Interview: Richard Eyre

Director of “Notes On A Scandal”


One of the most distinguished figures in British theatre, Richard Eyre has spent the last few years cultivating a similar reputation in the film industry. His 2001 film Iris, which concentrated on the final years of the writer Iris Murdoch’s life, saw it’s three principal cast members all nominated for an Academy Award, with Jim Broadbent winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. In 2004, he returned with an adaptation of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Stage Beauty, a story of an actor in the time of King Charles II. But now with Notes on a Scandal, Eyre offers us his first contemporary movie since his 1983 Thatcher-era drama The Ploughman’s Lunch, his last theatrical film before Iris.

Based on the novel by Zoë Heller, it reunites Eyre with Iris star Dame Judi Dench, who plays Barbara, a London teacher that becomes obsessed with a colleague (Cate Blanchett) after she discovers the woman is having an affair with a pupil. It also brought Eyre back with Patrick Marber, the writer of hit play Closer, who here adapts Heller’s novel. Marber was first commissioned to write drama by Eyre, when he was in charge at the Royal National Theatre, a decade-long stint that finished in 1997 after he had produced over 100 plays and directed 27. Twice nominated on Broadway for a Tony award for Best Director (for productions of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and David Hare’s Skylight), Eyre has also seen his sell-out London production of the timeless classic Mary Poppins transfer to New York in the autumn of 2006. Here he talks about his experiences on Notes on a Scandal:

Q: What made you think of Judi Dench to play Barbara?

A: I’ve known Judi for about 35 years, and one of the things I’ve always liked about her is that she really likes to defy popular opinion. If you said to her, ‘I don’t think you can play that part’, she’d immediately want to play it. A perfect example is when she played Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra. She’s certainly the best Cleopatra I’ve ever seen. But I remember everybody saying, ‘That’s the one part she can’t pull off. She’s too short!’ And of course she was fantastic, sexy and vibrant and witty. About a year before we shot this film, I’d been with Judi and we were saying goodbye, and as I walked down the street, there were some people who saw her. ‘I think she’s wonderful,’ said one. Then the other said, ‘I’d so love to see her play someone who isn’t nice.’ I thought about that, when this came up. She’s universally loved by the public: the status of national treasure. But what is wonderful about this performance and this character is that it’s an opportunity for her to defy that pre-conception of her as a ‘lady in lavender’, this terminally sweet and generous woman.

Q: Did she ask you a lot about the character?

A: She pretty well got it. We had two weeks rehearsal. She works invisibly – she asks a few questions but she doesn’t like talking it out and rationalising every decision. It was like she was trying to locate the voice – what did she sound like? Then with the costume, it was about getting the wig right.

Q: So she works from the outside in?

A: Almost. I would say that the inside and the outside are happening simultaneously. It’s just that she won’t articulate the ‘inside’. She’ll ask a few questions, but she doesn’t like a lot of talk about it, otherwise she just feels it’s not sufficiently instinctive.

Q: Is Blanchett close to her character, do you think?

A: I would say Cate’s pretty close to the character Zoë wrote. In the book, she’s a bit older. The book, of course, is told entirely from the first person. It’s all Barbara’s point-of-view, so anything she says about anybody is loaded and entirely subjective. That’s one of the problems in translating the book to the film: it’s an unreliable narrator. Whatever she says, she’s very bitchy about most of the people including Sheba, so you have to extrapolate the real person from Barbara’s description.

Q: What do you think Cate brings to the role?

A: She brings luminous clarity. You can feel her desperate loneliness and she does this very economically, because there aren’t a lot of scenes to establish her character. Early on, you see her wandering around the playground when Barbara is watching and it’s just with a marvellous economy of gesture and she conveys a desperate loneliness and inability to make her mark in that school. Sheba’s lonely within her own marriage, distant from the older husband, distant from her children and clearly out of her depth in the school. So the relationship with the boy is a desperate attempt to give herself some form of identity.

Q: Barbara’s lines can very politically incorrect, notably when she calls the Downs syndrome boy “a court jester”. Did you ever worry about that?

A: Well, the parents of the child, of Max, were involved in the film. They were very intelligent about it and thought it was perfectly truthful. It’s Barbara’s point of view, and she’s indiscriminately bitchy about everybody! There were worse things than that in the script at one stage!

Q: How did you first come on the project?

A: Scott Rudin, the producer, asked me if I’d read the book. He was one of the producers of Iris, and it was shortly after that, that the book came out. Patrick’s first two plays were my commissions when I was running the National. I was the first person to make him right a play, Dealer’s Choice. So that’s how Scott got to know Patrick.

Q: After Closer, it seems a perfect project for Patrick Marber…

A: I think he was very well cast.

Q: What did you like about Heller’s novel?

A: I loved the acrimonious, acerbic quality – the bitchiness. The fact there was a main character who wasn’t trying to be loveable was one of the most attractive elements. It had a wonderful narrative method, in that it was all in the first person. You had to sort out the world, and what was true and what was false, and it was very disturbing because of the events being described, self-justifyingly, by this clearly deluded woman.

Q: Do you know if Heller based the story on a real incident?

