A good candidate for the unexpected sleeper indie crossover of the summer looks to be Fox Searchlight‘s “Belle,” which hits theaters this week. The film tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born in the West Indies in 1761 to an aristocrat, Admiral Sir John Lindsay, and an African slave. She was brought back to England and, as her father’s sole heir, albeit an illegitimate one, was raised among great privilege, though not allowed to participate in all aspects of society (she had to dine separately from the rest of her family for instance).
“Belle,” comes from British director Amma Asante, who made a huge impression a decade ago with gritty drama “A Way Of Life” (which won her a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut—an award that’s subsequently gone to the likes of Joe Wright, Andrea Arnold and Duncan Jones), tells Belle’s story through the frame of both her romance with young lawyer John Davinier, and her relationship with her guardian, Lord Mansfield, one of the country’s highest legal figures, who’s set to rule on a massacre of slaves, which could bring the slavery business to its knees.
Though the film has the trappings of just another costume drama, it’s far more interesting, dealing with issues of race, class and identity in a way that gives new lease of life to the genre, and it’s bolstered by some top-notch filmmaking, and a terrific cast, led by a star-making performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and also featuring Sam Reid, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Matthew Goode, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson and Penelope Wilton. The film goes into limited release on Friday, and we caught up with Asante a few months back in London to discuss the film in depth.
It’s almost ten years between your debut feature, “A Way Of Life,” which won you a BAFTA, and the release of “Belle.” What were you up to in that time.
The first thing I started after “A Way Of Life” was researching a project called “Where Hands Touch,” which is set in 1940s Berlin, on a relatively unusual subject, so I spent about a year, a year and a half doing that, and then began writing it. It got optioned by Ealing Studios and announced in Cannes in 2009 and we were going to make it that autumn. Just before that, in 2007, I also started working on a project with Focus Features in the U.S., set around the theme of honor killings, a thriller. And I was also doing a Jane Austen adaptation, “Lady Susan,” for New Line. And just as the banking crisis hit, all three projects collapsed, all within about two months of each other. So to be honest with you, I was in shock, I felt I’d followed all the advice: not to put all your eggs in one basket, making sure you’ve got more than one project you’re in love with.
So I took that as a sign that maybe it wasn’t what I was meant to be doing, to have three fall apart at the same time. In 2007, I’d moved to Holland to be with my now husband, and had been working from there, and with the distance, I’d felt quite detached from the industry, so that was another reason I thought “maybe I’ll run a bakery or a dry cleaners or something.” And then Damian [Jones, producer of “Belle,” along with “The Iron Lady”] sent me this postcard print of Dido and Elizabeth. I thought at the time, a period drama, a black lead, me writing and directing, who hasn’t made a movie for a long time, I thought it’s never going to happen. So for a long time, I sort of humored him, stalling him, thinking he’ll go away, he’ll realize this project is never going to get made, or never get made with me directing, but he didn’t, he kept on and on. So at one point, I was spending four days a week here, in meetings then flying back over to be with my husband. Almost doing it out of habit, I just kept doing it. And one day, we were greenlit. All that time, I think I’d thought ‘whatever will be will be.”
That feels like a healthy attitude to have.
It definitely was. Once I won the BAFTA for “A Way Of Life,” not a lot of people saw it, but it did OK critically, there was this pressure of what are you going to do next, who are you as a filmmaker, what’s your stamp? And I really felt that pressure to not be a one-hit wonder. Not a one-hit wonder, but a one critically-acclaimed wonder. To end up with a body of work that was worthwhile and valuable. And I thought that was what I was building, with the three projects, that one would lead on to the next and the next. So when that didn’t happen, I thought, God, what was the BAFTA for, what were the reviews for?
In a way, though, the space means that “Belle” serves as your second first feature.
Yeah, it’s definitely seen that way. Though it helped, getting it made over here, that I have a bit of history.
