When Cherie Nowlan’s new movie played at the Sundance Film Festival as “Clubland,” it didn’t exactly make huge waves (either in a good or a bad way), but it did find a distributor in Warner Independent Pictures, and with its new title of Introducing the Dwights, it’s being released on the 4th of July.
A funny and touching dysfunctional family dramedy and another great Sundance discovery, Nowlan’s second movie is memorable for its strong writing and acting, especially the performance by acting veteran Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies, Pride & Prejudice) as an overbearing mother trying to keep her career as a comedienne alive while protecting her two sons (Richard Wilson and newcomer Khan Chittenden) from things like girls and the real world.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with director Cherie Nowlan and Brenda Blethyn while they were in New York for the movie’s premiere. (Blethyn joined us a few minutes into the interview.)
ComingSoon: This movie was based on a script that was developed before Brenda and then you came onboard?
Cherie Nowlan: Keith Thompson, the writer, had written it with her in mind and Rosemary Blight, the producer who had worked with Brenda on “In the Winter Dark” so when they gave it to me, they said, “Do you like the script?” number one and number two, “It’s been written with Brenda in mind, but you don’t have to cast her.” And I said, “You’ve got to be joking. She’s like my favorite actress and I don’t think anyone else could do this role anywhere near as well as she could.” I just think she has such a vast range. If you look at all of her roles. She plays every possibility, on a scale from vulnerable and defenseless to kind of indominable characters like she played in “Little Voice.” She’s not afraid to go to the edges and play flaws in characters. I think for me, characters don’t have to be like all that actors do, and she has that ability to mesmerize you, whatever she’s doing, so for me that was the hook. It was like if I get the chance to work with her I’d be thrilled.
CS: Is Keith Australian also?
Nowlan: He’s English actually by birth. He grew up in Dover, which is about a half an hour from where Brenda grew up in Ramsgate, in Kent, in the south of England, so he had known her for her whole career, whereas I only knew her work from “Secrets & Lies” onwards, so I was unaware of her incredible career on the stage. Not unaware, but obviously I hadn’t seen any of her work, but he had. So I came on board about six years ago, and then we sent the script to Brenda .
CS: Six years ago? Wow, this film has been around a long time.
Nowlan: All films take a long time, they all do. When you live in a country like Australia, you notice it more but believe me, here, everyone’s working on movies for a decade.
CS: So was it always meant to be set in Australia and having Brenda being from England?
Nowlan: Yeah, that was kind of important. Her being in exile, as it were, was an important part of her character, feeling cutoff and having made a whole lot of sacrifices to be in Australia, giving up her family, her career to bring up these kids. And to me that was really Oh, hello. [Brenda Blethlyn walks in and sits down.]
CS: We were just talking about you before you came in, but also about how your character is British having moved to Australia and whether that was important to the character.
Nowlan: And I was just saying that Keith, having immigrated to Australia and feeling that that sort of living life in exile a bit was an important character note for him and for me. To me, it was really important that Jean be English and have given up her family along with a few other things to be in Australia.
CS: How do you feel about being the one British person in the movie and working with a lot of younger Australian actors?
Brenda Blethyn: Oh, it was great, working with the new talent in this film. I know that Cherie spent a long, long time finding those actors. You sort of scoured Australia didn’t you for them?
Nowlan: Yeah, for Tim, especially.
Blethyn: So we kind of knew that they got the cream of the crop. As seasoned actors, it was a little bit intimidating, coming into this new, fresh, vibrant cast. They were nervous about us we found out, but we had rehearsal time to kind of knock it around a bit with Cherie. Cherie reated a wonderful environment for all of us to work in, so you could try things out without feeling silly. So we became friends and there was an ease from the get-go, wasn’t there? It was great.
CS: What was it about Keith’s script that you liked? When they presented it to you did they tell you they had you in mind?
Blethyn: No, I didn’t know at first. It was the honesty of the writing I felt when I read it. It felt truthful and it was just that lovely journey of discovery for Tim, finding sex. It struck a few chords, and I thought it would with most people who watched it. It wasn’t enhanced in anyway. I think he told it like it was and it felt honest. It felt like it might have been from experience from the screenwriter, and we since discovered that it kind of was a little bit.
CS: Experiences with his own mother?
Blethyn: Well, his mother was an entertainer. She was a musician in that kind of circuit so it’s loosely, that’s what inspired it. But yeah, when I heard it was written with me in mind, I was flattered but also a bit nervous at the same time. I’m glad I didn’t know that right at the beginning because it feels like an added responsibility, but since I’d already loved the script He grew up not far from me, it turns out.
