By Paul Risker.
When writer-director Andrew Adamson set out to adapt Lloyd Jones’ novel Mr. Pip (2006) Adamson was no stranger to the literary bloodlines that run through the cinematic art form. As the writer/director of the fairytale-inspired Shrek films to the adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Adamson’s oeuvre is built on the premise of film as an offshoot of literature. But Mr. Pip (2012) would bring Adamson into contact with Charles Dickens’ celebrated masterpiece, Great Expectations (1860).
For Mr. Pip, Adamson returned to Papua New Guinea (the film’s setting has been relocated to Bougainville) where he grew up. In adapting Jones’ novel to the screen, despite the vast geographical distance separating Dickens’ England and Bougainville, Adamson discovered that one classic literary character’s experience resonated with Mr. Pip’s young protagonist: the two connected by the shared human experience of suffering and reinvention.
In conversation with Film International’s Paul Risker, Adamson offered a brief history of his journey to the director’s chair, before reflecting on storytelling as an inherent part of the human experience, the relationship of film and storytelling to dream logic, the opportunity to “experience the collision of life and art” alongside fond memories of canoes and Martinis.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
I wish I could say there was a clear moment. There were several moments in my life where I made decisions, and a lot of things very much happened by accident. I certainly decided very early on that I didn’t want to ever do a job where I had to wear a tie; not that I wouldn’t wear a tie; I just didn’t want to have to wear one. So that was a significant point.
But I got into film accidentally through computer graphics; mostly through advertising and station IDs that introduced me to film as a visual effects market for computers, which was then opening up in the film world. After doing a couple of films I realised that I wanted to be more involved in storytelling – with things that took longer than thirty seconds. So it was more of a stepped process: okay, I want to work in a visual field; then I want to take that further and work in film; now I want to tell stories. I guess there was a point when I was twenty six or twenty seven that I thought I would like to direct because it combined all of my interests. I am one of those sorts of “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I do a bit of music, I do a bit of illustration, I do a bit of writing; all of these different things and directing combines all of those interests.
Of all the novels you could have chosen to adapt, why this novel and why at this point in time?
I actually picked up this book when I was in the UK finishing Prince Caspian (2008). I read it on a flight back from London to LA, and got to the sort of climactic point of the book at 2AM where the story turns very suddenly. I actually felt like I had fallen asleep and dreamt it, and so I had to go back and re-read that. I didn’t put the book down, and when I landed I was still in this world and I just started chasing up the rights.
But I think it appealed to me on multiple levels. One I grew up in Papua New Guinea and so a lot of the characters, settings and locations were very familiar to me; I could relate to them immediately. On another more intellectual basis I really liked the fact that it was effectively a story about a story. It was a very well told, non-judgemental study on colonisation through literature, but then ultimately on the power of story and the power of imagination.
C.G. Jung contextualises dreams as being a means to solve the problems that we cannot solve in our waking state. Do you think there is an element in which films exist on dream logic?
Yeah, I come at it from a couple of different directions. Certainly there is a part of the process that you can’t explain and particularly during the writing process where the characters are talking in your head without conscious thought. This is a very dreamlike experience, and I have talked to a number of writers about it. The first time it happened to me was on the first Shrek (2001) – I was very surprised when that started happening.
I have a very distinct thought on dreams and storytelling in general. I believe our minds are actually developed to think in terms of story, and we think in terms of narrative. Story [oral, written and so on] has been present in all cultures throughout civilisation, and it is an inherent part of how human’s think. I actually believe this even more because of dreams. I have that experience where dreaming is instantaneous; where you wake up and you realise afterwards that your dream has worked backwards. I remember one very clear dream in which I was being chased around a warehouse and all of these trucks were backing out. They were doing that beep, beep, beep sound, and I had to avoid them. When I woke up I realised it was my alarm clock going off, and what had happened is that the dream had made an explanation for that alarm noise by working backwards. So I think dreams are created instantaneously, and what I think is happening is that throughout the night our mind is processing and shifting stuff; organising and filing, and if it’s not all put away neatly by the time that you wake up your mind tries to create a narrative out of the events that are present in your brain. So I think story, storytelling and dreaming are all part of the same thing, and they are just inherent to human to process.
The timeliness of storytelling is highlighted here by updating Dickens’ Great Expectations. Is the reason storytelling is timeless and continues to engage with us through such a prevalent interaction because it is inherent to our identity, dreams and how we function as humans?
I think it is, and you can look right back to the old days of sitting around a fire telling stories as a way in which we store oral history. This is very true in Papua New Guinea where the culture that we were working with was 40,000 years old, and had remained fairly unaffected by the rest of the world for a long time. All of their history was oral and they were coming to terms with story and legend which actually traced their ancestors. So I do think [storytelling] is one of the biggest exports to come out of the U.S, and it’s something that is worldwide. A film that hits upon some of these common mythical elements, and if you look at Joseph Campbell, then those stories are being told over and over again because they resonate throughout cultures. So I do think it is very inherent.
