Interviews · LFF19

Hope Gap Interview: William Nicholson – ‘If I don’t do this, I’ll just be dead, so I might as well get on with it!’

William Nicholson is a respected and prolific screenwriter, having penned the scripts for Gladiator, Les Misérables, Shadowlands, and many others. His latest film is divorce drama Hope Gap which he has written and directed. It’s a very personal piece as it is based on his own life and adapted from his Tony award-nominated play Retreat from Moscow.

 The story tracks the separation of husband Edward (Bill Nighy) from wife Grace (Annette Bening) after almost thirty years of marriage. With their son Connor (Josh O’Connor) somewhat caught in the crossfire, the narrative illustrates how the split impacts on the family and explores the repercussions of the breakup. The film celebrated its UK Premiere at the London Film Festival, and I was fortunate enough to chat with Nicholson about the project…

What were the biggest challenges in adapting the theatrical dialogue in your play for the cinema?

 In an interesting way, the biggest challenge was to not ditch the dialogue! A lot of people think that you can’t have a film where people give long speeches. I don’t agree. A film is yet another form of exposing people to emotional drama. There are some films that are wall-to-wall talk and they’re amazing…films like Before Sunrise for example. The key thing for me was NOT to say, ‘I must open it up’. I should have faith in my words.

 Having said that, the film gave me so much opportunity to give echoes of other images which I put an awful lot of work into. It sounds silly but there’s a shot of a train going by and I spent about a day trying to find the angle for the train to cross. I wanted the screen to be a little bit empty, a little bit lonely, and to have a sense of ‘the end of the line’ because that was in this emotion of the story. I’ve been able to compose every frame! I can’t do that in the theatre because the audience composes the frame. For me, that was a gift.

With the story being autobiographical of your youth, how come it’s taken so long to make it to the big screen?

 I was waiting for my parents to die…I think in some ways it would’ve been hard for them to see the film. My mother certainly was very conflicted. Not that she wouldn’t have wanted me to do it, but she kept thinking that my version of what my father did was the truth. It might be the truth, but I don’t know! He didn’t talk too much, so I’ve invented my version of why he did what he did. Now that they’re not here anymore, I’m free to invent.

 The other reason it’s taken so long is that I’ve been afraid of directing for a long time. I finally thought ‘If I don’t do this, I’ll just be dead’ so I might as well get on with it. I realised that I’m surrounded by experts and my job as a director is to know what I want, but I don’t know how to get it. The cinematographer, the set designer, the editor. These people know how to get it, so I need to get them to make it for me…and they do! Here I am at my advanced age and I feel like I’m starting a new career. It’s amazing.

The original play was titled Retreat from Moscow. What was the story behind the name change to Hope Gap?

Retreat from Moscow was always problematic because everybody thought it was about Napoleon. It was a metaphorical title, but I thought for the film I had to do something else. Because I grew up in Seaford, I thought I’d make it there…so when I was visiting, I saw the Hope Gap which is a real place, and I thought that was perfect. Nobody else wanted Hope Gap actually. My production colleagues thought it was ugly and horrible. It might be puzzling but it’s memorable and I like it…so I hung on and now it just seems so natural. I’m thrilled with the title!

You have such wonderful actors for the film. Did you always have them in mind at the beginning of the project?

 Bill Nighy, yes! I didn’t even know Josh O’Connor existed! I was casting and meeting people and by golly, do I know he exists now! He is going to be a big star. He’s wonderful. Annette was much harder to cast. I was originally looking at English actors, but my production company were telling me I needed a big name. A name big enough to get the money…so we looked into the Americans! We approached Annette and it was quite a process. She wasn’t sure about me but then why would she be sure? I might be a well-known screenwriter but I’m not a famous director and actors care about that. Thankfully, she eventually said yes and here we are!

There’s currently no official UK release date for Hope Gap but it’s expected to be in cinemas some time in 2020.

See a clip below!