The unknown Scots who stole the Cannes Festival

Category: Dear Frankie News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: May 21, 2004 | Publication: The Scotsman | Author: Nick Curtis
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AS RAGS-to-riches tales go, this is one of the more remarkable of British cinematic success stories. It is, after all, the film from nowhere, made by unknowns for a pittance, that yesterday stunned the Cannes critics and stole the heart of canny Miramax supremo Harvey Weinstein, who wants to turn it into the most unlikely hit of the year.

Dear Frankie is a low-budget (£2.5 million) British weepie starring Emily Mortimer as a Scottish single mother who fakes the existence of a seagoing husband for the sake of her deaf, nine-year-old son.

Its fusion of a bittersweet story with soft, almost painterly visuals affected Weinstein so deeply he put all of Miramax’s legendary promotional power behind it on the strength of a 20-minute showreel screened at a Milan trade fair. "He just loved it," says Miramax’s London boss, Colin Vaines, "and so did I. It is tremendously moving and Harvey’s biggest pleasure is sharing what he enjoys with other people."

Miramax will roll out Dear Frankie in the United States and other countries before it is released here, which is almost unheard of for a British film, but already Weinstein’s impulsive decision has been vindicated. "We have just had a tremendously successful screening in Cannes," says Vaines. "Even a predominantly French audience was completely gripped and engaged, despite the Scottish accents. It got a five-minute standing ovation."

Dear Frankie is the only British production in competition at Cannes for the coveted Un Certain Regard award, and is also eligible for the Camera D’Or for first-time film-makers. For, amazingly, it is the creation of an actress-turned-scriptwriter, Andrea Gibb, who had never before put pen to paper, and a director, Shona Auerbach, who had only one short film and a few commercials to her name. It was also seven years in the making.

"It was 1997, and I’d been sent some samples of work by writers for a feature film I was planning," says Auerbach, a soft-spoken, 36-year-old, married mother of two. "But that project went straight on the back burner when I read Andrea’s script. The idea was so beautiful, so life-affirming. I was fascinated by the love this mother had for her son and the lengths she would go to to make him happy. It was my husband, Graeme Dunn, who was also my cameraman on the film, who first suggested it should be a feature."

The story even then had a brilliant economy and depth. Young mother Lizzie, fleeing her abusive marriage, fakes paternal letters from a made-up ship to console her young son. When a real ship of the same name docks at Greenock, where they are staying, Lizzie hires a stranger to "act" as the boy’s father for a day, and the subsequent reappearance of Frankie’s real father leads to a tender conclusion.

"Andrea’s original script was bursting at the seams," recalls producer Caroline Wood. "It was ripe to be turned into a feature film."

Still, that process took five long years. "I knew we had to have the script in cracking shape with Shona and Andrea being first-timers," says Wood. She busied herself by securing £500,000 in initial funding and development money for Dear Frankie from Scottish Screen. Gibb took acting jobs as she toiled on rewrite after rewrite of the script. Auerbach made commercials, including a Gold Blend advert. Wood and Auerbach also produced two children each in the interim: "Motherhood was definitely in the air," says Wood, wryly.

Then, in June 2002, Gibb delivered their own shared baby - a finished script. Pathe agreed to handle British distribution and come up with the remaining funding - four-fifths of the tiny budget. Emily Mortimer, the daughter of Sir John Mortimer, who starred in Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things and romped naked with Ewan McGregor in Young Adam, was signed to play Lizzie - her first lead film role.

"What I loved about the script was that it shows an unconditional love of a mother for her son," says Mortimer, who was pregnant during the shoot. "It is also a very visual film and I think that too often British movies are hampered by too much of a literary tradition. As for my character, there’s something held back and repressed about it that I think is interesting. And it means that the moments that she does break out are so exciting."

JACK McELHONE, who plays Frankie, is already something of a showbiz veteran at the age of ten, having appeared in Young Adam and the Channel 4 series The Book Group. He learned sign language for Dear Frankie, but also some tricks from his co-stars. "If in one scene we were meant to be exhausted, we jumped ten times before a take," he says. "I thought that looked stupid, but it worked." Auerbach was impressed immediately by her young star’s "fantastically developed sense of self", but says that casting the Stranger, who pretends to be Frankie’s dad, proved hard. "We were at the point of desperation," she says. "Then Gerard Butler walked in and I pretty much told everyone else they could go home."

BUTLER NOT only had the Stranger’s requisite blend of masculinity and tenderness, he was also fresh from shooting Tomb Raider 2, so could match Mortimer’s box-office clout. (Since then, the Scottish actor has signed to play the title role in the film of Phantom of the Opera, and is in the running to be the next James Bond.)

Auerbach says Butler and Mortimer "had a wonderful chemistry together, and Emily just is Lizzie on film. She’s also beautiful to photograph". The shoot took just two months in 2003, with Auerbach acting as her own director of photography, using soft, warm colours drawn from turn-of-the-century Glaswegian painting rather than what Wood calls "the usual blues and gritty greys of most British, especially Scottish, films".

It was still, though, a small film with a reasonable cast about which there was no hype, and - from its director - no great expectation. "I just wanted my film to be seen," says Auerbach.

Wood always had higher hopes, but even she was surprised by the runaway success of Dear Frankie. "I always felt the story had the potential to cross over, but I never expected it to sell on the strength of the promo reel," she marvels. "As it turns out, there was a bidding war. We’d planned to sell the film at the Sundance Film Festival, but when Miramax bought it in Milan they pulled it from Sundance. It was brilliant - very exciting."

"I was at home when Caroline texted me that we’d been accepted for Cannes," says Auerbach. "I’ve never been so excited. I’m new to all this; it’s a complete whirl and I’m just riding the wave."

Whether or not Dear Frankie wins Un Certain Regard this weekend it now has the might of Weinstein and his company behind it. Colin Vaines says he expects this British film to repeat the international success of other Miramax hits such as The Crying Game, Mrs Brown and Life is Beautiful.

"There are three fantastic performances from Emily, Gerry Butler and the little boy," says Vaines. "The story makes the tears spring up, and it’s a beautiful film to look at. Shona is an extraordinary director, and I think she will go on to even greater things."