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Directors & Their Troops: Nicholas Hytner on His ‘Lady in the Van’ Artisans

Golden Globes Drama Film Preview
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Nicholas Hytner directed “The Lady in the Van,” which opens Dec. 4 in limited engagements. Hytner had also directed the Alan Bennett play in the West End, which also starred Maggie Smith. The film declares it’s “mostly a true story,” about Miss Shepherd, a homeless woman who invaded Bennett’s life in an upscale area of North London. Hytner spoke with Variety about his key artisan team in creating the film.

Cinematography, Andrew Dunn
In “Lady in the Van,” there are two contrasting British traditions: First, Ealing comedies; and second, the social-realist photography of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. It’s a North London comedy version of Don McCullin — he has an extraordinary series of realist/naturalistic photos of people on the streets, the dispossessed — and portrait photographer Jane Bown, whose subject matter is much more the kind of person who lives on Gloucester Crescent. Meanwhile, there is a whiff of Ealing in the way the people in Gloucester Crescent responded to the disruption of Miss Shepherd’s presence; it is inherently funny because of how Alan writes and how he reports on this very specific corner of London. This is the fourth film Andrew and I have done together. Essentially, what I know about movies, I learned from Andrew and Tariq.

Editing, Tariq Anwar
The middle act always needed the most attention. This is not a movie driven by a powerful narrative; it doesn’t set out to be. This old lady arrives in the street, finds her way into his driveway, then stays for years. It’s the middle act — she stays there for 15 years — that needed the most attention, to try to keep it airborne. Tariq is extraordinarily creative and fluid. A small example: the intercutting of Miss Shepherd playing piano at the day center with Alan’s arrival home to discover she’s returned to the van. The sequence ends with an incredibly moving shot, when she stops playing, where she can’t take it, the sense that she’s wasted her life, and she gets up and walks out of frame (to go back to the van). That was all Tariq.

Production design, John Beard
Everything you see is where it happened: The house is Alan’s house (though he doesn’t live there anymore), the Crescent is the Crescent. It’s a little dressed up for the 1970s, but essentially that crescent hasn’t changed for 150 years. The books are Alan’s books, the photos are his photos. I can’t imagine many movies based on a true story that have been able to do that. The canvas for this movie is tiny. If the story can have any resonance, it’s because it’s so specific. These two people experienced each other across a space of about 12 feet square for 15 years. We wanted to look at that little corner without drawing attention to the looking.

Composer, George Fenton
George was in Alan’s first play (in 1968) “40 Years On” and they have remained friends, so George knew Miss Shepherd. He shudders when he remembers her: He still smells the smell. I thought the score would be a solo-piano repertoire. We spent a long time deciding what Miss Shepherd would play, knowing that would become a signpost. I thought it would be Chopin, Shubert, Schuman. George thought it needed a proper orchestral score. One day, working with Tariq and having difficulty in finding a temp score, I pulled down from iTunes the Shostakovich Jazz Suites. They worked so well and that became the template. It’s very French-ified. That seemed right. None of this is meant to be explicit. If it works, it works subliminally.

Costume design, Natalie Ward
The time span was 1968-89; it wants to feel un-ostentatiously right; I so did not want a costume parade. This doesn’t want to be shouting Carnaby Street. Alan has worn the same thing for 50 years and Miss Shepherd had a really eccentric dress sense. Natalie’s color sense is so beautiful, un-ostentatious; she did a beautiful job.

One in a series of interviews with directors about their artisan colleagues.