Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang - Susanna White interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
DIRECTOR Susanna White talks about collaborating with writer and star Emma Thompson on Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang, as well as the casting of Rhys Ifans and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
She also talks about her experience of directing acclaimed TV drama Generation Kill and why her and Kathryn (The Hurt Locker) Bigelow are now email buddies…
Q. How much responsibility did you feel when you were approached by Emma Thompson to direct Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang? Were you at all daunted?
Susanna White: Well, I’d been wanting to do a feature film for a long time and for any filmmaker it’s about finding the right project that you connect with. I was out in Africa doing Generation Kill when I was sent the screenplay and I sat down and felt an immediate connection with it – partly because it was a big emotional story and surprisingly it’s a real weepie in my opinion, as well as being very funny. I think it played much more widely than just a children’s film. So, I was really taken by the quality of Emma’s writing and by the character of Mrs Green [played by Maggie Gyllenhaal], who to me is such a modern woman, although she’s set during the Second World War. She’s trying to juggle the demands of a family and a job and dealing with the fact her husband’s away, she’s on her own and she’s worried about money. They are universal problems. So I don’t think I felt daunted so much as excited.
Q. How collaborate was Emma?
Susanna White: Very, very collaborative. We worked a lot on the screenplay together. I felt that the dad felt rather absence, so I wanted to get more of a sense of him. I suggested we came up with some kind of go-kart or toy that he’d left the children to highlight what a brilliant dad he was. But then Emma came up with the brilliant idea of the scratch-omatic. Then we worked together… she’d written that Nanny McPhee banged her stick and a pig jumped in the pond. But I said: “What if we have a great big cinematic set piece at the heart of the movie with a big Busby Berkeley number of pigs doing synchronised swimming?” Emma initially said that she’d only written one pig, but I said: “Yeah but just think what it would look like? We can do amazing things with CGI.” So, she thought about it and then said: “Oh yeah, let’s do it; it’ll be really funny.” So, she was very open to things like that – also, the magical harvest where the grain makes the shape of animals… I kind of came up with that too. She was very open to those big visual ideas, and we had very, very similar ideas on casting.
It was very interesting seeing the two sides of her. On one hand, I was working with Emma, the writer, and collaborating on the screenplay, and on the other, I was a bit nervous working with her as an actress because she’s such an A-list actress and it was her concept. But it turned out to be like working with any other actress in that it had been a while since she played Nanny McPhee and she was looking to me for advice. Things like: “Was I OK in that scene?” “Did that feel like Nanny McPhee?” Or: “Was I too big in that scene?”
Q. Had you seen the original Nanny McPhee? And what appealed so much to people about that movie?
Susanna White: I had. I took my kids to see it and really enjoyed it. I think she created something very special and very iconic in that black silhouette of the nanny. She’s a creature of myth really… this woman who, as the children go from ugly to beautiful on the inside, she’s like a mirror to them on the outside and transforms herself physically. That seemed like a really timeless idea.
Q. You do, in fact, toss in the great visual joke concerning Nanny McPhee’s silhouette and the Rhys Ifans character…
Susanna White: [Laughs] People wanted to cut that and I had to really fight to keep that in. It’s very funny.
Q. You also toss in pop culture references and movie references, such as Pink Floyd and David Lean. Was that fun to be able to do?
Susanna White: The Pink Floyd pig… yes, I chucked that in. There’s various pigs throughout the film – you just have to spot them! They turn up in odd places. People kept saying: “Should we get her [Nanny McPhee] into London and if so, let’s have Tower Bridge…” But I thought Battersea Power Station is really iconic, so I put in the little tribute to Pink Floyd. And then there’s a Sergio Leone reference in the stand-off over the jam and a little nod to the original Mary Poppins film, when Topsy and Turvy are taking all the stuff out of the doctor’s bag. So, I had a lot of fun playing with film references. But I wanted there to be stuff that adults could enjoy in the film, as well as kids just having fun watching it.
Q. There’s also a lot of traditional values in the film, which is something that Emma is keen to reiterate…
Susanna White: There are… but then it’s quite expensive taking your family to the cinema, so I wanted people to feel they got value for money – that they had a great experience where they laugh, they cry and come out feeling a bit better about life than when they went in. And those kinds of scripts are really rare I think. I also wanted to give it a bit more attitude as well, which is why I put people like Bill Bailey and Rhys Ifans in there. It showed a little bit of edge.
