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Mary Nighy on Making Her Feature Directorial Debut

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ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Alice, Darling director Mary Nighy about her feature directorial debut. Nighy spoke about how acting informed her directing style and her plans of working on a project with her father.

“Pushed to the breaking point by Simon, her psychologically abusive boyfriend, Alice rediscovers the essence of herself and gains some much-needed perspective while on vacation with two close girlfriends,” reads the film’s synopsis. “However, Simon’s vengeance is as inevitable as it is shattering, and once unleashed, it tests her strength, her courage, and the bonds of deep-rooted friendships.”

Tyler Treese: You have a background in acting and come from an acting family, so when was it that you realized that you wanted to be behind the camera instead?

Mary Nighy: Well, actually it was pretty early on because, as you mentioned, I started acting when I was 17. When I was about 20, I got a part in Marie Antoinette working with Sofia Coppola. It was watching her, really, because I had directed plays at school and at university over in the U.K. but I’d never … I’d acted at the same time for a lot of directors who were mostly men, but I’d never seen a female film director up close at work, as it were. And I think what really struck me was how focused and quiet and precise Sophia Coppola was and that you didn’t need to be a big presence or a big ego to be a very effective director.

On that set, I wrote my first short film and I came back to the U.K. and shot it that summer. On the basis of that, someone else over here, a producer, watched it and gave me money to make my second short film. And on the back of that, I went to the National Film and Television school over here to train as a director. So it was pretty early on, really. I just carried on acting while I was making short films at the same time. I realized that it was very useful to be able to watch other directors and see how other sets operated.

You mentioned learning from the directors you worked with as an actor. So in that way, how else has your acting experience aided you as a director so far?

Well, I think it gives you a huge respect for actors and an awareness of their vulnerability and how exposing it is to do their job. I was very struck when I was training with eight other student directors, all of whom [are] hugely talented, but it’s just interesting because some of those guys hadn’t acted and they would speak about actors in a very casual way and say, “Oh, you can get an actor to do that, it’s fine.” And I would sort of think about the vulnerability of that and how difficult it could be from having done it a little bit. So that was one aspect. I think the other thing was [that] working professionally and being on different sets gave me a real insight into the leadership qualities and the different ways of leading from different directors and different atmospheres on set and what that did to the work that was created.

Because I do think that the environment in which one works — and I’d say this is true of crew members and in post-production as much as it is during shooting — really can impact whether people do their best work or not. Also the kinds of direction that I was receiving as an actor, like notes that would be very, very abstract. I think one director said to me, “In this scene, you are like innocence portrayed.” And I thought, “How on Earth do you play that?” So I I learned a bit about how concrete you have to be also when speaking to actors.

One thing that really impressed me about the movie is that despite this being your feature debut, it’s very confidently shot. I know you’ve done shorts and TV, so what was the biggest challenge you faced on working on a larger-scale movie like this? Because it turned out so great.

Oh, thank you so much, Tyler. I was very nervous about time and I think one of the benefits of working in TV — certainly in the U.K., which is my experience, I haven’t worked in the States in TV yet — is that you have a huge machine behind you. You don’t get to exercise your own voice as much as a filmmaker, but you do have a lot of support. I was making shows for the BBC and for HBO and so you have these very experienced crews … you have a whole mechanism behind you. I think what was exciting and nerve-wracking a little bit about Alice, Darling was that I was coming out only four weeks before we shot. I was in quarantine for two weeks and I only had two weeks physical prep I didn’t know any of the heads of department before I got to set.

I did a lot of preparation in remote over Zoom with the director of photography, Mike McLaughlin. He and I were able to develop a whole language through long Zoom calls and sharing lots of references and films that we loved and talking about the visual language, but it’s not quite the same as meeting that person and walking around the locations with them and looking at the spaces. So I think that was a real challenge. Also, I think the sense of working with a star like Anna [Kendrick] … of course somebody so gifted really makes you want to be on your best game. I was very aware of that and I was also aware that it was going to be a challenging shoot because of the subject matter and because it was shot during Covid and because there was limited time. So I think all of those things were on my mind before I began it.

