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Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

A double take on director Justin Chadwick

Walking in to meet director Justin Chadwick, I do a double take; have we met before? No. This is the director's first film, after a decade in British TV ("The Vice," "Bleak House"). But I know I've seen him before. Dredging my memory, I place the face: Chadwick starred in Hanif Kureishi's directorial debut, "London Kills Me" (1992), one of the very first films I reviewed.

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In that film, Chadwick played a homeless addict named Clint Eastwood who tries to find a life beyond the squats. Talking with the director, he cites Ken Loach's "Kes," that classic of "kitchen-sink" realism, as the movie that got him into filmmaking. So how does a guy inspired by such blue-collar grit wind up making a period piece about the royal family? Simple, says Chadwick: "I'm interested in good stories, and this seemed like a really good story."

So you've moved from filming in squats to filming in palaces now . . . Yeah, but they're still pretty grim! (Laughs.) We were in Lacock Abbey and Dover Castle and all these places, and they're grim. I know they seem beautiful on camera, but they're dark and cold, and the way that people lived back then was quite hard. You know why they wore those outfits, with the furs and so many layers. And I don't know if you noticed, but there were flowers strewn all over the floors in the film; they were used to disguise the smell. You can imagine what it was like back then.

Did you shoot mostly on location? As much as I could, I tried to choose real locations. It really helped the actors to feel what it must have been like to walk around those palaces and to appreciate fires and such. After discovering there was nothing left of Whitehall, Henry VIII's palace, we went up and down the country trying to find 16th-century property or rooms or corridors that we could use. There used to be a real hesitancy among people about letting their houses be used, but now I think the families that own these properties embrace filmmaking, because the upkeep is so hard.

How did you approach the shoot? I'm very keen for the director of photography to create a situation where the actors feel they can feed off the environment, that it feels real, and that it isn't all about the lighting or hitting the mark. It's more important to be in the moment. The way I wanted to shoot the film, sometimes the camera was watching the scene from the back. This film seemed to be a drama that unfolded behind closed doors, and so it seemed suited to that long-lens feel, that we just happened to catch these private moments. Some of the time, the actors didn't even know where the camera was. In this film there's such a roller coaster of emotions, and when you're asking an actor to go to these place, they need to feel safe in the environment, and you need to be ready with the camera to catch it. So it can't all be about the lighting or the camera. The look of the film is important, but the most important thing is the truth of the performance.

How do you imagine a performance based on a 16th-century character? The challenge was to make those characters three-dimensional, to make them feel real. The thing I really respect Natalie (Portman) for, is how she makes the audience feel for this woman. It's difficult, because Anne does some terrible, unforgivable things to her sister, but you still feel for her at the end of the film.

Were you always sure which actress would play which Boleyn girl? A lot of people were surprised I cast them that way. You could easily flip them around, but we were always very sure about who was going to play who. Anne is the showboat performance, where she gets to do all the Machiavellian, terrible-yet-delicious things that she does. Natalie's got a ferocious appetite for research and throwing herself into the project, and she really pushes herself here. But the center of the film, for me, was finding someone who could give a really silent, subtle performance as Mary. I had an instinct with Scarlett (Johansson), before I met her, from the work I'd seen her do, that she'd be able to do this, to be the heart of the film.

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