Interview: Andy Serkis: Learning To Breathe, Or Of Partners And Paralysis

January 2, 2018

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Andy Serkis hadn’t planned on directing Breathe. But once he’d read William Nicholson’s screenplay he knew that he didn’t have a choice. He simply had to do it.

For a start, there was a powerful personal connection; Breathe is the remarkable true story of his producing partner Jonathan Cavendish’s parents, Robin and Diana (played by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy). It’s a love story – funny, poignant and, as Serkis says, “incredibly uplifting.”

First thing’s first: what’s Breathe about?

This is an incredibly uplifting, inspirational story of two people who are faced with terrible tragedy, and are able to turn it round and smile in the face of catastrophe. Through an incredible love for each other, they’re able to not only live fulfilled lives, but end up transforming the lives of other people, too.

We first meet Robin and Diana before that tragedy. What kind of people are they?

Robin was a highly athletic, charismatic man with the world at his feet who fell in love with Diana – a beautiful, lovely woman. She was quite a catch, and they went off to start their very romantic life together in Africa. He was a tea broker and then out of nowhere he was struck by polio. He was reduced to being basically nothing more than a ragdoll, with no sensation in the whole of his body, apart from above his chin. He went into a terrible depression and almost gave up on life. In the meantime, Diana had fallen pregnant. They were in this awful situation where he was been given weeks to live and Diana was pregnant with their son. So this film is about choices in response to this terrible tragedy, and how these remarkable people are able to pull it around and live very positively. They were able to inspire other people to follow suit and break through from the stigma attached to disability in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

Your personal connection with this film started with Robin and Diana’s son, Jonathan.

Absolutely. He is my business partner, the co-founder of The Imaginarium. He’s a film producer of note. Jonathan made the first Bridget Jones, and many films. We came together to start this company, which had a performance capturing studio and a production entity all wrapped up into one, and films for me to direct.

Did you always want to become a director?

Yeah, that was part of setting up The Imaginarium, as well as furthering the art of performance capture. Breathe was one of the scripts on the slate, though it actually wasn’t one that I was going to direct. I read it one night and it was the most extraordinary read, and it affected me very deeply. I couldn’t sleep, so I went in the next morning and said, ‘look, Jonathan, I really want to direct this.’ And he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ Then other things happened, life intervened, and we started to work on Jungle Book, and that was going to be my first film (as a director). We shot everything, all the principle photography, and we were in a long period of post-production, and then this window of opportunity arose to make Breathe. We rushed into financing it, because we knew that we had Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy in place, and in the middle of last year we shot the whole thing in seven weeks. It felt like there was something about this story that had a real fair wind behind it. The energy of the story and the power of the script attracted a great cast and a great crew.

How well did you know Diana before making the film?

I know her very well. I’ve got to know her over the years. She’s an extraordinary force of nature, and is one of the few people I know who really does live life in the moment. She doesn’t look back, doesn’t look forward. It’s just dealing with now – and for good reason: they were living two minutes away from death. When Robin moves out of hospital in the late 1950s, it’s a gamble with his own life that they both take. Diana took that risk and that’s the sort of person that she is. She’s been amazingly generous with allowing us to tell their story.

Did she visit the set? 

She did. Not often, but obviously Jonathan was by my side there. Both of them have this remarkable ability to be objective about their lives. In fact, the tone of the movie is very much dictated by what [screenwriter] Bill [Nicholson] had written, which is extraordinarily balanced in terms of humour and pathos and sadness. It is truly essentially about their relationship, because their first response was this kind of gallows humour approach to being two minutes away from death.

There’s some fantastic footage over the end credits, in which we see the real Robin and Diana. Why was it important to have that real footage in there?

If anybody doubts that this was a situation where there was fun for a lot of the time, then you can see that in that footage. It really does encapsulate the energy and zest for life that they had in the face of adversity.

Has anything in your transition from actor to director surprised you?

