Q&A: Jon Amiel


Jon Amiel is a filmmaker with Shakespeare in his veins. He ran the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company and toured the U.S. with productions. He also worked extensively in television and directed the internationally acclaimed Dennis Potter-penned drama "The Singing Detective." Amiel's feature debut "Queen of Hearts" (1989) premiered at Cannes and was named Best First Film at the Montreal Festival. A Brit, Amiel lives and works in Los Angeles and has directed movies across all genres. Amiel talks to The Hollywood Reporter U.K. Bureau Chief Stuart Kemp about his dislike of biopics, why working with a husband and wife team is a good thing and why making movies with an audience in mind is pure folly.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get involved with the project?

Jon Amiel: My dear old friend the writer John Collee emailed me and then sent me a copy of this book about Charles Darwin. He wanted me to read it and see if I thought there was a movie in it. I started reading it and became engrossed.

THR: Is the Darwin story something you were interested in before the script came to you?

Amiel: Truthfully no. I have a deep aversion to the genre people refer to as biopics. It irks me greatly when my film ("Creation") is referred to as a biopic because I don't think it is. Chronology is not plot when it comes to filmmaking, and an interesting life does not make an interesting movie. And biographies are not always good sources as I believe fact does not illuminate truth as well as fiction can in film. I find biographical drama constraining and unsatisfactory and as a filmmaker dealing with such material it is a tightrope walk between hagiography and sanctifying the subject and making them extremely dull or risking inspiring ire from people that knew them. I had no interest in making a period film.

THR: So what changed in your mind?

Amiel: What changed was reading Randal Keynes' book about Darwin and realizing that in that book -- while covering Darwin from soup to nuts -- there was at the heart of it a clue to being able to tell Darwin's story through his relationship with his family and particularly one of his daughters. With Collee, we started out by defining what we didn't want to do with the film, beginning with not wanting to make biopic. Then we began working on things we did want to do, such as using the ghost of [daughter] Annie as an interlocutor and use dreams and nightmare sequences and anecdotes as part of the texture of the film. Then we knew we could make an account not organized by time but rather by emotional narrative. We wanted to make a passionate, unusual and emotional account of an extraordinary man.

THR: The story has a healthy dose of tragedy with Darwin's daughter dying. Did that element of the plot fuel your creative instincts?

Amiel: Absolutely, yes. It is impossible not to read the letter, diaries and private memoirs that these very prolific writers of their time wrote about Annie's sickness and subsequent death and not be moved. What you find when you read these accounts of their lives is the absolute present tense connection with these people you get all these years on. As a father of four (boys) myself, I found Darwin's affection for his children and, for the time, his amazingly libertarian approach to parenthood very moving. He basically believed children should be allowed to run free and let his children do just that. Right there is an extremely modern, contemporary father. Annie was the darling of all his children, that's accepted. Her death for a parent or any feeling human being reaches out and puts cold tendrils around your heart. That part of the story moved me from liking Darwin to loving him.

THR: How was working with Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly?

Amiel: Well, Paul was our first and really only choice to play Darwin because a) he's British b) he's the right age, c) he has the right abilities as an actor and d) he strikes a strikingly similar physical appearance to Darwin. Paul has this effortless articulateness and ability to drive it home for the camera. Jennifer is also an extremely talented actor. I know there are three things you can't direct an actor to be -- 1) funny, 2) intelligent and 3) a sense of irony. Paul and Jennifer have all those things. Jennifer was close to perfect except she wasn't English. Would I have preferred to cast an English person? In the first instance yes, but the attraction of having Jennifer was so manifest it was obvious casting. The similarities between Jennifer and (her character) Emma Darwin were startling. Emma was a brilliant linguist and so is Jennifer. Jennifer also has this quiet, dark intensity which characterized Emma. Jennifer doesn't shy away from a character's darkness or if it requires her to appear prickly.

THR: Did the fact they are husband and wife have any visible impact on the process?

