"Nanny Knows Best"
|After a long and difficult pregnancy, at
last my baby—a film called Nanny McPhee—is about to be born. From the
moment I first conceived the idea of making the story—about a magical
nanny who is hired to tame the seven most mischievous children in the
history of the world—to the final scene (in which I have the prosthetic
bags under my eyes removed), it has been eight years.
Now it’s ready to hit the cinemas. I play the title role and the gorgeous Colin Firth is Mr Brown, the father of the seven nightmare children. They’ve already seen off 17 nannies and he has given up all hope of ever finding another.
But then, one day, the mysterious Nanny McPhee turns up at the door. With her bizarre looks (well, if you spent two hours in make-up every day and had to cram yourself into an unflattering fat suit, as I had to, you’d look pretty odd, too) and special powers, it seems the brown children have finally met their match.
The children’s father works long days at the funeral parlour and he has his hands full. His wife, the children’s mother, died only a year ago and Mr Brown’s imperious Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who supplements his wage, has threatened to cut off his allowance unless he remarries within a month.
There are many surprises in what happens next, but I won’t spoil it by giving too much away. What I will say is that all ends happily. Once we’d booked the studio, chosen a director and started to fill in the details in preparation for 80 days of 12-hour filming, I dared to hope that it was all finally going to happen, and began keeping a diary, although whoever chose to start shooting on April 1 clearly had a sense of humour.
|Excerpt from Emma
Thompson's Nanny McPhee Diary
Jan 22 We’ve begun the task of casting the children. Having played games with hundreds of hopefuls, we’re now asking some to read in front of a camera. We’re looking for charm, intelligence, fun and wisdom. As well as being spontaneous and natural, they need to be able to repeat that spontaneity, too. A tall order for most actors, even grown-up ones.
Jan 23 Thomas Sangster [who appeared as Liam Neeson’s lovesick son in Love Actually] is our Simon Brown. 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 very 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,
Feb 17 Kirk Jones, the director, takes me to see the workshops at Pinewood studios. The chippies (carpenters who built 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...not surprising, as Lindsay Doran, who is producing the film and who was with us all the way through the project, 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.
Went to the Bafta awards last night. I glammed up. Nearly killed me. Was up for Best Supporting Actress in Love Actually. Very deservedly Renée Zellweger won it for Cold Mountain. I ate all the sweeties in my goody bag and felt sick.
Bill Nighy won Best Supporting Actor, and Paul Bettany and I were very rude to him. It turn out to be a lovely, sociable night, even though I kept stepping on my feather boa, and now there’s a few days’ rest before this huge Nanny McPhee machine actually cranks into life.
March 2 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.
March 18 Saw the outdoor set, which is in a beautiful place called Penn in Buckinghamshire. The Brown house is enormous and looks completely real, except, of course, 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 quite peculiar.
The children couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the house. ‘Is this not real, then?’ said Sam Honywood, who plays Sebastian Brown. Met the family’s animals—the dog, pig, donkey and so forth. Also the tarantula that the children plant in someone’s hairdo.
March 19 Make-up tests for Nanny McPhee. Nerve-wracking. 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 two-and-a-half 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.
A perfect example of the magical transformation made possible by make-up 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 Angela Lansbury’s hotel, where we drank 16 pints of tea. She is heaven. She hasn’t done a film on the big screen since The Company of Wolves 20 years ago. She’s so slender and youthful and energetic, somehow. We are incredibly lucky to have her as our villainous Great Aunt Adelaide.
March 26 Up to do camera test on Nanny. It transpires that my 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.
It turns out 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 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. A bit like watching someone beginning to walk.
April 1 First day of shooting. My husband, Greg, and daughter, Gaia, stand in a chorus line to wave goodbye as I set off for the studio. As I drive away, a black cat trots across our path. ‘That means good luck! It’s an omen,’ I shout. My driver, Len, uses the carphone to call the production office. ‘You can put the cat back in the bag now,’ he jokes to them.
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?’
Kirk came up at one point and gibberingly reported this exchange with six-year-old Holly Gibbs, who plays Christianna Brown:
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.
April 6 We’ve all started to realise that a scene containing nine people takes a long time to shoot. And that most of the scens 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.
April 14 Colin Firth and Kelly Macdonald (the scullery maid Evangeline) working so well together, hardly surprising since they’re old mates. Colin, who has come to us from a series of more serious pieces, has to be dragged from the dramatic into comic exaggeration like someone being pulled from a pit. He is teased mercilessly. He and Kelly are so 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. Fro my own part, I realise it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. Celia Bannerman, the 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.
I also have to work hard not to eat too much chocolate.
6:40pm: 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. We live like troglodytes in the dusty darkness.
April 16 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, and no mistake.
April 19 Celia Imrie and Colin are on, so I’m just in my civvies, watching. They are pure magic. Celia, who plays Mrs Quickly (who is due to become the children’s stepmother), can strike the finest parodic tone, be enormous and so believable. A 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—the concern is that they’ll wriggle out of the sandwich before Celia gets it to her chops. 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’s minder (Mark, a gentle, tattooed individual) lets out a cry 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 sweeties. It transpires that my dresser Mel (who is a brilliant singer, I find out too late to make her sing for us) has serious arachnophobia and cannot be on set at the same time as a tarantula. So it’s a good thing I’m not in the scene, or without her help I’d be naked.
Celia is eating her worm sandwich. She stuffs it into her cheek, pretends to chew and swallow—we cut and set spits poor (unchewed) worm into a bucket. 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 into the ground.
April 21 Imelda Staunton (Mrs Blatherwick, the cook) is upstairs in the make-up chair. Colin has let it be known he’s very concerned 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 chair with an ice pack clutched to her head. What a trouper!
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 pm. Could be heat. Or waking at five and going back to sleep for an hour until alarm woke me from dream, thus preventing me from having to go on stage wearing nothing but a pair of high heels.
April 27 I am in heaven. I am in an 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 available, before driving down to Dorset for the beach scene.
April 28 It’s windy here, chilly and very overcast, but just maybe, we’ll be okay. 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.
Helicopter taking all the equipment on and off beach. Sadly, we have to talk (170 steps down the cliff). I trot off in my huge dress and practically take off in wind. Saved by fat suit.
May 25 Rehearse big pie throwing scene and realise that we need three more days for this sequence that we haven’t got and won’t get.
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 to have become indelible overnight. 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 assistant director) 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 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.
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