INTERVIEW: Ralph and Martha Fiennes Push(kin) 19th Century "Onegin"
by Andrea Meyer
Since “The English Patient,” we’re used to seeing Ralph Fiennes play romantic heroes, brooding and suffering against dramatic landscapes. In Evgeny Onegin, the hero of Alexander Pushkin‘s epic prose poem, Fiennes found a character as cynical and witty as he was tragic. Enamored of the man and his story, Fiennes decided to executive produce the film version “Onegin” with his sister, Martha, a video and commercial director, at its helm. Both siblings insist that they shared creative control of the project without too much conflict.
Whether or not we believe them, what is clear is that the resulting film is an extraordinary debut feature. Shot on location in St. Petersburg and the UK, this epic period piece transports us to nineteenth century Russia with the help of an outstanding crew that includes Director of Photography Remi Adefarasin (“Elizabeth“) and Production Designer Jim Clay (“The Crying Game“). In addition to Fiennes, the strong cast also includes Liv Tyler (“Stealing Beauty“), as the innocent young thing whose heart Onegin crushes, and Martin Donovan (“The Opposite of Sex“) as her eventual husband. Whether or not an audience really cares about the sad fate of this nineteenth century cynic, we can’t help but swoon at the film’s gorgeous landscapes and clever conversation. With the help of her movie star brother, Martha Fiennes has proven herself a talented and very promising film director. After moving beyond the intimidation caused by Ralph’s gorgeous green eyes, Andrea Meyer spoke to the actor and his sister-director about collaboration, creative control, and missed chances.
indieWIRE: I’m interested in your dynamics on set. To begin with, Ralph, what was it like to be directed by someone who was at once a first-time film director and your sister?
Ralph Fiennes: Well, first of all, we had worked so much on the script before. It wasn’t as if I arrived a week before she did and then had to just jump in. We had taken a year to get a script together. We’d batted so many ideas back and forth. Every scene we’d argued about, debated about, and the one thing we were really in harmony about was that we shouldn’t dilute the cynicism, the apparent arrogance, of “Onegin.” It was really crucial that he should be ambivalent and that he should test the audience. Some people were worried that he would repel the audience. I didn’t really mind that, as long as he didn’t bore them.
iW: He might not be boring, but, like you said, he’s arrogant as well as blasé, contemptuous, and extremely enigmatic. Which of his qualities drew you to the character?
Ralph: People keep asking me that as if I shouldn’t be drawn towards those characteristics. But, he’s a complicated human being, so, as an actor, why not want to play him? As if I should be drawn to playing people with likeable, redeeming features. I am, sometimes, but it’s a bit like saying, “Why would you want to play Iago? Why would you want to play Richard III?” He’s not overtly a villain, but characters who behave negatively or destructively are actually always attractive roles for actors to play.
iW: Martha, what was it like for you directing an actor who is both your brother and something of a star, for your first feature?
Martha Fiennes: Like Ralph said, it had gone on for so long before we finally got on set and started actually and factually gathering those dailies in. Having said that, nothing, of course, compares to the process of getting on set and having the first scene together and discovering a language for making the film. It was absolutely a completely rewarding process. Though my background is in music videos and commercials and I have a familiarity with things such as a camera and visuals, I had not worked with actors in this way and had to discover the language in the best way I could. I really enjoyed it and was lucky to have a wonderful cast. I discovered the delights of creating performances with actors. Ralph is brilliant to work with. He’s extremely intelligent and also very willing to try different things in different takes and do variations and make discoveries, because it’s continually evolving. It’s a completely alive thing, right through to the very end. It’s fascinating. Anyway, our relationship is based on a lot of mutual respect and professionalism. We never really ever let our egos get in the way, because at the end of the day, all that really matters is the film.
iW: Ralph, how involved were you in the creative process, from developing the script through to the editing?
Ralph: Very. I was initially very, very involved. I had approval on a large number of issues. I never exercised it, but, implicit in that, is full involvement in discussions to do with the screenplay and the casting and things like that. I think it was difficult for Martha, because she is the director, and I wanted her to be the director, and of course I had all sorts of feelings and opinions. And I think she had to weather them, and sometimes I guess I was quite insistent. But in the end, it was her call.
