Edinburgh Festival: True Warner vision

Theatre directors who turn to film have had a mixed track record, but Deborah Warner isn't frightened.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When Noel Coward's Design for Living was adapted for the screen by Tinseltown hack Ben Hecht, only one of Coward's lines made it into the finished film: "kippers on toast". But before we get all indignant about Hollywood's dumbing-down of Great Drama, it's worth remembering the contribution our theatre directors have made to Great Cinema. As well as our proudly uncinematic tradition of filmed plays, Britain has always excelled at breeding talented directors who storm the stage, only to flunk behind a camera.

After A Midsummer Night's Dream, Sir Peter Hall went belly-up with the fishy 1969 production, Three into Two Won't Go, while Sean Mathias revived Martin Sherman's play, Bent, for the London stage in 1990, only to kill it on screen in 1996. For every Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, there's a Howard Davies ready to deliver The Secret Rapture.

Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream anyone? Or perhaps you'd like to tuck into Richard Eyre's leaden political allegory, The Ploughman's Lunch? "Kippers" is too kind a description for many of the movies served up by our stage directors. So will Deborah Warner, the darling of her theatrical generation, the dazzlingly innovative director who managed a couple of years ago to drag critics out to a disused music hall in the East End for a 45-minute one-woman production of The Waste Land, be the one to break this string of stage-bound disasters and come up with the goods with her first film?

Set in a large country house in 1920s Ireland, The Last September is an absorbing, elegiac ensemble piece which describes the end of Anglo- Irish rule through three generations of one aristocratic family. As one would expect from a stage director, Warner has assembled an impressive band of acting talent including Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Fiona Shaw, Jane Birkin and newcomer Keeley Hawes, as the young girl coming of age while Ireland burns. "Films by theatre directors are an easy sniping target," argues Warner. "My first feature is quite talky, but I think there is a place in cinema for words, as long as it's matched by a strong visual vocabulary." Despite the financial rewards on offer, learning that cinematic language has proved difficult for Warner's contemporaries such as Nicholas Hytner.

Like Warner, Hytner worked his way up through the ranks of the Royal Shakespeare Company, before taking his hit stage production of The Madness of George III on to the screen. Sadly, for all his "opening up" of Alan Bennett's talky tour de force, The Madness of King George was a curiously flat film: a period drama unable to escape its dialogue-driven stage roots. All too often filling one giant stage proves no preparation for a shooting schedule involving hundreds of set-ups.

Drawn to The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen's novel, Warner knew exactly what her movie was about. She wanted to make a psychological drama about the last days of British rule in Ireland; "the demise of a class and way of life that had been going on for centuries". Yet the rigorous pre-production process of bringing it to the screen was, she says, like "being taken hostage".

"The seven years I spent practising to be a theatre director at the Edinburgh Festival weren't as hard as the two it took me to make The Last September," says the director, who has just flown in from Perth where she has been scouting for a tower block on which to recreate her recent installation at the old Euston Hotel. Along with such remarkable pieces, Warner has spent the last 10 years abandoning the stages of the RSC and the National Theatre for the opera circuit. On the face of it, opera's live spectacle would appear to have little to do with the on-set intimacy of film, but Warner found instructive parallels between the two. "Something like the Coriolanus I directed in Salzburg - which wasn't opera but certainly operatic in scale - where I had to choreograph 200 extras and 50 horses and 50 actors across a huge Cinemascope stage, was good preparation for the logistics of film directing. Then there's the banal fact that opera is expensive. Once the orchestra turns up and the clock starts to tick, there's a discipline that is not there in the theatre.When I was filming The Last September, the constraints of time and money were very real. There is a sense in which you realise that you have been sloppy in theatre. There's a lot of tea and chatting in the rehearsal room, which can't happen on a movie set.

"It's horses for courses," she continues. "There's no question that this is an actors' piece, so it needed someone who could bring those performances out. That would have been hard for a first-time director who had come from shooting promos, while for me it was the camera that was the complete unknown." Luckily, she succeeded in getting Kieslowski's cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, on board. Finding John Banville's screenplay "very verbal", the man responsible for the ravishing photography on everything from Three Colours Blue to Gattaca, set about imagining it through a series of prisms and reflections. A telescope is just one of the many visual devices he uses to play with different character perspectives.

Fed up with film, Hytner is returning to the theatre, but a succession of young directors are eager to take his place. After the success of Beautiful Thing, Hettie Macdonald is now slated to direct Patricia Highsmith's second novel, Carol, while Sam Mendes has already completed his Hollywood debut, American Beauty, starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. So what now for Warner? "This loaded question really seems to mean, `so are you giving up everything else to devote yourself to film?','' she laughs, "and it is hard to answer. I love directing films and I want to do more, but you know, it depends on what one's exploring as to whether it would be better as an opera or better as a piece of theatre or as a film."

What interests her is not so much the difference between the various forms, but what she calls "a perverse fascination with the similarities". On a profound level, she says, theatre, opera, film and installation projects are "all simply about revealing the truth. I hope I'm not being greedy wanting to work in all three, but I have a feeling that way happiness lies."

Deborah Warner's `The Last September' is being screened today at 3pm as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, at the Cameo cinema, Home Street, Edinburgh (0131-228 2688)