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Great Expectations

Event Q&A Transcript

1. How did you work with David Nicholls, the scriptwriter? What’s the process?

Mike Newell: I didn’t have to work with the writer, he had written a very, very good script, which we worked through, of course, we did two or three drafts. But we didn’t do anything more than tittle it, we didn’t change anything in any major way because he’d got it right first time. He’s a very, very good writer and we were all very fortunate to get him.

Elizabeth Karlsen: I’ve worked with David before on a film that you probably didn’t see, it’s for a sort of older audience with Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent called When Did You Last See Your Father and I loved working with him so when Stephen Woolley, my partner, had the idea of Great Expectations we approached David. What I love about David and this book, and he’s writing an article for the Guardian that you can read, is he’s probably about 46 and he was brought up in a small town in provincial England in a very low middle class family and he had aspirations that there was a world out there that he wanted to get to and he didn’t come from an educated background or a privileged background and he read Great Expectations when he was about 13 or 14 and a book that was written in the mid-19th century or just after, that fact that it could speak to a teenage boy in the 1970s and he can identify with it and think there’s something about this character, about this book that speaks to me and so there’s a real passion there and I think when it came to adapting the screenplay his passion and understanding of this book and Dickens really, really shines through and he did a wonderful job.

2. Could you explain maybe some of the difficulties of shooting out of London and some of the locations?

Elizabeth Karlsen: On a film crew for a film this size we’ve got between 80 and 100 people and film is sort of a pyramid structure so Mike is sort at the top of it and then you’ve got the head of the design department, the head of the costume department, head of the lighting department and they’re sort of at the top and they have a whole series of people working under them. And with me, I have a line producer and a production manager and really I think the closest thing is like an army maneouvre and you’ve got to get those 80 to 100 crew and cast members down to Kent, you need to find accommodation for them all, you need to transport them to the set every day plus all the equipment, you need to find parking for catering, it’s a logistical nightmare. And obviously the thing with the film is your running cost per day is hugely expensive and so time is money and everything has to run like clockwork. So if you run over on one day or you’re scuppered by the weather it will have a knock-on effect because you are behind with those scenes and you’ve only got permission to film in that location for two days. So the whole thing needs to be fantastically well prepared in order for Mike to be able to do what he needs to do with the actors. And, of course, there are going to be unforeseen events that happen and you just hope that you can maneouvre your way around them and again that comes with having an experienced director at the top so you can go to him and say “look, Mike, this has happened, this piece of equipment hasn’t arrived or the crane for that crane shot has broken down” and he will hopefully have the best team around him so that he can figure his way out of the problem.

Mike Newell: But you don’t prat about. What Liz said, this is a low budget film. The Harry Potter that I did cost $250 million to make, it then cost $100 million to publicise and release and on the Harry Potter movie, our catering budget - what we spent to feed people - was slightly in excess of the whole budget of this movie. And so you can’t mess about, there’s no point in you saying, “oh, the light’s not right today, darling, I need to go lie down”, you’ve got to work, you’ve got to go. And we had the absolute best; we had a great cameraman.

3. What was the most challenging part of the film to make and why?

Elizabeth Karlsen: I think from a production perspective it’s probably the whole boat sequence because we had very tight restrictions on the budget. Obviously if we had the kind of budget Mike was talking about on Harry Potter it would have been a very, very different affair. But we didn’t and that sequence was incredibly complicated and it was filmed in four different locations and there are a lot of computer graphic imaging effects and stunt men and all of those things involved and it needed to be so carefully planned, every detail worked out. And in fact we’d hoped to have an extra day to film it but we just couldn’t afford it. I remember we had a meeting at Twickenham studios, there were about 25 people around a table and the line producer who I work with who keeps an eye on all the budget items made the announcement that actually we didn’t have five days, we had four days, or actually it was three instead of four, and the tempers rose, it just wasn’t enough time. Everything was storyboarded, it was detailed… In the end I think it works absolutely beautifully but it was a very, very tough sequence to pull off for the money and time we had.
Mike Newell: What had happened was it was shot, as Liz says, it was shot in one, two, three, four …

Elizabeth Karlsen: Actually five because we did a pick-up didn’t we?

Mike Newell: Yeah, right, we did. I meant the one tank was only about 10 foot by six foot, that’s the tank where you see them go under the wheel, where you see Magwitch and the other guy crushed by the wheel. That was very small tank but then there was a dock we went to, down in East London, where you could sort of tell that just under the surface there were a million dead dogs. Oh god, that dock. And we got the big shif in the dock but they we went out on to the river proper and the see proper and the only way you get through it is if you, what Liz has referred to as storyboarding which is when you draw, pencil-draw each frame of the sequence and you the simply, as you shoot, you cross the frames off - “we’ve got that” you know that that goes together properly with that, “we’ve got that, we’ve got that” and so on. It’s like making a jigsaw it’s very, very not romantic. You can’t afford inspiration on the day; you’ve got to know exactly way before you start shooting. It’s all done on paper with the drawings.

