What does it take to bring together one of the film industry's most respected actresses and one of its rising stars? "A fairy tale for adults," says director Bharat Nalluri of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which teams Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.Read more about Bharat Nalluri (Director)
The Academy Award-winning McDormand says, "This is a stylish and entertaining story about making choices and living with the consequences - and right away I could clearly see myself playing the title role."
Adams, the Oscar nominee recently seen starring in the hit movie Enchanted, adds that the film "is a female-driven story that originated from a female perspective; the journey is about finding out what - and who - is right for you, what is truly best for you, and about being true to yourself even as you step outside of your comfort zone."
The film takes place in the London of 1939, as re-created by the filmmakers on location in the U.K., including at the storied Ealing Studios. As the oldest film studio site in the world, Ealing itself was a vital part of London in 1939.
Also part of the arts scene at the time was author Winifred Watson (1907-2002). First published in 1938, the novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was written by her. The author wrote six novels in total and "was a bit ahead of her time," says producer Stephen Garrett. "Her books were about women changing their lives, flouting convention, and addressing class tensions and extramarital sex." Her other works - more dramatic than Miss Pettigrew… - were well-reviewed and popular. But writing was phased out of her life during World War II and the concurrent and subsequent commitment to her husband and newborn son.
"My father and I tried to get her to write again, but she wouldn't," remembers her son Keith Pickering. "She told me she had written Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in six weeks, from start to finish. She would go over dialogue in her mind while she was washing dishes, and then write after finishing the dishes. She knew it was a winner, and she was absolutely right."
Producer Nellie Bellflower, an Academy Award nominee for Finding Neverland, offers that "the power of Winifred Watson's story lies in its ability to make the reader happily believe that anything might be possible."
The novel had very nearly made it to the big screen once before; Universal Studios had optioned the successful book with plans to make it into a movie musical with a top star of the time, Billie Burke (now best-known and fondly remembered as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz), as Miss Pettigrew. But WWII spurred Universal to make different and more serious movies, and so the tale awaited rediscovery as a viable motion picture.
In 2000, Watson herself was rediscovered by the London publishing company Persephone Books, which reprinted Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day to renewed critical praise. The Guardian asked, "Why has it taken more than half a century for this wonderful flight of humour to be rediscovered?" The Daily Mail cited the book's message "that everyone, no matter how poor or prim or neglected, has a second chance to blossom in the world." The author herself enjoyed the renewed attention, finding it all "rather nice," and citing the novel as her favorite of her works; "I always had a fondness for Miss Pettigrew…"
During the reissue/rediscovery of the novel, the U.K.-based Garrett "first came across it when I read a synopsis in The Bookseller. I then read the book and it moved me and made me laugh; I found it to be extraordinarily uplifting, completely captivating, and life-affirming.
"Miss Pettigrew embodies the dashed hopes and expectations of anyone whose life hasn't quite worked out as they might have hoped it would. Miss Pettigrew couldn't be further removed from my own life experiences, but when I finished reading her story I thought the world a better place. I wanted to make a film which could capture that spirit and have that effect on audiences."
He adds, "You realize quite quickly that this is not your average British period film. This rather prim woman with very little experience of the real world finds herself amongst a bunch of rather racy types. Over the course of the next 24 hours, she sorts out Delysia's life through sheer common sense - and, rather wonderfully, her own life gets sorted too."
Garrett optioned the film rights, and was subsequently introduced to Bellflower, who was in London for production on Finding Neverland with that film's screenwriter David Magee. While the duo would later receive Oscar nominations for the project, the producer found herself thinking even further ahead when she read Watson's book on a plane back to NYC - and quickly joined Garrett in working to bring Miss Pettigrew's tale to the screen at last.
Bellflower remarks, "I fell in love with it. This had everything you would want a story to have. I knew that David would bring a very human understanding of the characters to it, and, as with Finding Neverland, I believed that it's the kind of film that people want to see - need to see - now, given the times we live in.
