William Nunez Shares His Thoughts On The Laureate
Director and film producer William Nunez discusses his latest film The Laureate and his thoughts behind its making. The Laureate is a historical romantic drama set in the roaring 1920s and is based on the life of the young British war poet Robert Graves. It stars Tom Hughes (Victoria), Dianna Agron (Glee), Laura Haddock (White Lines), Fra Free (Les Misérables), Julian Glover (Game of Thrones) and Patricia Hodge (BBC sitcom Miranda).
Tell me about the name of your newest film. How did the title The Laureate come about?
Well, there were a few titles that I was mulling over during the development of the project, but after talking about it with my fellow producers and people that I know, The Laureate stuck. When the movie comes out, you will see it is an exalted title rather than a recognition country wise. It's more about the decision Robert makes to leave England and move to Spain and the life choices he makes in the film.
What inspired you to base The Laureate on Robert Graves?
Robert Graves was always my favourite writer and that came about growing up in New York. I would always watch the BBC series I Claudius on television – an adaptation of Graves 1934 novel – and I thought it was amazing. It inspired me to read his books and poetry. Later in life, I read his biography and found out about the period when he was married, and he and his wife invited an American woman to live with them and they had a ménage à trois. The tensions and rivalries became so much that it forced Robert to leave England and start life in Majorca, Spain, which in a strange way put Majorca on the map. So I thought it would be an interesting story to tell. The power of creativity has always interested me. If you take a person who is very manipulative as your muse, does that give the work more or less validity? Those are the questions I wanted to try and explore in the story.
With Robert Graves being a 20th-century poet, did you reach out to any surviving family for inspiration?
In the very beginning, I reached out to his son and daughter, who gave me access to his diary. Even though the diaries took place after my story, it helped me gain some insight into him. They gave me permission to use Robert’s poems, which is interesting and key. There are a couple of movies my mates have done in the UK and they didn’t have the rights to the music through the estate and you can tell the difference. Would Bohemian Rhapsody have made a billion dollars without the music? No, probably not! It is the same thing. Getting the family on board and getting the rights to the poem was inspirational and key to the story.
Have you always been interested in the Golden Age Twenties or is it an aspect of history that you had to research when writing the script?
I had generalised knowledge. I knew politically what was going on in the US and England and I also knew the fashion, the music, and the film prolifically. I love history and reading about all eras. However, I had to undertake research to make sure the light bulbs and switches were right, and the fashion was not off by a few years, for example. I had to do a deeper dive, but overall I knew what the essence of the 20s were.
With it being the jazz age, will we see any class divide typical of its era?
No, what you will see as in many ways is that they lived isolated lives in London and Oxfordshire. The movie is divided into two parts. They were workaholics and they worked hard and partied hard. I think the divide you will see is more about how females were treated in respect to their work, as Laura and Nancy were not taken seriously being women and that drove them. They were both feminists but in opposite ways. Laura Riding was more aggressive and used her femininity to get what she wanted but, Nancy Nicholson was more militant about it and more challenging, trying to shake the tree and change assumptions.
With the 1920s being such an iconic era, did you bring in any historians to ensure that clothing depicted an accurate representation?
No, my costume designer Helen Beaumont did an excellent job. She undertook extensive research and we looked at numerous clothing samples in the process. We also had input from the actors to see what they liked. It is all in the books. There has been so much written about Robert, so I am incredibly grateful that those historians and biographers talked about how the characters were dressed, which made it easy for me.
Regarding location scouting for The Laureate, were there any locations that you wanted to use but were unable to?
Not really. Our budget was not exceptionally large and we only had 22 days to shoot the film, so it was an operation in which I gave great prompts to my production team, and I didn’t want it to be contained. I always knew about the house where we shot the first part of the film, as Christopher Robin was shot there and I thought that it would be great to use. It's isolated, met all our purposes, and did not require much alteration. For the second half, where we needed to build the London flat, we filmed in Harefield. What was fortuitous for us was The Crown had just finished filming there beforehand, so we used some of the walls they had erected and just redecorated. It was a huge saving for us. The barge was filmed in Chiswick Mall and the members’ club was filmed in the National Liberal Club, Whitehall. The Liberal Club was perfect – it had a great terrace. We filmed a scene where Siegfried Sassoon (Timothy Renouf) and Robert Graves were walking, and it just had such a beautiful shot of Whitehall. All of that brings a lot of production value to the piece.
What is the message behind The Laureate, and do you think viewers will be able to relate?
I wanted to show that it did not really matter that they were writers. Therefore, I didn’t want to make it sound like an out of reach art piece or that it was too highbrow for an audience. I just wanted to make it accessible to people as much as possible. At the end of the day, many individuals can relate to the marriage difficulties that Robert and Nancy go through, with Robert falling in love with someone else that is his soulmate, and the decisions he must make regarding his career and family. I hope the film is an escapism type piece.
