This week, Giles chatted to John Hay and Donall McCusker – the power team behind the brilliant new film To Olivia. A beautiful story about the life of Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal.

John and Donall shared stories about working with children, why they wanted to tell this story and how they made it happen. 

Listen to the podcast here:

Working with Children

John, who has worked with children before on set said that he really likes working with children under the age of 7 because “they haven’t been messed around by schools and lost the realism and the verite that you do” once you’ve started in the school system.

“What I love about directing kids around that age is asking them to use their own experiences and trying to give them comparable experiences that you translate. You’re trying to find ways of getting into their head without upsetting them too much and I love the challenge about this.”

When you’re working with great actors (like Hugh and Keeley) “they’ve read the whole script back to front, inside out. They know everything, they know their part. They’ve researched it and worked with a voice coach for ages.” There’s not much that you can add to their performance.

Working with kids is “a director’s dream because everything you see on screen is pretty much what we’ve managed to get out of them.” And in order to do that, you need to develop great relationships with the children, the director, the producer, and their fellow actors. 

When directing children, John also has another technique. He uses his actors to teach the children stuff that he can’t. “I’m not an actor. I don’t know the techniques. Keeley could explain to Darcey how to act as if you’re unconscious. If you use the actors, you all become a family and look after each other. As long as you haven’t got arrogant kids, you can get those great performances.”

He calls those great performances “live thought. If you get a kid who’s just saying the lines it doesn’t wash with an audience. What you have to do is see them thinking those emotions through and trying to get them to replicate them. That is what’s really hard, particularly after multiple takes.”

John also likes to use ADR (Additional Dialogue Replacement) in order to get the emotions on their faces, even if the delivery isn’t perfect. “Kids play computer games all the time. They can replicate a performance, they can get their lips to sync in an incredible way that adults get completely tied up around. Also, the thing about a kid is if they’re in a theatre and it’s only their voice, they’re not thinking about it. They’re not thinking about the way they look. And that’s really important. They don’t have that outer perspective on their performance.”

ADR worked perfectly for Darcey and Bodhi but wasn’t as successful with Issy. “You’ve got to treat every kid differently. Just the same as every actor, everyone works in a different way.”

“And that’s what a good director does – they respect the way each of those people work and allow them to find their own way of doing it. Some people research forever. Some people are methody. I never tell anyone how to do anything. I just tell them what I want to see. And I tell them when I’ve seen it.”

John regards the director as the audience. “They’re the substitute for the audience. When they’ve seen something authentic, then they can say that they’ve got what they want, and that’s exactly what an audience is going to do further down the line.”

To Olivia: Why this story?

Dave Logan and John came up with the idea of doing a film about Roald Dahl because they’d both grown up with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. They wrote a treatment and sent it to the Dahl estate, but they weren’t interested.

John then “took it to ITV, not with Hugh Bonneville or with anyone, just as an idea.” ITV commissioned it as a Christmas film until the controller Steve left. The new person “chose not to carry on with it, because what so often happens is they want to make their own mark and get rid of everything else that everyone else has prepared.” 

After that John approached Hugh, who, even in the difficult times, stuck with the film (for over three years). The film “essentially, started off as a story about Roald Dahl and was very much about writing of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story”

While working on the film, Dave and John became fascinated with Patricia Neal and realised that they could tell her story, in her voice. “It’s Roald Dahl’s story but it gradually becomes hers because she was looking after him. She took him through it and she was the one who had to look after the family. She was the one who broke through in the end and won an Oscar and held the family together. And I thought that was so true of women, of that period. In grief and in any of those situations that they had to hold the family together and subsume their own grief. And I think that’s what Keeley was really inspired by, in terms of the script that we didn’t write into her grief. ”

John thinks that it is important to sometimes give people the bigger picture, and sometimes not to. “That’s the director’s choice and I think it’s a very important choice as to whether you do. Keeley wanted it to just be about Pat. She wanted it to be about her relationship with Roald. She didn’t want the big picture.”

“Whereas I gave Hugh more of the big picture. I never give the kids the big picture. I worked with them individually.” He said that he thought that it was important to give the bigger picture to actors with smaller parts because “they’re only there for a day. And if I explain the big picture to them, then they’ll be able to see how their performance locks into it.”

How They Made it Happen

In the beginning, John asked Donall to Line Produce To Olivia. Donall said that he’s “a cynical Line Producer: mostly, I’ll read the script and go yeah, it’s okay, fall asleep in the middle of it, pick it up the next day and read it the next day. With this one, I read it and I went this is really good, it’s a really easy movie to make. As a Line Producer, it’s not that interesting of a movie. It’s really a couple of people sitting there” but his interest was piqued.

But the start was a bit bumpy. Donall said that after starting the film, “it becomes apparent that the finance plan wasn’t really holding up as much water as it should do.” 

Goldcrest, who was producing it and funding development and early production, had spent a lot of money on hiring crews and building sets. 

“But as we get closer and closer, it becomes more apparent that we’re going to struggle to close it. At this point in time our leading lady at the time, Rebecca Ferguson was saying that she wasn’t able to be available. And then it became apparent that she was pregnant. So she pulled out of the project and at that point, the project essentially wound up.” 

Donall went on to produce another five movies before John asked him to come on board as a Producer. He “was delighted that John had developed a really good script. As I came on board, we approached Keeley and Hugh had stuck with it.”

You can hear more from this brilliant podcast with John Hay and Donall McCusker here.

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