Hope Gap Interview: Writer-Director William Nicholson On Crafting This Personal Film

LRM Online had a chance to speak with William Nicholson, the writer and director of the drama Hope Gap. The film covers the incredibly touching story of a family breaking apart. In our discussion, we learn just who Nicholson himself resonates with in the story and why he felt the need to write it.

Below is the official synopsis for Hope Gap:

“The intimate, intense and loving story of HOPE GAP charts the life of Grace (Annette Bening), shocked to learn her husband (Bill Nighy) is leaving her for another after 29 years of marriage, and the ensuing emotional fallout the dissolution has on their only grown son (Josh O’Connor).   Unraveled and feeling displaced in her small seaside town, Grace ultimately regains her footing and discovers a new, powerful voice.”

Hope Gap hits select theaters tomorrow on March 6, 2020!

LRM Online: So it’s always exciting to speak with the brains of a film. I mean in this case also the writer of the film. And what inspired you to write this story?

Nicholson: It’s been with me a long time. It’s a personal story and it began as my own life and my parents, what happens with anything where you turn it into a story, things kind of shift and develop. So I can’t claim it’s like a documentary, but it is very close to me. And I wanted to write it because when I thought back on the breakup of my parents’ marriage, I realized that not many people tell stories about the makeup of marriages in which they want to say both people are good people.

And I very much wanted to say that. But, if you’re going to say two people are good people, then what happened? What goes wrong? Why do they cause each other that sort of pain? So that was the challenge that I set myself, to understand it for myself and to kind of communicate that and share that with other people. Because I think this is much more commonly the case. We think of divorce as being, maybe there’s one bad person and one good person, but of course it isn’t. And so I set myself to tackle that subject.

LRM Online: So you reflected a lot on Jamie.

Nicholson: Yes, of course. That’s the thing. Jamie is me. And the interesting thing was I thought initially I was writing about Edward and Grace as it were, my parents trying to kind of understand each of them. But I began to realize as I worked on it, as I structured the story that it was kind of about me and it was about this boy who thinks, as I thought back then that my job was to kind of make it all right and I couldn’t make my mother happy again and I couldn’t.

Actually, I was very scared and I think I realized that it actually did me quite… It was quite difficult for me and did me much more, we can’t say damage, something like that, which lasted quite a long time and even though I was 30. I was in late twenties and you think a person is formed by that age, but I think what I realized is when your parents, this happens to your parents, you kind of go back to being a little child again. So yes, the more I explored it, the more I kind of found the Jamie character was really the center of the whole thing.

LRM Online: And you had a lot, quite a bit of poetry in there, which I really liked. That’s different, poetry is pretty much, I feel like it’s left aside nowadays. How did you integrate poetry or was that actually something that your mother appreciated.

Nicholson: Very much? My mother was a great reader of poetry and she had a very good memory and she could remember an enormous number of poems by her parents by heart. In fact, when I was young and I had a very bad emotional breakup, she made an anthology for me about… like in the film and gave it to me. I mean, I was too wounded to even look at it, by the time I was 21 and only later did I start to look at it. And I’ve kind of fed that idea into the story that I’ve told in Hope Gap. But the poems that I’ve used all come from the anthology my mother created.

LRM Online: You had great quotes. Can you tell me… Share a little bit about the one about, “you don’t tell love, you feel love.” I loved it.

Nicholson: Well, I appreciate because this is all written by me and it’s… this is what writing is all about, it’s about trying to get to kind of essential truths and find a way to put them in the mouths of characters where you believe it. And I witnessed my mother and my father arguing a lot and I kind of, I think understood what was happening to both of them. Of course that line as spoken by Edward is he doesn’t realize quite what he is saying. He’s trying to get out of saying I love you. And a lot of men I think find it very difficult to say I love you. And how do you get out of that? You say, well saying it is kind of false. You can’t just say it, it’s not, it’s something we have to feel.

But of course if you feel it, you have to manifest somehow that you feel it. And I think one of the problems a lot of women have with a lot of men is that men are emotionally in articulate. It’s not that men don’t feel, it’s that they’ve got very little training in how to express those feelings. And my father was very like that. And I watched that and I saw what it did to my mother and I realized my mother was behaving badly, but I kind of understood why. Because of what my father was doing. So, and all the way through, I was trying to find lines that would capture in a fairly small space these intractable problems between people who are failing to communicate.

LRM Online: There was the one that made me really teary, was at the very end and it just kind of made me think of my parents where you said, it said, Jamie’s narrating, forgive me for needing you to be strong forever. Forgive me for feeling your happiness, unhappiness as you suffer so shall I… I shall suffer as you endure, so I shall endure. Hold my hand and walk the old walk one last time then let me go. That got me.

Nicholson: I’m with you. It gets me every time, it gets me and I tell you, it is from the heart. I’ve always directly said that to my parents. Particularly the bit about, forgive me for feeling your unhappiness. I mean, we are vulnerable and to realize as a child that you hold your parents’ happiness in a sense in your hands, it’s too much to cope with. And I’m a parent and happily I have three children who are in Jamie’s age now and I carry that lesson right through.

