Emma Thompson is virtually unrecognizable as the snaggle-toothed caretaker who uses magic to rein in the seven motherless youngsters under her care in “Nanny McPhee.” The London-born Thompson, wrote the screenplay for the family film, basing it upon a popular children’s book, and also recorded the ups and downs of the sometimes-trying movie-making process. Excerpts from her diary follow:
ONE day, while dusting the bookshelves in my TV room (pointlessly, since no one reads books in the TV room, they watch TV), I hoiked out a small hardback called “Nurse Matilda.” It was a neat little rectangle with a good weight to it, and it featured on the cover a pen-and-ink drawing of a fierce-looking female with some sort of dental problem.
This looked promising, and flinging aside my ersatz feather duster, I read it immediately. I remembered it rather vaguely from my childhood and decided it might make a good film. It had taken many long months, nay years, to adapt “Sense and Sensibility,” and perhaps I secretly thought it would be easier to write a film for -- at least on the surface of it, and for want of a better word -- children.
I can safely say that with the possible exception of doing stand-up comedy on Nelson’s column to 60,000 hot, tired, angry people for a nuclear disarmament rally in 1984, this has been my most difficult assignment. You try writing something that pleases, delights and intrigues children without boring their parents. Go on, try it. At any rate, nine years have passed since that day, and I have written many drafts of the film this diary records, but I still haven’t finished dusting the bloody bookshelves.
Jan. 22, 2005
We’ve begun the task of casting the children. Having played games with hundreds of young and teeny hopefuls, we are now asking some to read in front of a camera. We are looking for charm and intelligence and fun and wisdom, which, of course, they all have. But we are also looking for an ability not only to be spontaneous and natural, but to repeat that spontaneity. A tall order for most actors, even grown-up ones.
Thomas Sangster (who appeared as Liam Neeson’s lovesick son in “Love Actually”) is our Simon, we’ve decided. He came in and read wonderfully -- portraying a boy who’s hurt and angry about his mother’s death, who’s the leader, who’s inventive and clever and who really listens. He’s a really good young actor, and now we need to find five children who can match him. The seventh is a baby, so goodness knows how that works. How do you cast a baby? Babies don’t do, they just are. Help.
Kirk [Director Kirk Jones] takes me to see workshops at Pinewood Studios. The chippies (carpenters who build the sets) have actually started to cut wood.
“I think that must mean it’s going to happen, don’t you?” he says, turning to me owlishly.
“What’s going to happen?” I ask.
“The film,” he says.
I nod and we give each other the thumbs up again. But he’s expressing the traces of doubt left from our most difficult route to production. Lindsay Doran, our producer, who did the march all the way, says bringing this film to production was the hardest thing she’s ever done. We are supposed to start on April Fool’s Day. I half believe I’ll turn up and everything will have disappeared. Just a few script revisions with “April Fool” written on them blowing about the vacant lot.
BAFTAs last night. I glammed up. Nearly killed me. Was up for supporting actress in “Love Actually.” Very deservedly, Renee Zellweger won for “Cold Mountain.” I ate all the sweets in my free baggy and felt sick. Bill Nighy won again, and Paul Bettany and I were very rude to him. It turned out to be a lovely, sociable night even though I kept stepping on my boa, and now there’s a few days’ rest before this huge machine actually cranks into life.
Nearly finished casting. Shooting script ready. Apparently, it is cheaper to have the animatronic donkey doing Irish dancing instead of tap-dancing as originally scripted. Something to do with donkey anatomy. Fine by me.
Saw the outdoor set, which is in a beautiful place called Penn village. The Brown house is enormous and looks completely real, except, of course, as you go up the stairs and there’s no upstairs. And some of the downstairs rooms are just filled with old dust-sheets and props. It is most peculiar.
The children couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the house. “Is this not real then?” said Sam. Met animals -- dog, pig, donkey and so forth. Also the tarantula that the children plant in someone’s hairdo. Large. Pinkish. Hairy.
