Mr Pip is a film based on Lloyd Jones’s award-winning novel. Set against the backdrop of civil war in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, it stars British actor Hugh Laurie. We caught up with the film’s director Andrew Adamson ahead of the movie’s release.
You lived in Papua New Guinea from ages 11 to 18. What else attracted you to this project?
Really it’s a story about story. At a certain level there’s certainly aspects about the comment on colonialism through literature and so on, which was intellectually I think really interesting. But more than that, as someone who tells stories, it’s very rare that you find a story that illustrates the power of story so much.
I think storytelling is inherent to the way we think; we dream in stories … it’s integral to how humans function, and this book was really about how powerful stories can be – for good and bad, how they can affect you positively and negatively. And I found that very seductive.
When you first read Mr Pip, was it a book you felt would translate well to the big screen?
I thought it was going to be easier to translate than it ended up being. When I read it, partly I guess because I could visualise it, I knew characters from my childhood. I thought it was going to be a relatively easy adaptation. And it ended up being much harder than I thought. I think Lloyd [Jones] is very subtle with his prose, and he writes so beautifully that he can lead you along and you don’t realise the journeys and the twists and turns he’s taking you on, and that he’s moved around in time and place, and you’ve moved through internal thoughts and external moments. And then when you come and break it down and try and turn it into a screenplay, you go, hang on, I can’t do this. I’ve got to be a little bit more linear. So it was quite challenging.
It’s a universal story about the power of fiction and finding your place in the world, but it’s such a specific story in terms of time and place. Was that hard to balance?
Very hard to balance. I have a lot more Great Expectations material than is in the movie. I knew that going in, even in the scripting phase, it’s like how much of Great Expectations do you tell, and at what point does it become like you’re trying to tell two stories? If you tell too much it’s overly weighted, if you don’t tell enough there’s a lot of questions.
Also by the time I was making the film I knew Great Expectations fairly inside out, so it was very hard for me to judge how much was necessary. So I had to put a bit more in and show it to a few people, take some out, show it to a few people, just go through that over a period of time.
You were filming on location on Bougainville Island. What sort of challenges did that throw up?
We went in very prepared, but there’s things you just don’t expect. Our containers didn’t show up. The guys were making dolly tracks out of old aluminium ladders. The construction team … made everything out of local material, in a local way, which actually added to the texture and authenticity.
There were cultural things we didn’t anticipate. There was a scene which had a big flute and bamboo band in it, and I’d brought in some people from the next island. We’d timed the shoot with the tide, good weather… we were meant to have 300 extras there. We showed up on the beach and nobody’s there. We found out we’d committed a huge cultural faux pas, because in order for flute players to come into a village, they have to be invited by the flute player from that village who sends out a tuning stick, and they have to tune their flutes to the hosting village. And we’d circumvented that process. And there was a bit of a deadlock between the two chiefs.
Finally we said, “Is it okay if they play your flutes?” And they were like, “Oh that’s fine.” And then they were joking, “We’re going to to get you in the peace and reconciliation talks!”
But you don’t anticipate those kinds of things, and it just does take time. There’s sensitive issues and you just have to figure out what you’re doing. None of us wanted to leave a heavy footprint. This whole story is about colonialism through literature, and how bringing your values into a society can affect them. We didn’t really want to do that any more than we naturally would, to avoid it as much as possible.
And Hugh Laurie was living on a boat?
We were all living on boats. We had three boats, we had a small yacht that Hugh was on, another boat that somehow I think somebody bribed somebody to pass survey to get out of Australia, and then a bigger boat for the major crew. But it was amazing. Hugh rode a canoe to work every day, we took little boats to the beach every day, in some ways it was absolutely beautiful.
Was Hugh your first choice to play Mr Watts, or did that come later?
He was right there at the beginning and really helped us put the film together. He fell in love with the book … My agent, when we were bouncing around ideas, mentioned Hugh, and I’d always been a big fan. He was surprising and perfect at the same time. He was very generous, great working with a lot of non-actors.
Did he have a strong idea of what he was going to bring to the character?
It’s a negotiation and a collaboration. He certainly had a lot of ideas to bring to it. I think he arrived [on location] without a lot of preconceptions. He wanted to get in there and he came a couple of weeks early and tried to live a little bit like Mr Watts lived, all those kinds of things to help feel it, and then we would just talk about it. The first couple of weeks we were just talking about who the character was.
Hugh and lead actress Xzannjah seemed to connect so well in the film. Did they click from day one?
She’s an exceptional young woman. They did click, they are both incredibly bright, Hugh is disturbingly bright. The first rehearsal we did of a scene where they’re sitting on the beach around the Pip shrine, we rehearsed that scene and there was just this fascination that was going on between them as people that was very appropriate to how the characters were as well. And when you have those little moments, you know it’s going to work.
Tim Finn, who did a lot of the film’s music, was on set. What was the thinking behind this?
I had two composers working on it, Tim and Harry Gregson-Williams, and we wanted them both to get up there but Harry couldn’t make it. The thing that I really wanted for the film was an authenticity … going to the location, using local people to help. Working with a village that had dealt with this kind of trauma, it was all about bringing this authenticity and it seemed to me that this needed to happen musically too as well. Nobody was going to get that without really understanding the environment.
So Tim went up there and was fantastic and so generous. He bonded with this chief in the next village who used to play in a covers band and play a lot of Tim’s songs, so he was just ecstatic. Tim was very generous and left him his guitar when he left, he couldn’t have been happier.
The conflict portrayed was quite raw for a lot of the locals involved as they’d lived through it themselves. But after filming some of them said it was a cathartic experience. Were you surprised by that?
I was very concerned, I didn’t know what was going to happen. When you think about people who have lived through atrocities that we can’t imagine, and getting them to relive them … I didn’t know what would happen when I dressed up Papua New Guineans in uniforms and put them in the village shouting with guns … the first time we brought a helicopter over the village you felt the whole energy change because the last time it happened it was probably strafing them.
I was prepared for the worst. When we started doing some of these big dramatic scenes, I found a sort of cathartic outpouring, particularly from the women, who tend to talk more about their feelings, who were very grateful afterwards. We’d do a scene, and people weren’t acting, they were remembering.
Then at the end we would sit around talking, they would pray, they would sing, and it did become this very cathartic experience. I’ve since talked to a therapist who said, that’s what we do in trauma therapy, we take people, we re-live the experience in a safe way and they get to own their emotions in a way they couldn’t at the time. And it became very cathartic.
Mr Pip is out now in New Zealand and due for release in Australia November 7.