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The key to unlocking the mystery of who Beatrix Potter was lies in the pages of her books, as actress Renee Zellweger and director Chris Noonan found when they sought to tackle the life story of the author whose works have endured as classics of children’s literature for more than 100 years.
Zellweger and Noonan had to take creative license for their Weinstein Co. biopic “Miss Potter,” which opens Dec. 29, but they tried hard to “present a responsible picture of her,” Zellweger said Saturday at a screening of “Potter” hosted by Back Stage and The Hollywood Reporter at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.
“I admired her and had such affection for her; I really liked her,” Zellweger said of Potter, who created Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny and other classic characters. “I was so fascinated by her and wanted to learn more about her. But she continued to be a mystery to me. The more research I did, the less I thought I actually knew who she might be. There’s an abundance of material on her, but so much of it has contradictory accounts of her.
“It was interesting as an actress, trying to present a responsible picture of her from the materials I had. … The scary part was trying to be responsible and make responsible decisions about the choices that you make on a daily basis that might reflect the kind of person she was,” Zellweger added. “I didn’t want to disappoint a whole lot of Potter aficionados.”
Zellweger said she grew more fascinated with Potter as she dove into her research. The most helpful materials they found were Potter’s books and journals, Zellweger said.
“There is no voice recording of her,” she said. “You have to imagine what kind of a person she was to have such a sense of humor and a dark wit. Also, understanding what was going on in her world at the time she wrote the books was very helpful. She was an extraordinary woman. When I read the script, I was a little shocked to realize it wasn’t fiction.”
Zellweger and Noonan had high praise for the “Potter” script, penned by Richard Maltby Jr. Both cited it as a key factor in their decision to commit to the film. Noonan hadn’t directed a film in a decade, since 1995’s “Babe.” “Potter” also features Ewan McGregor and Emily Watson.
“I had a lot of scripts come to me in those intervening years. Very few of them actually moved me,” Noonan said. “During those years, there were times I thought, ‘Have I waited too long?’ But it takes two-and-a-half years of your life to make a movie, and I didn’t want to spend my time working on something I didn’t believe in. I read this script and was brought to tears by it.”
For Noonan, the trick was to make a film that reflected the sweetness of its subject matter — Potter and her beloved characters — without making its characters too sentimental or two-dimensional. It was something that Noonan kept top of mind during the shoot, he said.
“I have a disease that makes me allergic to sentimentality, and whenever anything ap-proaches it, I get uncomfortable,” Noonan said. “But with a cast this good, they all demand a certain honesty in the way each of them performs with each other. And that honesty helped us avoid a lot of pitfalls. This is a very emotional story, and I felt strongly that you don’t need to embroider it. Telling it straight, without excessive displays of emotions, is going to bring a big emotional response from an audience. … I’m just lucky I had a cast that didn’t have to rely on the crutches or devices some actors use to demonstrate that they are having an emotional reaction: sobbing into handkerchiefs and such.”
Shooting “Potter” on location in London gave the film an invaluable authenticity, Noonan added.
“So much of London is like a movie backlot; it feels like it’s been set there for us,” he said. “There are whole areas of London streets that still have Victorian lighting; I think they keep it there to keep the tourists happy.”
One challenge with the late-1880s setting of the film was to accurately depict the formalities that upper-crust Britons used with one another in that era. Cast and crew members were put through the equivalent of a “Potter” finishing school, Noonan said.
“We had a couple of weeks of workshops on how to relate to one another. There’s all the differences between masters and servants and how the greetings are differentiated and how physical actions can show different levels of respect,” Noonan said. “All the cast and some of the major crew participated and went through this process, so we were all on the same page.”
Jenelle Riley is national film and TV editor at Back Stage.
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