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Director Series-Chris Noonan-Miss Potter

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Australian director Chris Noonan was familiar with the creator of enduring children’s book characters like Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck when he signed on to direct Miss Potter, but hardly a devotee. “I knew who Beatrix Potter was, but I had no idea her life was so dramatic,” says Noonan. “Her personal story was so amazing that I thought it was something everyone should know about.”The director first came to fame a decade ago with Babe, an endearing film about a pig that becomes friends with a sheepdog. Miss Potter is his first feature since. The director, who is picky about his projects, said the long hiatus was due to an absence of good scripts.Filming mainly in London, he was overjoyed to find many parts of the city “looked like Miss Potter Land,” with many existing historic areas from the author’s era. Shooting also took place in England’s Lake District and the Isle of Man, where most of the interiors were lensed.Noonan was assisted by an award-winning, largely English crew including director of photography Andrew Dunn, production designer Martin Childs, costume designer Anthony Powell and film editor Robin Sales.The film stars Renee Zellweger as the author and Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne, her publisher and fiance, and takes place in turn-of-the-century England. The handsomely mounted film is as much for adults as for children, and is by turns comic, poignant and heart-breaking as it traces Beatrix Potter’s path from a stifled life with her well-to-do Victorian parents to her breakthrough as a writer to become the best-selling author of children’s books in the world. After her doomed engagement to her publisher, she spends her final years in the Lake District, buying up farms to keep them from developers.Below the Line: How did you approach making Miss Potter?Chris Noonan: It was a relatively short shoot and a lot of locations. The primary consideration was I didn’t want it to look like a fusty BBC television drama. I wanted it to have a fresher feel. So I chose a crew also experienced in more modern day filmmaking.Martin Childs, my production designer, wanted the film to have a realistic look, not one that was overproduced and overdesigned. I wanted to avoid theatricality, but also wanted a sort of pushed reality. He developed a look that was a combination of paintings and drawings from that period, which he felt could be a guide, and that became very influential.Meanwhile, my costume designer, Anthony Powell, brought out this incredible collection of clothing style drawings from the period. Beatrix’s mother, for example, wears those over-elaborated Victorian dresses. Beatrix on the other hand is not fashionable. She doesn’t wear the type of clothes her mother would like her to wear, and she doesn’t keep the kind of company her mother would like her to keep. She doesn’t fit in.BTL: Between Martin Childs, who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, and Anthony Powell, who’s a triple Oscar winner, you had quite a visual team. What was it like working with them?Noonan: It was a blast. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to keep a sense of fun in the process, so I encouraged them to play. And we had some very good times, the entire crew and the cast. They both have so much experience. But they’re not at all dogmatic. They don’t assert that they are the sole authority and if they don’t get their way they’ll walk out. They’re very humble people.BTL: Tell me about where you shot the film. You said there were a lot of locations.Noonan: I wanted to shoot on location as much as possible. So we started in London where we did all of our exteriors. Then, for tax reasons, we went to the Isle of Man to do our interiors. And then we went up to the beautiful Lake District in the north of England where Beatrix lived out her life on Hill Top Farm.BTL: You’re from Australia. What was it like coming to England, where you haven’t spent much time, to do a film about a British literary icon?Noonan: Australia is a very young country. When I arrived in London, I felt I was surrounded by Beatrix Potter’s world. It was impossible to invent. You wanted to use everything you could. So many parts of London felt like they had been set up for us. There are streets that still have gas lighting. They wouldn’t still exist, I thought, except to favor a film crew. Probably they are there for the tourist trade. But that they were there certainly played into my hands.We also found a splendid house near London that served various purposes. We used it for the carriage ride that’s supposed to be through Hyde Park. It’s also where Beatrix has tea in the lovely garden with Norman Warne and first meets his mother and sister.BTL: There were some unusual settings, like that typography establishment that you used for Beatrix’s first trip to the printers.Noonan: The type museum was a stroke of luck. Somebody in the art department found someone who was originally American, and had set up a printing business in the United States. He had a falling out with his partner and he came to Britain where he bought up this huge range of antiquated printing equipment. We walked in and were amazed to find this complete history of printing in the building, all of it in working order. When I originally planned the film this scene didn’t have anywhere near that sort of detail. But the existence of this person and his collection meant I could put a much more elaborate scene together.BTL: There’s also that poignant scene when Beatrix is seen off on the train by Norman. Where did you find that antique railroad?Noonan: That’s the Bluebell Railway where they still have steam