Considering fate is a linchpin for “This Beautiful Fantastic,” one would strongly suspect Simon Aboud is a big believer, but if he weren’t before making the film starring Jessica Brown Findlay as a young librarian named Bella with aspirations of becoming a children’s book author, if only she weren’t deathly afraid of going outside, he surely is now after the circuitous route that led to his very first screenplay becoming his second feature as a director.
Back in 2009, the former director of television commercials had decided to hunker down and devote himself completely to a career in features after over three decades in the ad industry and caused a sensation when his script for “This Beautiful Fantastic” landed on the Brit List, England’s version of Hollywood’s popular unproduced screenplay countdown The Black List. With a dash of magical realism in the vein of “Amelie” and a moving, transformative lead role that any actress in their twenties would lust after, the film was nearly mounted on multiple occasions with star-studded casts and accomplished crews yet something always prevented the cameras from rolling. Aboud, who didn’t have the leverage at the time to demand to helm his own script, went off to make something more manageable in “Comes a Bright Day,” a jewelry heist movie featuring “Submarine” star Craig Roberts and Imogen Poots, and by the time the rights came up again for “This Beautiful Fantastic,” Aboud saw an opening to return to his original passion project armed with the directing experience to handle the ambitious work he had created as a writer.
It is easy to imagine “This Beautiful Fantastic” going off the rails if Aboud hadn’t stepped in, with his intimate knowledge of exactly the grace notes he wanted to strike giving the film a natural rhythm as it vacillates between Bella’s big imagination and her more mundane daily life. But he’s supported by a fine cast that comes together as a family unit on-screen as well to help Bella overcome her timidity, including Tom Wilkinson as her surly next door neighbor Alfie, Andrew Scott as Alfie’s former chef Vernon, who crosses over the fence to serve Bella meals, and Jeremy Irvine as Billy, an equally socially awkward bloke she comes to befriend at the library. In their care, Bella blossoms alongside the garden that sits in between her home and Alfie’s and the film enchants as Bella reckons with reality and audiences are given a chance to escape into the contemporary fairy tale Aboud has created. This week, “This Beautiful Fantastic” finally reaches U.S. shores and while the filmmaker was at the Palm Springs International Film Festival earlier this year, he spoke to us about the unusual path the film took from script-to-screen for him to ultimately direct, the inspiration for the story and frustrating his composer to no end, though you wouldn’t know it from the resulting sumptuous musical score.
It’s still the one question that bamboozles me slightly. [laughs] It was the first screenplay I ever wrote, and I think the beginnings of this story came from when I was a commercials director and there was another director – a crazy Scottish guy – and instead of saying, “Hi, how are you?” he used to say things like, “Hey, how are the flowers in your garden?” I’m probably not doing him justice, but he had these amazing metaphors of nature that he used to use all the time and I remember thinking there was something really interesting about that. I also liked the idea of this girl who was an introvert and agoraphobic, crippled by modern day diseases, and that she was a girl without a family and had to go and find one. That’s really where the whole thing started and then through the years, layers were added until it ended up the way it was.
Bella then became the first character and then Alfie, the second, and then weirdly Billy, the love interest, was the last, who I liked primarily because he wasn’t just a love interest, but he nurtured [Bella’s] imagination and Vernon nurtured her physically because he fed her and obviously Alfie was the one who taught her to live her life. It’s really [a story] about potential because I think there is great stuff in a lot of people and sometimes it just never gets out, but it depends on who believes in you and inspires you and who gives you the confidence to do what it is you dreamt of doing, so this [idea of an] unorthodox family I like.
This film had quite a history after the script was so well-received and changed hands with a number of different filmmakers while you were making your directorial debut “Comes a Bright Day.” What was it like for you to circle back to it with a feature under your belt?
I always wanted to direct it, but the initial producer who was attached wasn’t remotely interested in me and had attached another director. Then there were numerous attempts as there are with many other films to get it off the ground. Carey Mulligan was attached to it, Felicity Jones was attached to it [at another point], Rhys Ifans was attached to it, so it never had a shortage of cast, but then I did “Comes a Bright Day” and the option lapsed on “This Beautiful Fantastic.” I was lucky because I worked with this great producer Christine [Alderson], who I really get on with, so it just naturally fell into being the next project.
Because I had done my first feature, I think I was in a much, much better position to do justice to this script. The stars align, don’t they? And you’re lucky enough to get to do something. It took a long time to make, but I always think these things are made when they’re ready.
