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National Theater Directors Nicholas Hytner and Rufus Norris Hit the Movies

National Theater Directors Nicholas Hytner and Rufus Norris Hit the Movies

They’re both men of theater, first and foremost. As Nicholas Hytner ended his 12-year tenure running the National Theatre, rising theater director Rufus Norris took over. Both men recently turned their theater hits, “The Lady and the Van” (Sony Pictures Classics) and “London Road,” respectively, into movies. 

Hytner has always felt like a fish out of water directing movies, from Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of King George” to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” but loves to keep learning film craft. “I’m a theater director,” he told me in a phone interview. “I’m therefore
driven as much as by nerves and fear as much as anything else. I love popping in to make a movie. It’s not my natural medium, and every time I do one, I learn more. I love the movies, watching them, wondering how they get made. It’s always the kind of challenge that makes you want to
get out of bed in the morning. It’s not like when I’m working in theater I follow some mindless preordained routine, the theater makes me nervous too. But making a film, it’s always very bracing— it is a different medium.”

What took “The Lady in the Van” so long to get made after Hytner directed the original hit 1999 stage production at Queen’s Theatre in London? “We didn’t make it,” he said, “I can’t remember why. But Alan Bennett has been writing
autobiographically recently with real insight. So when we were working on ‘Untold
Stories’ at the National Theatre with Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett it occurred to us to revisit ‘The Lady in the Van.’ Maggie was still very keen, it was not hard to get a limited budget of 4 million pounds. It was made entirely the way we wanted it to be made, because the writer and the actor and the title are very popular in Britain. We thought, ‘financially it will make sense in Britain alone, if not outside.’ It was not made with an eye to the U.S. market, although we knew that thanks to ‘Downton Abbey’ Maggie has a huge following here, so it would be great if they wanted to see it.” (Friday morning, Smith added a Best Actress BAFTA nomination for “The Lady in the Van” to her Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress—Comedy/Musical.) 

The filmmakers went back to the actual street on a small corner of Camden Town in North London to shoot the movie, where playwright Bennett (Alex Jennings) had in fact written about one Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) who lived in a van for 15 years parked in his driveway. “It’s the point-of-view of one writer looking out window at the van parked in his drive,” said Hytner, “the uncompromising sensibility of the writer who felt part and parcel of it. This is not a movie that goes out and tries to make itself universal.”

What motivated and fueled the film, Hytner added, “was that we were returning the action to where it actually happened, making the film in Alan’s study in his house and an exact replica of the van, from photographs. We were looking at it without any affectation, in a very level human way, avoiding the temptation to find 1001 ways of looking at the same room and street—I wanted the filmmaker to disappear, there’s a very recognizable tone of voice that emerges through film as Alan works out how to write about Miss Shepherd, to look at what’s going on, with few great cinematic flourishes. We got the crane out twice. That was deliberate. I didn’t want it to feel like a film, for you to be aware of a filmmaker showing off.”

Bennett kept diaries in which he scribbled down precise descriptions of the myriad and sordid contents of Miss Shepherd’s van, and the sorts of things she wore. “We had a lot of material to work with,” said Hytner. “That and Maggie’s total lack vanity playing a woman who lived rough, for several decades, you can see from the photographs, she was always pretty battered. Maggie just went there.”

The play was written for Smith and the movie “wouldn’t have been made without her,” said Hytner. “There is magnificence about her. She’s ungrateful, aggressive and unbending, determined to live life on her own terms, without self-pity. That was Miss Shepherd—what Maggie does in the film, which she didn’t have the material to do much in the play, is she allows you to see behind the armor plating, and she’s able to strip that armor away and to suggest the regret at the waste of life. What she does in the last 30 to 40 minutes, when the day center cleans the grime away and her hair is washed and she’s put into clean clothes, is show the turtle pulled out of her shell. She looks happy to see herself cleaned up, but it feels as if she’s naked. Then when she plays the piano, and she deals with what might have been, she suggests that even at the heart of a film that is funny, resilient and life-affirming, there is heart-breaking tragedy.”