Not really. I was so fortunate to have had the experience of working with Peter Jackson on the second unit [of The Hobbit]. We shot for 200 days on the second unit, and I covered such a vast range of shooting, from aerials to close-ups to performance, with green screen, with scale difference. It was like a massive film education for me, working on that. And so then of course, having shot Jungle Book, I’d been through the process.

What stage had you reached with Jungle Book when you jumped into Breathe?

We’d shot the whole principle photography of Jungle Book, including a whole section shooting all the performance capture with all our A-list class, and then shooting on location and on sets with Mowgli, played by Rohan Chand. We were in a long period of post-production because of the performance capture being translated, working with animation and visual effects. We purposely had delayed because we wanted to create some space between the Disney version and our version, and in that window of opportunity, Andrew became available and Claire became available, so we raised the finance for this in seven weeks, and we knew we had them for seven weeks to shoot it. It was literally, I think, the fastest a film has ever been got together.

How did the experience of directing this differ from Jungle Book or your work on The Hobbit?

I’m used to being on huge sets for such a long time, and that rhythm of work, so having the pressure of shooting in seven weeks was a big challenge. But also, the gains of shooting a purely dramatically based story without any visual effects means that what you see in the viewfinder is what you’re going to get. You don’t have to wait to see what a character is going to look like in a year and a half’s time. If there was a surprise, that was it.

Did you enjoy it just as much without the visual effects work?

I absolutely loved it. We had the most incredibly enthusiastic crew. Everyone who was there was there because of the brilliance of Bill’s writing, and that included bringing Bob Richardson over, who was the director of photography. He has just got the most incredible eye. He truly understands performance. He rides a crane and operates camera, as well as being the director of photography, and to have his level of experience was second to none. He’s a true artist and great collaborator. We had a really good time doing it.

What made you so certain that Andrew and Claire were right for the film?

We had to have actors who could really play across a big range of age, for a start, and with that be able to play a huge range of emotion and look convincing from youngsters at the age of 26, 27, when they met each other, through three decades, basically. It’s a big thing to ask of actors, to do that, especially in a short period of shooting time. What was amazing about both of them was that they had this incredible emotional understanding of the script and of the story. Their chemistry was just remarkable. They were very honest and so generous with each other. There was this sort of unspoken pact that they would dedicate themselves to each other for the course of the film. During rehearsals you could just see them getting closer and closer and being totally in sync. It is kind of remarkable really, the level of intimacy that they create on screen between themselves.

You’ve also spoken about your personal connection to the themes of this story.

Yeah, my sister is a multiple sclerosis sufferer, and was diagnosed with that about 20 years ago. She’s wheelchair bound now. And I was also brought up in this world in respect of the fact that my mum taught disabled children. She brought five children up, but she was also a teacher of disabled kids. So I grew up getting to know kids at her school who suffered from spina bifida or thalidomide or polio, or were paraplegic. My mum was very engaged in that. And my dad was a doctor and lived in Baghdad. He was Iraqi, and he co-founded a hospital out there with three other doctors, so I grew up in a semi-medical environment. All of these things were inspirational. Their attitudes towards helping others were inspirational.

Did playing Ian Dury, who also had polio, prepare you in some way?

Yeah, absolutely. That was a great experience. Obviously portraying a man with polio, who never saw himself as disabled, very much chimes in with this. Robin, according to Jonathan, always dreamed able-bodied. The closeness of getting to know Ian’s family, when we were making that, also was a similar experience. Jonathan came to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll when we were starting to form The Imaginarium, so I got to know his parents’ story before I actually read the script. It was non-intentional that I would direct Breathe. We were actually looking for other directors to direct it. Then I read it one night and it had such an impact on me that I thought, ‘I’ve got to ask Jonathan if I can do this.’ Fortunately, he didn’t bat an eyelid, and he just went, ‘absolutely.’

What was it that affected you so deeply?