CS: Lots of the actors I speak to, when they learn the part is written for them, they’re immediately flattered into taking the role.
Blethyn: Well, it would have scared me, and I might have thought twice about it. [Laughs]
CS: Can you talk about the young cast in the film? You have three really talented young actors in it.
Nowlan: Yeah, well Emma Booth had never acted in a film before, so that was exciting when she walked in the door. I was like, “Holy Hell!” It was like when I auditioned Cate Blanchett. (For her first movie, “The Wedding Party.”) I can’t believe I auditioned Cate Blanchett. She hadn’t made a film when I auditioned her for my film, but I just thought, “This girl’s hot and she has such an abundance of natural ability and she’s got this mercurial beauty and ease with her physicality, she’s brilliant.” I cast Emma after Brenda actually, and then she worked with me on the callbacks to find Tim. That was the hardest role to fill, because that’s a difficult part, to be vulnerable and believable in that sort of sexual inexperience. A lot of young guys have a lot of bravado and machismo and it’s hard of them to do away with that, but Khan really has some of those traits himself. He’s a very thoughtful and kind and loving person, and that is Tim.
CS: How old are Khan and the others?
Nowlan: They’re about 23, they’re not very old. He was shooting a film when I auditioned him, which is why I didn’t see him until the second to last day of casting, so I was a bit panicked. But Richard Wilson, I had known his work and knew how good he was. I had seen him in “The Proposition,” John Hillcoat’s film.
CS: Who did he play in that movie?
Nowlan: He plays the brother who’s in jail.
Blethyn: He was fantastic.
CS: Oh wow, I love that movie and I didn’t even recognize him in this.
Nowlan: No one ever does recognize Richard. They assume he’s handicapped but he isn’t, but he’s a pretty important part of this ensemble. And Frank Holden and Katie Wall, who plays Jill’s best friend, I had worked with three years prior on a miniseries, so we had already worked together and also Rebecca Gibney I had worked with. Frank Holden is a well-known actor/singer in Australia and I don’t think anyone could have played John as well as him. Philip Quast I had known for a long time but had never worked with.
CS: Did you spend any time with the two actors playing your sons to try to establish a bond with them?
Blethyn: The nature of it, Jean spends more time with Mark than she does with Tim, not in real-life but in the time-span of the film. In the time you see her in the film, he’s with Jill and that’s the story, so the scenes in the film, I spent more time with Mark and we would kind of improvise. Mike Leigh would like the way he works because he’s kind of in the moment and he works the same way as me, just stays in it until Cherie says otherwise. If we’re doing something interesting, Cherie will go with it and just see what happens or just burst out laughing and say, “That’s terrible!”
Nowlan: All those I got with laughing on the take. The only hazard of working with him is laughter.
CS: I imagine Richard is very funny from the character.
Nowlan: Oh yeah, and he’s a giggler, so he would get the giggles out, which was wonderful for the character, too. And Khan, we spent three weeks getting to know each other, but they’re very different boys and there was a different relationship, and I think you get that onscreen.
CS: It’s funny you mention the Mike Leigh thing, because as I was watching the movie–I don’t know whether it was just your involvement–but there’s something about it that had that kind of vibe.
Blethyn: I think it’s the naturalism. Cherie, you can speak for yourself, but it seemed to me that she was wanting the same thing Mike Leigh wants. He didn’t want anything that wasn’t truthful, that wasn’t organic; she’d be onto in a nanosecond if there was. This beautiful script, because it’s so truthfully written, because it’s so new and fresh, you don’t see such honesty on screen, I think, such baring of souls. There’s no place for any kind of fabrication unless it’s sort of imposing anything on it. I really appreciated working with her on it because of that as well.
CS: How faithful were you to the script when you have actors on set who are able to improvise? Was Keith on set at all?
Nowlan: No, no, he let us go. He was very supportive and inclusive and wanted Brenda to contribute. She wrote the comedy in the film.
Blethyn: It’s 99.9 percent of the whole thing is Keith
Nowlan: You can’t say that it’s not faithful to the script. Having said that, there is some flexibility but it is absolutely his screenplay. It’s a funny hybrid, but he encourages that. He’s really understanding of the process and really wonderful about it.