"The story is a little sexy, a lot of fun, and a classic Cinderella tale - but there are two Cinderellas; Miss Pettigrew and Delysia. They cross each other's paths at a moment in time when each is open enough to move in the other's direction. Their circumstances are so different, and yet they are so much the same - we learn that they have more in common than they appear to. For the title role, I said, 'This part is for Frances McDormand.'"
Once back in New York, she gave the book to the Oscar winner's managers. Bellflower remembers, "They loved it and then Frances told me she wanted to play the role - and this was before we had a director or a script."
Screenwriter Magee laughs, "I'm not British, so I wasn't at all sure I was right for it. I kept telling Nellie I'd get around to reading the book that she'd sent over. When I did start reading it, I couldn't stop because I fell in love with Miss Pettigrew and Delysia - two incredibly resourceful women. It reminded me of the classic movies from that era, those wonderful romantic comedies where you feel for the characters but there's also an energetic pace and a lightness of spirit. I'd always wanted to be part of telling a story like that. While writing this movie, I would end a lot of days smiling."
Bellflower found the project its financing and studio partner in Focus Features. As the development process continued, Garrett's partner Paul Webster joined as executive producer, and Simon Beaufoy (an Academy Award nominee for The Full Monty) joined as screenwriter.
Garrett and Webster had worked with Bharat Nalluri on several projects, including the acclaimed miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath and the hit caper series Hustle, which was based on an idea by the director. Therefore, Garrett notes, "Not all directors can lend their talents to any genre, but Bharat can and does."
Nalluri admits, "I was perhaps not the obvious choice for a romantic comedy. But, after Tsunami, which dealt with such pain and loss, I knew I wanted - needed - to do something that dealt with love and hope. Miss Pettigrew embodies these emotions.
"Having just gotten engaged myself, I wanted to explore love and the choices we make in terms of who we end up with, and this story does that so beautifully. The story may take place in 1939, but these are characters we can all recognize."
Bellflower says, "We met with Bharat, thinking 'This man can't possibly know much about the world in our movie.' Not only did he know everything about it, he knew what would make it more special than we had imagined."
Nalluri adds, "An underpinning to this wonderfully romantic and funny story is the fact that World War II is about to break out. That isn't really mentioned in Winfred Watson's book - seeing as it came out in 1938 - so it became important to us as subtext. The dramatic stakes are higher because of this. Life is too short, and at that time was about to become more so for too many,
"There was certainly a lot of glamour then, but there were also a lot of have-nots - and Miss Pettigrew has, as the story begins, become one of them. She has to sort out her future, quickly."
Bellflower offers, "At the base of any good comedy is something a little more serious. Our story takes place on the cusp of a time in when people - and not just in the U.K. - were unsure about their future. This gives the story an added poignancy."
That last quality is evident in Miss Guinevere Pettigrew from the first, whether in Watson's story or Magee and Beaufoy's screenplay or - most particularly - in McDormand's performance.
McDormand notes, "Reading the book, I felt that Winifred Watson was telling us about women who in fact exist."
Magee adds, "Frances knew the character, and what she wanted to do with the role. She's wonderful as Guinevere."
"There could have been no other Miss Pettigrew," says Garrett. "It was inconceivable that anyone else could have played the role. Had we lost her for any reason, the project would have collapsed. As it was, she patiently stayed the development course with us."
Beaufoy notes, "At the start of the story, Miss Pettigrew is a very shy and neglected woman, seemingly good at nothing. She lacks money, she lacks resources, and is fired from her job. Yet when she unwittingly walks into this glamorous life she has only ever seen in the movies, she finds a place for herself through an innate ability she has to make the best of whatever is around her.
"She goes from being the least important person in the room to the most important person in the room. Not through money or looks, but because she is an innately good human being. She becomes like a magnet for people - like Delysia - who realize that they have become desperate to know how to sort out their lives. Trying to make the right moral decision in a complex set of circumstances is an eternal problem for us all."