And with the film getting a lot more attention, it’s presumably giving “A Way Of Life” a second lease of life as well?
I’m getting that a lot on Twitter, people saying I’m ordering it on Amazon, or they’ve watched it. That’s really heartwarming, because all you want is for people to see the movie. It is weird getting awards for stuff, and having critics write nice things, but no one else has seen it.
So how long did it to take from getting that first postcard to going into production?
That was three and a half years. It still takes time, because we had to make sure we had a script the financiers were happy to put money into. I basically walk into meetings and say “I’ve got this fantasy, and I want you to give me millions of pounds, and I can’t really promise you very much, I’ll do as much as I can, write parts that can attract a good cast, and that hopefully audiences want to go and see, but we’re doing all of this on a wing and a prayer, we don’t really know what’s going to happen, do you want to come on board with this?” That’s basically how I described my job to my husband when we met. So they’re not going to take that risk until they have a solid script, and good actors interested in that script. And that took a long time. It’s a full-time job, because you’re doing everything you can, hopefully for the benefit of the finished film. We had to film reshoots eight hours after my dad died. I was writing on my wedding day, during my honeymoon.
You can see where all the work comes in, because it’s a deceptively complex script.
And so that means you’re having to look at each thread at a time, to make sure that the building of each thread parallels the building of another. The idea is that the Zong [the slave ship on which a massacre took place, the legal case around which forms the backdrop to “Belle”], and the painting were used as tools to explore Belle’s political awakening, and her identity, all at the same time. They’re concepts, and concepts you have to turn into entertainment. But it’s all useful. “Where Hands Touch,” the one set in Berlin, which we’re going to make in 2015, if I hadn’t have done that, I wouldn’t have honed my writing enough to have done “Belle.” If I hadn’t had done “Lady Susan,” I wouldn’t have known and been so passionate about the 18th century woman’s experience. So it’s never wasted. Writing, for me, isn’t easy. I want to do a good job, and I don’t take that for granted, but this was a process I really enjoyed exploring. A lot went in, and came out, and it took so long to build that. But everything informs what you know of the characters, and an audience knows when you know your characters.
Were you aware of Dido’s story before you were approached about “Belle?”
I feel like I remember seeing a girl in a turban in a painting, but when I started my research, there were quite a few girls later, so it was probably one of them. Not standing next to white girls, and darker than Dido. As Spike Lee would say, black like me. When you see the real painting, which is at Scone Palace where Lord Mansfield was born, there’s more depth, you can see right to the back of the painting. And I got so much from it. The way Elizabeth is touching Dido, the way Dido is pointing at herself and looking straight at the painting, I wanted that to be her landing place, where she ends up. Once she’s combined this idea of being half daughter of slave, half daughter of aristocrat, half black, half white, all these seemingly contradictory terms, she has to combine and accept, and say “I’m ok with who I am. I’m bloody different from everyone I know, but I’m ok with that.” I always say, this isn’t a Cinderella story, this isn’t rags to riches, this is a story of a girl who was loved, but has to teach people the right way to love her, the way she needs to be loved. So I took as much as I could from the painting, and then focused on the research as well. There’s loads if you look. Lady Mary, Penelope Wilton’s character, left Dido money in her will, Lord Mansfield left her money in two wills, so who is this girl that everyone’s leaving her money? This is someone who’s adored.
When you start working on a script, what’s your process like?
The first thing I do, and this is the first time I’ve said this in an interview, but I’ll write on separate pieces of paper, words that represent the film to me. So it might say love, or identity, or whatever. I’ll write two or three words, fold them up and put them under my Buddha at home. I’m not a Buddhist, I just love my Buddha. And when the film comes out, I take those pieces of paper out, and see if those words are coming back to me from reviews or audience members. That allows me to subconsciously hold on to the essence, no matter how many financiers come on, or whatever. Because the hardest thing for a writer or director to do is not throw out the baby with the bathwater. To walk the tightrope between protecting your vision, and not putting up a wall against good notes. So then I do the bullet points, then an outline, then a first draft, and then a polish or second draft, and then start to look at the threads separately. So I do a draft per thread. So a thread can be Dido’s journey with her father, or Dido’s journey with John, or with the painting, how the painting affects her, or Lord Mansfield’s relationship with John, because one is the reflection of the other, one is who the other used to be before the establishment got to him. To me, Lord Mansfield brings to John the idea that you have to be in the game to play the game.
