In his recent transition from acting to directing, Ralph Fiennes was able to surprise many with the sheer audacity of his modern day, Middle East-set take on Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” in his 2011 directorial debut. Now, just two years later, Fiennes has returned to directing with “The Invisible Women,” a retelling of Charles Dickens’ affair with 18-year-old Ellen Ternan midway through his life.
As a follow up to his blood-soaked Shakespeare adaptation, Fiennes’ relatively straight-forward take on the period drama may seem like a strange choice for the Oscar nominated star’s burgeoning career, but showings at Telluride, Toronto and New York have been met with similar praise for his nuanced and subdued portrayal of Dickens’ inner life (check out our Telluride review here).
Following a screening at the London Film Festival, Fiennes participated in their Screen Talks series to discuss both his return to directing and longstanding acting career, as well as what he sees as his next steps as a filmmaker. Here are the highlights from the evening’s conversation.
When the directing bug bit.
“I don’t know that the thought had become that clear, but I suppose I loved seeing Anthony working on the film. That was the first time I became a bit more curious and interested about what it meant to direct a film and I think Anthony was quite generous. He would be open with me about screenplay changes, what I thought of scenes, and my opinion of things beyond me playing the role. Then nine years later I was working on ‘The Constant Gardener’ with Fernando Meirelles and our producer Simon Channing Williams. He brought me out to Kenya early on and I was involved in finding locations… and I suppose that was a point where I could feel more consciously about wanting to direct.”
His first ideas of turning “Coriolanus” into a feature came when from playing the lead character on stage.
“It was a mad idea, completely balmy. It was a famously difficult Shakespeare play. I played it on stage, I thought I was okay and could’ve been better in it, but the play sank under my skin and I found myself after the production thinking that I would like to revisit it as a film. But I found the realities of financing a Shakespeare film were very hard and it’s troubling to producers and financiers. Shakespeare presents a problem for finance people, but funny enough it was Simon Channing Williams who after ‘The Constant Gardener’ had somehow intuited that I might want to direct. So he encouraged me to direct a screenplay.
“I went on some location scouting on this project which his company paid for, so for a bit I had a taste of what it would be like to go on a film scout and consider how to break down a film script and talk about it. Sadly that film never happened but out of that experience I suddenly latched on to ‘Coriolanus,’ and was saying ‘I want to make this film.’ So pursuing it started from there.”
The initial pitch for “Coriolanus” was formed around photojournalism.
“The first affirmation that the script would have any sort of legs was the fact that I got a lot of images together as a pitch. As a sort of image of the film, and I would show photojournalistic images that would be how I would portray the film. These would be of crowds rioting, war footage, politicians in corridors, and I would have pictures of people that would suggest the characters. Like maybe Putin’s face for Coriolanus or Barbara Bush’s face for Volumnia. This was my pitch and I was able through my agency, CCA, to get in touch with the screenwriter John Logan. I pitched it to John who comes from the theater, loves Shakespeare, and on that note I could feel him start to get it… and within a day or two I got a message that he was in.”
Fiennes found the script for “The Invisible Woman” while finishing “Coriolanus,” and began work almost immediately.
“When I finished ‘Coriolanus’ I knew I wanted to direct something again but I didn’t know what it would be and I thought I would need time to find it or read it or think about it or whatever. Then I was with Gaby Tana, one of the producers on ‘Coriolanus,’ and she gave me this screenplay and said you should read this. This was the screenplay for ‘The Invisible Woman,’ which I read and found myself incredibly gripped by. So that sort of presented itself much quicker than I anticipated it, I think I had just finished the sound mix of ‘Coriolanus’ when I received it.”
On what first drew him to the story of Dickens and Ternan.
“I think it might of been a bit of a blessing that I was relatively ignorant of Dickens. I was familiar with adaptations of Dickens and the famous David Lean films, and I think as children we had a recording of ‘A Christmas Carol’… but I hadn’t read any Dickens beyond ‘Little Dorrit.’ I’d liked ‘Little Dorrit’ but for some reason I hadn’t chosen to read anymore. I neutralized any sort of interest I had had. Then I read Claire Tomalin’s book and the script, he comes off of the pages as this complicatedly and ferociously engaged man. Yes he had humor and vitality, but he also had a sort of obsessive, almost furious side but the fury became a sort of benign mania about working and creating. He was driven to create these stories, to succeed and to connect to his readers.
“Anyways, I read this and with discovering these possibilities of portraying Dickens I came across the story of Ellan Ternan, the young lady that the movie is about. I think what moved me first of all was the idea of a woman having to find some sort of closure with a past love and intimacy. In this case it’s a woman but I think in some other story it could have just as easily been a man, but the idea was that within us we have these past histories with other people that mark us. They leave a scar in us and then we have to come to terms with that and how we were with that. How we are after it’s passed us by, and that was the hook for me.”
Finding the humanity inside the film’s period piece wrappings.
“With a period film or a costume drama, there are so many great stories set in the past and I think every time anyone takes on a period drama we have a certain feeling about different periods. The second World War is done a lot and the Jane Austin time is done a lot and Shakespeare as well, so how do we get inside the picture of the bonnets, the collars, and this? Because they are like us. These people are like us and they are living, breathing, eating, sleeping, sexually active, defecating people like us and we must feel that humanity pulsating inside of them.
“I was allowed to see a [Victorian] family album, and the family had had these early photographs taken of them maybe through a couple of decades and it was fascinating to see the aging of the young husband and wife, then the first child and then the first two children three or four years old and then teenagers. You could see the aging happening in their faces and this thing that I’m talking about, you could see it… you can see the wrinkly skin and the unshaven bits, and I was trying to get that so that it wasn’t a picture book. It’s also the way we shot it just to feel we were in a way, even though we knew the manners habits and taboos were all important, but we knew that essentially the beating heart and the living body beneath that is us today. And so to break through the sense of period, which I think can get in the way.”
Future plans and whether he prefers directing or acting.
“The truth is I don’t know. I finished this film and then went off to do two acting roles which I’ve only recently finished, so at the moment I’m enjoying a period of reading material, reading and thinking of ideas for things and it’s the first time in a while that I feel like I like that I don’t know what I’m going to do next.
“I feel like I just got my proverbial foot in the door as a director, and I’ve loved the experiences I’ve had. I think that if you put a gun to my head, I’d have to say that I’d like to direct.”