“I wanted it to sound like a horror story, because it’s a fairy tale. And most fairy tales are just horror stories with a happy ending.”

When Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín contacted Steven Knight, he had never met the virtuoso British screenwriter behind the Oscar-nominated “Dirty Pretty Things” series “Peaky Blinders”, the Tom Hardy “Locke” and “Taboo” vehicles. , and more recently, Doug Liman’s pandemic drama “Lockdown”. Inspired by a photo of the filmmaker’s mother from the 90s when she was the same age as Princess Diana, Larraín wanted to understand why this hapless royal touched so many people around the world. “I was wondering Why Diana had created such a level of empathy, ”Larraín told IndieWire. “It’s a very complex answer.

The filmmaker met the screenwriter for breakfast at the Covent Garden Hotel. “It wasn’t a subject that worried me at all before,” Knight told me in a Zoom interview. “And that’s not the sort of thing I would normally do, which immediately caught my eye. Because everything should be different from the last thing you do. I always had Diana’s funeral in mind. When those doors opened and the funeral procession came out I saw and heard some Brits doing something the Brits never do which is to cry and sob and show extreme emotion . en masse. And I remember thinking, “What is this? Why am I getting so emotional now? ‘ Pablo made the suggestion: “Maybe now is the time to explore what she meant. “

Neither man wanted a conventional biopic. Knight decided, “Now is not the time to make a movie about what everyone knows about this person. It’s to find something new. I wanted to take it as a paparazzi snapshot. I liked the idea of ​​it being a family Christmas, because many of us have lived Christmas with people we don’t necessarily want to spend Christmas with.

Larraín embraced the idea of ​​the Christmas pressure cooker environment. And then Knight went and did the research (carefully avoiding Peter Morgan’s praised royal series “The Crown”). “I deliberately did not read any of the books or watch any documentaries,” he said. His final script didn’t go through many hints or changes. “There were discussions about how we got into [Diana’s] head, ”Knight said. “How far should we go in terms of what we see? Do we see what she sees? Once the script was finalized, COVID struck; the filmmakers were able to produce the film in Germany.


Neon / Courtesy Everett Collection

Larraín did not pursue mainstream entertainment; instead, he’s crafted a gripping film for intelligent audiences focused on Kristen Stewart’s performance: The Oscar for Best Actress is Her to Lose. With backing from festivals and critics, “Spencer” hit theaters last weekend in modest numbers and will hit other platforms later this month. “It’s the filmmaker’s job to make the movie you want to make,” Knight said. “And a lot of times, if you’re going after an audience, or trying to guess what an audience wants, it’s a pretty tough task and not worth it. Because at the end of the day, you have to produce something that you are proud of and think is the best way to tell the story.

The writer placed Princess Diana, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and their two sons (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) with the rest of the Royal Family for three days at their Norfolk holiday home, Sandringham House. Telling the story from Diana’s perspective, Knight delivers the ultimate nightmare before Christmas with the in-laws. Her only comfort is the warm cocoon she creates with her children. “People are surprised to see her as a mother,” Knight said. “But, of course, as a human being, she’s a mother. And that would have been the first priority, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how high the situation was. I felt it was a mission to find the human being beyond the icon and make that person real.

Knight understood that there was a particular Christmas, around 1991, “when things fell apart,” he said. “Then I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to some of the people who were serving and observing who were working in the house at the time. And from them, always, the truth is stranger and weirder than anything you could invent. “Spencer” characters such as the Sandringham Chef (Sean Harris), The Page (Timothy Spall), and the Dresser (Sally Hawkins) are in part based on anonymous real-life sources. The film opens with the credits: “a fable of a real tragedy”.

Building a path with their intelligence, Knight leapt from stone to stone for his “Upstairs, Downstairs” saga based on “real things that happened and things that were said, with the fable woven between the two,” a he declared. “The feeling I had from the people I spoke to was that Diana and the staff were human beings, and family is something very different from what we would think of as the way people normally behave. . And there was a lot of empathy among the staff and a great desire for Diana to survive and be successful. Because she was trying to modernize everything. People thought she was going into combat unarmed; she was helpless in many ways. It increased that feeling of empathy with her on the part of the staff. “

Kristen Stewart and Sally Hawkins in “Spencer”.


Some of the weirdest details in the movie come from the real world. “The things that seem the most incredible are almost all true,” he said. “I tried to merge certain characters and weave elements of things that actually happened. The fact that his childhood home was barricaded and right across the barbed wire – you couldn’t ask for more ammo as a writer. And what I wanted to do was take this person who was not well, and see the world through their eyes, which then gives us permission to be pretty surreal, to see the ghost. [of beheaded royal Anne Boleyn]. I wanted this to be a firsthand account from her about what this thing was like back then, and why she is making the decision she is making.

Stewart appears to be the perfect cast for the under scrutiny princess. “There is debris throughout most of Diana’s portrayal attempts,” Knight said. “And she had such instant confidence. Many actors saw the role and were worried about it. But she grabbed it with both hands. It was like, ‘No one else has that. It’s me. It’s mine.’ To be someone who is constantly observed means that you are part of a very small group of people on this planet who understand what it is. Because most of us don’t, luckily. So there was already some kind of connection, but then she really got down to business. And the result is on screen.

Perhaps the most provocative for Royal Watchers is the character of Maggie (Sally Hawkins), who plays a similar confidant role for Diana that White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) played for Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in “Jackie” by Larraín. While Maggie is an amalgamation of royal dressers, Knight’s suggestion of a lesbian attraction is one of the film’s many fictions. But Diana’s mental distress and bulimia were real. “I wanted it to sound like a horror story, because it’s a fairy tale,” Knight said. “And most fairy tales are just horror stories with a happy ending. I didn’t want it to be a medical diagnosis or a horror show in terms of things she sees as horrible. We see the world as she sees it. The princess is captured in the spooky castle. And she escapes.

Steven Knight Peaky Blinders

Steven knight

A production by Caryn Mandabach and Tiger Aspect

Diana’s royal bird in a golden cage tries to swallow her suffocating pearls and uses wire cutters to pierce her old identity and reclaim her name: Spencer. Knight was determined to give audiences that happy ending, even though he knows Diana’s sad plight. No parallel with the contemporary royal escape of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was expected. “It has become relevant,” Knight said. “It was quite strange, because when I wrote it, all of this with the two sons hadn’t started. And then it started. So it’s just one of those things where sometimes life imitates art – or reflects it.

Filmmakers are prepared for a range of reactions to the film. “It’s a movie that people will have their opinions on,” Knight said. “He does not point fingers at individual human beings. I feel like there’s a system in place, it’s like they’re all in the same machine and reacting to it differently. And there are bumps in the road. But I think Charles is ultimately doing the right thing. I wanted the audience to understand that we only see these people through Diana’s eyes. It’s her. It’s her opinion, it’s what she thinks is happening.

Next : The period series “Peaky Blinders” is now wrapping up its final season, while its upcoming launch a television series on SAS called “Rogue Heroes”. Knight has a few film projects in the works, and he’s continuing his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with “Great Expectations” for BBC and FX. “It’s always the same period,” he says. “They are the same characters. I tried to imagine if Dickens had been allowed to speak on subjects that writers were not allowed to do at the time: what would the world be like? He portrays London as a miserable, quite dangerous and lawless place. But you know, he never got to explore exactly what was going on in the slums of London. So I tried to free it up a bit.

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