Emma Thompson’s arrival at the character of Nanny McPhee is a bit nontraditional. Having adapted the screenplay for the original film herself from Christianna Brand’s 1960’s “Nurse Matilda” series, Thompson tackled the sequel as purely that, drafting an original idea rather than re-adapting one of Brand’s subsequent “Matilda” novels. The result is Nanny McPhee Returns (released in England as Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang), a story that brings Thompson’s magical (if not entirely attractive) British nanny to 1940’s England where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is trying to run a farm and raise five children (three of her own and two relatives) while her husband is away fighting the war. When the two sets of children began a war of their own, McPhee arrives in the nick of time to teach everyone some manners.
“I thought it would be good if there was a war background,” said Thompson of the sequel’s setting (the original took place in the 19th century but, magically, McPhee remains the same) “I wasn’t too specific, but I thought it would be the second World War… So, if it’s the second World War, then it’s a good 100 years later. I can really channel the feel, the look and the conflicts. It can be very, very different. When I met with people about the movie, they thought it would be good for the children to go into London and see bombed out craters. I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. This is not about war. This is about absence, the possibility of love, but it’s not about war.'”
Adding to the whimsical nature of the film, what few war scenes there are dodge any specifics. One shot of an enemy plane, rather than show a German flag, replaces the plane’s identification with the word “enemy.”
“Most of my work in the movie was with the children,” added Gyllenhaal of her own on-set experience, “Five children ranging in age from five-and-a-half to 13 [as well as] animals and pretend animals… Then, one day, I get to work, deep into the filming of the movie, to shoot this scene with Rhys [Ifans]. They were going to shoot it all in one take, us walking down a road trying to get me to sell the farm. They’re just going to follow us doing the scene. It has to be done perfectly… In a movie like this, if you have to have a vase fall on your head because it’s funny and need to say this line, you need to be standing in one spot so the vase can fall on your head. It’s a different kind of technical work. So I get to work to do the scene with Rhys, and I’m used to all these other scenes, not with grownups, and we start to do the scene and it was like awesome! It was like, ‘You’re a grown up! You’re an expert!’ It was super fun. We couldn’t make a mistake.”
As far as the kids are concerned, all agree that one of the most unique experiences on the set was a filmmaking trick pulled on them by Thompson. One scene has McPhee using her magic to get a group of pigs to perform a synchronized swimming routine. Because the pigs were added later with CGI, Thompson found that it was difficult to get realistic laughing reactions from the children. That is, until she decided to surprise everyone.
“[We] were looking at long sticks with tennis balls and tape on them,” recalled Rosie Taylor-Ritson, who plays the young Celia, “and Emma said ‘Oh no! This doesn’t work. We can see that you’re not laughing.’ So the next take she got pushed into the water fully clothed.”
“They were looking at me being dragged to the pond by the first AD and pushed right in,” said Thompson, “and then I swam out to the middle and did a bit of synchronized swimming of my very own, for better or worse. Then I got out and splashed them as well. Luckily, it was a very beautiful day and hot, so I was quite pleased to get in the water.”
“So the reaction you see in the film, that’s us laughing about Emma,” added Lil Wood (Megsie).
One of the subtle links between the first film and the second is the character of Agatha Docherty. Depicted as a baby in the first film, Docherty is brought to life by Thompson’s fellow Harry Potter alumn, Maggie Smith. The production’s other Maggie recalled being nervous about working with such prodigious talent.
“I heard that Maggie doesn’t suffer fools gladly and could be scary,” said Gyllenhaal, “I was really scared to work with her. Thank God she liked me! She’d say amazing things. I heard her on the phone talking to her son after work one day. I could tell he said on the other line, ‘What time are you going to be home?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ [she’d respond], ‘How long is a piece of string?’ She literally did tell stories like the how now brown cow stories. Those were amazing.”
Though the sequel has already seen release in England, the American premiere meant a tremendous deal to Thompson because, while doing press, she officially received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I was incredibly touched,” she said, “If you do a piece of work, and you think it’s good, there’s a possibility that this will go well and you might be up for this or that. With this, it’s not specific to a piece of work. Someone calls you up and says, ‘We’re going to cement you into the city. I was so thrilled. I first came here when I was 14 years old… [My father] brought my sister and my uncle over here and it was the most surreal experience. I had never been to America. Los Angeles, or Hollywood, was a completely unreal world. The sun and the palm trees, and you go to a supermarket and you could buy makeup and bacon at the same place! We were not used to that overwhelming choice. The only place my dad had time to take us was Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to look at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I thought it was a lovely thing then. I thought it was an amazing thing to put the names of the people who help make the city the legend that it is into the paving stones. I thought it was so cool when I was little. The fact that they’ve done it for me, just seems quite unreal. Plus, I’m right outside a pub [laughs]. It’s my name you step on when you walk in and it’s my name you step on when you wheel out. I’m really chuffed, as they say in my country!”
Thompson was also quick to add that the story of Nanny McPhee isn’t over with this second outing. Though she was tight on details, Thompson promised that the character will return in a planned third film, this time set in present day.
Nanny McPhee Returns hits theaters August 20th.