Magee elaborates, "While Delysia is willing to be whomever anyone wants her to be in order to become a star, Guinevere is willing to become what Delysia wants her to be - whether it's personal assistant or referee in her affairs - because she's horribly poor. Yet Delysia doesn't judge Guinevere based on her looks - which is how she is judged all the time. With she and Guinevere becoming friends, Delysia is able to ask herself for the first time, 'What do I really want to do with my life?' Guinevere meanwhile gains confidence, advising and supporting Delysia and realizing that there is a second act in her own life."
As part of the glamorous milieu she suddenly becomes immersed in, Miss Pettigrew finds herself in the salon of Edythe DuBarry (Shirley Henderson) and is persuaded to undergo a makeover.
"Well," admits McDormand, "At the start of the story Miss Pettigrew is dowdy, with particularly uncontrollable hair. But when the mirror turns to reveal her new look, she is still the same person, just in different clothes. She discovers that it's not about getting rid of what she was before, but about fully inhabiting who she was before - and taking control of her life over the course of a day like no other in her life."
"Frances brings an honesty and truth to the role," says Nalluri. "This in turn helps add depth to our storytelling and takes our movie to another level. Having done her homework on Miss Pettigrew for the past few years, she so completely owns the character that you would believe it was written for her by Winifred Watson."
McDormand reveals, "The one major script change I made was to get away from the idea that Miss Pettigrew's rhythm was one of reticence and shyness, and that she was incapable of finishing a sentence. My change was that she complete every sentence; Miss Pettigrew knows exactly what she thinks and what she wants to say - it's that people just don't hear her finish her sentence, because they don't realize she's there."
One who takes note of Miss Pettigrew's presence is Edythe. "She's not nice and she's quite mercenary," laughs Henderson when discussing her character. "But, you know, the 1930s were difficult for women, and she's trying to keep her head above water, so I felt sorry for her. The wealthy people who come to her salon don't like her cutting remarks, yet at the same time they kind of enjoy them. "
Bellflower marvels, "We knew Shirley was the one to play Edythe after she read four lines for us, in our first meeting with her!"
Henderson was eager to join the project. She says, "It takes place in a period when people were sharp and spoke quickly. They didn't have television, so they were good at having conversations. Playing all that is good for the brain and the mouth, working them that quick.
"Also, I knew that Frances would be playing Miss Pettigrew when I went for the audition, and she is so well-thought of among actors. Frances is down-to-earth but has gritty and vulnerable qualities as well - all perfect for Miss Pettigrew. And I found that, like her character, Frances is concerned about everybody. This movie is a comedy, but there's the underlying message of someone taking the time to genuinely help people - and therefore oneself."
Drawing not only from Watson's story but also from her own actor's instincts for a character, McDormand enumerates Miss Pettigrew's personal history; "She is a vicar's daughter and was brought up very properly. When she lost her fiancé in World War I, her life just kind of stopped and she had to go on to service as a governess. She still has her clothes that she got for her trousseau with the wedding."
While McDormand was the only choice for Miss Pettigrew, the prospect of playing the second lead female role in the story - and opposite McDormand, no less - yielded no shortage of interested actors and discussion among the filmmakers. Garrett says, "Because Miss Pettigrew and Delysia are diametrically opposed to one another in terms of personality and experience and attitude to the world, the casting of Delysia was absolutely critical for that to work properly."
It was only when Amy Adams arrived for a meeting that the filmmakers sensed they had found their Delysia. Garrett says, "There is a spirit and joie de vivre toher that is unique and utterly infectious. I'm referring to not only Delysia but also Amy herself."
"First of all," marvels Nalluri, "Amy has unbeatable comic timing. She also has an extraordinary vulnerability that she brings to the screen. It's rare to find an actor who has both."
