British Film Duo on Capturing Zeitgeist With Elizabeth Taylor Biopic

Courtesy of @WANDAEL
"It was very much her private passion," says Bertie (right) of Elizabeth Taylor’s AIDS activism.

Bert & Bertie, the directors behind the biopic 'A Special Relationship,' also discuss the coming-of-age comedy- drama 'Troop Zero,' Taylor’s vital role in bringing AIDS out of the shadows and why they insist of calling themselves "the Berts."

Packing the sort of collective Oscar-winning power rarely seen at AFM, A Special Relationship was one of the buzziest new projects announced as international buyers packed their sunscreen for Santa Monica. From See-Saw Films (behind best picture winner The King’s Speech) and writer Simon Beaufoy (best picture winner Slumdog Millionaire), the biopic will see Rachel Weisz (Oscar winner for The Constant Gardener) play screen icon Elizabeth Taylor (a two-time Oscar winner herself). Unlike previous cinematic examinations of Taylor’s life, A Special Relationship will shift the lens away from her multiple marriages to her crusading role in shining a light on the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In the director chairs are rising British filmmaking duo Bert & Bertie, a collective name for longtime creative collaborators Amber Finlayson (Bert) and Katie Ellwood (Bertie).

Speaking to THR, the duo discuss getting handpicked by See-Saw’s Iain Canning after their second feature, the coming-of-age comedy- drama Troop Zero, bowed in Sundance; Taylor’s vital role in bringing AIDS out of the shadows; and why they insist of calling themselves "the Berts."

How did A Special Relationship come your way?

BERTIE Troop Zero closed Sundance. But prior to the closing night, we had one press and industry screening, which [See-Saw co-founder] Iain Canning went to. He was leaving town, I think the next day, and he said he must have breakfast with the Berts. So he tracked us down. And his words were that the feeling he got at the end of Troop Zero was the feeling he wanted at the end of A Special Relationship.

Did you have any involvement in the script or is that Simon Beaufoy’s domain?

BERTIE We came to it as a first draft very, very early. We read the script and had some ideas and, luckily enough, were in London at the time, so we all sat down and talked about them. It was really wonderful to have a writer who was very responsive and willing to talk about things and share ideas. From there we were all on the same page about where the film should be and where we wanted to take it.

At what point did Rachel come on board? Was she the first choice to play Elizabeth Taylor?

BERT We came to it knowing that she was already passionate about it. And she knew about the project. Some other people were being pushed by various agents and what have you, but for us, we were like, it is Rachel — and not only because there is a kind of facial likeness, which makes our job easier. When we met Rachel and discussed it, there was this instant collaborative feeling among all of us, which was great.

So this project definitely wasn’t hastily put together to take advantage of the success of films such as Judy?

BERTIE Ha, no. Simon has been doing interviews and working on this with Iain for quite some time.

BERT There’s a real zeitgeist at the moment about telling female stories, especially about people that actually changed things culturally or within our society. And I think the interesting thing about Elizabeth Taylor is you forget what a significant impact she had. She was the first woman to be paid fairly and equally. She was the first female actor to be paid more than a million. She broke new ground.

How much were you aware of her AIDS activism?

BERTIE We knew she was a slight public-facing figure about the subject, but not the extent to which it poured into her life. She walked dogs of people who were suffering from AIDS who couldn’t walk their dogs, let men who were HIV positive and had been kicked out of their homes stay in her house. I mean, it wasn’t like Princess Diana, where the cameras were always rolling on what she was doing.

Your other two features have had comedy elements. Is this going to be funny, or is it not that sort of film?

BERT Absolutely. That’s the interesting thing about the tone that Simon’s created. Elizabeth Taylor in the film is cutting and dry and funny, and there’s a slight kind of surreality to her world and absurdity to her existence. And then you kind of get sideswiped by the severity of what she steps into.

What’s the story behind Bert & Bertie? Where did those names come from?

BERT It’s a long story that those inner-circle people get to find out. We have to keep something to ourselves.

BERTIE Maybe on the second interview

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 10 daily issue at the American Film Market.