There is history all around in “The Lady in the Van,” even if you were to somehow miss the cameos from the entire cast of the last on-screen collaboration between Sir Nicholas Hytner and the great British writer Alan Bennett, “The History Boys.” A reunion behind the camera as much as in front of it, “The Lady in the Van” marks Hytner’s first film following a celebrated run as the artistic director of the National Theatre in England, and when the opportunity arose to get the band back together, the decision came easily to bring to the screen another Bennett play that he had directed 15 years earlier, taken from the writer’s memoir of the same name. Covering a formative creative era for Bennett between 1969-1989, “The Lady in the Van” also revealed the remarkable story of Miss Shepherd, an older, taciturn woman who without a true home to call her own spent years resettling up and down Bennett’s block in the tony Gloucester Crescent area until parking once and for all in his driveway, living there for over a decade.
If the story wasn’t real, only Bennett could have invented it, with his trademark bittersweetness and humanizing personalization of subtle yet profound cultural shifts in British history on full display. However, with Maggie Smith reprising the role of Miss Shepherd that she originated on stage and Hytner insisting on filming in the house that Bennett actually lived in and sheltered his largely ungrateful guest, “The Lady in the Van” doesn’t only recount history but offers a fascinating opportunity to create some on its own, preserving another of Smith’s remarkable performances for posterity – an alternately steely yet vulnerable turn that makes Miss Shepherd as much an enigma as a character as she likely was to her neighbors — as well as freezing a moment in time when societal values began to change, adding extra resonance to Bennett’s line, “There’s no such thing as marking time — time marks you.”
Blurring the line between reality and fiction by populating the screen with the neighborhood’s real inhabitants amongst the likes of Frances de la Tour and Roger Allam, who stand out as Bennett’s fictional street mates, the film finds a realism in that cinematic space that doesn’t actually exist, nowhere more so than how in captures the life of a writer in particularly vivid detail, occasionally allowing Bennett (as played in the film by Alex Jennings, who wears Bennett’s trademark big framed-glasses just right, having previously put them on for Bennett’s play “The Habit of Art”) to speak to himself as if he were his self-doubt personified. Although easily characterized as a comedy between a crotchety old woman and an uptight young man, “The Lady in the Van” succeeds at being something far more poignant and on the eve of the film’s Oscar consideration run, Hytner and Jennings spoke about doing justice to the story of a man they’ve both known so long as a friend, the benefits of shooting in the real neighborhood where it took place, and doing double duty with two Alans on the set — and sometimes even three, if the real one was there. [Note: These interviews were done separately, but edited together.]
Because there was a staging of this 15 years prior, had anything changed for you about the material in order to intrepret it now?
Nicholas Hytner: Several things. One is that in the 15 years since the play was written, Alan has written in a very different way about himself, so he was able to bring that back into this story, but also we were returning the action to where it actually happened, so there was such a strong sense of authenticity about that and being able to shoot it with that degree of concrete reality.
I’ve read Alex actually did rehearsals for the initial staging of “Lady in the Van” as a play, but didn’t commit to the actual production. Was it a change of heart to do the film?
Alex Jennings: I did the first reading of it with Alan reading one of the Alans and me reading the other one. It was a long time ago and I can’t remember [why I didn’t do the play], but I think greedily, I wanted to play both Alans and obviously there wasn’t a way to do that on stage. But I got my way in the end.
Nicholas Hynter: What’s remarkable about the way Alex plays Alan is that he’s able to explore exactly what this film is about, which is that on the one hand, this man is very weak-willed and very easily bullied by Miss Shepherd and by the neighbors. But on the other, he’s absolutely ruthless. All the time you think he’s being taken advantage of, in fact, there’s a part of him that sat at the desk taking advantage of them [by incorporating them into his work] and that doubleness of being exploited but at the same time, exploiting the people who are apparently exploiting him, is something which I think Alex captures very well and was really exciting to try and capture on film.
Alex Jennings: Well, Alan and I go back a long way. We worked together nearly 25 years ago on a BBC series called “Ashenden.” We were both actors then and that was going to be one of those jobs that changed my life and then nobody watched it. So I’d known him a long time and I got to play him in two short pieces that he wrote which we did at the National Theater and in the West End. It’s weird playing someone you know, and particularly someone so familiar to everybody in the UK, but you watch and you absorb and you listen and in both projects, the stage piece and the film, he was around a lot, which was incredibly useful.
Is there a key to playing him?
Alex Jennings: Well, the clothes do a lot for you. Alan has a rough, shabbily stylish uniform of different colored ties, jumpers, cardigans and flannel trousers and I wore some of his actual pieces in the film. Actually, I can remember the moment when I rehearsing the play and realized he never crosses his legs. He’s very relaxed physically actually, quite loose, but you observe key things and the external hopefully help you with the internal.
It’s also a very particular [vocal] delivery he has, so I had to get on top of that and try and filter it through myself and have it not be an impersonation. I’ve done a lot of real people and it’s a slightly different process from playing Hamlet or the murderer in Inspector Morse. You have to get [expectations] out of your head really and take confidence in the fact that you’ve got his person. You’re never gonna please everybody. When I played Prince Charles [in “The Queen”], [people said], “Well, why did they cast somebody who looks like George Bush?” who I then got to play.
[Alan’s] also much funnier and he’s a very sweet and remarkable person I think, which he will hate anybody saying, but he is. He’s gone on record saying that his putting up Miss Shepherd had nothing to do with kindness, but was due to laziness. But he’s a kind person, and it’s there in the writing. He laughs a lot and I’m sorry I don’t really get to do that in the film.
