“Where does Den Of Geek come from as a title?” asked Alan Rickman as I settled into my seat to interview him for his second film as director, A Little Chaos. I don’t usually write one of those setting the scene preambles for interviews, but there was something really quite special about hearing Alan Rickman’s voice in person for the first time.
In truth, as I walked through the door, I had no idea what to expect. Would Rickman be curt? Frosty? Would he want to cut out my heart with a spoon?
None of the above. He was as you’d hope: both brilliant, and Alan Rickman. And here’s how the interview went…
I’ve travelled down from the Midlands for this interview, and been walking through London this morning. And I’ve walked past lots of instances of people working on converting old buildings into luxury flats.
Yes. The work’s being done by people who won’t live there!
Which is a major theme of your film, A Little Chaos. You’ve talked about people building things to entertain the world that they serve. How one world maintains the other, for the rich. It struck me that even though we cloak films as period dramas, these are modern tales. Is that how you saw this story?
Totally. What made we want to do it, and love the script, was that it’s not really about them. The more I talked and worked with the design department, it was about making that fall into the background, so that we would be telling a very modern love story.
We play fast and loose with history anyway – it’s a joke that a woman like Sabine [Kate Winslet’s character] could have existed at all. It would have been impossible. The same with Le Notre. Le Notre, at the time, would have been servanted at the time.
But that’s the point in a way. Hopefully telling a story that after a while you forget about period and think, wow, a totally male dominated world in which women are just decorative objects. What would be the modern parallels of that, perchance?! And all sorts of other things about people with power, usually men.
I also picked up a theme of a resistance to lateralism in the film. That there’s an order of doing things, and if you go against that, there’s an instant suspicion. Is that something you were looking to draw out?
A bit of that, and also an awareness, I suppose because of my arts school background, that chaos is great, and I love it, but you don’t get real chaos without somebody who understands the rules, who worked at that, or understood and respects them.
I was a graphic designer so I have an absolute love of typography. But this was before computers when I was doing it. So we were handsetting type, and it was like a religion to my teachers, and the guy in the typesetting room, about the amount of space there should be between letters.
Nowadays, young typographers can just throw it onto a computer and straighten a letter or whatever to make it fit. And that’s fine. But I think there’s an order to be understood in the world that real chaos can be discovered, be more interesting, and be more truly chaotic.
You do have a line in the film that says chaos must adhere to budget…
That’s true! That’s just like filmmaking! [laughs]
You’re far from a novice to directing, of course. You’ve tackled lots of productions on stage, and The Winter Guest on screen before. What about A Little Chaos, though, made you want to tell it on screen, to devote two to three years of your life to it?
I don’t know that anyone can ever analyse these things. It’s like why do you say yes to reading something? Or acting in something? It’s visceral and instinctive, and something to do with – from a directorial point of view – images starting jumping around on the page, and you don’t want to lose them.
You want to catch them. Added to the fact that I liked Alison [Deegan]’s script… and it is really her script – Jeremy Brock and I were just structural engineers on it. But really it’s hers. So it’s her vision, her view, her take on history, and her view of a woman caught up in a male dominated world.
I was fascinated as a person, reading it. That’s a good start if you’re going to be telling a story, to be fascinated as a human being. Then I liked the idea of period movie that was also essentially modern. That it wasn’t going to be a biopic at all. It becomes a list of things, and eventually you find yourself in a production office with it!
And also timing. Because when I was first reading it, i was starting on Harry Potter and only three books were written. I had no idea that I was then going to be there for four more books. So I wasn’t going to be free to direct a film until that was over, because you can’t get a year free. By which time, Kate Winslet – and that’s an even shorter list as to who could play that woman – was old enough. Any earlier and she would have been too young.
So did you have different thoughts as to how you’d approach the film when it first came to your attention?
A bit of you starts making a list of who’s possible. Kate was just too young at the point. It’s like the film was like ‘no, no, no, I’m not going to let you make me until she can do it!’
Clint Eastwood sat on David Webb Peoples’ script for Unforgiven for a good decade, until it fit.
[Laughs] Well he’s in a position to do it deliberately!
