Ralph Fiennes Gala Tribute
Transcribed by Tracey Wong
Daniel Stern: So, this tribute was intended to honor and celebrate the work of an individual working in film who has made a significant contribution to film over in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The way I sort of think about it is you look at those artists if you’re into film like I am, you look at their filmography on IMDb, and you look at their history, and you think, “I can’t believe they did all that work. How could one person do this?” And clearly our honoree tonight is like that. And then you realize how old he is, and you think, “What’s the future going to be? It’s going to be more incredible.” This is one of those film artists that has an incredible filmography and [unintelligible], so we couldn’t be more excited to have him. I’m sure you would all agree. As you know, he burst on to the public [unintelligible] with his harrowing, Academy Award-nominated performance in Schindler’s List in 1993.
Stern: Since then, he’s continued to raise the film industry standards of excellence, as you know, with riveting performances in so many films like The English Patient, the Harry Potter series, Skyfall, and many, many others. We’re going to get the chance to chat with him after a minute, so I won’t mention them all because he’ll go through them. And tonight, you can see his latest, his second directorial effort, The Invisible Woman, which was an official selection at the festival this year and will screen right after our [unintelligible] Kent Jones. So, we’re really excited. I think you’ll enjoy the evening and enjoy the film. So, for a minute we’ll take a brief look at film clips of the brilliant career of Ralph Fiennes. So, welcome to the festival, welcome to this evening, and please enjoy.
[Video montage plays]
Kent Jones: I noticed backstage that you were actually looking at the clips. What is it like to look at your work in that way, kind of in a series of free moments from all films?
Ralph Fiennes: Well, I haven’t seen any of those films for a long, long time, so I was remembering things. Seeing Liam in Schindler’s List, that’s something that’s… I haven’t seen Schindler’s List for a long, long time, so in my mind I was going back to when we were shooting it and remembering the atmosphere on the set and [unintelligible] my mind was flashing back. I haven’t seen [unintelligible] the dialogue. I had forgotten a lot of those moments.
Jones: What was the atmosphere of this film? Just out of curiosity.
Fiennes: What I loved about making Schindler’s List was the incredible energy of Steven Spielberg. It was infectious and he was really driven to making the film and he seemed to be… he said to me, actually, [unintelligible] just done Jurassic Park. I think he said, “The story of all these films is I feel like I’m making a film for the first time.” He seemed possessed, I think, in a great way. I love the energy and speed in which he [unintelligible]. And then on films [unintelligible] it seems slow and you’re waiting a long time and you feel the director [unintelligible] stuff happen. It just seemed to keep coming. I loved being on it, and you’ll see the end and his direction. He did a wonderful thing, which I liked, which he would run the camera without cutting. He’d say, “Go again, go again.” Because I think sometimes you come onto a set [unintelligible] and I think you breakdown an actor’s subconsciousness. When you cut the camera, the energy sort of stops. It has to be held, it stops. When the director just keeps the film run and says, “Keep going, keep going,” something then starts to spill out, accidental stuff, breaking through the actor’s preparation, breaking it down, and suddenly there’s more chance of something spontaneous.
Jones: And how does that contrast with the way that Robert Redford directed Quiz Show?
Fiennes: [unintelligible] I remember Rob was very specific about certain things, and he did a great thing: he took me in to see some [unintelligible] of the scene, and he said, “I want to show you some… the scene was good. I want to show you some takes, I want to show you what we think is the good thing.” And take the scene, take three takes, I think, he asked me, “What do you think? Which do you like?” And I said, “I think I like that one,” and he said, “Yes, I think you’re right.” So, it was [unintelligible]. He did a thing, I remember, which was he would say, “Okay, are you good? You want to go again?” And I would say, “Yeah, okay.” And he would say, “Are you happy?” And finally, I would say… I think he said, “Well, let’s go again.”
Jones: Did you find yourself starting to think about possibly directing early on? You had an inkling or something?
