Filmmakers have always been drawn to Charlotte Bronte’s smoldering Gothic romance “Jane Eyre” — and the feted English director Susanna White is no exception.
Having just completed work on a lengthy BBC TV adaptation of Dickens’ “Bleak House,” it would have been entirely understandable had White turned down the opportunity to return to the world of Victorian literary drama.
But despite the challenge of introducing a fresh approach to a story filmed at least 20 times before, the chance to direct “Jane Eyre” proved irresistible.
“It’s a universal story that I think all females relate to,” she says. “Of course it’s a period piece, but I didn’t want the audience to look at the film and see Jane as an actress dressed up in a corset; I wanted them to see her as a young woman experiencing what young women of all eras go through. We’ve all been through that ‘Does he find me attractive? Will I ever find a partner?’ rite of passage.”
Nominated for nine Emmys — including directing — and having achieved widespread critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, the decision to helm “Jane Eyre,” a co-production between BBC TV and WGBH, was obviously the right one for White.
She is a London-based fortysomething director who has been making films all her adult life — and for part of her childhood, too.
“I was 8 years old when I finally persuaded my parents to buy me a Super-8 camera,” White recalls.
She adds: “I remember being taken to the BBC to watch a recording of the children’s TV show ‘Crackerjack.’ All my friends wanted to win a ‘Crackerjack’ pencil, but I wanted to know how the cameras worked and how the pictures ended up on our TV sets at home.”
At Oxford U., White was a member of the fledgling Oxford Film Foundation.
Subsequently, she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study film at UCLA before coming under the wing of influential BBC TV documentary producer Eddie Mirzoeff.
He commissioned White to make films for the BBC’s “Forty Minutes” strand, including critically praised “The Gypsies Are Coming,” an affectionate look at an ancient English horse fair, shown in 1988.
Other acclaimed docus followed, such as “Volvo City,” a portrait of an East London Hassidic Jewish community made for Channel 4.
White’s first stab at making TV drama was the BBC hospital soap “Holby City,” followed by Channel 4’s edgy “Teachers.”
With the award-winning “Bleak House” and “Jane Eyre” behind her, she is working on “Generation Kill,” an ambitious Iraq war film commissioned by HBO from British independent Company Pictures.
Budgeted at $52 million, the seven, one-hour series scripted by David Simon marks her debut as a director of a contemporary action story.
“Every director wants to make an action film, and I am loving every minute of it,” White says. “The contrast with ‘Jane Eyre’ couldn’t be greater,” she elaborates. “It is a very male world, and every other word in the script is ‘motherfucker.'”
Not very Victorian, but with luck, “Generation Kill” will enable White to move on to helming feature films.
“Of course that’s what I want to do next,” she admits. “Many of my male contemporaries who have a similar TV background to me are getting lots of offers to do features.
“I think I’ve reached a bit of a glass ceiling. I hope ‘Generation Kill’ will help me to break through it. It’s proving that I can do explosions as well as anyone else.”