Making ‘The Duke’ with producer Nicky Bentham and writers Richard Bean & Clive Coleman

Dom Lenoir chatted to producer Nicky Bentham and writers Richard Bean & Clive Coleman. They discussed their recently released film, The Duke, filming in COVID, how it all started, developing a script from a true story, and more.

Nicky said that the highlight is finally being able to “share it with audiences, because our release has been delayed due to COVID. When you make a film that’s all about community and about people coming together for the greater good all you really want is to sit down with a packed out cinema to enjoy it.”

How It All Started

In 2013, Nicky received an email, “out of the blue from a gentleman called Christopher Bunton, who told me that he had this incredible story in his family. He attached a paragraph synopsis of the main details and said this could be a movie. What do you think? 

And it was a brilliant paragraph. It was a fascinating, funny and incredible story.” But Nicky thought that he had embellished some of the story, it couldn’t possibly be true. After doing some research, she discovered that it “was a true story that people didn’t really know about or that had  been brushed under the carpet by the authorities.

It was a real hidden gem. So I jumped on it straight away and through various conversations with the Bunton family managed to arrange that I would work with them to bring it to the screen.”

From Synopsis to Script

Chris Bunton, who works in IT in New York, had written a script based on the family story. 

Nicky said “the fact that he wrote a script from beginning to end is completely remarkable. But I said to him, from the very beginning, that this project needed expertise and that if he was serious about doing this, then we needed to find professional writers. Obviously we want the best writing possible; but also it’s very difficult, even for a professional writer, to write about their own family and their own story.”

After getting the rights for the story, she spoke to Pathé “because it was very much within their wheelhouse. British true stories. Feel good, uplifting, underdog tales. And they were similarly bowled over by the story. And came on board to develop it with me. We brought on Richard Bean and Clive Coleman to write the script who felt absolutely perfect because both of them have a background in writing comedy.”

Casting

From the beginning, they’d had Jim Broadbent in mind to play Kempton Bunton. 

“It’s a little bit scary when you are developing a project and trying to imagine how it’s going to look and what the casting might be when your casting list has one person on it; but as we were developing the script and I was talking to a few agents and we were looking for director, one way or another Jim caught wind of the project and knew that we had him in mind. And was very interested.”

And when they settled on director, Roger Michell – Roger and Jim share talent agents, Roger said: “I’ll do it, if Jim does it. And Jim said, I’ll do it if Roger does it. So they came together as a brilliant pair.”

They thought that Helen Mirren would be perfect as Dorothy Bunton but were concerned as it’s not the kind of roles that “we’re used to seeing her in, we’re so used to seeing her in an amazing gown, often with a crown on her head. So to conceive of her as a domestic cleaner from Newcastle was a leap. But she responded to the script immediately and loved the writing and really understood the depths of this character.”

It was important to have a strong fierce actor playing Dorothy, as she was “the backbone of the whole family and the whole story. None of this would have happened without Dorothy.”

Researching the Story

Fortunately for Richard and Clive, most of the research had been done by Nicky and Cameron McCracken (managing director of Pathé).

“Nikki had a pile of research materials, including the whole of Kempton’s prison memoirs, his personal biography and family biography, his plays and a lot of family research.”

Clive adds that “there were also some witness statements from the trial and legal papers relating to the case. And Thomas Grant’s Case Histories. The case that Jeremy Hutchinson appeared in was the trial that led the government to change the law of theft.”

Writing the Script

With just a treatment and very little work done, they discovered at the first meeting with Nicky and Cameron that the team wanted to avoid the “heist route. It was a really good meeting to have because we were able to change tack and do more of a family drama. And concentrate on the more human aspects. The family drama was the emotional heart of the film.”

Details of Kempton’s character was available for them to discover very easily and develop, but there wasn’t a lot of information about Dorothy. With the limited information that they did have, they developed her character, “emotionally, around the fact that they’d lost their daughter. She was in the aftermath of grief.”

After some brilliant notes from Nicky and Cameron, and more work on the script they had a finished product. But “once Roger came on board, the scenes that we thought had great family texture got cut. At the first meeting he had with us, he said, ‘great script guys’. And we’ll be in and out of this meeting in five minutes, but the story starts 30 pages too late.” And he was right. He had that director’s eye for the economy of the story.”

Their Last Words of Advice

Nicky: “Keep living. I’ve always been so incredibly focused on work, but what I’ve realised, as I’ve had kids and gotten older and found other interests. All of those things make my work more interesting. The stories that I want to tell and the people that I want to work with feeds into everything. Don’t forget to smell the roses.”

Richard: “Don’t write what you think is fashionable, write the play or the film you want to see.”

Clive: “Keep turning up. I thought my writing career was over several times and guess what, hopefully it isn’t.”

You can listen to the full episode here.

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