UPDATE with Golden Globe nomination: Maggie Smith was nominated this morning in the Golden Globes category of Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy for The Lady In The Van.
PREVIOUS EXCLUSIVE: True story: Miss Mary Shepherd parked her eyesore of a yellow van in Alan Bennett’s driveway one night and stayed for 15 years, departing only for the afterlife. She was severely lacking in personal hygiene, not to mention simple gratitude for the celebrated author’s strained deference. She communicated regularly with the Virgin Mary and more contemporary, highly placed authorities at Scotland Yard. She averred to Bennett that she’d recently encountered his dead father dressed as Queen Victoria, one of the rare confidences that the author of The History Boys and The Madness Of King George did dispute. She held her own during strolls among Bennett’s tony neighbors, including the widow of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and the ex-wife of novelist Kingsley Amis (while they held their upturned noses).
Most fortunately for the late Miss Shepherd, she’s played by Dame Maggie Smith in The Lady In The Van, based on Bennett’s memoir, which became in 1999 a stage play starring Smith and, now, the film. Nicholas Hytner staged the play and has directed the intimate movie, running this week in a brief window for awards season before opening in general release next month. For the play, Bennett split himself in two — the writer trying desperately to stay focused on his work, and the homeowner variously outraged and bemused by this infernal squatter who made liberal, if not particularly effective, use of his washroom.
The film features Alex Jennings (Babel, Prince Charles in Stephen Frears’ The Queen) as both Alans, along with a cast of UK stage and screen royalty including Frances De la Tour, Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay. As for Dame Maggie, The Lady In The Van is a gem in the diadem of a career that has spanned more than six decades and includes playing Desdemona to Laurence Olivier’s Othello, Miss Jean Brodie, and star vehicles too numerous to mention right up through the current Downton Abbey, on which she plays, memorably, the Dowager Duchess. Deadline spoke with Hytner and Bennetts during a brief pass through New York to promote the movie.
DEADLINE: For years, your unwanted guest was an open secret you never discussed. What changed?
ALAN BENNETT: She died in April 1989, and it happened that was the 10th anniversary of the London Review of Books. They asked for something; I put together the notes I’d made – I’d never written any connected account. I just wrote a history of her being there. Everybody knew about it but people didn’t speak about it. They used to say to me, “How’s your old lady?” or “Is your old lady still there?” as if I were married to her. But people would come to see me, or interview me, and they wouldn’t mention anything about this terrible van outside. I don’t think that would happen now, but in those days, journalists were different.
DEADLINE: One of the most poignant discoveries we make in the course of the film is that Miss Shepherd was a gifted classical pianist, one of the things about which she was not delusional.
BENNETT: I only found that out after she died. She left the address of her next of kin, who turned out to be her brother, and I went to see him and he told me about her being a pianist.
DEADLINE: One can’t help but come under the spell of this character, with her bulging eyes, her stalwart indifference to social niceties and her casual references to the Virgin Mary and Scotland Yard. How did you deal with her crazy stories?
BENNETT: She didn’t talk of them as if they were hallucinations. She would actually say, “Well, I ran into the Virgin Mary this morning,” without dwelling on it, as if it wasn’t anything extraordinary. When she said she’d seen my father, he was dressed as Queen Victoria. It is unlikely my father would have been hovering over there dressed as Queen Victoria. But she never thought this was extraordinary.
NICHOLAS HYTNER: Things have changed so quickly. Suddenly there are people begging in the streets.
BENNETT: She didn’t think she was what she called “the desperate poor.” She was above that. She regarded herself as being the social equal of the grand women in the neighborhood — Vaughan Williams’ widow and Kingsley Amis’ ex-wife.
DEADLINE: Maggie Smith has played many an upscale, high-bred role. Here she is I think a nightmare of impoverished old age — starving, bedraggled, raving, homeless.
HYTNER: She played it nine months on stage and never missed a show. Nobody does that anymore. The way she plays an audience is second to none. The audience were just delighted by her. All the things that made the real Miss Shepherd intolerable — her gracelessness, her lack of gratitude, her aggression, her lack of sense of humor — the audience just loved all that. I’ve always felt that stage acting can only be truthful if the audience is part of the conversation. That is the nature of the conversation that you’re having in the theater.
DEADLINE: What had to change for the film?
HYTNER: The performance on film is quite different, because it’s self-enclosed. With the movie, you are allowing the camera access to something which you are doing as a consequence of being immersed completely in the character and situation, which is what she is doing in the film.
BENNETT: She found the stage version taxing because she was constantly getting in and out of the van in the dark. She’s the same age as me but she has so much more energy than I have…she’s a really tough egg.
HYTNER: Sixty years or more, that career! She was there at the beginning of the National Theatre. She worked with George Cukor. She worked with Joseph Mankiewicz, she worked with John Ford. She played Bette Davis’ maid. She knows what’s what. There isn’t a scrap of vanity in her.
DEADLINE: You shot the film in and around Alan’s real neighborhood.
HYTNER: Being able to shoot it where it happened meant that its authenticity came for free. And Gloucester Crescent really hasn’t changed. We have pictures from the ’60s and except for the change of cars it really doesn’t look different, and many of the neighbors still live there. So we were shooting amongst the people who knew her from the ’70s and ’80s and they all have their memories of her. I wanted it to unfold as naturally as possible – with the one exception that you’re dividing Alan Bennett into two, and even that we tried to do without drawing attention to the trickery involved.
It was tough physically for Maggie because the part requires so much physical energy and you can see she just never stints on anything — she’s hurling herself in and out of that van and running up and down the street. So we would do two days with her, Monday and Tuesday, give her Wednesday off, and then do Thursday-Friday. She never holds back.
DEADLINE: Nick, after running the National Theatre for more than a decade, you and your producing partner Nick Starr have set out down a decidedly different road.
HYTNER: We’ve started a new company to produce theater and we’re going to develop theaters, own theaters. The premise is that there is no reason in London that the commercial theater should be confined to the West End. The idea that West End and commercial somehow needs to be synonymous felt like it was worth challenging. Our first theater will open in 2017 on the river at Tower Bridge, a 900-seat totally flexible space. We hope we will be able to find more spaces where we can build theaters, probably in partnership with developers and local authorities. We aim to continue to be impresarios, I will continue to direct.
We will be driven by the work. I’ve started to commission plays and I think the work we do will be predominantly new. We’ll produce four plays a year at this first theater.
DEADLINE: You’ve both remarked that Miss Shepherd, like the leading character in Alan’s The History Boys, is a flawed hero, not always likable. And that some audiences have taken you both to task for that. But of course, as The Lady In The Van amply demonstrates, the greatest characters aren’t always the nicest.
BENNETT: People persist in thinking Miss Shepherd was a kindly old soul — they would like her to be — and that I was motivated by benevolence to take her in. Neither is the case. I wasn’t motivated by benevolence, it was self-interest, really. I just wanted to get on with my work and she was getting in the way. If anyone had said to me she was going to be there for 15 years, of course I wouldn’t have let her in. A lot of charity I guess is like that – you do it but you’re cross with yourself that you’ve been imposed on.
HYTNER: Well you know, it’s a kind of odd expectation — that good characters should only get involved in good things.