Blethyn: Sometimes, when we say we improv’d it a lot, a lot of them you don’t see in the film. It was just to create an atmosphere to know that these people lived in that house together. So Cherie would set us these rehearsals where we’d just throw it around so you’d get a sense of how easy it was for her to get them up in the morning and what the normal living conditions are. We worked on that and it’s a well-oiled household, it works really well. They’re happy together, they have a laugh together, they love their mom and she loves them. Even with Dad, it’s kind of a happy banter. It’s only when something rocks that, in the time span of the film, where she has to deal with these problems and he’s part of her act, she always pulls him out. Because you just see it that once, you think “Oh, the cow!” but that’s how he earns his extra money. It always has to look random, but they all do that.
CS: So you wrote some of your comedy for this film? How did you go about doing that?
Blethyn: It was just a part of the rehearsal process and try and work out a new routine for the next day or there would be parameters that Keith had set. (laughs)
Nowlan: She went with that. She would come in literally every day with a new monologue. She’d pull it up on her laptop, and I’d think she’d been up half the night. It was really funny.
CS: Well it couldn’t be too funny, because she’s not supposed to be a GOOD comedian.
Blethyn: Right. But nevertheless, She’s trying to write good jokes. Bless her heart, Jean’s comedy is like 25 years old. The world of comedy has moved on, it’s more vibrant, but hers has not, sadly.
Nowlan: There’s this scene with Tommy Cooper–you guys probably wouldn’t know Tommy Cooper–but you can see he did all these balloon jokes and there she is, sculpting and he’s been dead for 30 years. [Laughs] So here she is with all this balloon humor, it’s kind of tragically funny.
Blethyn: She’s trying to pick-up where she left off and it’s embarrassing. You love the embarrassment of it.
CS: So you basically got into your character while writing these things for her?
Blethyn: Yeah. Well with any character, not just this one, I try and work out where they’ve been for the last 60 years, and how they get from one end of the day to the other. Working that dead-end job in the canteen, she brightens it up, she’s not always wanting the spotlight, but it brightens the day for those girls. Those other girls in there don’t have another outlet. They’ve just got to go home and cook their dinner and get up early and come back. At least Jean’s got a bit of a life outside the Canteen and hopes and a dream keeping that flame burning. She only gave her friend a job because Jean manned the Canteen, that’s how she met Lana, Rebecca Gibney. She came through the Canteen and was a little bit pissed [drunk] and miserable, talking about her kids and Jean felt sorry for her and gave her the job.
Nowlan: Brenda would come in and she would say, “I know how Lana ended up at the canteen” and she’d tell me and I’d go, “Oh right” then we’d continue the story a bit or she’d sit and tell me, “I worked out why she had that fight with Mrs. Carmichael across the road, turns out she was a Christian and wanted to take Mark to church, thinking that might cure him.”
Blethyn: She wanted Mark to be well. How dare she! He’s my boy he’s beautiful as he is.
Nowlan: Or we’d be sitting in the truck, for example, waiting to get on the low-loader, which is one of my least favorite things to do when we shoot car scenes because I get carsick. She’d be sitting there and she’d say, “Come on Khan, let’s improv a scene on what happened between the time we left the pub and this particular scene” and they would go off on an improv. Not everyone can do that. This is a talent that Brenda has. I think that her ability to write an improv, which I reckon you’ve always done, but you say that it really developed.
Blethyn: I suppose I always try to think around a character, even if I don’t share it. It’s always going on, but when they stood looking at that stretcher, there has to be something in my head. Why is she upset? Why is she feeling bad? I understand she’s feeling bad about that woman, but it’s not just because she’s sick. She’s had a row. What? You can’t just say she’s had a row and not say what. It’s not necessary to share with the audience; it’s for me and Mark to know.
CS: So what are you both working on next?
Nowlan: I’m going into a bit of a development phase, hopefully not a super-long one. I wish I could tell you what it was, but it would curse it.
CS: Is this something you’ve written yourself?
Nowlan: No, I like collaborating with writers. I prefer that. I have a writing background but that means that I enjoy working with other people so I’m heading off to London to do that, but hopefully will be back soon. Brenda’s got lots more to do. She’s got a new film and a theater tour.
CS: Will you be playing Keira’s mum again in “Atonement”?
Blethyn: Oh not Keira’s, James McAvoy. Yeah, I forgot, Grace something or other. It’s this little cameo role that I did for Joe.
CS: Well, it was nice talking to you both.
Nowlan: Yeah, and I love your site, mate.
Introducing the Dwights opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, July 4 with an expansion into other cities on July 13.