Fiennes: No, I don’t think I thought of directing. Maybe around the time of The English Patient. Anthony Minghella is a brilliant communicator with actors, and involved [unintelligible]. And I think something about Anthony’s energy as a director has increased [unintelligible]. I think my eyes opened to seeing a director at work and how he… he would say, “I want your input, I want your ideas,” and I found that very attractive and compelling. And I suppose that maybe – thinking about it – was the time it started the curiosity about “Would you like to direct something?”
Jones: When you say that he was a brilliant communicator with actors, how did he communicate? Because many different directors have different ways of communication with actors.
Fiennes: Well, first of all, Anthony had a great gentleness about him and he would continually support what you offered up. And he had a delicacy about… he had written the screenplay, so you would maybe in rehearsal or in the early takes, he would say, “Yes, I love that. I’m getting this sense. There’s such a reserve in what you do. I like it. Now, what I’m not hearing is such and such. Is there a way you can give a bit more X or Y or something?” And so… I think that’s good direction, is someone that’s saying, “Yes, keep giving it to me. Maybe, can I just suggest this direction?” I think it’s less helpful when someone goes, “No, no, what are you doing?”
Fiennes: And he used to say… he would often share his surprise. He would say, “Yes, you said that line in a completely different way to what I had imagined. I imagined it [unintelligible]” Well, cheekily he said, “I heard the best [unintelligible] version in my head.”
Fiennes: I think he meant a deep version, but… he just had an urgency about the way he would guide you. [unintelligible]
Jones: And you found yourself, actually, for the most part, choosing parts because of the director or the material?
Fiennes: I think more and more the director is really important, and I think you start to know when you have… the less rewarding experience is with the director and [unintelligible] and then you realize how much it’s a really important factor. You get casted to a role and the role is fantastic, and you might perhaps ask yourself, “The director, is that the right…” in the end, I think you’ve got to have trust. You want to trust the director. And of course, actors are usually quick to pick up something that’s not right, doesn’t feel right. That’s the nature of it: you go into a project, you go to make a film, and you have to swim with all the different energies of the different people who are working with the director. Most probably with the other actors, you have to be able to… you don’t know what energies are going to come through from the other people. I think it’s good not to put up barriers, to try and set stuff. And often that’s when the interesting stuff happens. And sometimes it’s difficult working on a certain film. Maybe you feel frustrated, you feel lost, you feel confused, and you have to battle something now. And sometimes with that battle and that frustration, something new can happen.
Jones: Well, there’s a particular film that I wanted to ask you about. In so many different ways, it’s astonishing, Spider with David Cronenberg, which is… a character that you play is almost inarticulate. He’s mumbling through the film. It is an enormously powerful performance. I can just imagine putting that all together, preparing for that, and actually doing it. It must have been a little bit of an acting challenge.
Fiennes: In spite of something that I… it was a brilliant book by Patrick McGrath, a wonderful book, which I read and loved, and a wonderful producer called Catherine Bailey. I had wanted to produce it, and early on she approached me and went, “At the moment, no director attached,” so there was no director and I said, “Yes, I would love to do this.” It was very hard to finance and we didn’t have a director for a long time, and so it didn’t look like it was going to happen until David Cronenberg. So, he wanted to direct it. And I guess he said he would be happy for me to play Spider. [laughs] But I think I had a strong visual sense of Spider and I kept thinking [unintelligible], that image. In fact, the image of [unintelligible] himself kept coming to me. And it was one of those things. Sometimes things just come and [unintelligible] imagination is principle too, I think, and it’s not analysis and it’s not too much intellectual thinking. It’s relying often on your imagination. And I remember just finding the clothes, the styling, and the original case he has. It was a physical thing, I think. It was where the imagination needs to… a physical instinct, if you like. And I remember cigarettes, I remember having smoked, and I remember practicing. [unintelligible]
Fiennes: But all that stuff happens. I don’t know. And I remember… so there was a make-up test. Make-up tests are really useful, I think, because you don’t have the pressure of having to do the performance. You can start to practice, no one is looking at it. And I remember that was just [unintelligible] and something that I think… and I think I sensed from David that it was… I mean, David is an extraordinary man because he doesn’t say that much. He just seems to… you know when he likes it, and he’s very, very [unintelligible] to quickly soak in. Don’t think that I remember… and [unintelligible] of Spider. We’d be shooting the film, and then I had heard or had met some people suffering from schizophonia. Somewhere in the back of my head, I had this idea that sometimes people [unintelligible] disturbance. And in one scene, I suddenly made a conscious decision to do this. I had never done it before. And David said, “No, why are you doing that?”