At age 80, making the film was an exercise in stamina for Smith (who turned 81 on December 28). “She was hurling herself in and out of that van over and over every day,” said Hytner. “The energy is extraordinary but physically it took it out of her; running up and down the street chasing children wasn’t easy. She never stinted not for second. We gave her every Wednesday off, so she worked Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. It would not be possible for her to sustain that energy five days a week; she’s in virtually every frame. The physical energy the part required was extraordinary, it was not a big-budget film, there was no massive trailer to go revive herself between shots. She was sitting in the basement of the one house, that’s the world she comes from, not a superstar world. She just gets on with it.”

Hytner had worked with Jennings repeatedly since 1985. “I’ve worked with him more often than any other actor, very often on stage,” Hytner said. “He played Alan in ‘Untold Stories’ three years ago. He does him beautifully, captures his mixture of diffidence and ruthlessness. That’s one of the things that Alan is exploring in this movie. He’s weak-willed, not as strong-willed as Miss Shepherd. Alan allows himself to be patronized and insulted, but ruthless Alan has the last laugh, as his neighbors are up on the big screen looking ridiculous, and he’s making Miss Shepherd’s story into art, something he has transformed into his own.”

Last year Hytner turned over the reins of the National to rising theater director Rufus Norris, who I met at the Toronto Film Festival where he screened his sophomore film “London Road,” a screen version of his hit stage musical. Astonishingly, the play used verbatim transcripts from people involved in tracking a serial killer of prostitutes on London Road—and turned them into a sung musical. BBC FIlms backed the film, with the National Theatre executive producing; by the time they shot it, Norris had been appointed as the next director, in a clear vote for innovation. “That’s a great thing for me to remember as I go through my day-to-day job,” he said, “they didn’t appoint me for the same.” The night before he had been hanging out with “The Martian” star Chiwetel Ejiofor, who had just finished a show at the National. “It’s one big family,” said Norris, who is a tad regretful that in committing to running the National, he is effectively giving up his nascent film career. “But never say never!”

The roots of “London Road” come from Alecky Blythe, “who writes in this extraordinary way,” said Norris. “She doesn’t write a word. She just interviews people and then edits not just what they said, but edits their audio together, and then the actors learn exactly that audio. In fact, most times if you see an Alecky show, the actors don’t learn the lines at all and are just fed them through an earpiece and they repeat them one second, two-and-a-half seconds after they’re hearing it, which you’d think can’t work — and then you see it, and it’s sort of amazing. She’s very, very strict, but she’s also the most extraordinary person at getting people to relax. She will go anywhere, and she was in a brothel in Chelmsford, which is near Ipswich, doing a piece about working girls, and no men were coming in the time she was there. She said to the girls, ‘Why isn’t it happening?’ And they said, ‘Well, because these murders are happening in Ipswich, all the men are staying off the streets. The police are out in droves.’ The prostitutes were telling her to go to Ipswich. And she did, and got a little bit of material.”

The National, in one of what Norris calls its “experimental provocations,” threw Blythe together with composer Adam Cork in a kind of shotgun marriage in a workshop to write and compose together, “to see what came of it. And then Alecky went back to Ipswich and started meeting people, and it built up from there.”

Making movie musicals accessible is a tricky business, admitted Norris: “They’re really tough. You can see the mechanics of them much more dispassionately than you can in a theater. Because it isn’t that shared experience with an audience. And for all the changes that we were making for the movie and bringing people in—all kinds of things that we worked very hard to try and make it fit the medium— unlike when we did ‘London Road’ as a show, the one thing that I knew we couldn’t guarantee at all was the audience’s response to the sheer craft. One of the things that was key to its success was that everyone in the industry itself just appreciated the incredible amount of skill that was going on in front of them. You film that, it doesn’t count, because you can cheat all of that.”

So the director had to alter the play to make it work as a movie. “The structure of the story in the onstage version was
completely different,” said Norris. “When we reconstructed the story, which we did pretty
profoundly for the film, in lots of different ways, it was totally rewritten in
terms of scene order, and even where the scenes are taking place.”

As with any music, repetition is the key to making a musical. “As it is in any song; chorus is just repetition,” said Norris. “But
we found that, because it’s such a weird thing, to ask an
audience to go along with this kind of strange, verbatim musical, that we
needed a kind of
liftoff: how to take this situation with this tension and elevate it, hopefully without people quite realizing it’s

So they created the only song which is in the movie and not the show. That gradual transition from spoken word to singing cadence occurs as we travel down London Road, from
house to house, with the reporters coming in on each living room television set. “All of the stuff is scored,” said Norris, “even the stuff that isn’t sung. So they had to learn it as if
it was. It was actually written for the two
main actors who are singing that song, who were part of the original company who did
the show. We knew which ones would be the most skilled at getting exactly that
moment. They were totally embedded in it, because they’d been performing it for months and months.”