It was because if you’re the writer and the director, there’s a point where you have to take the writer’s hat off and you have to put the director’s hat on. I had always written [“This Beautiful Fantastic”] as a very visual thing, but it was really important to set the tone and the world to try and get that balance. Someone said to me during a [festival] Q & A, like when’s it set? And I said, it’s set now. But there’s enough in terms of the art direction, the photography, the production design and the costume design to make you think it isn’t really and that’s what suspends the reality of it and allows you into something that is more escapist and fairy tale. That was the biggest challenge for me was to get that right.
It’s a fine line, so there was everything that went with that, like [when to use] CGI. In the end, I only used CGI in one scene because every time there was an original scene in my script that had CGI [it was unneccessary]. Like originally where [Bella] stood there in winter and there’s nothing there and Alfie tells her, “It might look like there’s nothing happening, but everything is happening. Underground, they’re preparing for growth…” there was a CGI scene of her literally looking and you could see all this stuff happening under the ground, but I put the director’s hat on and said, that’s not part of this world at all. So we ended up killing huge swaths of things that had effects in it and actually made it much simpler. Once I put the director’s hat on, it was easy to go back to the script and work out what didn’t work.
You still bring style to the film, sometimes in surprising and subtle ways. I’m thinking of a scene in the garden where the garden’s in full flourish and you start showing close-ups of the flowers using what’s obviously a different camera, so you take in the natural wonder of it with no CGI, but it changes the feeling to something more raw and organic. How did that come in?
That’s one of those as a director where I’m really glad you noticed that. We actually ended up shooting those on these portrait lenses, which distort everything slightly. It was very important that when you saw that you realized you were absolutely looking through her eyes. The revelation in that garden is that she’s terrified of this stuff [outdoors], but as [Alfie] talks to her and he draws her in, you start to realize she is drawn into this world and naturally as a children’s book illustrator full of these stories, there has to be a moment where that reality is suspended and there’s something slightly magical about what’s going on in her mind. So when we shot that sequence, it was deliberately so that you absolutely knew you were going through her [mental] machinations and how overwhelming it was for her to process something that was so terrifying and now actually could be beautiful.
Was this a real location that you found with two adjoining houses or movie magic?
No, not at all. That location was a location we found just south of Thames, this odd little place I had never been to. It was the first location we saw and the location manager said, “Hang on, this is too good to be true.” It really was one very grand house, and the guy who owned the house, there was a basement that one of his kids lived in, so he kept it as a basement flat. And then what we could do, by putting a fence down the middle, is give [Alfie] the grand house, and [Bella] had the basement flat, so it worked well. The massive difficulty with it was when I first went to see it, the rooms in it were quite small and we [thought] if it’s a hot summer, and we’ve got 30 crew and two cast in there and lights, it’s going to be almost unworkable.
In the end, I could never find anything [else even close to that location] – I still had that image in my head, so I was like, fuck it, let’s just shoot it there. We spent 19 incredibly hot, sweaty [days] perspiring inside that location. [laughs] But it was worth it because it just looks so real and it has that regency white, [where] it doesn’t look like today, but it could be and it’s got that London timelessness to it, which I love.
It’s funny because after we finished, I apologized to Anne Nikitin, my composer, because I think she ended up writing about 150 cues for this film. Anne kept coming back because I started her really early in the edit and there’s at least three or four cues in the film that completely changed the way I saw a scene. I’d never done it before, but it was almost like I was demanding that she could get me something I could cut to because her music is so beautifully done that there were scenes that when we did get the music right, I’d go back and re-cut a scene because it’d set the tone. Without being clunky, it could be euphoric, lead the audience where I wanted them to be, and as with any great composer, it gives it scale. She does it brilliantly well, but I did completely torture her because she kept coming back to the edit and she’d go, “Hey, listen, I think I cracked it” and I’d listen to it and she’d look at my face and she’d go, “Aww, shit.” And walk out. [laughs] So when we finished, I literally sat down and listened to everything that she’d done and I’d gone, “My God, she’s done so much.” The music was so important to me in my head that it’s no surprise to me now that in every Q & A I get in, someone asks about it and I think it’s beautiful.
What’s it been like to travel with the film?
Like a lot of directors I think, I’ve seen it 200 times [before the premiere], so if I do a festival, I only want to see the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes because I can usually tell how it’s going to play. Genuinely, I’ve been thrilled with the response and I look at it now and it’s really a game because you go to festivals and that’s what you talk about and I’m just not sure there’s much I’d do differently. That’s the best thing I can say, I think.
“This Beautiful Fantastic” opens on March 10th in limited release, including Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the Village East.