Interview: Ralph Fiennes On Directing ‘The Invisible Woman’: “I tend to be quite fussy”

Ralph: "Acting is about imagination. It’s about really imagining something"


Ralph Fiennes is no stranger to directing after tackling Coriolanus in 2011. He knew with his second project that he wanted to take a little more time and not rush through the process as much. The Invisible Woman shows the care and detail the 50-year-old actor put into the film. He talked recently with Daily Actor in a roundtable discussion about the process of making the film and what fascinated him most about portraying Charles Dickens.

Did you choose to star in what you’re directing because that way you don’t have to argue with the director or because it… that was how you got the film made?

Ralph Fiennes: No, I think… I was reluctant to. Not because it was a bad part. It was a fantastic part…It was really hard, it was really just your headspace is in a vice trying to, you know, how do you negotiate doing justice to your own performance while making sure everyone else is taken care of? That was really under pressure, budgetary pressure, time pressure. So… when this was offered to me… it was offered to me with, you know, if you want to [inaudible], in this case the BBC, would be happy. And I said no, I don’t think I could. And I could sort of feel myself going, “It’s a great part.”

But I did approach another actor, he didn’t go anywhere. I think… I can’t say who it is, but I sense that they didn’t really want to go… they didn’t like the fact that Dickens might be unlikeable, which is actually what I like about him. Anyway, I worked on it, you know, I worked on the screenplay in depth with Andy Morgan and we would look at scenes and I would say the lines and do everyone’s lines and in doing it I read Dickens, of course, and it just got under my skin. And finally I said, “Ok, I’ll do it.” But I had… I worked with a great lady called Jane Washington, who’s a dialect coach but actually she’s got fantastic sensitivity to performance, truth in performance, and she helped me Coriolanus, so I know I had her there here on this film.

I think the thing I learned from Coriolanus was if you can do both, you must. I erred on short changing myself. When I sat in the dailies for Coriolanus I wished I’d done another take, I’d wished I’d fought, even if it’d cost us more to go, you know. I was rushing, scrambling to do it all under pressure. So this time around I fought harder to have more time, which was 10 weeks as opposed to 8 weeks, just so I knew I’ve got to have more time and that helped. 

One of the truly spectacular aspects of this film is Rob Hardy’s cinematography. How did you and Rob go about developing your visual tone that really creates its own leg or tine of the story and where was the emotional palate you have?

Ralph Fiennes: Well, I felt… my starting point was this is a story of intimacy. It’s like the gradations of a relationship…And it seemed to me that what goes on in the effects of Felicity, essentially, Dickens and other people, that what happens inside people is that the subtext is really important. And I didn’t want to… I think I’ve seen some period films where you feel the author of the film is anxious and they need to keep it jazzy because they worry that it’s going to be staid or stiff or something. And I said, well, no. It is what it is. This is a time of certain formality, people wear certain clothes. I didn’t want to shy away from that and it seemed to me that camera relatively still and it can move in and out, but essentially there’s an observational quality about the camera that it allows itself to watch.

And, to me, that made me think about how you frame so that the frame itself is rich. It has a dynamic, it has a compositional consideration to it. So… and I was trying to articulate these are sort of half thought things when I talked to Rob about, you know, I wanted to embrace the close up that can watch and the composition. We looked at paintings a lot, that how we composed those shots.

I can see now, and I really love this example, is the scene with Nelly and Katherine. I love the way that we had 2, 3, 5 format, or a wide frame format. And so how you decide that that face and figure, what’s going on to the side of them and to around them, that was a big consideration. So Rob and I would spend quite a lot of time choosing the right lens and agreeing on the position. But I like… he just has an… one of the reasons I love him, his compositional eye is really strong. He does… and he takes something that’s just slightly off the conventional position. An example I love would be in the scene where they count the money together. I said to him, “They’re opposite each other across a table. I just see the camera is reasonably square on to them and that’s all.” And he said, “That’s fine.” We shot that scene and I thought it looked great, but he said, “Please, can I? Just shoot the close ups again putting the camera a little bit higher.” I said, “Yeah, of course.”

And actually in rushes when I looked at that, I had a mass of material to choose from, so it was… but that… those are the close ups which we used towards the second half of that scene and they’re fantastic and that’s his… because he’s just up here and it has… it creates a kind of tension the way you’re slightly looking down. You’re not crazily high, but you’re just… there’s a shot of me where my eye is just under my… just under this bit and it kind of stands out in a weird way which it wouldn’t… it doesn’t in the conventional.

So it’s about Rob’s eyes finding these slightly off centered positions that are observed and they’re relatively formal but slightly not… slightly unusual. So I don’t know if that’s answered your question.

What impressed you the most about Charles Dickens life and his personality?

Ralph Fiennes: What impresses me is his furious work ethic, his energy. He is a man of crazy energy, exhausting. He would walk… he walked these crazy distances. He then would write and then not only would he write the installments of his books, but he would then write this, we show it in the film, this journal of all year round or household words.