I don’t know the timeliness of it? I think we keep saying that it is never going to go away, and we are just seeing the world go through a major financial crisis; a major recession where the film industry has managed to stay outside of that and sustain itself throughout it because people turn back to story and fantasy as escapism.
Whilst Lloyd Jones’ novel retells Great Expectations in literature form, your adaptation of Lloyd Jones’ novel retells the story in filmic form. The theme of retelling stories is a dominant one and it strikes me as an interesting aspect of the film.
It is interesting because it is a book that incorporates another book, and so in its own way it is an adaptation. One of the central themes is the effect of colonisation through literature because Lloyd Jones originally started this as a journalistic article on the subject, and the fact that when we bring our literature into another culture it is going to have an effect. The book Lloyd wrote was very non-judgemental on this subject, because Great Expectations was the book that almost destroyed Matilda, and yet it is also the book that redeemed and saved her. So you are right that it was a very interesting study on that, and when I came to adapting the book it is a translation or adaptation of something that has already been adapted.
But one of the interesting things I came back to was how the theme of Great Expectations has a lot to do with re-invention. Pip has a chance to reinvent himself over and over again, and he reinvents himself with the bad, and then he finally reinvents himself with the good. Matilda as a character was interested in reinvention, and as a country Bougainville is in the process of reinvention. It’s a country that started as a tribal culture that was taken over by missionaries that became the country’s power base; then the mine came in and economy became the powerbase, and then during the crisis it became warlords. Now that all that has gone there is a kind of power vacuum in which they are trying reinvent themselves them from. So along the lines of adaptation I would also say that reinvention was a very inherent theme of the film. It was also part of the filmmaking process on this project, and so it did have an interesting resonance throughout the process.
We think of death as this physical event or a specific point in time, and yet there are those moments which represent the metaphysical death where an individual or a culture encounters change or reinvention. The way in which Great Expectations has evolved through setting along with the different actors who have become the incarnations of the characters is suggestive of transformation and the metaphysical death.
That is a big question and it goes beyond the film into spiritualism [laughs]. It could open a can of worms. But I agree with you totally, and there is a reason that the Bible – depending on your point of view – is called the greatest story ever told. It is a story about death and rebirth; certainly reinvention and transformation, and even biologically it is reflected that way. If you look at what any transforming creature such as a butterfly goes through, there is always that element of death and rebirth which comes through in so many stories and cultures. So again, I think it is inherent to who we are.
The reason why this is an even bigger question than the movie or the book is that I am personally very interested in the subject, and I recently went to Peru to take Ayahuasca. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked into that, but it’s what they call a plant teacher. It is a very, very powerful hallucinogen, and part of the experience you often go through with that and it’s not like you imagine, but you actually experience a death and a rebirth. It’s a fascinating process to put yourself through, but I do think it is inherent to transformation. There’s the idea that humanity is trying to transcend the physical to the spiritual, and that theme of death, rebirth and reinvention will always keep coming up, and has always come up in our histories. This was definitely one of the things that appealed to me about Great Expectations when I first read it as a kid, and also Lloyd’s book taps into some of those themes.
How familiar were you were Dickens before the project? If you were familiar then how has this film impacted your perspective and if not how valuable was the film as a means of discovery?
It was combination of both. I was somewhat familiar with his writing, though I hadn’t read by any means half of what he had written. Great Expectations was one of the books I studied in high school, and so initially upon reading Mr. Pip I was sort of reminded of the story, and when I went back and re-read it I was somewhat surprised by how mundane some of it is. Dickens wrote this as a serial, and as he had to write so many words a week for a newspaper publication you can tell that some of those weeks he wasn’t inspired – he was just filling the page with incredible amounts of description. I often described the experience of re-reading the book as like walking through mud looking for gem stones. You’d be wading through the stuff and every now and again you’d come upon this gem that just encapsulated an idea or encapsulated a comment on humanity so beautifully.
What I found interesting was going through one of the later reads how I just pulled all of those moments out, and found where they would apply to Matilda. I tried to find ways of utilising those quotes, moments or those cinematic moments in a way that reflected upon what was happening to her. She was finding a friend; she was finding something to relate to within this book that could help her with her own personal experience. If you look up quotes on Dickens there are just brilliant ones. Now some of those are just two or three good quotes in a really big book, but they are brilliant quotes. I think the most interesting thing I found out about him was the way that he would write with this incredible amount of detail, with these beautiful clarified moments. This is what Dickens has done throughout all of his books.
Hugh Laurie is one of the few actors to possess a distinct English and American onscreen persona. How did directing him impact your view of him as an actor?