You spoke about the vulnerability of actors and Anna gives such a wonderful performance here. As you mentioned, this is difficult subject matter and it’s really resonated with people so far. So how was it collaborating with Anna in making sure she was able to give that performance because she really wows in this?

I think her performance is extraordinary and I’m so proud of her and proud of all the cast, actually. I think that Wunmi Mosaku, who plays Sophie, and Kaniehtiio Horn, who plays Tess, and Charlie Carrick, who plays Simon … I think they’ve done extraordinary work and they were incredibly open and generous, actually, in the process — all of them. I think with Anna, I really valued all our conversations before we got to set because, a bit like my work with the DP, Mike McLaughlin, Anna and I spoke a lot over Zoom before we got to set and she offered some really brilliant insights into the psychology, particularly of the Simon character, actually, and spoke about the kind of language he might use to manipulate her, which I found completely interesting. She spoke about how he would see himself as the victim and that he might weaponize the language of therapy to make Alice feel as though she was the perpetrator.

I think it’s very contemporary. I feel like we’ve seen films where the antagonist is very aggressive and the abusive partner is terrifying, but it really feels quite modern to see somebody describe themself as the victim when, in fact, they are the person who’s controlling the partner. Simon is the one who’s controlling Alice. He’s the one who’s taking away her autonomy, who’s gaslighting her. But the way he describes it to her and what Charlie Carrick and I discussed, was that he genuinely believes that she is the one who is doing the damage to him.

I was so impressed by that aspect because Charlie does such a good job in this movie with his intensity as well. Because I could see a lesser performance take it a step further and seem over the top, but it’s managed to be balanced and realistic throughout.

Oh, I’m so glad you said that because I am a real fan of Charlie and a real fan of how nuanced his work is. I think one of the things that really made me want to cast him is that, at the audition stage, I asked him to give me completely different versions of the performance. I would give him the same scene and I’d say, “Now I want you to absolutely terrify me with it this time.” And then I’d say, “Let’s do it again, and I want you to be really reassuring and coaxing and almost seductive with it.” I think a lot of actors would might balk at that because you’re really putting yourself in the hands of the director. He did question me about that at points and say, “I’m giving you such a wide range of performances here, how is this all going to come together?” And I remember Kaniehtiio Horn, who plays Tess, looked at Charlie and very much like Tess said, “Well, you just have to trust Mary.”

But I think it does show huge generosity and huge confidence on his part that he was willing to do that. And also what was great about Charlie is that I think he’s right that, when you’re an actor, you can’t judge the character. I think when people watch the film, sometimes they say, “Oh, he’s such an asshole, etc.,” and Charlie never did that when he was playing the part. He was always trying to see Simon from the inside and trying to have insight into why he behaves the way he behaves, which I think is really useful when you’re playing that kind of part.

This is such an exciting time for your whole family. Your father Bill is just being celebrated so much for his performance in Living. How incredible has it been going through this and then seeing so much appreciation for your father and him getting his flowers around the same time period?

It’s so wonderful. One of the best bits was that Alice, Darling premiered at TIFF in September in a gala showing there and my father was there at the same time with Living. So we were able to have tea together and share in it. We were a long way from home, but we were there together. I think it’s funny because I remember him being so nervous to watch Alice, Darling because it was in the Roy Thompson Hall, which is a huge theater — I think it’s 2000 seats or more — [and] he said, “I was so worried. I was so worried.” He’d seen the film and loved the film, but I had to do an introduction before it. When I walked out onto stage, he said he just was so nervous for me. He said, “But then as soon as you started talking, I knew it was going to be okay,”

Would you want to collaborate with your father on a future project?

Actually, very much so. He and I have got a script together, which we are very close to being ready to shoot.

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