You know, I think there was a sort of vitality to him which is attractive. Slightly terrifying because it’s so strong. So that appeals to me. And I love… I’ve discovered him quite late. I didn’t know much Charles Dickens. I had somehow sort of blanked him as being an area that I wasn’t going to be interested in. I was familiar with adaptations. Only when I read this screenplay and then Claire’s book that I sort of went, “Oh, this guy is quite complicated.” He’s not the bouncy, smiley. He’s, in a sort of detailed reading of his works, he’s seen as sort of shadowy, violent, conflicted, and a sort of darkly comic element to him, which he’s slightly mad. He’s like a sort of slightly crazy child, Dickens. I think he would like to be center of attention, be very fastidious, organized, and like a crazy child when you say to the child, “You have to stop playing that,” or, “You were wrong,” he gets really mad.

And so that… that’s the rather harder side of Dickens is this sort of defensiveness that he’s never in the wrong. He never seems to want to be in the wrong.

What did you most pay attention to playing him [since] we’ve never seen him in person.

Ralph Fiennes: Well, the first thing is, I mean, there’s a lot of material that describes him. Detailed descriptions, anecdotes, memories of him. His children have written about him. And so I guess it’s a bit like you’re building up a kind of profile from written memories of Dickens and what he was like.

The thing that emerged for me mostly was his vitality. He was sort of always on, so that’s what I’ve tried to show in the scene where they’re rehearsing or in the party afterwards in Manchester when he brings Nelly back to his house and he’s saying, “Let’s have champagne,” and he talks and he’s kind of up. And so that was something that I felt everyone who reads about Dickens talks about his vitality. So that was the thing that I wanted to make… try, attempt, to make sure that people felt that in the film.

ralph-fiennes-directingBeing an actor and director, what was the most stressful part of the entire film? Was it the pre-production, the actual shooting, or was it post production?

Ralph Fiennes: The most stressful part has got to be the shooting. Just because weather’s changing and, you know, I probably shoot quite a lot of takes. It’s a very performance driven film and I’m looking… I guess I think I want to find that moment, that magic moment, great actors in this film really come prepared and I know for myself, you know, you come ready but you want to find that place where the bit of you is not prepared, sort of bursts out and those little moments sort of where we think of the truthful thing where suddenly, you know, the actress or actor finds another level. That takes time, so that… and using up time suddenly at the end of the day you’re going, “Oh, fuck. I’ve got only a half an hour to shoot these three big close ups.”

And that becomes stressful. It also becomes kind of addictive because it’s… it’s a kind of crazy thing. I get a kind of like, “I’m not going to be beaten by this,” feeling.

Do you think Dickens was consciously aware that he was coercing Nelly or he was telling himself something else was going on there?

Ralph Fiennes: I think that’s a really good question. I think he would not have liked to have been honest with himself, which is why he helps Nelly’s family and then gets in the house. But I think he was in love with her and it took a long time for him to… I think he lurches. He acts with generosity to her family as a way to get to know Nelly. I don’t think he’s clear to himself about it necessarily and then when he finally does leave the family he’s kind of very self defensive about it. I think he’s sort of constantly in denial, so he was obsessively secret.

How did you get that sort of nuanced performance from the kids in the film?

Ralph Fiennes: I loved directing those scenes. They were these boys from this school in London and they went through an audition process where I wanted the best of the crop but they still came with their innocence. So we selected a lot of… actually, it’s a shame. I was a bit in love with this sequence because I loved the scenery and a lot of time and thought went into it. But, yeah, no, they came with this… I mean, I had to give them quite sort of coercive acting lessons. Sometimes it was… sometimes it, you know… they needed a bit of guidance. But they were very, very sweet and very good. They all… they come from a school that’s known for it’s producing musicians and actors and puts a lot of resources into drama and music.

Did you have to give them adjustments a lot during those days when you were actually filming them?

Ralph Fiennes: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I remember things like when they have to talk about the storm is coming, I had to say, “Look…” you know… basic stuff. Imagine. Imagine what it’s like. You see the storm coming in and you… when you ask a question, really ask it. Just getting to really be inside the lines of the… I mean, acting is about imagination. It’s about really imagining something. So it was getting them to just really reinforce their imagination.

So how does an actor take direction when you are also the director?

Ralph Fiennes: Well, I think I’m probably… I tend to be quite fussy and perfectionist about, you know, it’s never right. It can always be better. And it’s just difficult when you’re under pressure and you’ve got to… I really very much depended on Joan Washington and my script supervisor. I really depended on them to say… Suzanne, who was the script supervisor, as well as Joan, she would… I really trusted her…I often wanted to be right. I’d say “cut” because I had to move on and she’d go, “Yeah, I don’t really think…” and I’d say, “Should I go again?” “Yes, yes. Go again.”

The Invisible Woman opened in limited release on Dec. 25th. The film opens in more theaters on January 10th.

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