locomotives. It’s for tourists. To make it look like a period railroad station, Andrew Dunn shot as closely as possible, and we used a lot of smoke, steam and rain. The combination of camera and art department, not just in this scene but throughout the film really worked well. Andrew and Martin talked a great deal together during the production. Andrew also did a tremendous job throughout. He strategized how to light the set, well before I had a sense, just by talking to all the art department people, figuring out the best places to put lights.BTL: Why did you to go the Isle of Man? That didn’t figure in Beatrix Potter’s life story.Noonan: A tax dodge. It turns out if you shoot a certain percentage of the actual screen time of a film in the Isle of Man, they hand out great wads of money to the producers who can throw it into the budget. It’s a quaint sort of mid-Atlantic rain-soaked island off the English coast. Not a place you’d go for a holiday.But because of the tax thing, we wound up shooting all our interiors there. They don’t have real studios. Our art department found some metal cow sheds—cows had been using them quite recently—and they were convertible into studio space. I found it incredible that the art department built a four-story Victorian mansion, the interior of Potters’ London home, in one little cowshed. There were worse places where we could have been. But if we’d stayed there much longer, there might have been a rebellion.BTL: You then went to the Lake District where Beatrix Potter lived out the remainder of her life, and bought up all those farms she eventually bequeathed to the National Trust.Noonan: You can’t duplicate the Lake District, particularly Beatrix’s surroundings. It has a magical quality that my DP did such a great job in capturing.BTL: Hill Top Farm is a shrine for Beatrix Potter fans. I can’t imagine the National Trust letting you shut it down. Is that why you shot at a nearby house?Noonan: They were prepared to shut it down for the duration of the shooting time there. But we felt because of its pilgrimage status—dozens of tour buses arrive each day—it would have been quite disruptive. It’s a major tourist attraction so there are all these gift and souvenir shops nearby, and closing the place for even a short time would have been very disruptive to the economy of that area.So we went searching for another farm house. And we found one that Beatrix had also owne
d and donated to the National Trust. It made for a much more comfortable shooting process.BTL: How long was the shoot? When did you start?Noonan: I believe it was something like a 10-week shot. We started in February of this year, and went through for 10 six-day weeks, with 10 hour days. Not pleasant for a director and not pleasant for a crew either.BTL: It’s remarkable you got the film into theaters before 2006 ended. Your editor, Robin Sales, was he assembling on location?Noonan: Final-stage editing started in March. But the editing was progressive throughout the shoot. Robin is a genius editor—he kept the whole thing together for me. He was always on location and he assembled each scene as we went. He actually did two cuts simultaneously. One was about two-and-a-half hours and the other one-and-a-quarter.BTL: How long is the final film?Noonan: About 90 minutes. You really have to justify going longer for any film. And for Miss Potter many people might bring their children, and kids are very impatient.BTL: Talk a little about the animation of the Beatrix characters, which occasionally jump off the pages. Was that in the original script by Richard Maltby Jr. or was it your invention?Noonan: It was in Richard’s script. But his idea was for the characters to jump off the page and become three dimensional CGI things. In the film we kept it more simple and true to the original drawings by Beatrix Potter.BTL: Was there any input from Frederick Warne & Co., the original publishers who still put out the books?Noonan: They were both protective and very supportive. Frederick Warne & Co. has been taken over by Penguin. It’s run by four women, and they consider their life’s work to protect the memory of Beatrix Potter, and not to have anything done that tramples on the purity of her work. As you can imagine, it’s challenging when you’re trying to interpret her work into another medium like film, particularly when you’re suggesting we should be able to animate her characters. That was a very sensitive area.BTL: Who did the animation?Noonan: I interviewed a lot of animators in London. Eventually I found this extraordinary woman who was about 40. She had lived in the Lake District and was a complete devotee of Beatrix Potter. She was a cell animator and had worked on the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and a stickler for all the traditional methods of animation. I couldn’t believe my luck. She was very protective of Potter’s look and style, as if she were a company employee. In her personal style she was quite the opposite to Beatrix, with piercings and dreadlocks down her back. But she brought a great deal of sensitivity to the task at hand.BTL: Now that Miss Potter is finished, how do you feel about it?Noonan: I’m very proud of it. I think it’s going to have a long life. On a personal level I feel that the dam has broken after the long hiatus since Babe, and I feel very ready to go on and do more. It’s been really good for me.BTL: What do you have up your sleeve?Noonan: A couple of things. An Australian-based project set in South Africa about a group of young boys who decide to start an interracial soccer team. The other is a film about the youngest of the witches in Macbeth—both the backstory and the story beyond Macbeth. They’re both still in development.

Written by Jack Egan

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