Makeup tests for Nanny McPhee. Nerve-racking. The nose has to be sort of scary but also funny. Again, the tone of it has to be exact. Peter King designed it (the Oscar he’s just won for “Lord of the Rings” giving him a faint golden glow), and his second-in-command, Jeremy Woodhead, applies it all in this order: Hair pinned up. Half-wig glued on. Earlobes glued on. Nose glued on. Eyebrows on. Warts on. Paint everything in a rather unsightly, veiny way. Teeth in, and padders to push out my bottom jaw. Took 2 1/2 hours, and by the end, Nanny McPhee was just there. I didn’t do anything. I just put on the fat suit and the costume and walked about staring at people balefully. Lindsay started to cry, saying it was as though I’d disappeared. Lots of the women got emotional. The younger males just pointed and laughed.
Perfect example of the magical transformations made possible by makeup and costume. We were all in awe. All I could think was "... I’m hot.” We’ll find ways ‘round that, I daresay. Went off to [costar] Angela Lansbury’s hotel, where we drank 16 pints of tea. She is heaven. She hasn’t done a film on the big screen for 20 years. Not since “Company of Wolves.” She’s so slender and youthful and energetic, somehow. We are incredibly lucky to have her as our villainous Aunt Adelaide.
It transpires that the teeth interfere with my diction. One of the inside pieces needs altering, and I’ve still got a sore on my gum from where something rubbed it during the read-through.
Nanny McPhee should sound ageless, classless and always calm. In a way, she’s abstract, like a Zen master. She represents perception, somehow. The children see her, warts and all, when their perception of the world is skewed. She gets prettier as they sort themselves out, but whether she actually does get prettier, or they just interpret her in a different way, is the question. Looking through the script the other day, Lindsay and I kept finding -- in the magical way you do, but only after so much work that you’re nearly blind -- that the script is beginning to breathe on its own and to create illuminating moments on its own. Bit like watching someone beginning to walk.
Excellent first morning, considering it involved covering one of the babies in gravy. The children are producing moments of sheer gold. Baby remained beatific, and bits of cooked cabbage kept falling off its bottom. Sam -- who informed us that he doesn’t like eating even though he’s playing a boy who eats all the time -- came up to the props guys after about 85 takes of him eating chicken and said, “Is there any more chicken?”
Hebe, the other twin, took over from her sister Zinnia and after one shot had to stop because the gravy made her too slippery.
Kirk came up at one point and reported this exchange with 6-year-old Holly:
Holly: Kirk, when are we going to do the sex scene?
Holly: When are we going to do the sex scene?
Kirk: [in deep shock] What sex scene?
Holly: The scene where we’re all sick in bed. The sick scene.
We’ve all started to realise that a scene containing nine people takes a long time to shoot. And that most of the scenes in this film have nine people in them. If not more. Also, when I get hot, it takes me a long time to cool down. I think it’s because the latex suit makes me get hot inside my core, so by the time my pretend nose has started to slide off I have to be put in a dark corner and hosed off. Like an overheated elephant.
Colin Firth and Kelly Macdonald work well together, hardly surprising since they’re old friends. Colin, who has come to us from a series of rather more serious pieces, has to be dragged from the dramatic into comic exasperation like someone being pulled from a pit. He is teased mercilessly by all. He and Kelly are approachable and don’t seem to mind interference (mine), and much interesting discussion grows out of our efforts to make this piece light-footed yet deeply emotional, funny yet real.
I’m surprised, in fact, at how tricky it is. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. Celia Bannerman, the wondrous acting coach who looks out for the children both on set and off, made a very salient point about Nanny. “It’s mask work,” she said. Very helpful. I have to work not to be too facially expressive.
6:40 p.m. Colin had to “skitter” -- that’s what it says in the script anyway. It means rushing back and forth in a panicky fashion. “I don’t like skittering” he said, finally.
Kirk instructs me to be “funnier” in a scene I’m doing with Colin. A ghastly moment. Colin cannot do his lines because he’s snorting with filthy laughter. It’s a fine line we’re treading.
Celia Imrie and Colin are on, so I’m just in my civvies, watching. Celia can strike the finest parodic tone, be enormous and so believable. Rare gift.
Tarantula won’t hang from fishing rod -- it keeps crawling back up it. Many different kinds of worm are brought forth for Celia to chew on. I want a big fat earthworm. The little pink ones, when not wriggling, look like strips of tomato, but they turn out to be very wriggly, which is excellent -- concern is that they wriggle out of the sandwich before Celia gets it to her chops.