There wasn’t a conscious thing for you though? This was circumstance?
That, and then there’s Kate. Then it happens to be a year after Rust And Bone comes out, so you get a new face [Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Le Notre], rather than anything predictable put against her. It’s a new energy, and Matthias is a perfect counterpoint to her.
I came to your work, and I suspect I’m not alone, through your villain roles.
Two! People go ‘a lot of’, but there were two!
Three! There was Quigley Down Under as well!
[Grins] Alright, three!
But that got me to Truly Madly Deeply, a film I’m a huge fan of. Was there any hint of a parallel between that film and this one? In that the budget was tight, you were a little off radar when you were making it? And was there anything you took from working with Anthony Minghella?
I think I learned through all of my working life that limitations are good for your imagination. If you’re given everything, you don’t know what to pick. And also, Truly Madly Deeply was Anthony’s first film as a director. You can’t forget the fact that on the first day, he gathered us actors and crew together and said alright everybody, I have one word, and that is ‘help’.
And I know what he means. If you’re not aware of it as an actor, you certainly are as a director. But a film set is a collection of the most incredibly supportive and skilled people, who keep their lights very much under a bushel, and they only support. Because the law of the film jungle is if you don’t, you get fired. You’ve got to be really good at your job, and you’ve got to support the director and producers.
That’s been true on every film I’ve ever been on. And certainly I noticed it with Anthony then, and the fact that he had the vulnerability to ask for help.
Logistically on this film then, you’re balancing films with up to 80 extras I read. Plus you’ve got some special effects work in A Little Chaos, too. There are lots of things where you’re having to trust a lot of experts. So what’s your approach as a director? You strike me as very collaborative, but ultimately it’s still your name on it at the end?
Yeah. Well, really detailed pre-production, so that when it comes to shooting, everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing. That doesn’t mean to say that you don’t sometimes find yourself in the trailer, with the producers and the first AD, and it’s pissing with rain. And you’ve got to shoot, and it’s outside, and it’s a scene with Louis [Louis XIV is played by Rickman in the film], who would look out of the windows and say ‘I’m not going out in that’! [Laughs] I am Louis! I do not go out in the rain!
So you thank god for the fact that James Merifield [production designer] has made a shitty old piece of canvas canopy to protect the workers. And I said to them we could pull the canopy over, and Louis could stand under that!
Lo and behold it’s in the film, with four poor sods holding these poles, getting drenched. There are holes in the canvas, the rain is dripping through, but nevertheless, Louis is standing under it. And we shot the scene with the pouring, pouring rain all around us. But at least Louis didn’t get wet!
It sounds like such a basic question this, then, but it’s always one that interests me: did you enjoy it?
Yeah. And every other word you’d want to come up with! Hate, fear… Anxious. It’s all of that stuff, because you’re dealing with unknowables.
The knowable is you’ve got eight weeks, and this is the budget. But everything else is fighting those facts. Like, the weather, the flight path – which has just changed because of the wind, and now it’s flying right over you, and drowning out the dialogue every 20 seconds. In England, you’re never more than 20 miles from a motorway, and that’s enjoying its presence in the film! And you know the producers have whispered in your ear that we have three days at Blenheim Palace, and we cannot go over!
I don’t enjoy any of that! But there are moments… when you’ve got someone like Kate at the top of her game, and that means at her simplest and trusting, that she can be that simple and that true, then that’s glorious.
You’ve touched on the fact that you got somewhat pigeonholed at one point in people’s minds as a villain. Do you find that frustrating? Do you regret those roles now, and would you have taken a different turn?
No, because the reality is that I’ve been all over the shop in terms of characters. Some people are never going to escape Sherlock Holmes, or the films the pervade the public consciousness. I think you have to be grateful for that. Galaxy Quest, it’s a film I love. It’s one of the funniest films that’s ever been made I think!
There’s a bunch of films in there that don’t have any kind of distribution that I had just as good a time on, and fill up just as much of my memory bank.
In the mid-90s, the story was that you were close to being cast as Doctor Who.
Nobody ever sent me a script! [laughs] It’s more conjecture!
Alan Rickman, thank you very much!