It’s interesting you say that, because I think that’s what you’re doing with the film. You’re dealing with some quite complex issues, of class, of race, of gender, of identity. And yet it’s a film that the “Downton Abbey” audience would go and see.
It would be much harder to communicate all of those things to an audience with a modern-day setting, you’d feel like you were hitting them over the head. There’s this quote I’ve always held on to really tightly, from Martin Scorsese, saying “you’ve got to smuggle your ideas.” Every single film I do, that’s there in the background. The research suggests that it’s a film that women will take men to go and see, but for the men that we tested with, what was interesting was that they were surprised that they enjoyed it. Having come from “A Way Of Life,” which had awards, but wasn’t widely seen, I want bums on seats. I wanted to see if I could write a commercial movie and still have something to say at the same time.
You mentioned the testing process. When did that take place? Before or after Fox Searchlight came on board?
It was completely finished when Fox Searchlight bought it. The only thing that changed was that they put their logo on it. When we tested, it was a very tough week. My dad died on the Saturday night, we did the reshoots all of Sunday, from seven in the morning to after midnight, and I didn’t know where I was because Dad had died eight hours before, we put the new shot that we stuff into the ending on Tuesday and Wednesday, and on Thursday we had the test. I can’t really describe it, but my skin was still smarting from trying to accept that my dad wasn’t here anymore, and suddenly I was in the test screening with rousing applause and shouts of “bravo,” and seeing my financiers hugging and smiling. I had my Dad’s watch on, one I’d given him for his 70th birthday, and remember thinking it was so surreal. We did obviously have notes, from focus groups. We did have thoughts. Too love-y, too obvious in certain places, we went back and finessed certain places, took out certain dialogue. After that, I was able to go home for a few weeks, and then we flew to LA and New York to do the screenings for the various distributors. I do never want to go through it again. You get through these things, everybody does, but you think, “if I have to learn something, can I learn it this time around?” But I at least like to think it gives the film heart. My Dad was my biggest supporter in this industry. It was a movie I made for my Dad to go and see.
It’s a great father and daughter story, really.
It is! I’m not supposed to say that. But yeah, it’s a paternal love story. And Lord Mansfield is my Dad, he’s everything I saw in my Dad. A bit bull-headed, a bit pig-headed sometimes, but ends up doing the right thing, and was always going to do the right thing. Sometimes needs the obvious pointed out to him, but essentially is just a good, good man. Maybe it’s not great for a modern feminist woman like me to say, but he was a good strong head of the family. Because he didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, he didn’t disregard what the women had to say, he listened, and at that time, it was relatively progressive.
You’ve got Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead role, and she’s someone who feels like she’s had her big break coming for a long time. I remember seeing her on stage in “Romeo & Juliet” with Andrew Garfield nearly ten years ago, and thinking “she’s going to be a huge star.” How did you end up casting her?
I’d initially met her before, for “Where Hands Touch,” the German piece, probably about a year and a half before. We were seeing Didos right the way through my writing process, but it became very clear quite early on that she was right. She has an innate grace, which I’ve said in every interview. She just fits into the period. Gugu’s a very natural beauty, a pure beauty, but also understood the heartbeat of Dido, which gave me a great shorthand with her. She felt this responsibility, like I did, to make an entertaining film, understanding first and foremost that this was a movie, but one that had some historic responsibility attached to it. She got that it was a father/daughter story as much as it was a love story. She was always enthusiastic, never tired of reading another draft, always asking me questions.