Fiennes: I think… he said so little…
Fiennes: So, I suddenly realized he was watching over me.
Jones: Ah, I have to ask you about Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wallace and Gromit, because that’s just a great, great performance.
Jones: A great movie. I mean, that’s a whole different kind of movie.
Fiennes: Well, it was very difficult. A few gentlemen who made those wonderful films, they have… I think they… it was very, very hard. They have a sense of how they want the lines to be, and it was this very extreme vocal, it’s cartoon, and I had never been vocally exhausted. [does an impression of Victor Quartermaine]
Fiennes: So, there wasn’t all this [unintelligible].
Fiennes: It was funny. I did one recording session with Helena Bonham Carter and she’s great to work with; we get each other on. But I remember… they obviously had a very clear… had a [unintelligible] image and they wanted to mantle this image with what the puppets’ faces were going to be with these voices. And of course they know what they’re doing, but… because you’re given a little booth recording, it seems surreal to me. But… yeah.
Jones: What’s the experience like for you of working with green screen, special effect apparatus? Because [they’re required] for the Harry Potter films. What kind of adjustment do you have to make as an actor?
Fiennes: Well, again, it’s an imagination thing. It is very alienating. You go on… and it’s sometimes weird. Harry Potter was… you go on to these huge, big sound stages. There’s a huge thirty, forty foot green screen, and there are all these men around, with belts and tools, and being tough.
Fiennes: And also, slightly bored.
Fiennes: “All right, Ralph? Hello. Good morning. How are you?”
Fiennes: And then I come along with long, flowing robes.
Fiennes: No, but you have to… it’s cold and there’s a screen and there’s nothing and not for the other actors… due to David Yates, who directed the last three or four, I think, he actually was great, David, because he could so easily think… you know, he could so easily just give a sort of circus Voldemort snarl. David would go, “Come on,” and then he pushed me, constantly… he made it seem [like] he was the real deal. So, despite all this funny [unintelligible] and stuff that made you feel unconnected with any kind of story, any other character, David… again, the director pushing you and really wanting, David really wanting you to explore something. Even in these moments of wand jabbing…
Jones: So, just… I started thinking about the question of directing and approaching that. I wonder, what was the [unintelligible] to want to make a film of Coriolanus? That’s a real tough Shakespearean…
Fiennes: Coriolanus is tough Shakesperean. It’s not really… it has a reputation of not being very audience friendly. I was in a play of Coriolanus on stage thirteen years ago and…
Fiennes: Thank you. And I believed… I loved playing him. Also, I felt frustrations with myself. I felt… it’s a role that can lead you… cause you to be enraged a lot. You have to raise your voice a lot and extend the passage of complicated rhetoric. And I felt the difficulty of the play doing it, but I also remember thinking this is an amazing story, and actually if… it just somehow lodged itself in my head that it could be a film. And I suppose I had some kind of unfinished business with the role, and the idea would leave me, and I had this idea of it being filmed and of playing the part again. I realized it would seem profoundly unrealistic and [unintelligible]. And Shakespeare films are hard to play anyway, [unintelligible] idea to me, even though I wanted to do it. But I couldn’t let go. Actually, my friend and agent, Joel Lubin, at the time was the person who was responsible for me getting serious about it because I had a meal with Joel and he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “This is what I want to do.” And I think many agents might have said, “No, come on,” but Joel said, “You should do it.” And so, shortly after I came back, I started it. I worked with a picture [researcher] to bring together all kinds of images because I felt it should be a contemporary setting and I’ve been in a production of Shakespeare Julius Caesar setting, contemporary setting. And once I saw this imagery come together, I was trying to break it down into what actually played, this would be… it started to come to life. And another breakthrough stage was meeting the screenwriter, John Logan. I pitched it to him and within a few hours he said, “I’m in,” to writing the screenplay. And so that was some kind of affirmation that the idea had some length, I suppose, when John Logan got behind it. And then within a few weeks, he wrote an extraordinary first draft, which was really, really accessible in reading.
