It was the only London theater to remain open during the war, and now the famous Windmill Theatre, whose slogan was “we never closed,” is memorialized in director Stephen Frears’ Mrs. Henderson Presents. Inspired by true events, this very English story follows the explosive love-hate relationship between upper-crust widow Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), who buys the run-down theatre as a hobby, and seasoned theatre manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), who is charmed into running the theatre by its eccentric new owner.Facing flagging ticket sales and competition from other West End venues, the pair attempt to emulate the then successful Moulin Rouge in Paris, circumventing England’s draconian censors by posing the naked girls motionless on stage in “artistic” tableaux. As the story unfolds, this wonderful dramatic comedy comes into its own with the seasoned Dench and Hoskins creating an electricity that is supported by every aspect of the film’s glorious crafts. Frears talks to Below the Line about his team of designers and craftspeople, whose talent and theatrical flair perfectly captured the tenor of the times.Below the Line: In a period film like this, one of the most critically important department heads has to be your production designer. You chose an old collaborator Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski for the task. What do you like the most about his work on this film?Stephen Frears: When I made My Beautiful Laundrette, Hugo designed it. Then he did Prick Up Your Ears and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Then I went off and did Dangerous Liaisons [with Stuart Craig who won an Oscar for the production design]. But I reconnected with Hugo later for Dirty Pretty Things. That was the time when I reunited with Hugo. He’d been doing really well on his own, so it was nice. On Mrs. Henderson Presents all the stage stuff, the tableaux, are taken from photographs of the period. Hugo made a sort of toy theater with all these tableaux. They were immensely entertaining, but then of course he was very, very instrumental in the decision to build the theatre.BTL: A lot of the film takes place in that theater, and it was all done to scale, is that correct?Frears: That’s what it was like. People came on set and they couldn’t believe it—people who had been in the Windmill. Hugo was extremely wise in saying that the only way he could make it work was to actually build it. And then he built it.BTL: You worked with a new costume designer for you, Sandy Powell. What was her input?Frears: I adore Sandy. I liked her because she had worked with Derek Jarman. Jarman used to make films with silver foil and cheap elements. It wasn’t lavish. It had to do with the imagination. I thought that was a very good quality. I fought very hard to get Sandy, because everybody else in the world wants her. And she was extraordinary. She often wouldn’t do the costumes until the day itself. Obviously, if she had to design something, that was done in advance. But she would also improvise on the day, which I loved. She’d do bits of gauze and gold paint on their breasts and things like that. It was quite homemade. But it was magical, and always effervescent.BTL: You’ve worked many times with your hair and makeup designer, Jenny Shircore. Not only did she do the incredible makeup on Judi Dench but she had to tackle all the theatrical makeup as well.Frears: She’s just fantastic. When you have people like that around, it makes you feel more secure. You’re very privileged to have people like that.BTL: It seems you trust the instincts of your crew.Frears: It doesn’t mean you don’t have an intelligent conversation, but I go on the assumption that they know far more than I do. Jenny, I think was quite baffled by the film at first. I think she did it out of some sort of faith in me. But she gradually came to see whatever it was that was in my head.BTL: How did you collaborate with your cinematographer Andrew Dunn?Frears: I had done a film previously with Andrew and I thought that he would be good for this. He’s sort of impish. I said to him that I thought this film ought to be six feet off the ground. Like a soufflÃ©, it had to be uplifted. If it were down there, we’d be in trouble. It had to be effortless. It had to be light. I knew if it falls down, we’ll never lift it up again. Andrew’s a wonderful man. The film was made by very nice decent people, working very, very hard. It was unbelievable. I kept saying, “When we get this right, people will think that we just made it up on the spot.”BTL: Your first collaboration with your editor Lucia Zucchetti was fairly recently, on a TV movie. She must have done something right.Frears: I thought she cut The Deal very well. It seemed like a good idea. What you’re all conscious of is that these things are big buggers and there are an awful lot of people and an awful lot of politics. You’re really more concerned about whether you’re asking them to take on something they won’t enjoy, but she sailed through it all. I think there were times when she thought this world was insane, but then blossomed. She’ll be one of the great editors of the world.BTL: Did she come to dailies with you to get an idea of what you had in mind during shooting?Frears: Yes, she was very, very shocked at first, because she’s Italian and modern. Suddenly she’s making a film about a woman who is anti-Semitic, and is very unpleasant. But of course she is played by Judi Dench, so she makes the unpleasant acceptable. I tend to shoot instinctively and then I really depend on the editor to tell me what I’m doing. Lucia is very thorough. And very patient with me. I think we became, gradually, intoxicated by this film. She said, “It’s all going to seem rather dull after this.” This film was so different.BTL: In creating your setting, you used some actual footage to show the Blitz. How did that work out?Frears: That was a different exercise. That was really something we stumbled on in the cutting room. Various things happened. I kept saying, “This number here, it really shouldn’t be a number; it should be an action sequence. Why can’t we have footage of German bombers and all that stuff?” I worked very closely with a documentary essayist in England called Adam Curtis. He sort of took that over and introduced all the documentary elements into it, which turned out to be absolutely brilliant. He would come in with archive footage and we constructed it like that. To my delight, and relief, it worked. It’s so believable. I can see if we had tried to stage The Blitz with model shots, it never would have been as startling as this.BTL: Your composer George Fenton wrote music to accompany vintage song lyrics that were included in the script by the screenwriter Martin Sherman. What difficulties did you have on the set with playback and the other technical aspects of working with musical performances?Frears: The main problem was me. My ignorance of it. It was much more complex than I realized. People would say things to me and I wouldn’t quite know what they were talking about. Using playback, you wanted the qualities of a live performance. You have to make it technically very classy. By the grace of God, I realized that whole side was very important. Sandy would say, “We’re making a film and a musical.” Afterwards I remember changing the bridge and slowly starting to understand what you could do with it.BTL: The last number was actually a finale, so you did have a musical arc along with the story arc.S.F.: I always knew the music had to be part of the narrative. I didn’t think about it, but eventually I thought, “Oh, I see he’s actually written one of those songs that you close shows with… with that sort of feeling.” You start to learn things, like when I wanted to change a musical number to an action sequence. It was because I had found a repeated patte
rn. There was dialog, then there was a number, there was dialog and then there was a number… And you suddenly think, “Oh I see, I can’t do that.” If you get repetitive in that way, you get bored. That’s when you realize those guys in the forties were very clever. I ended up so consumed with admiration. But the truth is, the people who make films at the level we’re talking about, the heads of departments in England—they’re all brilliant.
Written by Mary Ann Skweres