4. As a director, how does it feeling seeing your own personal interpretation of something on the screen?

Mike Newell: Well, you can’t do without it. There’s no such thing really as a kind of generalised, overall view of a subject. I don’t know what that would look like. Any decent movie is the result of prejudice, is the result of somebody saying “I don’t care what you think it looks like, it’s going to look like that” and if you don’t have that sort of bloody mindedness at the base of the thing it won’t be anything it’ll just be bland. So I wouldn’t know, really, want its like for it not to be like that. You spend a lot of time before you go anywhere near an actor or a camera making sure that you get your prejudices, your deeply held (possibly entirely wrong but nonetheless deeply held) believes, you actually get those down. But talk to Liz, sometimes it’s absolute hell because the view of the production, her, of a movie, versus the view of the direction, me, of a movie, might be poles apart and then it’s really tricky.

Elizabeth Karlsen: For me, what I love about making a films is it’s a collaborative process and your only as good as the people around you so I can’t take sole credit for anything you see here …

Mike Newell: And nor can I.

Elizabeth Karlsen: There’s between 80 and 100 people who work incredibly hard. The thing about film is there’s an intensity to it, once you start filming you are working 14, 15 hour days 6 days a week and its very, very intense and very exhausting and you form a family unit and you’re all in this together. Everyone wants to make a great film, no-one sets out to make a bad film and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t. Obviously with something like this and the reception we received last night and the fantastic party and having you guys all stay here after and ask questions, it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling to see your work up there and see it appreciated. And I just want to say to all of you, and particularly to all the girls because film is a male dominated industry, you need to step into our shoes, you’re the future of cinema or whatever you choose to do, if you choose to go into film its you out there who’ll make the difference and Helena [Bonham Carter] gave a speech the other night, she won a British Film Institute award, fellowship, and she said that she took her inspiration from her father who stole it from Winston Churchill and his motto to her was KBO … which was Keep Buggering On. And there’s a lot of disappointment, there’s a lot of hardship on the way, there’s a lot of rejection. Anything you do in life…

Mike Newell: There’s a lot of ill temper.

Elizabeth Karlsen: A lot of all of those things and you just have to pick up the pieces and go out there battling on and do it again and you’ve got to believe in yourselves because if you believe in yourself everyone else will.

Mike Newell: Does anyone want to be a filmmaker? You can make a movie on your phone; no seriously, you can make a movie on your phone with your friends. It only takes writing it down.

Elizabeth Karlsen: Did anyone see Beasts of the Southern Wild? You should see that, he was 26 at the time and they made that for next to nothing on digital cameras and it took them a few years.

Mike Newell: And they didn’t know anything. They just went out and said, “we think it’s a really good subject “ and they started to write it down. But the great thing, if you are interested and you want to just starts, which you can, you don’t have to have further education, you don’t have to have this, that or the other, you can just start. Put yourself in a group, do try and do it on your own, put yourself with two or three or four other people, anything bigger than that is probably unwieldy and you’ll just fall to fighting, but if you get a small group and you say “okay, let’s make a film that last 10 minutes” then first off you write it down and you write it just like a piece of composition, writing in paragraphs and then you break it down into what’s going to be a sequence, and then into what’s going to be shot, and then you simply take your mobile phone and going out and make the thing. Honestly, you can do that. And you what, all those film schools and what not they don’t look at people unless those people, those students that want to go there have, at the age that you are, have done exactly that, have made little five or 10, forget 10, three. The films I started making were two-and-a-half, three minutes long and it’s only if you’ve done that that they will even begin to take you seriously and you can do it yourselves. Honestly, it’s absolutely, you can do it yourselves. But get two or three other people that feel like you and then with that unit you can go to work.

Elizabeth Karlsen: And I think Mike’s made a really good point there. The big thing that you have on your side, whatever you chose to do, is ignorance. And the point of that ignorance is, you get old dinosaurs like us who have knowledge, which is supposed to equal power but we say “Oh, no you can’t do it like that – it won’t work” but mavericks don’t have that. Mavericks say screw you I’m going to do it this way and you see them all over the place and that is what you can be because you don’t have that weight of knowledge that actually limits you in many ways. I think the great thing about film is that if you are an artist you can do storyboards, if you are interested in computers there is on screen graphics, there is make up and hair – there is a whole slew of jobs that fit into filmmaking.

Mike Newell: Number 1 – get yourself 3 friends and a story because it’s only then when you have actually made something that you’ll begin to see what you’d like to do. It’s a blast. Do it on a Saturday morning and do it very fast.