Interview With Susanna White
Did you read the script or the novels first - and what was it that made you want to direct this?
I read the script and completely fell in love with the writing. It was a combination of the epic scale, the emotional sweep, and the humor - which is particular to Tom. Within ten pages I was completely gripped.
Did you then read the novels?
I did. I used them as a resource for character backstory and for visual inspiration. Ford Madox Ford is such a visual writer. He came from a family of painters - his grandfather was painter Ford Madox Brown and his uncle was Rossetti. The books are tremendously visual and that was a big inspiration in my approach to shooting.
When you read a screenplay, do you see the movie in your mind? What is your process for taking it from script to page?
I'm always thinking visually when I read. Tom's writing is very particular in that he self-avowedly writes "talkies." There's a lot of dialogue in "Parade's End" and because it's very complex, part of my job was to make the meaning shine through. I was trying to both be truthful to Ford's material and honor Tom's script.
Is there a specific example of how Ford's writing influenced your visual approach?
Ford was very friendly with Cubist painters like Juan Gris and Picasso. He was also involved in the Vorticism movement which is like a British version of Cubism. Coincidentally, when I was prepping, there was a big Vorticism exhibition in London and I discovered photographer Albert Langdon Coburn who put three mirrors in front of the lens and fractured it. I thought it would be extraordinary if I could handle things like time shifts and memory by fracturing the image - like Cubist television.
You're referring to the scenes of Christopher's flashback memories?
And the opening sequence. Also, if you think of Picasso's portrait of Dora Maar, where her nose is in a place where her ear might be, I thought it would be interesting for the flashback sequence when Christopher is looking at Sylvia on the train and he's disturbed by what's happened in their relationship - it seemed very appropriate to reflect the emotional complexity. As for other visual inspiration, Ford also had references to specific paintings, like the war paintings of Paul Nash. We were shooting at the same time Steven Spielberg was making "War Horse" and I felt like we had to make our World War I look distinctive and original. For episode five, I did two things: I went back to a combination of documentary footage of the trenches, and also the Nash paintings.
Was this period of British history particularly appealing to you?
Absolutely. There were two big appeals. The ten years in which "Parade's End" takes place mark the end of the Edwardian era and the end of a feudal England and those values are blown apart by the First World War. It changed the way of life for the British aristocracy forever. The second appeal was the women's movement. Valentine is the face of the future but for Sylvia, there's no alternative but marriage. She'll be lost if she has a baby without a husband so it's crucial that she marry Christopher. When that marriage becomes unhappy she's not equipped to exist outside of it. She doesn't have the education and society would have frowned on a divorced woman, whereas the unmarried Valentine can have a job and be her own person. Christopher finds that refreshing.
Though I have to say - one forgets that what Valentine was fighting for was for married women over 30 to have the vote, not all women - and it wasn't that long ago. I was very moved on the days we shot the suffragette protest.
There's a lot of emphasis on Christopher as the "last Tory" and the tragedy of morals and changing times he's caught in...but what about the character of Sylvia? Isn't she caught as well?
I think Sylvia's an incredible character. Rebecca Hall and I worked very hard to humanize Sylvia, to imagine what it would feel like for your only option to be marriage. She was a prisoner of her time. Rebecca drew on a lot of stuff from the books where Sylvia is quite damaged emotionally. There's a scene she referred to where Sylvia tortured a kitten when she was a child and it's hinted at that she's been physically abused, so the cruel streak developed as a result. And I think Rebecca showed her vulnerability so brilliantly. She plays that she was really in love with Christopher - you see that in every scene. In the British press people were very split about whether they wanted Christopher to end up with Valentine or Sylvia. When I read that I thought - well, I've done my job, then.
Can you talk about Christopher as the "last Tory" and what that means?
There were only a handful of actors who could play Christopher. On the page he has relatively few words and is very buttoned up and emotionally distant, yet it was crucial to me that people care about him. He's bound up in a rigid set of values and a code of honor where he puts the good of society before his personal happiness. That's why however badly Sylvia behaves, divorce is unthinkable for him. It takes the events of the war to blow apart the world that he stands for; to liberate him and realize the old code he upheld is gone now. He realizes all that's left is personal happiness.
Everyone always thinks war scenes are the big challenge for a director - do you agree? Or are there other kinds of scenes that you find more challenging?
I had a lot of experience doing those scenes in "Generation Kill." They are technically complicated, and take a lot of planning. But in some ways it was some of the more straightforward work in "Parade's End" for me. We had 146 sets and I was shooting all five hours of the series in 15 weeks. The period in the trenches was actually a period of relative calm because we had continuity of location!
Are you surprised by how often people ask about women directors shooting war movies?
I am! I mean in this day and age with Kathryn Bigelow...I think men should be allowed to make emotional films and women should be allowed to make films about war. I guess what interests me as a director is characters under pressure in some way - and "Parade's End" shows the mental effects of the First World War and people trying to hold onto their sanity.
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