Hope Gape is a cove on the south-east of the UK. “It’s where I went as a child,” Shadowlands, Gladiator and Les Miserables scribe William ‘Bill’ Nicholson tells me. “It was a place to be alone. “When the waves recede it leaves a vast expanse like the surface of the moon. It was like a secret world where you’re like a giant or a god. It was a place of escape, otherness.”

Hope Gap is also the name and location of Nicholson’s second feature as a writer-director. Bill Nighy, Annette Bening and Josh O’Connor star in the UK drama about the unraveling of a family unit after a father tells his son he plans on leaving his mother. Producers are Sarada McDermott (Fighting With My Family) and David M. Thompson (Woman In Gold).

Currently in post-production, the feature is a deeply personal one for the two-time Oscar nominated screenwriter. “It’s based on what happened to my parents and myself,” he explains. “The core story of a middle aged couple and a son in his late 20s, the disintegration of the marriage, and the son trying to save the situation, that all happened to me. Annette’s character is a version of my mother. It’s contemporary, however.”

Protagonist

“It’s very personal,” he continues. “The key thing for me was I loved both my parents. The breakup caused immense pain but it was clear to me neither was a villain. I could see the split from both their sides. I couldn’t blame either of them and that tore me apart. This is the story of two good people who probably never should have married. But they built a history over 30 years. It’s the most intense and painful and loving film I’ve worked on.”

Nicholson said recently that ever since 1993 drama Shadowlands he has been obsessed with the collision of love and pain. Hope Gap continues that thread. “Hope Gap is another film of mine that has at its core the emotions of the triangle. I revisit that throughout my career. I did that with First KnightElizabeth: The Golden Age. People sometimes say ‘where’s the emotion in Gladiator’ but that film is all about emotion, pain and how love goes wrong. Breathe is another film in that vein.”

He didn’t personally know his actors before they came aboard, Nicholson says, but he was delighted to work with each of them. From the offset, he wanted them to capture the drama of an emotional scenario, “I was lucky to get such brilliant actors. When the cast was assembled, I said to them ‘film is all about drama and emotion’. Some people think you need murder, terror etc. but I want to prove that you can have intensely gripping drama based on two people sitting looking at each other. Thankfully, the production went very smoothly. I think we might have made something very special.”

Hope Gap is the Brit scribe’s second film as writer-director after Sophie Marceau and Stephen Dillane romance-drama Firelight from 20 years ago. He might have directed more but for a bad experience on that project.

“I loved doing it and I was very proud of it but unfortunately I had a really unpleasant time with Harvey Weinstein who was marketing it,” Nicholson explains. “He was very courteous but he monstered the film. It took about 18 months and it killed my will to live. It bruised me and I went back to screenwriting.”

Despite the litany of hits to his name, screenwriting has also greatly frustrated him over the years, “There’s a lot of frustration involved in screenwriting; it’s very addictive to be able to do things the way you want. As a screenwriter, despite the fact I’ve been in the business a very long time, I’m completely unable to control my own scripts. People are very respectful but things happen which are out of their control. Projects often collapse, the energy goes out of a project and it disappears. I still have experiences where I’ll be writing and it will go very quiet and years later I’ll hear someone else is writing it and making it. It’s a very dysfunctional world. I understand why. Because it’s very hard. I get that a director might come along who wants to write it himself.”

Universal Pictures

Nicholson’s most recent credits include Breathe and Everest. He hopes to direct again and is considering writing more for TV, “I haven’t done much TV but I’m getting asked to do more of it. I think the writers have a different level of power. That’s exciting. The commitments are large, however, so you need to be careful what you take on. If Hope Gap goes well, I’d love to direct another film. I’m already planning something. I loved directing this.”

Did Les Miserables give him the musical bug? “I love musicals,” he declares excitedly. “I absolutely loved working on Les Mis. If Hope Gap goes well, I would love to direct a musical.”

Protagonist handles international sales on Hope Gap and co-reps U.S. with CAA. There will be promo footage at AFM.