Jones: If you wanted to film in Serbia, originally, instead of…
Jones: You wanted to film in Serbia, originally.
Fiennes: Well, I went on a location scout to Romania, Serbia, Montalegre, and Bosnia. The challenge was that logistically it was… no one was going to put a lot of money into this. You need people, you need crowds, you need cities, so where can you afford to do it? For a very limited budget, it can kill your scale; there needs to be a sense of scale. And I came to Belgrade. This was… I mean, there were two great things. The fabric, the atmosphere of the city seemed right for this idea of Rome, a place calling itself Rome – so not literally Rome, it’s Rome as a metacity. Any big city is a kind of Rome, I suppose, the thinking behind it. Anyway, and also it was affordable, the rates there; it worked for the producers. But I love the atmosphere of the city. To my eye, coming there as a foreigner, it has a sort of bruised quality, and of course… I feel like [unintelligible], that I wasn’t trying to set the film in any kind of post-Yugoslavian conflict. It was not that idea. That can play along as an element. It was an imagined, modern state. Belgrade was not that great, it was just a city, but it did offer us many great locations, including the Serbian national parliament, because you needed to have, in one important scene, a semi-chamber, which we could never in a million years afford to build. And we saw many council rooms that suddenly we were able to use. I think with no feat that will happen on location. We have a great shot of a semi-chamber from [unintelligible], which sells the sense of the politics of the place.
Jones: Well, that brings us to talking about your new film which, I have to say, is absolutely extraordinary. I guess I was wondering [unintelligible] was there anything about Dickens [unintelligible] the story of his relationship?
Fiennes: No, it came and surrounded me, I suppose. I didn’t… a wonderful lady and producer of Coriolanus, Gaby Tana, one day gave me a screenplay called The Invisible Woman. And this was a draft by Abi Morgan, adapted from the book by Claire Tomalin. And I had no knowledge about the book, I had very little knowledge of Dickens, and had never been particularly interested in Dickens. I liked and enjoyed adaptations of Dickens, and had read Little Dorrit and felt I wanted to devour any more Dicken.
Fiennes: But then I read this book and suddenly, actually I was really moved by this character of Ellen Ternan, and the way Abi had dramaticized her dilemma, which I guess you’ll see in a minute. And Dickens came along with it, and Claire Tomalin’s descriptions of Dickens alongside Abi Morgan’s writing of Dickens, suddenly my eyes opened. It was Nelly Ternan and her story which led me, and I didn’t initially wanted to play Dickens, to direct and act at the same time, but I have to say, working on it… he’s an amazing, fascinating man, so the hungry actor in me couldn’t, in the end, resist playing the part.
Jones: I also want to just say that the film has such an extraordinary sense of daily life in the 19th century. That’s something that’s a real achievement, I think.
Fiennes: Well, thank you. I mean, I think trying to be as accurate… I guess constantly asking myself and everyone involved on the team, wanting to get – and the actors, of course – under the skin. So, just reminding ourselves that these were people like us. They may have had different dresses and bonnets and top hats, but actually, their bodily emotions, the physical, spiritual journeys, are… which is why Dickens is a great writer anyway, is that we can relate to so many different situations and characters. But these people are us and trying not to let this idea… the period film happens over there and of course it’s another time, but when the film is set in another time, I think it has to connect emotionally with our experience and that seems, to me, very essential. And Nelly is… I know we’ve talked too much in the past about her, but the idea that a woman… or anyone, really, but in this case, a woman and a man, they’re keeping within a history of intimacy, which had marked them, and they haven’t had closure with it, and that seemed to be something that most people deal with. Whether it’s a lover or a brother, sister, mother, father, friend, you have these intimate connections in your life and then they finish, and how do you deal with what it did to you? And that was the sort of hook for me. That’s the situation that Nelly is in.
Jones: Well, we’re very proud of you showing this film, and I suppose it’s time to introduce it.