Mitch, one of our exquisite props men, says, “The trouble is, you can’t glue a worm.”
Meanwhile, huge tarantula is lowered into Celia’s hair. She, it transpires, has a morbid fear of both spiders and worms.
At one point, she puts her hand to her hair and touches the spider by accident. The spider wrangler (Mark, a gentle, tattooed individual) lets out a whoof of panic and Celia jumps 18 feet.
“It’s not you I’m worried about,” says Mark, “it’s the spider. They’re very delicate, you know,” he adds, his face creasing into slightly defensive concern.
Odd being in civvies, but it gives me plenty of opportunity to torture Colin and steal other people’s sweets. It transpires my dresser Mel has serious arachnophobia and cannot be on set at the same time as a large tarantula. So it’s a good thing I’m not in the scene, else I’d be nude.
Celia is eating her worm sandwich. She stuffs wriggly worm into her cheek, pretends to chew and swallow -- we cut and she spits poor (unchewed) worm into a bucket.
Meanwhile I am allowed to get the tarantula to walk up my arms. Gentle, furry feeling.
I am called back to set to witness Celia and worm in close-up. Worm triumphs in one take! It rears up as if to check on its whereabouts just before Celia pops it into her mouth. Great worm-work. As a treat, we take it outside and reinstate it in the ground.
Imelda Staunton is upstairs in the makeup chair. Colin has let it be known he’s very concerned about having me, Imelda, Kelly and Celia on set at the same time since none of us, he opines, has a note of respect for him.
Celia nearly got knocked out doing a pratfall with Colin. She’s lying on a prop-chair with an ice bag clutched to her head. Trouper doesn’t cover it, really.
Our new star is a frog. Jumped out of teapot, looked at us and leapt out of shot. One take. In an instant, worm’s brilliance is forgotten and frog’s genius takes its place.
I lose will to live at 4 p.m.
Could be the heat. Or waking at 5 and going back to sleep for an hour until alarm woke me from dream, thus preventing me from having to go onstage wearing nothing but a pair of high heels to sing an opera I didn’t know.
I am in heaven. I am in a little orchard next to Mrs. Quickly’s house. The children are playing with some geese. Colin jumped over a bush to grab Evangeline, and in his green frock coat he looks like a gigantic frog.
Then he smoulders most effectively at her, which gave me a fright after all the comic invention. I suddenly remembered he’s a sex symbol.
Delightful respite, and also some pizza, before driving down to Dorset for the beach scene.
Durdle Dor is gorgeous. Windy, chilly and very overcast but maybe, just maybe, we’ll be OK. Kids wild with excitement. Kirk had to sit them down and give them a pep talk. Or a de-pep talk. The last thing they need is more pep.
A helicopter’s taking all the gear on and off beach. Sadly, we have to walk. (170 steps down the cliff.) I trot off in my huge black dress and practically take off in wind. Saved by fat-suit.
Rehearsing big pie-throwing scene, we realise we need three more days for this sequence that we haven’t got and won’t get. Much gnashing of teeth.
It takes ages to do pie-throwing because if you get it wrong you have to clean the person up and start again. The set resembles some insane garden party. Everything’s purple. It transpires that although the dye in the food is washable, it seems overnight to have become indelible. Cameras (all four of them) get regularly splattered, and the day involves vast and lengthy amounts of mopping up and very small and brief amounts of filming.
I seem to have taken to the art of pie-throwing. The last shot was on Angela Lansbury today and she was concerned that something might thwack her in the eye. Quite reasonably. In her six decades as an actress, she’s never had to take a pie in the face. I said I’d do it, so she’d feel free to thwack me back. She agreed and then I got very nervous. I rehearsed against a wooden board with many green pies in various states of squishiness. Gareth (our miraculous first A.D.) shouted “Action.” I thought, very clearly and loudly, “I can’t do this,” lifted my arm and handed responsibility over to the pie in a second of true Zen mastery. It hit her square on. It was perfect, and she reacted perfectly. She stood, blinded by chartreuse-coloured custard, which fell away from her eyes just in time to let her finish the shot in triumph.
I don’t think I’ve been as proud since I gave birth.