For £23 off your ticket to LSF 2016, use discount code KTPARKER-16X
PART I – Adapting A Much-loved Classic
Writer/Director Oliver Parker is an adaptable adapter, having helmed adaptations ranging from Shakespeare (“Othello”), through Oscar Wilde (“An Ideal Husband”, “The Importance Of Being Earnest”, “Dorian Gray”), to the updated St. Trinian’s franchise. I recently caught up with him to chat about his eleventh film, “Dad’s Army”, which is set for UK-release on February 5th.
KT – Last time we spoke you were working on an original screenplay about the Dunkirk evacuation during World War 2… Now here we are, in World War 2, but with the adaptation of one of Britain’s favourite sitcoms, “Dad’s Army”. What happened?
OP – My Dunkirk evacuation movie has been several years in development. I’ve been working on it with terrific writers and Working Title. The original plan was to make it before “Dad’s Army”, but shooting anything that floats is expensive and as “Dad’s Army” only cost a quarter as much, everything fell into place for that one more quickly.
Christopher Nolan has possibly now blown my Dunkirk evacuation movie out of the water, but that’s the way things go in this business. His is a thriller, whereas mine is more of a drama and there is such a wealth of story there, it may resurface in another form – a high-end TV series, perhaps.
KT – When you were first approached to adapt this iconic British TV programme, what was your initial gut reaction?
OP – That it was a bad idea! Of course I was immediately curious when I received Damian Jones’ email via my agent, but I didn’t think it was possible to adapt such a classic. Then I saw it was written by Hamish McColl, who wrote the script of my film “Johnny English Reborn”, and I knew I would have to read it out of politeness.
I expected to give it a pass, but it was brilliant. Hamish had channelled the voices of the original characters and brought them back to life in a new story with cinematic scale. What’s more, he had extended the characters and set the film at a moment in history that gave the story a note of authenticity.
Later I discovered that Hamish had had the same initial reluctance as I experienced, but had been won over by producer Damian Jones, who has a real talent for spotting good concepts. To adapt something like “Dad’s Army” requires a deep commitment and a lack of cynicism. I’m a harsh critic of my own work and I’m moved by it.
KT – As far as you know, what part did ‘theme’ play in the writing? How did theme impact characterisation, or did an inherited characterisation dictate the theme of your film?
OP – I worked closely with Hamish on the final re-writes. I would say we took the essence of the TV Series, rather than any particular theme. The question always is, “Why make this film?” And the answer has to be, “Because it has something to say.” I find it enormously touching that all these characters, despite being bumbling incompetents, would do their bit for their country, given the right situation. The platoon is a community. Its members rely on one another and everybody mucks in. That’s what lies at the heart of this story – a sense of community – a notion we’re becoming increasingly remote from in modern society.
The film has to stand on its own, of course, and Hamish made some bold choices that make the story cinema-worthy. There’s no evolution of characters in a sitcom. Film is different. Every character has an arc. For example, Captain Mainwaring gets the sack, is desolate, but fights back and redeems himself.
Another clever choice Hamish made was to bring forward the women. Personally, I always found it funny that we never saw Mainwaring’s wife in the TV Series, but by having her in the film provides additional dramatic possibilities. The BBC was of course constrained by a low-budget set. Adding the women makes it all so much more three-dimensional.
Operation Bodyguard, where decoy invasion bases were set up with tanks made out of chip-board, really happened. This piece of history was the perfect situation for our characters. It gives them a mission to accomplish in their own charming, catastrophic way. We also made the Germans much darker and more serious than in the television series, to up the jeopardy.
KT – When casting, was it considered a priority to get the look of the original cast to satisfy die-hard fans, or was casting for the characters themselves the priority?
OP – Character trumped physical resemblance in the casting. I wanted the actors to act, not do impersonations, but as it turned out some actors began to resemble their television counterparts once they donned the uniform.
Toby Jones was my only choice for Captain Mainwaring. I didn’t want to make the film without him. He is so adept at nuanced, character-based performances. Fortunately he’s a friend of longstanding, so I was able to convince him to overcome his initial reticence about the project.
Then I had to think about the rest of the platoon. I asked myself who this generation’s equivalent of Sergeant Wilson is, and Bill Nighy immediately sprang to mind. I also wanted to cast somebody age-appropriate for Private Jones, rather than replicate Clive Dunn’s vaudeville approach of a younger man playing decades older, and was fortunate to attract Tom Courtenay.
Arnold Ridley’s character, Private Godfrey – one of my personal favourites in the ensemble – was perhaps the hardest one to cast, as Arnold was the real deal – he had been a conscientious objector in the First World War and still carried shrapnel wounds from the second. Michael Gambon has done a terrific job taking that role on – far surpassing my expectations. I think audiences will warm to him and be pleasantly surprised.
As well as acting royalty, there are cracking new actors in the cast, like Blake Harrison, who plays Private Pike. In general I wanted to avoid big broad comedy casting. I wanted amazing actors who could bring out the pathos of the piece. People tend to think the TV series was stuffed full of jokes, but when you analyse it, there were very few. Most of the humour came from the characters and the satire.
KT – What sort of response to the film are you expecting in international markets?
OP – It’s hard to predict. There are some territories that have a natural connection to the material because they will have seen the TV series – the Antipodes and Benelux for example. Previous attempts to hook American audiences have failed because they just don’t get the set-up. Besides, during the original run of the TV series they had their own Sergeant Bilko.
Everyone is looking at how well it does at the UK box office. It has a fabulous cast, which will hopefully be a draw. Dumbledore is in it! What more could you ask? There are shades of nostalgia à la “Downton Abbey”, but the humour is particularly British. Captain Mainwaring is a character in the mould of Basil Fawlty and Blackadder – men who push themselves into positions and situations far above their abilities, creating a lot of humour along the way.
For £23 off your ticket to LSF 2016, use discount code KTPARKER-16X