Did you get anything from shooting in the real neighborhood?
Alex Jennings: Yes. As you know we filmed in Alan’s house. It’s incredibly interesting and atmospheric. It’s quite a small house, but a very interesting house that Alan still owns, though he doesn’t live in it and to film it in there was simply amazing, I was sitting at his desk looking out at the van as he would have done.
Nicholas Hynter: [That helped inform the shooting style of the film.] There’s a sense of observation in the film. If you’re at a desk, really all you can do is pan [because] you’ve got a 180-degree line of vision. Most of what happens [in the film] is from the writer’s point of view, so there’s a levelness about it, and I hope a straightforwardness and simplicity about the way it’s shot. There was a conscious decision for the camera not to draw attention to itself. The camera has to behave at a very human level, so we [only] got the crane out twice – just twice – because the big filmmaker’s bird’s eye point of view is not what the film’s about. It’s about things being looked at in a very moderate way by a guy sitting behind his desk behind a window.
Alex Jennings: That was a huge help and meeting people on Gloucester Crescent who remembered Miss Shepherd and had their own stories about their experiences with us. She was awful. She was an appalling woman. But rather admirable as well in determination and cutting her own path through life. It’s an extraordinary story.
There’s a great line of Alan’s narration in the film about how the reason the residents tolerated Miss Shepherd was because “liberals in the neighborhood were uncomfortable with newfound prosperity,” so giving her support would somehow relieve them of their guilt. Was it interesting to revisit this street 15 years later in that respect?
Nicholas Hytner: Yeah. It’s a very specific street, but he’s absolutely right. Those houses were [originally] built, as [Alan] says in the film, as rather grand villas for the Victorian middle classes and gradually that little corner of London, Camden Town, [which] is where I’ve lived for 30 years, became a less fashionable place. The houses were broken up into flats and they became rooming houses. Then right about the ’60s, young creative professionals started to buy those houses and bring them back up. They were all writers, directors, publishers, people who worked in television and advertising — all people who felt that they were luckier than they deserved, so they were guilty liberals and felt motivated to give something back. When she appeared in their midst, they thought that they were responsible for her. They thought it was incumbent upon them to be generous and hospitable and the thing that’s hilarious is she never said, “Thank you.” She treated them with complete contempt. The more magnificent was her lack of gratitude and acknowledgment that they were doing her any favors, the more they reappeared, trying to be kind to her, trying to give her gifts, trying to give her food. But she didn’t give an inch. It’s putting two things together — these well-meaning guilty liberals who bluntly were behaving in a way you could apply the old-fashioned word “good,” and they continued to be good even though she refused to acknowledge that good was part of the equation of their relationship.
There’s a scene near the end where you can’t tell where the film ends and reality begins as a plaque is dedicated in Miss Shepherd’s honor on the street. What was that day like to film with all the real residents?
Alex Jennings: It was as strange moment because Rupert Thomas, Alan’s other half, is in that shot as well, and there was my new boyfriend in it — Alan’s new boyfriend — and then Alan himself comes cycling down the street. Lots of Gosford Crescent residents are in that shot as well, so it was rather sweet actually.
Nicholas Hytner: All the neighbors turned up and a lot of them have been there for decades and lived through this and remember it well, so they were very patient and forbearing while we were shooting the film and were very invested in it.
Speaking of patience, what was it like to have Alex playing against himself in some scenes as Alan’s double?
Nicholas Hytner: I can’t pretend that the difficulty was mine. Alex had a challenge, but it was easily done with what’s achievable now digitally, so the difficulty was for the visual effects house, UV/FX. For me, it was really straightforward. You just stage the same shot twice, first with Alex playing the first Alan Bennett to another actor’s second Alan Bennett. They swap around. You then pull the two shots apart, stick them back together again. All I had to do was say, “This is what we’re after,” and the rest was done for me in somebody else’s computer.
Alex Jennings: It was really great. They got another actor, George Taylor, who learned both parts and he was a huge help for me. We filmed me being Alan the writer, then would swap rounds and I’d put the tie on to play Alan who’s engaging with the lady, because one of them wears a tie and one doesn’t and we’d take turns to do the scene. I hope I made some subtle distinction in there, but the writing does that for you. Alan’s such a distinctive and accurate writer. You get huge help from just saying the words.
After all these collaborations with Alan now, is it really all in the text or is there a trick to this collaboration working?
Nicholas Hytner: It works for me because I so completely respond to [Alan’s] sensibility. He says he has no visual imagination and he’s happy to leave that all to me. I don’t think that’s true at all — he does have a vivid imagination — but it partly works on that basis [because] he does leave the staging or the visualization, whether it’s onstage or film, to me. He also says I offer him the right balance of encouragement from criticism because he always brings me in at a fairly early stage. But the collaboration is based on a total respect and admiration for the way he writes and the way he looks at the world.
Alex Jennings: I think he’s happy with me. Somebody asked him the other day whether he learned anything, because other actors have played him as well, and he said no he hadn’t. But It was a very important thing to me when we had a screening in London that I met his brother and other members of his family and they were very moved by the film.
I also love the way in the film he says it in the beginning: “Mostly this is true” The odd liberty is taken, but 95% of what you see on screen is true and I love the way that he messes with form [in the film] — that there are the two Alans — and he’s remarkable in that at his age, he’s still pushing the boundaries in many ways and trying new things.
“The Lady in the Van” opens on December 4th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas for a one-week Oscar run. It will re-open on January 15th, starting a national run.