Magee adds, "She's just so exciting to watch in Enchanted. What with that and her tremendous Academy Award-nominated performance in Junebug, it's very clear that she is going to be huge."
Bellflower says, "Amy is beautiful and sexy, and also has the ability to be funny - verbally and physically - without losing any sense of innocence. What we saw in Junebug and then witnessed firsthand is that she removes any barrier between the characters she inhabits and the audience."
The same could be said of Adams' own connection to Delysia; "I responded to Delysia as soon as I read the script," she explains. "I am attracted to optimistic people and characters. Delysia is so vivacious and energetic and full of life, and she's really resourceful - which is important, because she has a lot going on that she must juggle. If she had a modern motto, it would be 'Fake it 'til you make it.'
"Knowing that Frances was going to play Miss Pettigrew - and I have always been a great admirer of her work - I was excited about what we might be able to achieve together. She turned out to be such a generous and joyful person to work with, while keeping everything professional and authentic. She mined all the humor from the script - and I tried to follow her lead, on a wing and a prayer…"
McDormand assesses, "In lesser hands, the character of Delysia would not have been as funny. Not every actor understands the rhythm of the language from that period. With all that fast talking, you cannot really improvise. Amy understood all of this, and our director did, too."
Nalluri was keen to stoke the chemistry of McDormand and Adams, "since the two characters are so very different yet come to see their similarities in terms of what they want and need out of life. I also knew that Frances and Amy together would make for a dynamic - and comedic - duo.
"At the first script reading, they were both so wonderful together that it set the whole tone for the film - and the style we shot it in. They brought the characters to life, and so I knew then even better how I was going to approach the work. When you're doing comedy, I've found it's best to set it up, give the actors a nice frame, and then let them do their work."
McDormand clarifies, "Bharat saw to it that Amy and I were in the same frame for the scenes with physical comedy. In a way, we were emulating Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance; two women moving through spaces together and dealing with situations."
Ciarán Hinds, who plays opposite McDormand as Joe, remarks, "At the end of one extraordinary day, they have impacted each other. Experiencing Miss Pettigrew's decency, Delysia realizes that she has not listened to her heart, and not gone the truer way. They both better understand what is worth chasing in life."
"Whereas Miss Pettigrew and Delysia have more screen time which tells you who they are and where they're going, the men in our picture have to make an immediate impression," explains Bellflower. "With Joe, you had to know that this is a man you can trust and who will be there for you when it's important."
Hinds says, "Joe has a collection on display at a big fashion show. When he sees Miss Pettigrew there, he sees someone who is out of her depth and that touches him. He realizes they're older than the other people there, and they establish a rapport - one that is tempered by Miss Pettigrew because she is already acquainted with his younger fiancée, Edythe. But when Joe looks into Miss Pettigrew's eyes, there's something that doesn't exist with Edythe."
The actor had the stature - both physically and as a thespian - to play Joe. Nalluri says, "Joe is enjoying his life, but he starts to realize that what he has might not be what will make him happy. When you watch a brilliant actor like Ciarán playing opposite Frances, it is absolutely magical. It takes your breath away. It was already a beautiful script, but they just upped the ante every day."
Hinds states, "Frances is a completely committed actor. She makes use of a technical approach, yet that almost gets thrown away as she gets down to work and makes it all connect."
Beaufoy remarks, "The challenge was, they only have a handful of scenes together. Fortunately, with two of the best actors you could find, every moment convinces. Unlike the other main characters, Miss Pettigrew and Joe know life - having experienced World War I - and so their interactions are more grounded."
By contrast, the three - count them, three - men in Delysia's life "give us a rollercoaster feeling of 'Who will she choose?' and make for great fun," says Nalluri.
"Each man that she's involved with is providing her with something that is vital for her survival," clarifies Adams. "But, yes, she's a rascal…" READ MORE
David Magee (Screenplay)
Simon Beaufoy (Screenplay)
THE ART OF ADAPTATION