There have been many, many movies about World War II, and of course most of them are like Saving Private Ryan, or last year’s Hacksaw Ridge as they focus on the brave heroes who went off to war and found a way not only to survive, but also come home as heroes.
Their Finest, based on Lissa Evans’ 2009 book Their Finest Hour and a Half, instead focuses on the brave women back home who did their part to try to keep spirits up and continue to support the British troops overseas.
In the movie, Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, an ad writer hired to write the female dialogue (or “slop”) for the British Ministry of Information’s propaganda films they release to inspire the people back in England. Working with screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), Catrin finds the story of two twin sisters who borrow their father’s boat to save British soldiers from the battle of Dunkirk, and she faces great odds to keep the focus of the film on the young women’s heroic act. One of them is Bill Nighy’s Ambrose Hilliard, a screen legend who has been cast in a supporting role as the girls’ drunken uncle, who is not happy with how far his career has fallen.
Their Finest is directed by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, a staple of the Scandinavian film industry, who first explored the lifestyle of British women in her Oscar-nominated period piece, An Education, and who continues that tradition with a movie that showcases the contribution of women during a time when they still were treated as second-class citizens in England.
Their Finest not only follows Catrin’s journey in life, trying to get the credit she deserves from the men around her, but also follows the filming of the movie and the production changes that take place due to the war going on around them.
LRM sat down with the two lovely ladies at the helm of the picture and tried our best not to let the conversation get political:
LRM: I know you both worked with (producer) Amanda Posey before...
Gemma Arterton: Actually, I hadn’t. I worked with Stephen Woolley before. We made two things together and Lone worked with Amanda on An Education.
LRM: Who was approached first, and how did you get involved in making this?
Lone Scherfig: I had read the novel two years before I had read the script, and I can’t remember who sent it to me, but I know that Amanda and Stephen Whoolley had both found the book, and as they have a past together, they decided instead of fighting about the rights to collaborate. I read it and then I wasn’t available and went and did another film, but then they had the first draft of the script and I read that, and I thought I’d really, really like to do it. I’d met Gemma a couple of times, and I tried to get you on board some of the other films where it didn’t work out, so I think that’s how things came together. Stephen knew Gemma from Made in Dagenham.
Gemma Arterton: We made Made in Dagenham and Byzantium together.
LRM: I guess I forgot you were in “Made in Dagenham” and this movie reminded me of that one in a way even though I didn’t realize there was a connection.
Gemma Arterton: Well, I did the musical version on the West End, not the film.
LRM: I didn’t even realize there was a musical.
Gemma Arterton: There was, yeah.
LRM: Before or after the movie?
Gemma Arterton: After the movie.
LRM: I didn’t even know about that, but I’m really out of touch with the London theater scene. What was it about this character or the story that interested you?
Gemma Arterton: I think we all love filmmaking, and I think making a film within a film is quite a rare thing to do, especially that period as well. I hadn’t made a film set in that period before, which was a really amazing period for so many reasons with so much going on, so much change. The character I loved because she’s actually quite a different role for me. She’s an observer and quite introverted, and then as the series of events happen to her wake her up I think. Usually, I think women in films are a little bit more front-footed, but I think she’s a little more back-footed, and I liked that. Then I wanted to work with Lone and I wanted to work with Sam Claflin who was already attached, and Bill was already attached.
LRM: You had been in a movie with Bill before...
Gemma Arterton: We didn’t have anything to do with each other in that film, which was a shame...
LRM: I knew there were propaganda films during WW II. I didn’t know anything about the “slop”--did you know anything about this tradition?
Lone Scherig: A little bit, because way, way back I studied film, and I did an assignment about the films that were in Europe during World War II, so I knew a little bit about them. When I saw them again, I was really impressed. It was a time when they needed to do different films in England because they wanted to see films that depicted their world, and they wanted to support the propaganda machine, so some of the films are really moving and very realistic. I think to a certain extent, some of the kitchen sink tradition is founded at that time. They’re also glamorous and wonderful actors and very positive, with lots of British humor sprinkled everywhere and so inspiring. This film should not be a museum piece. It should feel contemporary even if it isn’t, and it should technically be inspired but done with some of the things you can do now whereas the film within the film is actually pretty accurate in terms of the style and colors. I thought it was fun to make that film stylistically as correct as we could.