I remember the day when my sister got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and very soon afterwards was in a wheelchair. Her partner is, again, one of the most selfless people I know. He’s dedicated himself to looking after her. Humanity has always lived in a perilous situation, I suppose, but we seem to be living in an increasingly catastrophic era, whether it’s through global warming and hurricanes, or the potential threat of war, or mass migration and suffering. This celebrates, and is a tribute to, people who are able to not just survive, but are able to survive with great dignity and courage and humour, and then not only just survive, but be inspirational to other people. That’s exactly what Robin and Diana did, and that’s what speaks to me. That’s why this film is, I think, an important film for our times, because we can all relate to it. Everybody that I’ve spoken to about the film starts to share stories with you about people that they know – a loved one or a parent that’s suffered and that they’re looking after, or seeing slip away.

There’s a very authentic air about the on-screen friendships, too. How did you get that right?

What I love about the tone of what Bill wrote, and what was emblematic of that social group of kind of boho toffs, was that there was love there, but it’s not love expressed in an overt way. Everything is buttoned down. The emotion is buttoned down in that rather stoic ‘keep calm and carry on’ way, but it allows us as an audience to feel that emotion. We did not want to make a sentimental film, a tale of woe and misery, of easily accessed emotions where you’re wailing and gnashing your teeth and all of that. That’s not them. You learn as a filmmaker, and even on stage as an actor, that if you do too much, you actually don’t allow that audience to do the emotional work. Hopefully this film is successful because it does tip-toe between humour and tragedy and pathos, and allows the audience to really lean forward and connect viscerally with it as a result.

Diana came with you to Toronto Film Festival for the film’s premiere. What was that like?

It was amazing. We did Q&As immediately after the show and we brought her on, and the audience were just so astonished to see her. The moderator said, ‘has Diana seem the film?’ And Jonathan said, ‘yes.’ They said, ‘what did she think of it?’ and he said, ‘well I think you’d better see for yourself,’ and on she came. She got a standing ovation. It’s a great tribute to their lives. Wouldn’t we all like to make a movie of our family’s life? Or maybe we wouldn’t. But that’s actually kind of key in a way. If you could make a movie of your own family’s life, how would you frame it? How would you envision it? And in that question is: ‘what is your response to life? Are you a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person?’ Diana is such an in the moment person, as you would expect, because of what she’s been through. She doesn’t ever look forward or back, and therefore is able to really totally exist.

What did she say to you after the screening?

The first time she saw the film she said that she thought it was great, she thought it was amazing, but she did say, ‘I would never have worn that hat.’ That was her response, which was perfectly her. Jonathan told me another story about Diana, which was that she said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever cried in my life, apart from when my mother gave me a kettle three times in a row for Christmas. On the third time it was too much to bear.’

How did you approach filming with Tom Hollander in his dual role the Blacker twins?

It’s split frame, basically. You use a camera called a technocrane, which repeats the camera move exactly, for some shots. For instance when they’re outside of Oxford hospital with the bicycles, we had Tom and Claire come down, pulling back with them on a techno dolly. We film one pass with them and all the bicycles coming to and fro, and then the second pass would just be Tom on the other side, on his own, weaving in and out of imaginary bicycles, which had to be all marked out on the floor and everything. Then you basically overlay those shots. The eye lines have to be critical. The first shot takes like two takes to get right, and then you take like 35 takes to get the other one. That’s one way of doing it, and then we had doubles for over the shoulder, like when he’s carrying the bed down the stairs. We’d shoot over the shoulders of the double, who had to look pretty close to Tom.

Hugh Bonneville plays the larger than life Teddy Hall. Was he really like that?