It’s a very different film from “A Way Of Life,” but one thing I thought was a through line is the way that there’s a certain compassion from the characters. There’s no black and white to them, there are various different degrees of acceptance. Tom Felton’s character is horrible and racist, but he’s still a human being.
Yeah, I sat down with Tom Felton in the rehearsal process and really talked about the fact that I wanted to understand him. He’s a pig, but I want to understand him. Every person in the movie reflects some theme. He reflects fear of chaos, fear of change, fear of the new. Lord Mansfield is on the cusp, one foot in the now, and another foot in progression. He’s on the cusp of change, when the idea of marrying for love is coming in, but Tom is very much on the other side, and she frightens him for many reasons. So I hope it would be a through thread in all of my movies, if God allows, in the sense that human beings are brave, and flawed, there’s no black and white. The film is a movie about instinct versus conditioning, and even Dido is a victim of that. That’s why she looks down on John to begin with, she’s going against her instinct and falling into conditioning. But it makes for interesting characters, I think, and I think it challenges your audience, even in a gentle movie, when you say ‘here are some bad people, but what happens if you get the way they feel. You don’t agree with it, but you get it.’ That makes life more interesting for me as a writer and a director, and it’s certainly more interesting for actors. If you’re going to get good actors, even new actors, you have to get them interested in the roles.
So you’ve got that thematic link. “Unforgettable,” which you shoot later in the year, is going to be your first studio movie, and your first genre movie. Will there be the same kind of continuity with the earlier films?
Yeah, it’s a thriller, but very much the same thematic territory, it’s one of the reasons I picked it. It’ll be the first movie that I will only direct, I haven’t had anything to do with the script. I’m working with them, but not as a writer. I picked it because it has a double female lead. The set up is basically first wife tries to kill second wife, basically. And for me, it’s a movie steeped in plausibility. The feeling I want everyone to leave the cinema with is “there but the grace of god go I.” That sense of really looking at identity, gender, what happens when you’re no longer a Mrs, what does that do to your sense of identity. What happens when your husband falls in love with someone, but also a child is falling in love with that person too. And for the second wife, what happens when you’re walking in somebody else’s shoes, what happens to your own sense of identity. And for the father, what happens when you’re caught between the woman you love, and your child, the other woman you love. And the way to keep her happy, is to keep her mum happy. So essentially, you’re caught between these two women. We’re already into the new relationship by the time the movie starts, the second wife didn’t break up the first relationship. But essentially, the two women are the leads in the movie. I’m divorced, and remarried, I’m a second wife, I have a stepchild, so I loved all the themes that this threw up. If you look at “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” and “Fatal Attraction” and all of those genre movies, what I wanted to do was a contemporary version of those movies, where you really understand all the characters, and steep it in plausibility. What I love about directing a movie written by somebody else is the idea of someone who writes something that I never could. I know what I can bring to it as a director, but they’ve written something that I could never. With “Unforgettable,” this wonderful female writer, Christina Hodson, has written a movie that I wouldn’t have thought of, but absolutely I identify with in every way. So yeah, still looking at some of the same issues. I’m interested in the woman’s journey, but also in how ordinary people negotiate life.
Do you have a start date for that?
There’s a rough date of autumn, hoping to shoot in either New Orleans or Atlanta. Just waiting for the sun to calm down. But the whole point of having a start date is just so it can be moved.
And there’s no cast in place yet, right?
Not that we can announce, no. You’ll be the first to know. But it’s A-listers. Super A-listers. But yeah, scheduling is often dependent on that, so when you’re dealing with two A-list women and an A-list man, that’s hideous. So I’m trying to have a really pragmatic outlook with it, and the most important thing is making sure that I have “Where Hands Touch” lined up and ready to go, and I don’t allow myself out of the game again.
“Belle” goes into limited release on Friday, May 2nd.