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See our film review page for more information on “Nanny McPhee”

Special Feature Article

Interview with Nanny McPhee’s Emma Thompson, Director Kirk Jones, Colin Firth, Sam Honywood and Eliza Bennett

by Misty Wagner, Contributor

With Universal Pictures and STUDIOCANAL’s release of “Nanny McPhee” comes a unique and refreshing look at a world of imagination and fairy tales, that offers a glimpse of life through the eyes of a child. From the most articulate of details, including the outstanding wardrobe and props, filmed on a completely constructed set where everything but the large trees were strategically built and placed to add the most finite details of visual splendor to accent the magic which is “Nanny McPhee”. Michael Howell (the production designer) calls the set “A magic place,” and it was clear as I sat down for interviews with the Director Kirk Jones (“Waking Ned Devine”) and several members of the cast, that the magic of “Nanny McPhee” was more than a beautifully constructed set shot on vibrantly enhancing film.

Kirk Jones. Copyrighted.
Kirk Jones on the set of “Nanny McPhee”

In 1998, after Kirk Jones had such huge success with the film “Waking Ned Devine”, which he both wrote and directed, he seemed to disappear. Really, unless you work in television commercials, you probably forgot his name. Jones himself says that,

“It was an awfully long time between the two films. Because I had written and directed “Ned Divine” I was very keen that I should write and direct my next film. I went off to work on several projects but after about a year and a half I realized that, like Ned Divine, it would take me a great number of years to do a project. That was when I realized that I should start looking at other people’s screenplays. It still took an awfully long time for me to find something that I could feel that passionately about something. I think that what I saw in this was not only a really good mix of kind of humor and emotion and magic, but it also felt like a script that had been nurtured over time.”

One thing that both “Ned Divine” and “Nanny McPhee” both demonstrate of Jones is his versatility as a director, because each film is very different from the other.

Jones agreed that there is something magical and spiritual about the character of Nanny McPhee, she shouldn’t be explained “she is simply a timeless presence who will always be there and could go anywhere.” He is please with how well the film has been received, mentioning that he was amazed at the variety of responses and opinions he has received from children in regards to their perceptions about why Nanny McPhee loses her ugliness. Mr. Jones agreed that though this film may be suitable for children of all ages; there are things which adults can take from it as well. “Parents can associate themselves with Mr. Brown and what he is pulling away from his children. It amazes me how, as parents, we still seek help in raising our children.”

Jones joked about his seeming love of corpses in films. In “Nanny McPhee”, Mr. Brown works as a make-up artist in a funeral parlor. Jones elaborated as to how the film was originally a lot darker, but as children began to test screen it, he saw that perhaps it was too confusing or frightening for young children, so he tamed it down.

Kirk Jones spoke very highly of his cast and crew. While mentioning the performance of Colin Firth, Jones said “I believe that Colin had a level of warmth and a fresher comedic side to him then he had previously been able to express.” Jones went on to state that he was a fan of Firths, and had wanted him in the film from the beginning.

In commenting on the performances of the children, Jones mentioned that he was quite proud of their remarkable talent. “I kept the kids open-minded, to allow their natural qualities to shine through their performances.”

Jones had nothing but the deepest respect for Emma Thompson. He raved about the high quality of her screenplay, stating,

“One of the great things about Emma’s writing is that she makes even the small characters quite attractive. She writes characters that great actors want to play, however minor the role.”

Usually the writer of a film does not hang around the set, but with Emma Thompson starring in the feature, her absence would not have been possible. When asked if it had been difficult having her there, Jones remarked that Ms. Thompson was always open to his opinions and always stood by the changes he made and the directions he gave.

Colin Firth
Colin Firth in “Nanny McPhee”

Colin Firth, who refers to himself as a fantasized and professional storyteller, admitted that “there was something freeing about not hiding behind a veneer but becoming spellbound by the child-likeness of it.” The mention of “child-likeness” seemed to head straight towards the topic of working on a set with so many children. When asked what it had been like, he seemed to scoff slightly and say “Huge amounts of attention is unhealthy for anyone, but when you add that with eight children, it’s a deadly cocktail.” He did, however, go on to say that he was “Amazed by watching these children believe in the magic behind their scene and not for using a technique to do it.”

Though both Kirk Jones and Emma Thompson have stated that the role of Mr. Brown proved to be quite moving and identifiable for fathers, Firth admitted that he didn’t like his character and was actually hesitant to take the role, because this character was an “un-heroic loser.” He went on to say that he could not figure out why the character of Evangeline loved him. In his character’s defense though, he did assert that most parents can identify with what it means to conceal anxiety from their children and, in that regard, his character is similar to Roberto Benigni’s character in “Life is Beautiful”.

In summing up the character of Mr. Brown, Firth said “It’s clear that he’s a good guy, he’s just a twit.”

What attracted him to the script? Firth saw it as “honest and unashamedly innocent, not at all trying to be hip.” He was attracted to the darkness in the story. He “loved that it didn’t spin any metaphysical or spiritual message and was simply homespun wisdom and zany.” After a few moment of thought he continued, “I don’t go for messages in a film, it’s simply a picture, and people can pull out of it what they wish.”

When asked about his overall opinion of the film, Colin Firth explained,

“There was something liberating, to me, about watching jaded, worldly, ragged, cynical old English actors telling stories for children, because it frees them from those things. It frees them from cynicism and that kind of irony. a fear of wearing your heart on your sleeve, a fear of having to mean what you say. There is always a get-out clause of some kind that says 'we don’t really mean this, because we are clever, or because we are sophisticated'. There was none of that here; there is no double-edge here, because. it’s not trying to be clever; it is about delighting children.”

Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson in “Nanny McPhee”

Feeling slightly under the weather, with a bit of a nagging cough, Emma Thompson regaled the room with comical tales of small fires on the set and heroically handsome firefighters with whom she feverishly flirted, while forgetting she was there (warts, snaggly tooth and all) in her full Nanny McPhee costume. Passionately, she discussed stumbling across the Nurse Matilda books while dusting, and adventuring over the next nine years to create the screenplay now known as “Nanny McPhee”.

Emma Thompson in Nanny McPhee. Copyrighted.

It was clear that Thomson highly regarded the children in the film as she talked about how hard it must be to be a child actor. When asked if she felt that fame and celebrity status become less important as an actor gets older, she replied by saying “I did not go into this job in order to get famous. Anybody who wants to do this job in order to get famous needs to do another job. Fame is a bi-product. It’s accidental. What is fame? It’s nothing. You have to do your job, and you have to do it well. That is all of the ambition that I ever had. Many people do just that and never become famous.”

While comparing the “Nanny McPhee” screenplay to her award-winning “Sense and Sensibility”, Thompson declared,

“This screenplay was much more difficult than “Sense and Sensibility”. I started writing this nine years ago because I wanted to write something for everyone. I knew it was going to be really hard. I thought that it might be simpler than “Sense” to adapt a children’s book, but of course it wasn’t, because there was no story in the book. Trying to get the tone right, something for children that won’t bore adults, and that children really get something from it, is the most difficult thing that I’ve ever done and probably will ever do. I suppose the central, underlying story is like “Shane”, it’s a western. It’s a situation of complete chaos in which all of the figures of authority have failed and cannot do anything-in to which the stranger comes. The stranger comes in, is locked in the situation and through unorthodox methods always resolves it, creates harmony and balance, and then has to leave. Cannot stay. I was thinking of this when I realized how alike it is to “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins”.”

When asked if the reaction of children, to the film, is one of her greatest joys, Emma Thompson replied, “It is. I have loved it. I especially love watching it with children. Obviously, adults like it too; particularly fathers find it very moving.”

There seemed to be a lot of interest in the phrase Nanny McPhee uses in the film “There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me, but do not want me. then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me. then I have to go.” When asked if it was personal, Thompson admitted that “yes, I suppose it’s true of all of us. That’s why I don’t work very much. I don’t want to miss my daughter’s childhood. If I miss it, she is only 6; she can be gone in a minute. If she needs me, I’ll be there.”

The thing which truly touched me about Emma, during our interview, was her passion for parenting and her love of children. Prominent themes in the film revolve around the discipline of children and the relationships between adults and children. While discussing these themes, Emma expressed her belief that “the difference between grown-ups and children is that adults always have an agenda-that thing which needs to be done next. Children don’t.” When asked of her greatest parenting lesson, she answered “To stop and abandon agenda, to create a space to just be with your child.” .”Our relationship with our children is organic. It’s growing and changing and so our discipline needs to be growing and changing.”

The entire atmosphere of the interview, perhaps the entire atmosphere of the film, was reflected at the end of Ms. Thompson’s interview as she stood to leave and three of the film’s children came into the room for their interviews. Emma’s eyes filled with tears as she lovingly embraced both Thomas Sangster and Eliza Bennett. As she reached down to tousle Sam Honywood’s hair, he looked up at her, laughed and said “Oh no you don’t!” He proceeded to run from her, playfully, as she chased him around the room. Once she caught him, she held him close while cuddling and tickling him.

Nanny McPhee. Copyrighted.
Nanny McPhee. Copyrighted.

Naturally, once the three had taken their seats, the first question for them was about their relationships with Emma Thompson on the set. “We had great fun!” remarked Sam Honywood (who plays Sebastian, the prankster who has a divine love of food, in the film), “It is a lot like a family. We work really hard, but we play really hard, too.”

The children all agreed that it was fun to portray rotten children. Eliza Bennett (who played Tora) commented, “It’s always fun to play tricks on people.” While talking about the food fight near the end of the movie, Eliza remarked, “that it was really good fun to get messy and throw food at people.” To which Sam replied “It’s all fun until you get a sticky bun stuck up your sleeve.” When asked if they were able to eat any of the food, the children replied that “it was moldy and that they had to put spray on it every day which made it sort of plasticy.”

Copyright, Universal Pictures

Since the the scene where Nanny McPhee first comes to the Brown home is sort of scary and intimidating, I wondered if it was difficult for the children. Thomas Sangster (Simon, the oldest Brown Child, in the film) remarked “Each character has a different relationship with Nanny McPhee, but it’s not the same with Emma.” Eliza Bennett added “Emma is such a warm and down-to-earth person.”

When asked about whether they felt the film was scary for kids, Eliza Bennett spoke up “When Nanny McPhee first arrives to the dark and gloomy corridor, it kind of gets the tension up. but it’s not scary because it’s a family movie and everyone can go and see it, and younger people don’t get scared which is quite good.”

Thomas says that what he likes most about the film is that “we haven’t had many films like it before. It’s kind of like a proper traditional English film, kind of like a “Mary Poppins” or “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” type of film. It’s a proper classical, nice fairy tale. It’s completely over the top; it’s eccentric; it’s got whacky colors-all of the cakes were purple and pink, all of the dress wear-it makes it sort of different.” To which Eliza added “It makes the movie bright and colorful, in a sort of magical aspect.”

It was fun for the children to run around the sets, and Eliza admits, “I don’t know why they call it work, some days we’re in bed. or running around throwing cakes at people. I don’t know how it can be called work properly.”

Though each actor interviewed adamantly confessed to hating the donkey in the film, each with a different account as to why, it was clear that they each shared a quite passionate love for “Nanny McPhee”-a belief that there needs to be more stories of substance and films of quality available for all ages to celebrate.

See our review of “Nanny McPhee”.