By Iain Blair
Given all the recent talk about the lack of opportunity for women in Hollywood, it’s apt that for her feature film directorial debut, Josie Rourke took on the story of Mary Queen of Scots, the period drama about two of the most famous women in history.
It’s also apt that this retelling of the turbulent life of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and that of her English cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) has all the deeply emotional interpersonal drama of an intense play since Rourke is the artistic director of London’s prestigious Donmar Warehouse, where she’s staged acclaimed and groundbreaking productions.
Based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart,” the film offers a fresh take on the two strong women who occupy center stage in what was very much a man’s world. Queen of France at age 16, widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry and instead returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. By birth, Mary had a rival claim to the English throne. Contrary to earlier accounts and based on the latest research, she was a capable politician and leader who wanted an alliance with her cousin Elizabeth.
Mary fights to govern her unruly kingdom at a time when female monarchs are reviled as monstrous. To secure their thrones, the two queens make very different choices about marriage and children. Mary’s reputation is under continual attack from her enemies, who construct lies about her sexual conduct. Betrayal, rebellion and conspiracies within each court imperil both queens, driving them apart as each woman experiences the bitter cost of power.
The film co-stars Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Martin Compston, Brendan Coyle, David Tennant and Guy Pearce. Behind the scenes, Rourke assembled a team that included writer Beau Willimon, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, production designer James Merifield, editor Chris Dickens, composer Max Richter and director of photography John Mathieson.
I spoke with Rourke about making the film, the Oscar buzz and her workflow.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
I love historical dramas and have done tons of Shakespeare in the theater. I always think that they’re so relevant to the present and that they can often give you a clearer picture and understanding of “now” than of the past. So my aim was to really create something relevant, and to also right a wrong about Mary and how she’s been portrayed through history.
This film is based on historian Dr. John Guy’s biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart,” which explored Mary’s life and her claim to the throne. It’s a very vivid book. He got back into the archives and discovered that she’s really been besmirched, in a fake news way. Her enemies not only made sure she met her end, but they also destroyed her reputation by portraying her as a woman totally driven by emotion, not intelligence, and someone too sexual and unable to govern properly. So I wanted to tell the truth about her.
In a way, the film is a battle of will and wits between these two queens — Mary and Elizabeth. What did Saoirse and Margot bring to the roles?
Well, I needed two of the greatest actresses of this generation — young women since they’re two young queens. Katherine Hepburn, Judy Dench, Cate Blanchett and others have gone before, so there were big shoes to fill. And the roles demand great range, emotional complexity and that power where they can command men and the room. Saoirse was already attached, and I passionately went after Margot, who was initially unsure about taking on such an iconic character. The were both amazing. They both totally inhabit the roles.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
We didn’t have a big budget, although compared with theater it was huge. We had ambitions to shoot a lot of it on location in Scotland and England, so we could show the soft, poetic beauty of the English countryside and the extreme majesty of Scotland and its rugged landscapes.
Two very different looks.
Exactly, and those contrasting visuals really helped tell their two stories. We basically see Elizabeth’s life as a very interior one; always in court and very formal. But Mary’s often out in the wilds, on horseback, and far more earthy. We shot in pretty remote locations in Scotland, where the weather changes every hour, so I just decided we’d shoot in the rain when it rained. But then suddenly, the skies would clear and you’d get these beautiful views and vistas, which was magical. I think that made everyone — the cast and crew — just bond even more over the project. You can’t fake that sort of thing — real locations, real weather. All that in turn affected their clothes and costumes, and I think Alex Byrne did a brilliant job with that.
The film looks very beautiful, and two-time Oscar-nominee John Mathieson (Gladiator, Hannibal, Matchstick Men, The Phantom of the Opera) shot it. Can you talk about how you collaborated on the look?
I’d seen his work, particularly in Logan, which had such incredible tonal control. John has great discipline with tone and color, and the other great thing is that he has a background in music, so he can improvise.
There’s a scene by a dead tree where John Knox is giving one of his rabble-rousing speeches, and it had been raining so hard that where we’d originally scouted and decided to shoot was totally inaccessible on the day. Instead we found this amazing tree in the same glen, and John quickly lit it and it turned out so well. We went for a very painterly look with a lot of the interior scenes, so some scenes are like Rembrandt paintings with great shadow play and highlights.
Where did you post?
We did most of it at Pinewood and Abbey Road in London, and did a Dolby Atmos mix at the new mix stage there. I was beside myself to be mixing there, where The Beatles and everyone else has worked. Post took about nine months, mainly because I’m also running a theater as well as my day job — or night job, to be more accurate. We did the DI at Company 3 with Paul Ensby.
Do you like the post process?
I really love it, especially the editing, which for me is very similar to being in a room rehearsing with actors. You’re basically getting a series of different performances from them. You’re trying out different things and trying to find the rhythm of a scene.
Talk about editing with Chris Dickens, who won the Oscar and BAFTA for his work on Slumdog Millionaire. What were the big editing challenges?
He’s brilliant and thought I was completely bonkers as I’d talk out loud to the actors while we cut, just like I would do in rehearsal. He was on set with us a little bit, but he far prefers to get all the material cold without any preconceptions about how we got it, or what the actors are actually like as people. He tries to preserve impartiality, and that’s great.
The big challenge was balancing the two stories and two women, and we tried various ways but in the end we largely followed the screenplay. One of Chris’ great skills is the way he cut between the two. He would hone in on the psychology and find those moments when one woman is thinking about the other.
All period films use some visual effects. What was involved?
You’re right, and the biggest challenge was the battle sequence where all the Highland cattle block the bridge. On that day we got far fewer than we’d booked, so we had to add a bunch, and London’s Bluebolt did an absolutely seamless job. Then we had shots of Edinburgh Castle in the distance, and we had a fair amount of clean up, but it was all very subtle.
Talk about the importance of sound and music,
Working on the sound mix was one of the most creative experiences I’ve ever had. In theater, sound is important in that one of a director’s most basic functions is telling whether or not an actor on stage can be heard. Are they loud enough? Was that line clear? It’s the least glamorous part of the job, but really important. To do that, we spend a lot of time thinking about the acoustics of a room or space, how reflective surfaces might be, where the ideal spot on stage is for a certain speech or line. So to then get into a post process where you’re discussing the atmospherics and sound dynamics of the room you’re working in was so exciting to me. Normally, you’re tuning the actors to the room, but now I could tune the room to the actors, and that was so cool.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did, and I can’t wait to direct another film. I don’t have anything lined up yet, but I’m looking.
We’re heading into awards season, and this is getting a lot of attention. How important is all that?
It’s all very new to me, a bit like a dream in a way. I’d love to see everyone recognized for all their hard work. Everyone was so willing to share their knowledge and experience with a first-timer. I’m just so grateful.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.