LRM: It was amusing to watch that movie being made because I saw this movie at Toronto and then again recently, but Christopher Nolan is also doing a movie, “Dunkirk”...
Lone Scherfig: I know. I can’t wait to see it!
LRM: It was funny to see scenes from that huge movie he’s making compared to the low-budget one they’re making in this movie.
Lone Scherfig: I’m so glad that we open first, because otherwise it’s going to be...I can’t wait to see the real Dunkirk film, and I can’t imagine anyone who could do a better job than Christopher Nolan.
LRM: Both times I watched this movie, I wasn’t sure if it was based on a true story or compiled from real stories, because I’ve never spoken to the author before.
Gemma Arterton: Lissa, she is a kind of aficionado on this kind of period, because her second book Is set in the same period, and she also used to work in TV and radio and film. I know that my character, Catrin, is inspired by a real woman called Diana Morgan, who used to work for Ealing Studios as a slop writer or “ad nausea” as they called it there, and she became a successful screenwriter but she used a man’s name often. I know that Lissa was inspired by her to write Catrin, and then everything else is fictional I imagine.
LRM: Even though the book came out in 2009 and you started the movie a couple years ago, it’s very timely since last year there was this huge thing about women being paid less than men in the industry and every industry. The movie kind of shows where mindsets started to change at least a little.
Lone Scherfig: Also, the whole conversation about press and propaganda and what’s true and what’s alternative, that came as a surprise at Sundance that from when we made the film to the day it was shown, actually the same day as the inauguration, that people just all of a sudden saw the film reflecting something that’s happening right now. What I hope is that it’s a sign that the film has some value or staying power that goes beyond just telling that exact story, that all of a sudden, it became more meaningful to people who saw it at Sundance than we had imagined.
LRM: The movie also shows a potential for change, even though there are all these traditions and mindsets, someone can come in and change minds.
Gemma Arterton: The fact that a film, or any art form, is very important in desperate times. In any time! It’s opening up people’s minds or giving them inspirational hope or whatever it might be. It will be interesting to see what happens now in the film industry with the films that come out of America.
LRM: I hate to get political, but it’s a bit of a downer that we had a President for eight years who was really behind the arts and film. He loved movies, and now we have a President who I’m not even sure has seen a movie.
Lone Scherfig: What was the film? Finding Nemo?
Gemma Arterton: His favorite film?
Lone Scherfig: No, that they ordered and saw in the White House, but let’s not go there.
LRM: I do want to talk about some of the men in Catrin’s life, because all the relationships she has with hem are interesting--everything from Bill Nighy’s character to her husband to Tom. Can you talk about the men and how she affects their lives or vice versa?
Gemma Arterton: It’s interesting that the Tom Buckley and Ellis (her husband), because at first, you think Ellis is a good guy. He’s an artist and he seems quite loving, and actually, he’s very passive-aggressing and supportive, and then Buckley is the one that’s overtly sexist and overtly mocking her, but he’s actually the one that believes in her. I think it’s helpful that this movie is set in 1940s, because I guess that attitude towards women was a lot more acceptable then. One of the first things that Catrin is told is that she can’t get paid as much as men, and she just goes, “Yeah, okay.” It was just the way it was. We didn’t challenge anything then, but the men, they all have their moments of actually making fools of themselves in front of Catrin, whether they’re aware of it or not. Like when Bill Nighty’s Ambrose signs the script and she goes, “Well, I wrote it,” but she doesn’t comment on it; she just kind of accepts it and lets it penetrate, and I think that’s what helps her develop, by taking these things on, and seeing them and witnessing them. That’s sort of what opens her up during the film, and she Iiked that about the script--she’s not reactionary in the kind of the overt way, apart from a couple times with Buckley, where she loses her temper. But she absorbs things and then does things to change them. I think this sort of awakening that she has, that she’s actually a good writer, and that she enjoys her work is a very gradual thing. It’s a result of the relationships that she’s coming across as well, this relationship with Ellis--all he does is talk about himself and his work and she goes along with that, as many women do. She’s the supportive wife, but when it comes to her work, he’s not at all interested.
LRM: I hope the women who watch this movie will at least realize that if you have a choice between an artist or a writer...go with the writer. (Note: this got a hearty laugh from Gemma that made my day.)