I want to say I have to let them go. I mustn’t make them responsible for my happiness. They’ve got their lives to lead. And I think I will never let go, to be honest. I think until my mother died and she lived to be 96 it was hard. So you can imagine how those lines get to me. And I thought a lot about, as I read those lines, as I found them, as I crafted them and got them just the way I wanted. There was… One of the longest parts of the writing process, I guess writing those last lines.

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LRM Online: Well, you crafted them very well. So can you tell me about the filming part after writing some of the filming. Were there any struggles where you had to, or maybe any changes you had to make from your written version?

Nicholson: No. Although Annette did say to me from the beginning, she kind of, the condition of doing the part was she said, am I allowed to mess it up a bit? To mess up the perfection of the lines as it were. She’s very respectful of writers and I said, by golly, I want you to mess it up. I want you to inhabit this part. Do what you like with the lines in any event, I would say she didn’t do an immense amount of changing, but she certainly made it her own. And I mean, I knew I was in the hands of my actors but this was only going to work if you believe those people, and to deliver that kind of emotional authenticity as an actor, it’s really hard. And I am so grateful to the three of them, particularly on that.

I mean, I think there’s a level of emotional honesty and vulnerability that she delivers, which is completely astonishing. She did things with some of the lines, I didn’t even know it was there. So what the actors did was crucial for me. And I was in their hands and I let them drive that. The other thing that was crucial was I had a very good cinematographer called… A woman called Anna Valdez Hanks. And we worked, I kind of gave her a lot of ideas about how I wanted it to look. And she created this look all around the location, which is almost like another character, this little town of Seaford that I find that very helpful and very powerful in echoing the emotions of the characters, that pleased me.

LRM Online: Yes. I mean, another character of the film was the house.The presentation of Annette, she’s walking around and she’s picturing… I mean Grace is picturing Edward, still in the house.

Nicholson: Yeah. That the house is like another character and that’s another case… As a director and I’m not an experienced director. I tell the people who are working with me, the other talents, I don’t know how to do it. You know how to do it. I know what I want. So I told the designer, I showed them lots of pictures of my parent’s house. He went out trying to find a brilliant designer and he created that house. I remember when Bill Nighy first walked onto the set and he said, Oh wow, this is real. This is serious. It was like, set this good, I better up my game. It was lovely and has so much lived in detail to it. It’s not like a set, it’s like something that’s been accumulated over the years, which of course is exactly what I wanted. So I relied on, I rely on the photographer, I rely on the designer. I rely on the wonderful editor and the actors and I had good people. I’m really grateful for that.

LRM Online: Well, speaking of the talent the actors, how did you find them? How did you know they were the ones?

Nicholson: Well, you will not be surprised to hear that when you’re putting together a film and financing it, you need to get, some people with recognized names. So that immediately limits the field. The big problem was getting somebody to play Grace, with Annette, we hoped it was a long shot, we hoped she would bite. It took awhile, I flew in to New York to talk to her. She was obviously nervous because I’m not a known quantity. And luckily we got on and she’s eventually said, okay I’m going to do this, honestly, she took a gamble. I knew she’s an incredible actor. I’ve seen scenes of… I saw her in 20th Century Women and I thought she is the one for me so, that was the big one. Bill Nighy, I had always known I wanted and I thought I had a better chance of getting Bill Nighy, it’s such a good part for him.

And he did say yes immediately. Josh, I never even heard of. But I caught him. I was being shown several young men who were better known and they weren’t feeling right. And then somebody said to me, have you thought of Josh O’Connor? I’d never heard of him because this is quite a while ago. So I said I’d like to see him, the minute he walked through the door, I wanted him and my producer said, but his name means nothing. And there were various other names that meant more, but I just knew that this guy… I’m really proud of myself for this cause I’m not bad, I’m not an experienced Cast Director but I’m really proud that I knew he was brilliant.

And by the way, he’s gone on to do work since, not just with me, which is astonishingly brilliant. I mean, the guy is, it’s fabulous so that just worked. And I said, no, we’ve got to have Josh. And we had to fight for him because someone else wanted him for his film that he was doing, but Josh saw that it was a great part and he said yes to it and golly, I’m very lucky.

LRM Online: Yeah. I had just seen him on finishing the series of The Crown, so I knew who he was.

Nicholson: Ain’t he great?

LRM Online: Yeah, he did great. He did really good.

Nicholson: He’s fabulous. He’s also got a small part in the new Emma. Which is completely different part playing a pompous, pretentious clergy man and he’s just wonderful.

LRM Online: So this is the type of story that does happen. What do you hope viewers take away from viewing this film?

Nicholson: I want them to go away from viewing the film and turn it back into their own life, maybe their own parents or their marriage or their own children and feel that they have been in the presence of something real and true. It doesn’t happen often with movies and that’s what I want to give.

Hope Gap is hitting select theaters tomorrow on March 6, 2020!

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