The Lady in the Van features Maggie Smith in a virtuoso star turn that is generating buzz about a possible best actress Oscar nomination. In the film, directed by Nicholas Hytner, she plays Miss Shepherd, a curmudgeonly and bedraggled old woman of uncertain origins who lives in a beat up van. Searching for a place to stay, she lands the vehicle in a well-to-do London neighborhood and “temporarily” parks the van in the driveway of the house of famed contemporary English playwright Alan Bennett. She winds up staying for 15 years.
The Sony Picture Classics release opens on Dec. 4. The film is adapted from a memoir and then a 1999 play written by Bennett, based on the true story of his interactions with Miss Shepherd. Bennett includes himself as a main character – actually two characters, both himself and his alter-ego. Actor Alex Jennings, with a close resemblance to Bennett, plays both Alans in the movie, with the assist of some deft VFX.
Hytner was in town recently and talked with Below the Line about making the movie out of the play that he also directed and also starred Smith. Directing the stage version began an extended and fruitful collaboration with Bennett. As a filmmaker, Hytner is best-known for helming The Madness of King George, which won an Academy Award for best art direction and a BAFTA for best English film, followed by The History Boys, which received two BAFTA nominations.. Both were film versions based on Bennett plays that Hytner also directed while he was head of the English National Theater.
In deciding how to turn The Lady in the Van into a movie, Hytner chose to go for the real deal: shoot it in the exact location where the events took place, on a leafy street in the Camden section of London and at Bennett’s actual house at the time. “The big leap was already made,” the director noted. “We were able to return the story to the very place the events happened. What you see on the screen is the street, the house, the drive – everything as it was. The story is of two people who lived next to each in the same small limited area for 15 years. The view they had of each other is the view you see.”
“This is not a big movie,” he added. “It hasn’t been opened up in the sense there is any added spectacle at all. It’s a small canvas.” There was a deliberate decision “not to be contrived about the way we looked at the setting.” There are a few brief flashback scenes to fill in Miss Shepherd’s backstory: her budding career as a pianist studying with French keyboard virtuoso Alfred Cortot; an unsatisfying stint as a nun, and an accident when her van hit and killed a bicyclist.
The van isn’t the real van in the movie. The original was destroyed. But it is the exact same model, meticulously recreated by production designer John Beard, including the detritus-stuffed interior where many of Smith’s scenes take place. Director of photography Andrew Dunn did a lot of camerawork lensing Smith within the small confines. The return of the exact replica discomfited some who remembered the original. “When the neighbors saw the van reappear for the shoot, there were mixed feelings about seeing it back,” noted the director. “When they had had to actually put up with it, the van was quite odiferous and an eyesore.”
“I’m primarily a theater director but occasionally am very excited to do movies,” said Hytner. Working with top-flight production creatives has helped him ascend the learning curve as a filmmaker. “You bet I rely on their expertise, and I have a relationship with several of them going back to The Madness of King George, my first film.” He cites DP Dunn (whose other credits include Gosford Park, Precious and Lee Daniels’ The Butler) and editor Tariq Anwar (also known for American Beauty and Oscar-nominated for The King’s Speech). “They very patiently showed me what the process was, and we’ve worked several times with each other since.” The other crew keys on Lady in the Van include production designer Beard who worked on History Boys (also The Last Temptation of Christ), costume designer Natalie Ward (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Black Seas) and Naomi Donne (Skyfall, Philomena) who did the hair and make-up.
Collaborating for the fourth time with cinematographer Dunn, the two decided to go for a lighter touch. “There’s a whiff of human comedy about it,” noted Hytner. “You have a very well-heeled London community that is rocked by this completely alien force, a crazy old lady who turns them all upside down. It has a real sense of the eccentric English comic tradition.”
For visual reference and research, Hytner and others on the production team availed themselves of Bennett’s archive which he donated to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. “There are photographs, all the pamphlets Miss Shepherd made, all the notes she scrawled. They all got preserved and are now sitting on the shelves of the Bodelian, along with the Gutenberg Bible,” he mused. Photographer Don McCullin’s portraits of people on the edge of urban society were also studied.
The production designer’s main task was not only recreating the van but the street as it was in the 1970s, and Bennett’s house. “There were lots of photos over the years, of the street back then, and we were also able to recreate Alan’s study exactly as it was,” said the director.
In the stage play, two actors portrayed Bennett. In the film, Jennings effectively does double duty. “The expertise is with the digital effects house,” said Hytner. “First you photograph Alec as the first Alan Bennett, and a second actor is the second Alan Bennett. Once you have that you swap it around. The visual effects people use the two versions and create the illusion that it is one actor.”
Renowned composer George Fenton did the film’s score. His long list of credits include Gandhi, The Fisher King, Groundhog Day and all three of Hytner’s films. Fenton actually started out as an actor and got an early break by getting a part in Bennett’s first West End play, 40 Years On in 1968. He remembered encountering Miss Shepherd at the time. “He of all my crew, knew her the longest,” Hytner noted. The director also had a first-hand observation of Miss Shepherd when he occasionally strolled through in the 1970s. “She was a well-known figure in the neighborhood along with her van but I didn’t know what was going on,” he recalled. “I knew that’s where Alan Bennett lived, but I worked with him for the first time six months after she died, by which time the van had been cleared away.”
The movie started shooting about a year ago, after Dame Maggie, who turns 81 in December, finished up her work on the fifth and final season of Downton Abbey, in her Emmy-winning portrayal of the redoubtable Violet Crawford, Dowager Countess of Grantham. The shoot lasted seven weeks on the film which was budgeted at a frugal $6 million.
In addition to directing Smith in the play of Lady in the Van and now the film, Hytner worked with her several other times, most notably when he directed her in the 1993 hit production of The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. “Maggie loses very few opportunities to keep people on their toes,” said the director. “We all had the most marvelous time making the movie.”
Hytner is returning to his first love, the theater. He first achieved fame as the director of both the London and New York debut productions of hit musical Miss Saigon. His current project is less commercial but more artistically ambitious: Hytner is launching the London Theatre Company, to be situated on the Thames and set to open in mid-2017. Its charter is to commission new plays, which will premiere at the 900-seat house. Might that include a new Alan Bennett play? “Alan doesn’t take commissions,” the director said with wry finality.