I think our creative process was one of sharing ideas, “You know, Martha, I think we need to have less lines for Tatyana at this point” or “this line doesn’t ring true to me” or “Ralph, do you not think this line of Onegin is too much?” With the character of Onegin, she let me have a lot of freedom and a huge amount of input and control over the shape of Onegin’s lines and dialogue. Of course I had opinions and attitudes about the whole script, but Martha was incredibly open to opinions. Good directors understand that they should listen, not necessarily agree, but try to absorb someone else’s ideas, see it from their point of view, and really check out whether it has any validity. And that’s what Martha was brilliant at. It takes a lot of mental strength to hold it all together, and I think she did. Sometimes it was tough, but I’ve had heated exchanges with Anthony Minghella (director of “The English Patient”). That happens when the director has the generosity and strength of spirit to let an actor in. Of course, if you let someone in, then they’re allowed to have the confidence of their opinions, and sometimes there’s going to be a difference, and I think it can be a really creative one. Ultimately it’s because you really, passionately care that you have any differences of opinion, and then you go through a necessary debate and exchange, and then you commit, and somehow or other it works itself out. . . . I’m making it sound like we were at each other’s throats. We weren’t at all. Actually, 99% of the time, it seemed very harmonious.
iW: Martha, what was it like for you to share creative control with Ralph?
Martha: With Onegin, yes, I let him have free reign. And it is about letting someone in, but also you’re in the driver’s seat. You have all the responsibility. You can never be diluted. You have to hold onto the vision, and if the input works and can enhance and give you things you hadn’t thought about, that’s great and it’s useful. That’s what you give away. You give these little pockets of creativity to other people to do great things with, hopefully, but you also have to rein it all in at the same time. You have to have an overall vision. It is a sort of funny dual kind of thing. And a lot of decisions are made on instinct. But you can’t allow ego to get in the way. You have to really put it aside.
iW: I’m also interested in your collaboration with your other supporting players. Your Director of Photography, and editor, for example, were wonderful.
Martha: It’s a fantastic and exciting process choosing heads of departments. Remi Adefarasin, who is our cinematographer. Jim Clark, the editor, has an incredible, incredible CV. He worked as an assistant on “The Prince and the Showgirl,” the Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier picture, a long time ago, and he’s just finished the new Bond movie. Also the fantastic genius, Jim Clay, who was our production designer. You do develop very intimate relationships with these people, and you discover the areas creatively where you fuse and let them come back and give you stuff. It was very rewarding.
iW: In what way is Onegin’s story relevant to today?
Martha: Well, I think the great stories are the ones that cross the time barrier. Changes come about over the course of time — social differences, politics, technology. So many huge changes are made and have been made throughout the last two hundred years. There are other things that remain — mortality, feelings towards mortality, haven’t changed. The incredible, quite extraordinary, nature of love hasn’t changed, the nature of rejection or inadequacy or sense of worthlessness. These fundamental marks and stories about love generally work very well and this one in particular. There are lots of wonderful things in the Pushkin that make it very contemporary. There’s a wonderful female character. She has a great, natural, heroic integrity. The story isn’t about manipulated emotions. It’s very truthful. I can only feel that this really has a very contemporary relevance.
Ralph: It’s about chances missed because you’re so preoccupied with yourself and the way you can protect yourself from engaging emotionally, being in the present moment, being open, which Tatyana naturally is and Onegin is not. He’s sort of formed himself into this intriguing but quite cool — almost contrived himself to be a particular thing, a particular image. And he’s not a stupid man. He’s a perceptive man, but he loses because he hasn’t dared ever to be vulnerable. And I think real emotional honesty and being honest to yourself is something that is hard for a lot of men, more than women. Men and their feelings are perennially a difficult thing. Women feel much more directly and are at risk because of it.
iW: They also tend to be better at expressing emotions. The film’s very much about the consequences of suppressing and expressing emotions. And about regret, which is very sad.
Martha: But, also, I think, for me, people who are really brought down by something — there is something exhilarating in that. There’s some exultation, some revelation. Their life crumbles around them, something terrible happens. They have a life-changing experience, which in a way is what Onegin has, but it seems such a modern way to encapsulate it, such a modern phrase. I’m just trying to suggest something positive. Theirs is some kind of revelation of consciousness.
iW: I also suspect that something like that happens to Onegin. But what do you make then of that wonderful, enigmatic line “I have no secret longing to be saved by myself”?
Ralph: That’s my favorite line.
iW: So, is he telling the truth or does he secretly want her to save him?
Ralph: At that moment, no, he doesn’t want to be changed. And I love that in him, that he’s protecting himself. At the same time, I think it’s his failing. I think I completely understand where that line comes from.