A: Well, there is no lack of real-life models. As we speak, this will be happening somewhere in schools all over the country. Interestingly, Andrew [Simpson, who plays the young object of Sheba’s desire) was saying that he knew of it. He knew of a lot of boys who’d had flirtations with their teachers. Sixteen year-old boys think of nothing but sex! And with a woman who looked like that would be the object of obsession. Patrick and I went to a school where a friend of his was teaching, long before we started shooting. I was talking to a Year 11 class, and I told them what the film was about. They didn’t raise an eyebrow.

Q: It’s interesting that the film goes against portraying old people as ‘cuddly’…

A: Yes. I mentioned very early on a French film that made a huge impression on me called Tatie Danielle, which has a character of an old woman who is absolutely horrible! The film is unrelenting and never tried to soften her. She was always horrible. But finally you had to concede she was someone to be reckoned with and pitied. What usually happens in movies is that unsympathetic characters redeemed, and that they have a heart of gold!

Q: Can you see Notes on a Scandal working as a play?

A: I can it working as a play – as a two-character play. I think it could be very interesting.

Q: Was it good for you to make a contemporary movie after two period pieces?

A: It was great. You can just go out on the street and film. However well period films are done, there was always some phoniness and there’s no accident about it. If you’re filming a street, everything has to be dressed. There’s no serendipity. I used to make films for the BBC – seven or eight – and they were all contemporary. And that was quite a long time ago.

Q: Do you see the film as similar to any of your previous work?

A: Oh, yes. It’s like things I’ve done but it’s not like movies. It’s partly because of what you were saying earlier – that the central character is resolutely unsympathetic. You pity her but you can never say that you sympathise with her. There’s no redemption. It defies all Hollywood logic, which is so repressive and dominates thinking about film. It was wonderful to get a film made that does defy that logic.

Q: Was there any interference from the studios?

A: No, they’re pretty enlightened. This is Fox Searchlight and Peter Rice, who is really grown up. The films they produce are sufficiently small budget and they’re very tough on keeping the budgets small. And that gives them the latitude to be inventive about the material.

Q: So how does it relate to your previous work?

A: I’ve done a lot of plays about people being horrible to each other! I did a play not long ago called Vincent in Brixton, which was about the young Van Gogh and a depressed 50 year-old woman who has an affair with this 20 year-old. I do have a lot of sex and death!

Q: Has the lesbian angle been played up in the film?

A: Barbara would absolutely be horrified if you said, ‘You’re quite clearly a lesbian’. In the film, she’s horrified when Sheba says, ‘Do you want to fuck me?’ She wants a passionate friendship, in a 19th Century Edith Wharton way…and she’s just massively self-deluded. And that’s what makes you pity her. She can’t even own up to herself, what her desires are, is somebody who is desperately unhappy and lonely, and that perpetuates that loneliness.

Q: How did you conceive of shooting London?

A: We consciously tried to keep the colour palette…we tried to resist shooting red buses and got rid of red cars from shots, to the monochromatic scheme is kept in tact. When colour is used in the film, it had an effect, so the palette is very, very narrow. Occasionally, we’ll put in a bit of colour for expression. We wanted it to have a sort of documentary feel. The story is very constructed – and I wanted it to feel as casually made as possible.

Q: So did you try and replicate guerrilla feeling on set?

A: Yes, that was the feeling we were after, although it wasn’t anything like that. The thing is, even if you say it’s guerrilla filmmaking, you just can’t…unless you’re prepared for it to look terrible! We did certain amounts of guerrilla stuff – Judi walking down the street – but now you have to put up signs saying, ‘You are being filmed’ and people can object.

Q: Bill Nighy, who plays Cate’s husband, manages to escape his rather wry persona…

A: I’ve worked with Bill before – in the theatre. The last thing we did was David Hare’s play Skylight. So we have a common language. But I like the fact that he had to really commit himself and I thought the character forced that. He does play a lot of characters that are constantly on the back-foot.

Q: And as for Andrew, was it tricky finding him?

A: That was really hard. It became apparent very early on that the age – the difference between a 16 year-old and an 18 year-old pretending they were sixteen was huge. It was so important. I thought we had a boy, who was a boy on the edge of being a grown-up. It’s something to do with the skin, the quality of translucence, and a sense of not being knowing.

Q: How was it directing the sex scenes?

A: I think sex scenes are always difficult but in the end they were both brilliant in their matter of factness. Cate was incredibly generous to Andrew, making him feel comfortable. It was a night shoot, it was cold and rainy…but you want to make it real and do it justice. These are incredibly high stakes.

Q: Do you enjoy directing theatre or film more?

A: The only thing they have in common is actors. The whole process is so different. You have to unlearn theatre and work in film. But in the end, working with actors, it’s telling stories. In theatre, you can be in and out of a show in three months but with film it takes much longer. For Notes on a Scandal, I first read the script in January 2005 – so it’s been two years.

Q: Are you happy to go back and forth between the two?

A: I’m very happy if somebody keeps employing me. I love the fact that I have a semi-charmed life and am able to do that. I’m incredibly lucky, so I hold my breath and hope this continues.

“NOTES ON A SCANDAL” IS AVAILABLE TO RENT ON DVD NOW