Amiel: There's a bit of secondhand Hollywood wisdom that says don't cast a husband and wife in the same movie. I think it is sometimes true that audiences don't want to see a boy-meets-girl-and-falls-in-love-story when they (the actors) have spent months in the tabloids appearing to do just that. But this film is not that. It's about a marriage, not about getting together. This film is a love story set within the framework of a mature marriage and what Paul and Jennifer were able to bring to the party was not just a combined work experience of 40 years on screen between them but also a level of innate intimacy. It's those tiny moments that are unspoken and unwritable that tell the audience that these people know each other. It's not physics, it's chemistry.

THR: How do you capture those intimate moments on screen?

Amiel: I spend quite a lot of time in rehearsal, not so much to rehearse the words but to rehearse the character's side you don't see. I try and use rehearsal a lot to build a sense of intimacy between actors. I didn't have to do that with Paul and Jennifer, but I did it with the actors playing their children, I spent two weeks on that. And I encourages a lot of improvisation.

THR: When you were making this film, did you feel you were making it for British eyes or American eyes or is there no difference?

Amiel: I feel the moment you start worrying about your audience you are lost. As a filmmaker, you're like a man on a desert island and you write a message, stick it in a bottle, and cast it out to sea in the hope someone finds it. You don't really see your audience and knowing who they are is impossible. I really just tried to make a film I felt and sensed. [Producer] Jeremy Thomas doesn't make you worry about demographics or audience expectations, he worries about the film and whether or not you're making the one you want. He's a producer who likes and trusts filmmakers, which makes him an highly prized producer.

THR: Evolution vs. religion attracts strong views. Is this a debate that fascinates you?

Amiel: To be honest I don't see it as a debate at all. To me Darwin's ideas are no more controversial or disputable than the writings of Galileo, or the findings of Newton. I am very happy to put my hand in that particular hornet's nest.

THR: You ran a Shakespearean touring production company for many years. Where does your love lie, theater or movie directing?

Amiel: I started out initially as a very reluctant theater director. I honestly started not from some burning vocation but because, as a script editor in theater, I watched so many directors fuck up scripts I thought, I could fuck up as well as they can. I stalked away from theater after getting fired on a production of "Twelfth Night" for Trevor Nunn, bleeding from multiple ego wounds. Then I went to the BBC and after a long and circuitous route through television came to directing movies.

THR: You worked with Dennis Potter on the BBC's TV adaptation of "The Singing Detective" and Hollywood seemed to take note?

Amiel: I have always been very grateful to Hollywood. The community liked what they saw from that show and from that point on I have always been treated as a filmmaker over here, no question. I did a very long apprenticeship but I think my circuitous journey through the arts as a jack of all trades set me up to enjoy directing.

THR: You've directed several genres of movies -- from action to thrillers to costume dramas. Do you have a favorite genre?

Amiel: No, not really. The films I love are exactly those films that are hard to define. These days most films are one ride in the fairground -- rollercoaster for action, tunnel of love for romance or ghost house for horror -- but I love movies that give you the feeling you've been to the whole fair. The movies that combine all those elements are my favorites which is unfashionable at the moment because genre is big at the moment.

THR: What does having your film open the Toronto International Film Festival mean to you?

Amiel: A great deal actually. The fact that the organizers of the festival in Toronto chose to screen a non-Canadian film as the opener, which is a first for a long time, is a badge of honor for the film and me. I'm thrilled and very proud, and I love the Toronto Film Festival because it's a real filmgoers festival and has a real no bullshit filmgoing ethic.

THR: You moved from the U.K. to Hollywood. What made you decide to move to Hollywood?

Amiel: I have long been regarded as having moved to Hollywood but I still feel like I live in London and work in Hollywood. It is true I sold my flat in London last year but I try and mix and match where I work. My mother has lived in the same house in North London for the last 60 years so I still think London is home.

THR: Do you miss the U.K.?

Amiel: I live in L.A. now, so, yes, I miss it very, very much. But as a filmmaker, it is all about challenging yourself. My therapist might have something more to say about it but I constantly try and take myself out of the comfort zone. I believe fear is the constant companion of great endeavor.