Q. This is quite a surprising choice of role for Rhys Ifans given some of his more recent performances and the off-screen image portrayed in the tabloids…
Susanna White: Yeah… exactly. It’s very unusual for him but I had a hunch that he’d be great at that physical comedy, but I didn’t know how great he’d be. He really threw himself into it.
Q. It’s kind of throwback to his Notting Hill breakthrough…
Susanna White: It is, isn’t it? And I’ve always loved him doing that. It’s one of my favourite moments in Notting Hill – him in his pants. He’s just very funny; he has funny bones. But he took it very seriously as a role. We talked about it when I met with him and I said: “I wanted Uncle Phil not just to be a cardboard cut-out villain… but someone real.” He’s a very weak character; he’s an eternal optimist, he’s the younger son who hasn’t got to run the farm and he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He also has all of these schemes to make lots of money – he’s had a rabbit breeding scheme that went wrong, he went to London to be Mr Big and that didn’t work out. So, he and I worked out a big back story for his character and I think you see that in his performance. It’s ludicrous in places – that he can jump on a table because he’s frightened of a mouse – but it’s based on something truthful. And deep down, he is a very serious actor.
Q. What made you think of Maggie Gyllenhaal for Mrs Green?
Susanna White: Well, I loved Maggie in Secretary. I was very tired when I went to see it… people dragged me along. But I was on the edge of my seat for the whole film. I thought she was absolutely brilliant in that role. But I’m never afraid of casting people from different nationalities. I had to really fight to get Alexander Skarsgard on Generation Kill – you know, a Swede playing an all-American hero. But to me, it’s all about the spirit of an actor. Maggie just had a wonderful, quirky humour as a person – slightly off-beat. But she’s very warm. You believe in her as the kind of mother you’d want and the wife you’d want. There’s also a surprisingly kind of English Rose quality about her beauty. So, there were lots of things I loved about her and I thought she got the accent brilliantly.
Q. You mention Generation Kill… I loved that…
Susanna White: Oh thank you… it was the best job in the world. It was such a joy working with David Simon. He’s incredible and another great collaborator.
Q. How did you get that gig?
Susanna White: I do wonder how I got that to this day actually [laughs]. It had been sent to my agent, who also handles Kevin Macdonald. Kevin couldn’t do it, so she came to me and said: “I think this would be a great job for you…” So, she sent me the script and I felt really excited. I went and met with David and we really connected. He’d loved Bleak House because he’s a big Dickens fan. He’s been compared to Dickens [for The Wire]. But I think what he liked about me as a director was that I came in and was talking a lot about the characters and their journeys. I thought it was a big road movie and I really liked the humour of the writing. A lot of other people had come in with a very big testosterone kind of attitude, just wanting to talk about the explosions and the CGI. I was coming to it much more from the basis of character and storytelling.
Also, I think we really connected in that I’d come out of documentaries and he’d come out of newspapers and we believed in using a lot of non-actors in our work. So, I wanted to use real Marines for some of the characters and he really liked that idea. He’s also race blind and sex blind in casting directors. He’s worked with a lot of women and a lot of black directors, and has no issues.
Q. So, between you and Kathryn Bigelow [The Hurt Locker] you’ve turned out two of the best documentations of the Iraq war in film and on TV. Have you spoken to Kathryn at all?
Susanna White: That’s very kind of you to say… I haven’t spoken to Kathryn on the phone but we’ve emailed each other. I emailed her when she won the Directors’ Guild of America award. I just said how great it was to have won. And she emailed me back and said: “Oh God, I’m a huge fan of Generation Kill, so that means a lot to me to get that endorsement from you.” So, I was then rooting for her for the Bafta and Oscar. It’s really great [her Oscar win] and I hope it does make things easier for women directors coming through now that she’s done it.
Q. How easy or difficult was your journey?
Susanna White: Hard I think. I’ve been making films since I was eight-years-old. It wasn’t too hard moving into documentaries, but it was very hard moving from documentaries into drama because you have an image of a director as a big, loud person. I finally got someone to take a punt on me and moved into television drama and then it was incredibly hard moving from TV drama into features. I mean I’m nearly 50 and it’s taken me until now to get a feature. I’ve been making films since the age of eight, so you could say I’m a pretty slow developer [laughs]!
Q. What’s next for you?
Susanna White: Well, I’m hoping to do a big action thriller next. It’s very exciting, actually. I’ve just been out in LA and I’ve had a lot of meetings there. It feels like a very exciting movie – everything I’ve ever dreamt of.
Q. Does it have a name yet?
Susanna White: Not yet unfortunately [smiles]. I’m not allowed to say at this point.
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Susanna White interview
- Nanny McPhee 2 Photo Gallery