she sorts out Delysias life through sheer common sense and, rather wonderfully, her own life gets sorted too.
Garrett optioned the film rights, and was subsequently introduced to Bellflower, who was in London for production on Finding Neverland with that films screenwriter David Magee. While the duo would later receive Oscar nominations for the project, the producer found herself thinking even further ahead when she read Watsons book on a plane back to NYC and quickly joined Garrett in working to bring Miss Pettigrews tale to the screen at last.
Bellflower remarks, I fell in love with it. This had everything you would want a story to have. I knew that David would bring a very human understanding of the characters to it, and, as with Finding Neverland, I believed that its the kind of film that people want to see need to see now, given the times we live in.
The story is a little sexy, a lot of fun, and a classic Cinderella tale but there are two Cinderellas; Miss Pettigrew and Delysia. They cross each others paths at a moment in time when each is open enough to move in the others direction. Their circumstances are so different, and yet they are so much the same we learn that they have more in common than they appear to. For the title role, I said, This part is for Frances McDormand.
Once back in New York, she gave the book to the Oscar winners managers. Bellflower remembers, They loved it and then Frances told me she wanted to play the role and this was before we had a director or a script.
Screenwriter Magee says: Im not British, so I wasnt at all sure I was right for it. I kept telling Nellie Id get around to reading the book that shed sent over. When I did start reading it, I couldnt stop because I fell in love with Miss Pettigrew and Delysia two incredibly resourceful women. It reminded me of the classic movies from that era, those wonderful romantic comedies where you feel for the characters but theres also an energetic pace and a lightness of spirit. Id always wanted to be part of telling a story like that. While writing this movie, I would end a lot of days smiling.
Bellflower found the project its financing and studio partner in Focus Features. As the development process continued, Garretts partner Paul Webster joined as executive producer, and Simon Beaufoy (an Academy Award nominee for The Full Monty) joined as screenwriter.
Garrett and Webster had worked with Bharat Nalluri on several projects, including the acclaimed miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath and the hit caper series Hustle, which was based on an idea by the director. Therefore, Garrett notes, Not all directors can lend their talents to any genre, but Bharat can and does.
Nalluri admits, I was perhaps not the obvious choice for a romantic comedy. But, after Tsunami, which dealt with such pain and loss, I knew I wanted needed to do something that dealt with love and hope. Miss Pettigrew embodies these emotions.
Having just gotten engaged myself, I wanted to explore love and the choices we make in terms of who we end up with, and this story does that so beautifully. The story may take place in 1939, but these are characters we can all recognize.
Bellflower says, We met with Bharat, thinking This man cant possibly know much about the world in our movie. Not only did he know everything about it, he knew what would make it more special than we had imagined.
Nalluri adds, An underpinning to this wonderfully romantic and funny story is the fact that World War II is about to break out. That isnt really mentioned in Winfred Watsons book seeing as it came out in 1938 so it became important to us as subtext. The dramatic stakes are higher because of this. Life is too short, and at that time was about to become more so for too many,
There was certainly a lot of glamour then, but there were also a lot of have-nots and Miss Pettigrew has, as the story begins, become one of them. She has to sort out her future, quickly.
Bellflower offers, At the base of any good comedy is something a little more serious. Our story takes place on the cusp of a time in when people and not just in the U.K. were unsure about their future. This gives the story an added poignancy.
That last quality is evident in Miss Guinevere Pettigrew from the first, whether in Watsons story or Magee and Beaufoys screenplay or most particularly in McDormands performance.
McDormand notes, Reading the book, I felt that Winifred Watson was telling us about women who in fact exist.
Magee adds, Frances knew the character, and what she wanted to do with the role. Shes wonderful as Guinevere.
There could have been no other Miss Pettigrew, says Garrett. It was inconceivable that anyone else could have played the role. Had we lost her for any reason, the project would have collapsed. As it was, she patiently stayed the development course with us.
Beaufoy notes, At the start of the story, Miss Pettigrew is a very shy and neglected woman, seemingly good at nothing. She lacks money, she lacks resources, and is fired from her job. Yet when she unwittingly walks into this glamorous life she has only ever seen in the movies, she finds a place for herself through an innate ability she has to make the best of whatever is around her.
She goes from being the least important person in the room to the most important person in the room. Not through money or looks, but because she is an innately good human being. She becomes like a magnet for people like Delysia who realize that they have become desperate to know how to sort out their lives. Trying to make the right moral decision in a complex set of circumstances is an eternal problem for us all.
Magee elaborates, While Delysia is willing to be whomever anyone wants her to be in order to become a star, Guinevere is willing to become what Delysia wants her to be whether its personal assistant or referee in her affairs because shes horribly poor. Yet Delysia doesnt judge Guinevere based on her looks which is how she is judged all the time. With she and Guinevere becoming friends, Delysia is able to ask herself for the first time, What do I really want to do with my life Guinevere meanwhile gains confidence, advising and supporting Delysia and realizing that there is a second act in her own life.
As part of the glamorous milieu she suddenly becomes immersed in, Miss Pettigrew finds herself in the salon of Edythe DuBarry (Shirley Henderson) and is persuaded to undergo a makeover.
Well, admits McDormand, At the start of the story Miss Pettigrew is dowdy, with particularly uncontrollable hair. But when the mirror turns to reveal her new look, she is still the same person, just in different clothes. She discovers that its not about getting rid of what she was before, but about fully inhabiting who she was before and taking control of her life over the course of a day like no other in her life.
Frances brings an honesty and truth to the role, says Nalluri. This in turn helps add depth to our storytelling and takes our movie to another level. Having done her homework on Miss Pettigrew for the past few years, she so completely owns the character that you would believe it was written for her by Winifred Watson.
McDormand reveals, The one major script change I made was to get away from the idea that Miss Pettigrews rhythm was one of reticence and shyness, and that she was incapable of finishing a sentence. My change was that she complete every sentence; Miss Pettigrew knows exactly what she thinks and what she wants to say its that people just dont hear her finish her sentence, because they dont realize shes there.
One who takes note of Miss Pettigrews presence is Edythe. Shes not nice and shes quite mercenary, laughs Henderson when discussing her character. But, you know, the 1930s were difficult for women, and shes trying to keep her head above water, so I felt sorry for her. The wealthy people who come to her salon dont like her cutting remarks, yet at the same time they kind of enjoy them.
Bellflower marvels, We knew Shirley was the one to play Edythe after she read four lines for us, in our first meeting with her!
Henderson was eager to join the project. She says, It takes place in a period when people were sharp and spoke quickly. They didnt have television, so they were good at having conversations. Playing all that is good for the brain and the mouth, working them that quick.
Also, I knew that Frances would be playing Miss Pettigrew when I went for the audition, and she is so well-thought of among actors. Frances is down-to-earth but has gritty and vulnerable qualities as well all perfect for Miss Pettigrew. And I found that, like her character, Frances is concerned about everybody. This movie is a comedy, but theres the underlying message of someone taking the time to genuinely help people and therefore oneself.
Drawing not only from Watsons story but also from her own actors instincts for a character, McDormand enumerates Miss Pettigrews personal history; She is a vicars daughter and was brought up very properly. When she lost her fianc in World War I, her life just kind of stopped and she had to go on to service as a governess. She still has her clothes that she got for her trousseau with the wedding.