Now Is Good – Ol Parker interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
OL Parker talks about the making of Now Is Good, based on the novel Before I Die, and why he opted to cast American actress Dakota Fanning in the lead role of a British girl dying of leukaemia.
He also talks about working with Paddy Considine and Jeremy Irvine, post-War Horse, why it’s taken so long to direct another film since Imagine Me & You and why he was delighted by the surprise success of his screenplay for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Q. Now Is Good is based upon Jenny Downham’s novel Before I Die. How did it come to you?
Ol Parker: It came to me via the producers. I also wrote another film for the producers of this one and they asked me if they could take to me about something and they pitched it to me and I thought it sounded absolutely lovely. But I said ‘no thank you, it’s completely not my bag of chips’. But they said: “Could you just read it anyway because it might not be what you think it’s going to be.” So, I took it home and read it that evening and texted them at about 2am in floods of tears saying: “Yeah, we’re making this!”
Q. The other film you were writing at the time was Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s interesting that that film also dealt with people facing the final chapter of their life but at the other end of the age spectrum. Were you aware of the similarities?
Ol Parker: I think I just turned 40 so I was maybe confronting my own mortality [smiles]. I don’t know… it was pure coincidence I think. Afterwards, I realised there was a common thing but I think at the time it wasn’t really running through my head while writing.
Q. It’s a very British production so what did you see in the young American girl, Dakota Fanning, playing Tessa Scott?
Ol Parker: She chased me for it, which I was really touched by. I was in LA because my wife was working out there and I got a message that she’d read it. I was encouraged to offer it to her and I was kind of nervous because it was not really how I saw the movie. I think she’s amazing but I was unsure. But then she called and said ‘let’s meet’. So, I went and met her the next day and when I turned up she was sitting there alone, because she’s always early, and she just really wanted it and really chased it and I thought she was just extraordinary. She’s a movie star.
Q. How did she go about transforming herself into this entirely convincing English girl?
Ol Parker: She worked really hard. She’s the most dedicated and impressive actress I’ve seen for a long time and she’s also an absolute sweetheart. She’s the only person I or my wife has ever worked with who, at the end of the shoot, wrote a hand-written note to every head of department and gave a present to every single member of the cast and crew, including catering who really didn’t deserve it! But she worked her ass off. It was about 15 months between meeting her and her doing it and she was having accent coaching, she came over early and worked with me. She’s really committed and really dedicated, even though we paid her nothing! But she just wanted to have that experience.
Q. What made you initially want to pass on this?
Ol Parker: Well, I never really like those movies. It’s really difficult to be moving without being sentimental and without being fake. I didn’t quite see how that could be possible. But I thought the book and the source material was so beautiful and then as we moved into making it we were really lucky to get Dakota. But I also remember the day that Paddy Considine and Olivia Williams signed up… they’re both actors who have a certain kind of integrity and so when Paddy said ‘yes’ in particular, I felt we were on the right track.
Q. Are you going to be re-writing the Diablo Cody script you’ve been attached to?
Ol Parker: No, I’ve re-written that. She delivered an early draft and then went off to become phenomenally brilliant and successful. So, in order to kind of make it mine, because she writes in a very specific way, I had to re-write it to make it mine.
Q. The last time you were behind a camera was 2005, for Imagine Me & You, so why so long before you returned?
Ol Parker: I wasn’t that thrilled with the film, to be honest. I thought I’d assed it up, so I thought I should wait. There was a brilliant review… we’d made the movie and Fox Searchlight thought it was great, so we went to Toronto and that was great, so we had this fantastically successful screening with a positive Q&A afterwards. But then we went to dinner and this review came in and everyone was reading it and kept looking at me nervously. Eventually, I said: “Fuck it, I may as well see it.” Actually, it was quite nice but it said: “I look forward to seeing what he does with a film that he really cares about.” It was incredibly accurate. It was a fantastically helpful comment. So, I waited until there was a film that I cared about is the truthful answer, which I regret sharing with you now!
Q. How much of the emotional impact is developed during the editing process?
Ol Parker: I think a lot takes place in the edit but it’s also very faithful… even the slightly dreamy ending. And music as well, you’re trying not to push the emotion too far. Obviously, you don’t want to shy off the emotion either. My sounding board was… I’m married to an actress so she was very candid in telling me what I need to hear. Without her, my scripts would be finished in half the time!
Q. You’ve talked a little about working with Dakota. How was working with Paddy and how was his relationship with Dakota?
Ol Parker: Working with Paddy is a trip. He’s extraordinary. There’s no one like him in all good ways. He’s ferociously honest as a person and as an actor. He just can’t tell a lie and so if he knows what he’s doing, then he’s brilliant. If you want him to do something fake, then it becomes an issue. And I think Dakota was utterly baffled by him to begin with but then they spent a day driving around together, for the scene in which Jeremy [Irvine] comes driving up on the motorbike and they just got on brilliantly. I was in the vehicle in front of them and I just watched them chatting and I could see they were having a fantastic time. But he is a genius I think. I can take no credit for his extraordinary performance.
Q. And how about Jeremy Irvine?
Ol Parker: He was just about to start War Horse and Nina, our brilliant casting director, said that I had to meet this kid because he’s really special. And he was quite chubby and young but he did this blinding audition and I cast him with enormous excitement. But I didn’t see him for a while after that as he went off and did War Horse and then went to America to do the publicity. I think it was about a year. But then next time I did see him he’d grown three inches and lost two stone and was this insanely handsome bloke… but still insanely talented. It was as if Matt Damon had breezed in. Myself and the editor became fascinated by him in the editing room. We’d say to each other things like: “Look at his jaw…” Or: “He’s got perfect ears!” [Laughs]
Q. Can we talk briefly about your other success this year, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? What drew you to sign up for that? And is it especially satisfying to draw in a sector of the audience that is traditionally quite difficult to attract?
Ol Parker: Yes. We were all completely stunned. I thought it was a lovely idea. I was sent the second draft. Deborah Moggach had adapted her own novel and for whatever reason Working Title had it and let it go. And so it changed. It bears absolutely no relation to the book. Anyone who reads the book is generally stunned. But nothing is the same. There was a point I think three months before shooting where [director] John Madden said: “Can we cut that line?” And I said: “Yes, but that’s the last line that Deborah wrote.” But once Judi [Dench] signed up, that was amazing, and then the cast started to grow. Bill Nighy called me up and said: “What’s this film and why aren’t I doing it?” And so we started to get this amazing level of cast and when we were shooting we thought it was going well. I remember watching the edit and thinking that we had a half a chance. But none of us expected what it has achieved.
Q. Was it gratifying to prove that films can track with older audiences?
Ol Parker: Yeah. I mean everyone was wrong. The perceived wisdom was wrong. Even when we had that cast, that script and that director, they still thought there wasn’t profit to be found in it. But that’s their business. So, to have brought in people who don’t usually come to the cinema is fantastic. I think we were fantastically lucky.