It’s absolutely all true. The Cavendish came out of Robin’s idea, through Teddy, who’s this incredible figure in Jonathan’s life. He’s almost like an uncle figure to him. Teddy was an Oxford professor who has the kind of unique position of having a doctorate in both classics and art, who found the biggest lump of gold ever in Australia, and who also invented carbon dating, and carbon dated the Turin Shroud. Again, the people that Jonathan knows – Jonathan’s grandfather was the first person to fly over Everest, ever, in a biplane. They’re all mavericks in their own right. But Teddy was this person who had a Mercedes, and he liked the ladies, and he also loved red wine, and had vast collections of it. He used to pull up to his lectures – he wouldn’t park his car – he’d pull up, and leave the car door open, and everybody knew that was Teddy Hall’s car in Oxford. He’d just stride in and do his lectures, bottles falling out of it. He’s a real larger than life character. Hugh’s also a very good friend of Tom Hollander’s and they’d worked together before. Hugh had worked with my Lorraine, playing Philip Larkin. I’ve just always admired him; I think he’s a fantastic actor. And he looks like him, as well; he absolutely looks like Teddy Hall. You can see pictures of Teddy Hall online. He’s well known.

You can’t be accused of glamorising Robin and Diana, either. With the footage at the end, we see how extraordinarily good-looking they both were.

Yeah, they’re gorgeous. She has a kind of regality to her. I think, again, that’s why there is a fairy tale element to the opening of the film, and purposely so. I wanted it to feel like you’re watching a 1960s romantic film where people are swinging on swings saying, ‘I’m in love!’ I really wanted it to feel like the opening to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – that sort of idyllic, bucolic British. It’s almost a trope or a cliché, but it sets the film up. Even the font that we used for the title makes you think that you’re going into this romantic movie, which elevates the story.

What was it about Andrew that convinced you he could play such a difficult role?

First and foremost he is a brilliant physical actor, which is kind of what we needed. We wanted someone to have that athleticism and charisma, and like you say, be a very beautiful man. They’re very much a gilded couple at the beginning, and life’s going to go their way – they’re verging on entitled. Andrew has that athleticism, and we then see him having to contain that level of energy that he has, physically, to above his head.

What research did he do? 

He really went for it in terms of researching Robin. He played tennis and cricket, and Robin was in the Army so he talked to people in the Green Jackets, which was Robin’s regiment. We then spent a long period of time looking at St Thomas’s Hospital, where the Lane Fox institute is, which deals with respiratory diseases. We constructed a sort of journey for how he dealt with breathing with the respirator, and how he would speak using the respirator – going of course from when he loses his voice to being able to master the timing of the respirator, and playing it like a musical instrument. The respirator is like a third character in a lot of the scenes. Diana would have been aware of that, because you adjust to the rhythm of someone if they can only have short bursts of sentences and phrases. So we looked at all that. He had a set of teeth moulded from Jonathan’s teeth – that kind of indentation in his teeth is literally Jonathan’s. He wanted to have that help him sort of speak like Jonathan, I guess.

Do you think he connected with the spiritual aspect of the role?

Robin was a religious man who lost his faith and found another kind of spirituality. Andrew was absolutely into that. The choices that he made, all the way along the line – and actually, going back to the energy in his face, there is footage of Robin, and he had these extraordinary facial expressions. When you’re stuck in a chair and you can’t move, in order to talk to people who wouldn’t necessarily think to come round into his field of view, he would give these extraordinary side-glances to people. So all of that was the way that he wanted to approach the role, and in a relatively short space of time he had to build that.

With all this directing, have we lost you as an actor?

Oh, no, definitely not. I want to do both. I want to do it all. I actually want to go back on stage and do some theatre. I haven’t been on stage since 2002, and for the first ten years of my career, it was play after play, so it’s a strange one actually. But I’ve really wanted to get The Imaginarium going, and do the things that we want to do. There are some really exciting opportunities for that. We’ve just made a Planet of the Apes video game, and we’ve produced a horror film called The Ritual, which is coming out. So there are all sorts of different things going on, and interesting opportunities with all the new platforms like virtual reality.

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