Lone Scherfig: The last shot is almost like an advertisement for...
Gemma Arterton: Writing, yeah! (still laughing)
Lone Scherfig: That really comes from an honest place, because it is a great job, and we need the scriptwriters. It’s the most important part of the film business, at all...
LRM: They’re also the least appreciated.
Gemma Arterton: I realized that when we were doing the film, because the film within the film, the writers care so much about what they’re doing and it’s their life, and it just gets trampled on by the actors and the director...and the poor writers, nobody knows their name, and they don’t even realize they’re the writer or whatever. It made me think about writers in a different way.
LRM: That’s a great lesson to actors and directors that the writers do matter. I’m going to start the hashtag “#writersmatter.” Going back to Bill Nighy, what’s it like working with him? I’ve met him a few times, and I feel he’s a force of nature where he’s a little Ambrose where anything he says will automatically be funnier, or carry more weight.
Lone Scherfig: You should absolutely accept that and go for it, because it would be idiotic to not make use of everything that he brings to the table. His style and his humor and his timing and his ideas, but with this film, he also has some scenes that are tragic and where you see a flip side of that ham actor, and he also plays Uncle Frank, which he actually does brilliantly. We decided that Ambrose Hillyard is a good actor, so whenever he plays Uncle Frank, this jovial uncle in his waders and South-Westers, we should prove that Ambrose is actually good at what he does, and I think that gives it more depth then just having a full-on comedic, fallen matinee star, but it’s been great to work with him. It’s been such a joy.
LRM: How do you find the right tone for the movie, because it’s obviously a very serious time where many people died, including a couple characters we won’t mention. What was it like getting the right tone, keeping it light but not losing sight of the tragedy?
Gemma Arterton: Well, I think that’s up to Lone to answer, because I don’t know how you did it, because the tone is so specific, and it’s true. It’s light, but at the same time, it’s so charged, but I just trusted her to guide us.
Lone Scherfig: There’s still people who remember that time as of course, terrifying, but also, as you say, “Their Finest Hour,” with pride and love and warmth and living each day, and lots of humor. I think that’s what’s in this film that in the scenes, they can have a lot of fun, even if maybe they live every day as if there’s no tomorrow, because there was sometimes no tomorrow. There is a balance when you do a film about a period that is as horrific and tragic as World War II. You can’t just make something that’s too light, so in a way with this film, it’s not so much to make the humor land on both legs, as to make the tragedy sit well. It’s in the characters, because Catrin has a sense of humor. Buckley used to be a gag writer, and Ambrose has irony. I think it’s also about insisting on never being too pretentious. That gives lightness I think if you never feel more than the audience. Not that I haven’t been in tears while doing the shoot, but the audience, that’s where the emotion should be.
LRM: Before I wrap up, my editor wanted to ask me about doing a sequel to “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.” Of all the wonderful things you’re doing, I have to ask you about that.
Gemma Arterton: I don’t know. I don’t think so.
LRM: I remember at one point, Paramount was very gung-ho about doing another one.
Gemma Arterton: Yeah, I think everyone’s moved on now.
LRM: I do like the fact that you still do genre films from time to time...like “Girl with All the Gifts”...
Gemma Arterton: Oh, yeah, that’s true!
LRM: I’m glad you’re not turning your back on that sort of stuff, and you’re working on a new movie, too, Lone?
Lone Scherfig: Yeah, I start a film called Secrets from the Russian Team Room on Monday.
LRM: Here in New York?
Lone Scherfig: We’ll shoot in Toronto and here, right around the corner. It’s amazing. I think we’ll announce it in two weeks...
LRM: Probably five minutes after we finish this conversation, they’ll announce it.
Lone Scherfig: No, but I’ll start working on it full-time from Monday on, and I’ve written it myself!
Gemma Arterton: Oh, have you?
Lone Scherfig: Yes!
LRM: Is this the first script you’ve written since “Italian for Beginners”?
Lone Scherfig: Speaking of writers...I wrote a Swedish film two years ago, A Serious Game, which someone else directed. I saw it on the plane here. I hadn’t even seen it, because we were shooting our film.
Their Finest opens in New York and L.A. on Friday and then will expand to other cities throughout April.