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A Paean to the Golden Age of British Cinema

NFTS News

A Paean to the Golden Age of British Cinema

‘Their Finest’ Director & Producer Discuss Making a Film about Filmmaking in Wartime Britain

(Still from Their Finest)

With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk making headlines for its “visceral and powerful” handling of the story of the Dunkirk retreat and the flotilla of small ships that alongside the Royal Navy transported 300,000 troops back to the UK, it was fascinating to watch Their Finest, which deals with the same story but in a very different way.

(Lone Scherfig)

BAFTA nominated, Sundance winning writer-director, Lone Scherfig, introduced the film to a packed audience of expectant students by saying how thankful she was that they were watching the film in a cinema, especially as the opening and end of the film are set in a cinema and convey what it was like to watch a movie at a time when it was the main way of communicating to the masses.

The masterclass was hosted by former NFTS director, Nik Powell, who introduced Lone along with his one-time business partner at Palace Pictures, and BAFTA winning, Oscar nominated producer, Stephen Woolley who produced Their Finest.

(Lone Scherfig with Stephen Woolley)

Stephen explained that he came to the film’s subject through a book recommended to him by a friend who knew he’d like it because of his love for cinema and particularly his love for British films made in the 1940s: “The book – ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’ by Lissa Evans - was about the craziness of making British films in the time of war; it was both funny and moving. The trick for Amanda Posey, my co-producer, and I was to make the movie appeal beyond the fringes of film buffs and show it had a universal resonance. We had to examine the book for human interest angles and explore the period when making films has never been so important. Their Finest is linked to the golden age of British cinema from David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Michael Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to Ealing studio’s post-war classics such as Kind Hearts And Coronets.”

Stephen continued: “It made sense to centre on Catrin’s story and take a modern view of the time; we also took a risk and mirrored the story by using a first-time writer ourselves in Gaby Chiappe. We made sure the film had dark overtones so the darkness of the time was conveyed. We also wanted to convey the history; many propaganda films were made right here at Beaconsfield Studios at the time and some of those short Ministry Of Information (MOI) films were directed and written by women. It opened up a whole world of possibility; women were suddenly thrust into the limelight because they had to be. The MOI had to get through to the majority of the UK working population who were women; the MOI were behind every aspect of filmmaking at the time from greenlighting films to managing film stock.”

“We wanted to find a director who would be interested in all those things and who could make the film entertaining whilst getting the audience to buy into the characters. I was excited about trying to get Lone on board as I loved her films, Italian for Beginners and An Education, which Posey had also produced. The film had to be a combination of lightness and humour but be grounded in reality and Lone has done this time and again in her films.”

Lone was just as attracted to the film as Stephen was: “I loved the material. Stephen and I share a deep love for cinema. I knew cinema from that era very well in other countries and have had a career a bit like Catrin’s so I had the ability to see things from her point of view. I think seeing people fall in love on screen before they know it, is very beautiful. I really liked the writer, Gaby’s taste, judgement and humour. Once the film was financed, the script had to be redone as it was written for a higher budget but I was determined that the shoot would be ambitious to live up to its tribute to cinema.”

Lone described how they used a combination of real films and documentaries from the time interspersed with fictional versions: “We tried to do it only in a way they could have done it then swapping back and forth from Cinemascope to Academy format.”

(Lone with NFTS Screenwriting students and Head of Screenwriting, Brian Ward)

Nik asked Stephen and Lone about the challenges of working with a relatively small budget and whether compromises needed to be made. Lone replied: “You have to be very critical at script level so you don’t shoot unnecessary scenes when working to a budget.”

Stephen added: “Some of the compromises we needed to make benefitted the film in my opinion. For example, we didn’t use any wide shots of London and we didn’t see everything go up in flames. The film wouldn’t have been made if we had tried to recreate the blitz and the Dunkirk troops on the beach. I’m very proud of the film. The story hasn’t suffered and it’s told so well through the characters’ performance. The DoP, Sebastian Blenkov, is a genius – he applied a ferocious concentration alongside a talent for painting with light.”