There are not many actresses nowadays whose name would sound as loud as Dame Maggie Smith’s. Every time you see her in a particular film, you expect nothing but highly intelligent lines and a wisely written screenplay. And when it comes to Dame Maggie Smith, all she has to do is deliver her performance with ease and confidence, as she usually does. The Lady in the Van, flawlessly directed by Nicholas Hytner, opens February 5th in Toronto (Varsity). It follows Mary Shepherd, an elderly but highly educated woman, who “temporarily” lives in her van parked on the doorway of Bennett (Alan Jennings).
What she does, and how she uses her charm in order to live in the same area for 15 years is something you must find out after you watch the film. However, there are many interesting details you will find as great treats once you read the interview with filmmaker Nicholas Hytner, who I had the pleasure to sit down with and talk during the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015.
MOVIEMOVESME: How was it recreating the life of one individual in your film?
Nicholas Hytner: It was a straightforward, although challenging, matter of recreating these lives in the very place they happened. That is what it was, that is what it looked like. There’s plenty of photographic records of what the van looked like and even what she looked like. Maggie is smaller than she was, she was a tall and scary woman. That’s what it felt like and particularly that’s what it felt like from his desk. I’ve never seen the van from his room though. Seeing the van from the window is very very hard to imagine living with it for fifteen years.
MOVIEMOVESME: So he kept writing and looking at it all the time unless it was a diversion for him because writing’s pretty hard?
N.H.: Well he kept a record of everything he said and did because he sat at the desk even when he was writing something else. He had a large, large archive; archive of all her stuff too. There’s plenty that happened, plenty of stories that don’t make it to the film. She was politically very crazy, very very right wing indeed. She would get in to type out her pamphlets, she thought she could stand for elections; she founded a political party called “The Fidelis Party.” It was many, many, many miles to the right.
MOVIEMOVESME: So is that what happened, did he end up in a relationship after she went?
N.H.: It is literally true although he denies there’s a connection. It is literally true that he met his partner within months of her dying and he’s still with that partner.
MOVIEMOVESME: Do you think in your opinion it scared people off?
N.H.: Well I think, I have said to him so I don’t mind saying it to you, although he didn’t respond to it. I said, “You know you don’t have to be Dr. Freud to wonder whether having that on your doorstep is a way of telling the rest of the world to go away.” I mean I can only ask the question.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the music of the film?
N.H.: It felt necessary to find one piece from the classical repertoire that she might have played. She started with the quarter, that’s what I’m sure of. So it seemed a very good place to start. I sat with George, the composer, and we listened to all the early great Romantic. I think the slow movement is so emotional. I thought the entire score should be from the classical repertoire and for a long time when we were putting it together, the temporary score was all limited to the mid 19th century. Then George suggested starting with the kind of music she might’ve played in the 30s. So there’s a whiff of early 20th Century music to the score he then composed completely from scratch.
MOVIEMOVESME: All those archives you couldn’t find any references to what she played?
N.H.: No, because she never talked to him about that. She did occasionally talked to him about music but she hated people playing music. It was true that she was told to stop playing by the nuns. But he didn’t find out she was a pianist until after she died. He found out a lot of her story from her brother after she dies. So one of the things which the film does, which is manipulation of the film, is to have him meet the brother before she dies.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you manage to invite Maggie Smith to this project?
N.H.: Well, she played the part on stage fifteen years ago and she’s an old colleague of mine. I’ve written a lot for her over the years. Yes, she is very picky about what she does but she’s worked with me before. I genuinely can’t remember why we didn’t make the movie fifteen years ago but I’m glad we didn’t because everything is better now than fifteen years ago. Also, the play was particularly written for her.
MOVIEMOVESME: Did she mind getting dirty?
Interviewee: She doesn’t mind getting dirty. I’ll tell what she minds; she minds being offered clichéd depictions of old age. This reinvented her because this woman was obviously crazy but she was so determined and independent to live her life on her own terms. And that’s exactly what Maggie latched on. But the opportunity the film gives for her to explore the sense of waste of her own life, that’s Maggie Smith not Shepherd. I think the real Ms. Shepherd gave Alan a few hints of that kind of self-consciousness. The film makes very clear when Ms. Shepherd starts questioning Alan about his own motive. That is the writer imagining what it might be like being inside Ms. Shepherd’s head. I think she was a difficult, ungrateful person; she was not a nice lady.
MOVIEMOVESME: What is Maggie Smith like to work with?
N.H.: I worked with her first in the 90s. So I go back with her a long time and I know what she needs is to be surrounded by people who can measure up to her. So on this film it was sheer pleasure because these are actor who have been in the national theater for the last 12 years. Maggie has worked together with a lot of these guys before. So you give her actors like that, she’s absolutely heaven! She’s seriously intelligent but there’s something very touching about her which I think is a feature of all great actors. They’re ferociously intelligent and they’re always. The great ones, in my experience, have thought so much what they want to technically achieve, they have the experience on the technique to translate what they want to show. But they’ve also got some kind of mystery and Maggie occasionally will catch herself doing something and not be quite sure where it came from. She kind of laughs in the light, something that happened without her knowing it was about to happen. I so love it when Maggie is taken by surprise of her own talent.
MOVIEMOVESME: What is the role of the director in this case because you have a very committed team?
N.H.: It’s to make everybody sure what the point of the scene we’re about to shoot is, what it needs to achieve in the film. Before that, it’s persuading them to be in the film. That’s a pretty good start. Yeah, none of these actors have to be showed how to work. As far as working with them is concerned, it’s very clear and very economical.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the political aspect?
N.H.: Well, she was crazy right wing! A longer film would fine some humor in that; but this street, there were people who lived or visited that street. For instance, the children of the director, Steven used to live in that street. So Steven knows the street pretty well. The theater director, myself, the playwright, Michael, theater director Jonathan Miller, this was the street where North London liberal intelligentsia lived. So these are people who feel they earn more than they deserve and are left wing but they are intellectual left wing. The joke was she must’ve realized because she was cunning that on this street they wouldn’t move her because they had a basic sense of social consciousness. But then she tormented them with her right wing politics and she thought they were all communists. When she stands for parliament and decides not to stand anymore because she has one of the meetings with the virgins.
MOVIEMOVESME: I heard that with Downton Abbey she had enough of it, but maybe that’s her sense of humor?
N.H.: I don’t know about Downton but I know she loved playing this. Here’s a recommendation, have you ever seen a film called “The Private Function?” It is the most brilliantly funny film and it was Maggie smith hiding a pig in the house. So she goes a long way back with Alan.
MOVIEMOVESME: When “The Object of My Affection” came out it was very rare to have a gay man as a main character. Was it something you did on purpose to show a gay man in your film?
N.H.: I didn’t think it was different or powerful; particularly it was about working on with my dear friend who, very sadly, passed away recently. This was a story that felt very close to both of us. I’ve not seen it for years but I think history has overtaken it because it was a film at that time was inconceivable. For me as a gay man in middle age, to imagine it would be possible tomorrow to have a child, it’s too late for me but I think a young guy watching that film will be like, “This is ancient history!” Personally it makes me happy that the film is now way out of date, thank God!