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The Duchess - Saul Dibb interview

Saul Dibb directs The Duchess

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SAUL Dibb talks about directing Keira Knightley in The Duchess and the parallels that exist between the lives of Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire, and her direct descendent Diana, The Princess of Wales…

Q. The film obviously has several modern parallels with the life of Princess Diana. How aware of them were you while making The Duchess?
Saul Dibb: It would be naïve to say that no one’s aware of them. Every review of Amanda Foreman’s book – which never referenced Diana specifically – drew those parallels. But I think in making the film, those parallels didn’t bear any relation to what we were doing. We were trying to make a film about people in their own right and trying to nail their relationships in as true a way as we possibly could… in their relationships to each other and not their external relationships to anybody else. So, it was never once something that we talked about as a reference for us, or anything that might influence the actors or the approach. The parallels are straightforward and obvious and out in the public domain, and have been so.

Q. The poster makes direct reference to the Diana story though, with the line ‘there were three people in her marriage’…
Saul Dibb: Sure, but the reality is there’s the filmmakers, which is all of us making the film, and then there’s the marketing of the film afterwards. They’re two different things. We had the freedom to make our film and they have the freedom to market the film. It cost them a lot of money and they want to get as wide an audience in. What they’ve done, I think, is made explicit what would have been written about by everybody anyway. In a sense they’ve cut out the middleman and gone directly to it. It doesn’t represent us, or our approach to the film, but for them to make their choice is up to them. If it gets more people in to see the film, which stands on its own, then perhaps they’re right. It’s just a marketing device.

Q. But there are other modern parallels too, in terms of its focus on celebrity?
Saul Dibb: There are parallels, but there could be parallels drawn with any number of particularly tragic female figures. You could pick on Marilyn Monroe, for example, and find lots of parallels. It’s purely because of the ancestral link that people are so keen to draw that one.

Q. Did shooting in real locations help with getting the right look and feel for the period?
Saul Dibb: It’s something that I was certainly very keen on, to shoot in the real places where possible, or real locations that were as grand and wealthy and fantastic as the original ones would have been. If I’d had 10 times the budget I still would have chosen to do that because I think it helps me understand the period and understand the place, and I hope it helps the actors too.

Q. How accommodating were the locations such as Chatsworth and Derbyshire to you, and how often were they used for other buildings?
Saul Dibb: I have to say they were very accommodating. It’s very difficult, because they’re very protective, naturally, of the building that they’re working in. And some things, if you break them, really cannot be replaced. So, we did have lots of what we thought were quite strange rules, where somebody would come with a measuring stick. You could be 90cm away from a wall, and if you got any closer a group of little old ladies would usher you further away.

Q. Ralph Fiennes gives another typically brilliant performance. But there’s also a very subtle sense of comedy in what he does, and some of the things he says…
Saul Dibb: I think he just gave us a brilliant performance. I think they are blackly comic, a lot of his moments, and they are often because he absolutely said with conviction things that belonged to the time… values that belonged to the time. So, I think for a modern audience it’s just so extraordinary to hear some of those things said so bluntly. He has got amazing comic timing, actually, but I really didn’t talk to him about it, ever. So, whether he meant it or not, I don’t know, but I’m aware that some of the things he says do have this dark humour to them.

Read our review of The Duchess