Today we sit down with Mike Fraser whose fresh off from his first directorial project The Honourable Rebel. Mike has been in the industry for a while now having been involved with everything from About a Boy through to The Four Feathers and The Wicker Tree but this is the first time he has decided to sit down in the directors chair himself. We spend a few minutes digging into made made him think this was the story he just had to tell, how he came to it and a little about the extraordinary figure of The Hon Elizabeth Montague who sits at the centre of this most interesting of tales…
Could you introduce The Honourable Rebel to our readers and let them know a little bit about who and what it is about?
It’s about the story of Elizabeth Montague. She was an aristocrat who, having spent 17 years expecting to be the heir to Beaulieu in Hampshire, spread her wings shortly after a son was born into the family. She found that she had fantastic talent; was a wonderful linguist, became a great musician, went into acting, joined the army at the beginning of the war and then became a spy for us having survived an amazing adventure through France with the Gestapo chasing behind her. Then after the war she became a dialogue director in many films including The Third Man; she was actually Graham Greene and Carol Reed’s guide throughout Vienna when they were making the film. And all of this time she is having affairs with both men and women all over Europe…. She was an astonishing woman and this film is her story, or at least a part of it.
When I first read the press synopsis I was amazed that I had never heard of her before…
Well I hadn’t’ heard about her either! What happened was one of her nephews, whom I know very well, rang me up and said “why don’t you make a film about my auntie?” to which I said “who was your Aunt?” and he told me to go out and read her book (Her Autobiography titled The Honourable Rebel). And that’s how it all started.
How did you balance the film’s different elements of documentary style footage and re-enactment together?
Having written the script and shot the film I then cut 17 scenes, and could have perhaps cut more… the difficulty of course was knowing what I should leave out. I mean this 500 page book is 30 hours of television if you were doing on hour episode television dramas, it’s huge! In the editing room I went by feel. The one thing I didn’t want was for people to be bored. I want something that would move people along the whole time, that was my aim. So I just felt my way through having held a broad view to start with.
Was your research primarily drawn from her memoirs, or did more come from interviews that wound up being cut from the film?
Well firstly there are very few people who I could interview who were alive to know her in the 1930’s and 40’s and who were as similar age. Nobody was around who had been with her on these exciting adventures, so I asked my interviewees to remember as much about her as they possibly could from their youth and we did it in a relaxed and conversational way. But it was very difficult because of the difference in age between them and her.
You’ve got a long history of working in the industry, did your consciously feel that collected experience influencing your first directorial project?
Well I was quite indefinite to start with and then was definite towards the end, and I’ll tell you what I mean by that. At first I wasn’t going to direct this film, I’ve been in this industry for 47 years and been involved with hundreds of projects but never directed anything. But then when I realised that I would love to direct the film I got around my inexperience by surrounding myself with a very experienced crew who really knew what they were doing. I told them to go out and do their jobs knowing what it was that I wanted whilst I focused on the actors, and it worked. They looked after me and me them.
Was directing something you always knew you wanted to try your hand at?
I didn’t know that I wanted to do it, but having now done it I think I did always want to. If that makes sense!
How did you find directing your actors then? What was your approach with them?
It was wonderful to be honest with you. First of all the actress who plays Elizabeth had to be terrific as she holds the entire film together. We had 17 actresses audition for the role and the first to walk through the door was Dorothea Myer-Bennet. And when she left the room I turned around to my casting director and a couple of other people who were with me and said “well that’s it, she is defiantly the one”! But of course they told me that I can’t just do that and that I should see the rest and then another six of them turned out to be brilliant as well! So we had a shortlist but I still chose Dorothea in the end.
After that I insisted on doing rehearsals. I’m a great fan of Mike Leigh having worked with him in the past, but didn’t have time to rehearse in the style he does. Still we did have two or three weeks of rehearsals during which I got to know everybody. They were rather different on this film compared to normal because most of the parts only had one or two scenes. Dorothea was with me every day and the others came and went.
How then did you get Diana Rigg involved in the film?
Well right from the very beginning I wanted to have a really great British actress who could portray Elizabeth looking back on her life. The very top one on my list was Diana Rigg and I told her agent this; I said that I had seven other greater actresses in mind but that I want Diana Rigg and so until she said no I wasn’t going to talk to any of the others. We had a couple of conversations and then she said yes.
She was so brilliant and so professional, I thought we might need two days to do it as there were 39 pieces to microphone and she needed to see the film as well. She came at 11:30 one morning as she was doing a one woman show the night before and asked whether I would mind her coming so late, to which I said not at all. Who was I to say no! So she arrived and we watched the film, she and I then went through the script, had a light lunch and then she did all 39 nine pieces, plus redoing 9 of them. She was out of there by 5 o’clock!
Do you think you’ll be taking on more directing work then after having had this experience?
Well I love storytelling, in particular straight forward storytelling which has a beginning middle and end and which doesn’t require much in the way of special effect wizardry. At the moment I am in the middle of something very big, something too big for me. It’s the most dramatic true story that I have ever read in my life. It’s the story of three indomitable women who are connected over a period of around forty or fifty years. It is so big, such a life affirming story and so pertinent to our time…
Well you’ve got me pretty intrigued about what that film is about…
Yes I’m sorry, I keep doing this but I just can’t tell you anymore yet! We’ve bought the rights but we don’t want to go out spreading this around until we’ve raised the funds and are making it.
Haha well we will wait with bated breath to find out about this one then!
I will let you know James… it’s just wonderful.
And that concludes our interview! The Honourable Rebel opens today (4th December) in cinemas across the UK. Will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!