I was familiar with him right back from Fry and Laurie (1987-1995), Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993) and Blackadder (1983-1989). When I saw him in HOUSE M.D. (2004-2012) I was already a fan, and I actually tried to get him to work on the Narnia films, but he wasn’t available. I think I even approached him about one of the Shrek films. So I’d been a fan for a while. Then when I saw him in HOUSE I saw such an incredible range illustrated; the fact that he could go from Blackadder to HOUSE was amazing.
When I approached him I sent him the book and then went to talk to him in LA. We got on straightaway which was a huge thing because when you are thinking about going to a remote island with an actor it’s important to get along. I would say that working with him was inspiring, although in the beginning intimidating. He’s incredibly smart and you don’t get away with anything. He asks direct questions and he expects direct answers, and an honest working relationship and a great friendship developed.
Again we were up there living on boats in a remote environment where there was no infrastructure; there weren’t even any flushing toilets. So you get to know each other pretty well, and I learnt that for one thing Hugh makes an excellent Martini [laughs]. At the end of the day of shooting some fairly dramatic scenes the best thing in the world was to sit on the boat with Hugh and have a Martini.
The other thing is he’s an incredibly generous actor. He was the only experienced one in the Papua New Guinea part of the film where he was working with people who had never really seen a movie before. He was very generous working with them and he also got a lot from the fact that they were reliving a personal experience; they were re-enacting more than acting. So he climbed into the role; climbed into the environment. One of my favourite things was every day the top thing on the call sheet was transportation and how the actors are getting to set. It had “Hugh’s transportation: Hugh’s canoe” because he rode a canoe to work every morning [laughs]. He was brilliant to work with; a brilliant actor and a brilliant man. So initially it was quite intimidating but ultimately rewarding.
You are working with actors who have never seen a camera before, and like the inexperienced cast of actors in Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket (2013) you would not suspect their unfamiliarity with the filmmaking process. Within some cultures is there an instinctive ability or mind-set that allows them to naturally step in front of the camera to perform?
Well I think we go back to that storytelling thing and the fact that within the Bougainvillean and Papua New Guinean cultures the oral history we were talking about took place in the form of story. It is not uncommon to get up in front of your peers and tell a story in a very physical and acted out kind of way. It is a fairly theatrical culture – music and acting and so on is very present in day to day life. So I think there’s that, but I also think there is an access to imagination that’s not filtered through the amount of baggage that we have in a more complex western society. In some cultures people are more easily in touch with their emotions, and one of the most challenging roles was actually Dolores [Healesville Joel], Matilda’s mother because of the emotional range she had to show. The interesting thing with her is after we had cast Xzannjah Matsi who plays Matilda I was trying to find her mother, and I ended up saying to the casting director, “What is Xzannjah’s mother like? Would she be willing to do it?” Healesville was Xzannjah’s real mother; Bougainville’s leading gynaecologist. She spent most of her life dealing with some ups and downs, and being a doctor in that kind of environment basically means hiding and repressing your emotions; not dealing with the tragedy and death you face on a daily basis. So for her to actually dig in and pull those emotions out; to put that on screen was probably the biggest stretch and the hardest part.
A lot of the other scenes were interesting because we were actually re-enacting some fairly traumatic events that had happened to people fifteen or twenty years ago. Going to shoot them they were halfway between drama and documentary. For instance when we flew a helicopter into the village for the first time the energy in the entire village changed because of us – the helicopter flew over and they thought it was shooting at them. So I would say there was an easy access to those emotions which I was concerned about going in, but ultimately it ended up being a kind of trauma therapy. It was very cathartic for a lot of people to go through this experience in a safe environment in a way that they could own their emotions, and we’d often end up – again this is where Hugh was quite generous – sitting around for a couple of hours after we’d wrapped with people just telling their own stories and talking; releasing these emotions they’d been holding onto. So from that point of view the people in Bougainville were very accessible emotionally, and I think that made for a more authentic experience.
If I were to summarise the experience of Mr. Pip as affording you an opportunity to explore the scope of storytelling narratively whilst also on an intimate level by seeing how it impacts people and touches their sensibilities how would you respond?
And to experience the collision of life and art as we were telling a story that was about how our values and literature have an effect on a culture. We were going into a culture that was completely untouched by the filming process and we saw how the values of the filming process affected people positively and negatively. Obviously you do everything you can to make them positive, but it was a very reflective process, and it turned in on itself in a way like you were talking about before. We are almost repeating the adaptation of the reinvention process in the actual making of the film, and the process for me was very different. My other films have been very structured and laid out, whereas this film was much more authentic and life based. We built a church and burnt it down. We had two hundred people standing in front of it and we just rolled the cameras, and often I would run in and shout a line to an actor to say this and run back out. So we were playing with the process of filmmaking a little bit, and in more of a documentarian kind of way. So it was as if life and art were colliding in a very interesting manner.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.