The musical has its roots in the intricacies of Stephen Sondheim, who draws on operatic traditions. “If you look at it, what Mozart and Dupont were
trying to do, in terms of taking the human voice and vocal patterns in some of
their work, you can track it all the way through,” said Norris. “Sondheim, certainly, really
moved that forward, some of the dialogue is almost patter, but with people
talking and overlapping each other. You can see the progression of
these things over the decades.”

Norris was directed in youth theater by John Doyle, who directed the Michael Cerveris production of “Sweeney Todd” in which the acting ensemble played their own instruments. “‘Sweeney Todd,’ unlike most musicals,” said Norris, “takes a very serious subject matter, and it’s not light entertainment. People often patronize musical theater by thinking that’s all it can be, when it can be much more than that. What’s been really exciting for the London audience is to be part of a movement forward of that form. It’s been very unexplored, how music and narrative — in terms of theater or film — can combine to be successful. I think it’ll be wonderful to look back in 20 or 30 years.”

Norris could only have pulled off the low-budget movie with actors who knew the material inside out, but they did add several cinema players to help get it made: Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy. “If you had an extra 4-6 weeks rehearsal on the schedule, you could go wider,” said Norris, “but it didn’t make any sense. Olivia can really handle it; she can sing and is amazingly disciplined and incredibly hard-working. She’s just a total joy. Also, she really does look like the woman next door. You feel very warmly towards her, which is important, because what she says is very harsh, so you need to have the audience love her before that moment, or else you’re really compromised. With Tom, that was a bit more of a gamble, and Tom I know from years ago, from doing shows with him, and that was partly to give us some help. But also, he’s so mercurial. He can transform, and it felt like he could exist in that world. He just worked very, very hard with the musical. He said from the beginning, ‘I’m going to keep the backdoor open here, because I don’t know if I can do this. You’ve got to have a plan B. Right up to the day we shoot, because if I think I can’t do it, I’m going to walk.'”

When “London Road” gets stateside distribution, do check it out. You’ve never seen anything quite like it. And yes, Hardy stuck it through. 

While Hytner is moving on, he has left quite a legacy, not only the plays he mounted during his dozen years running the National, but an experiment that has changed the way theater is seen today. He launched National Theatre Live in 2009 with Racine’s “Phaedra,” starring Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper. “That was my initiative,” he said proudly, “and it’s been enormously successful, it’s been a game changer. It was the only French classic I’ve ever directed. I wanted to try it with something ruthlessly theatrical, with six characters and a unity of time, place and action. The whole idea was to state upfront that you are not coming to see a movie but coming to see a play, and persuade them to stay through the length of play as if they were sitting in a theater in the best seats in the house. We used 6 or 7 cameras, and hired experienced multi-camera directors.”

The technology has advanced since then. “We played ‘Phaedra’ to 16,000 people in one night,” Hytner said. “I was pleased when I left the National in April after 12 years that the National Theatre Live ‘Hamlet’ played to nearly 300,000 people on one night in 550 cinemas: it was the biggest movie in the UK apart from ‘The Martian.’ Benedict Cumberbatch is first and foremost a stage actor and he’s great in ‘Hamlet.’ Now the whole world can tune into these broadcasts and go to the theater in London several times a year. We completely changed the landscape.”

Hytner was also involved in mounting the recent filmed 50th Anniversary Tribute to the National, which brought together young and old to recreate some of the great moments in the theater’s storied history, some of it live on stage. Included was footage of elderly and frail Joan Plowright, the widow of National founder Laurence Olivier, who is nearly blind and had to be told where the front of the stage was, performing a monologue from “Saint Joan” that made you see her as a young 20-year-old girl. “She had one of the great careers ever, it goes back more than 60 years,” said Hytner. “She did it in one take, it was the most moving thing. It’s an evening no one who took part in will ever forget. Some of the actors involved in that evening are in their 20s and will undoubtedly be around when they celebrate the 100th in 2063; they will be able to say that 50 years ago they were on stage with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, who played Desdemona to Laurence Olivier as Othello.” 

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