I see that Carol Dudley was the casting director for The Laureate. Did you oversee the process and how were the actors chosen?
Carol was instrumental in casting Patricia Hodge as Amy Graves and the other poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon who was played by Timothy Renouf and T. S. Eliot (Christien Anholt). The leads were strangely cast by myself through my agency in CAA. I knew Tom for a while, but this movie did take time because originally I had another cast and that fell out. Tom came in to audition for the role of Geoffrey, and when I saw him, he looked like Robert Graves and I could not use him for Geoffrey. I needed to keep him in my Rolodex, as he was so interesting and fascinating. When the cast fell through, I emailed him and he said yes. However, he was working on Victoria and we had to wait almost two seasons, so a year and a half passed and he had just finished Discovery Of Witches before he prepped for our project.
Laura Haddock and Dianna Agron came through our agents. I met Dianna in New York and I knew there was a great actress in her. I know many people remember her from Glee. She will amaze you in this movie – a total 180-degree shift – as well as Laura Haddock, who looks completely different than in any other role. She totally immersed herself in the role of Nancy and I could not be prouder of the three of them. The same for Fra. He is a promising actor and he will be big. He stars in the upcoming Cinderella and Hawkeye, the Marvel comic series. I am incredibly happy for those guys.
What was it like working with the actors on set? Have you always been a fan of Dianna?
Dianna immersed herself in the role and brought a lot of Laura Riding’s books. Being in New York, Dianna and I would get together for a drink or a coffee before we prepped and just talked, got to know each other, and became friends. Although Dianna lives in New York, she has many connections in the UK and knew Laura and Tom as friends. This helped immensely, especially with the shortened production time and schedule. They all trusted each other and that was a plus.
What was your favourite moment on set or favourite scene to direct?
That is hard. I have not really thought about it. I just think the whole experience was great. There are minor things that I smile about and things I wish I could take back, but overall the performances were great. I am happy and it was a proud moment to see the actors achieve what they did.
Dare we ask if you have any upcoming projects, considering how the world is currently?
I am working on a documentary, which I hope to complete by the end of this year. With Covid-19, things get a little hairy. I am also developing a movie, a feature film titled Death Benefits. I am also excited about working with a bestselling UK writer, adapting one of her novels. The lockdown has afforded me a burst of creativity to work on multiple projects, which should all come to fruition in the next 18 months.
Do you have an official premiere date?
We hope to screen to buyers at Cannes Market and we're in discussions with some festivals for the summer and later this year. Some people have been saying the movie is good for an award, and we should hold it until the fall, which is fine by me. We were hoping to have it at Tribeca Film Festival but that and Cannes has been pushed back. We always think we have an answer and then life throws us a curveball and things get postponed.
Has Covid-19 impacted the filming process in any way, and are there any benefits?
I really do not know; I think it will be a Hunger Games type of issue, as actors will only commit to projects that are 100% financed and I think there will be 100 projects ready to go, but actors cannot do five or six projects because they cannot be at multiple places at once, so they will be more discerning at what they pick. Several people are saying that it will be great and there will be tons of production, which there will be, but I think there will be a quick vetting process because a lot of producers, with particular attachments, may be disappointed when those actors decide on another movie instead of theirs.
How did you first get into directing?
It is something I have always wanted to do. I wrote short stories and poetry as a child. One Sunday, I was snooping around my uncle’s place and found a Super 8 camera and asked if I could have it. He said yes and I soon found out why, as no one made Super 8 film stock anymore. Somehow, I did find a pharmacy 50 miles away that I would mail and send a cheque to as a kid to get film back. It also had an editing functionality, which I worked with and found it much better than my dad’s video camera. I have been blessed that I have been able to do it in some form whether that be television, commercials, documentaries, and now features and short films.
What films or pieces of art have inspired or influenced you and why?
There are too many to cite. Music and paintings – I seek as visual, not writing inspiration. Those inspirations come when I have a project and I am ready to direct it and they give an extra layer. The foundation always comes from reading – I read a lot. In terms of films, I do not like citing films but filmmakers. I love the power of creativity and life experience must play a big role in inspiration. That’s how Robert Graves starts off as a well-known war poet in the literary community and then morphs into a love poet, which he was known for in his later years.
If you could bring back a Hollywood great star in your next project, who would it be and why? I would have loved to work with a young Julie Christie. She was the total package as an actress. With the studio systems back then, actors were compartmentalised and you could not see them branch out as they do now. It would depend on what genre you were producing. Perhaps you would pick Gary Cooper or Cary Grant. Until Marlon Brando came around in the 1950s, I think Paul Muni in the 1930s was the first method actor and then Marlon Brando and his group loved Paul Muni and then the next generation, such as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, loved Marlon Brando. So Julie Christy is my answer.
Can you name a standout moment in your career so far?
Directing the 2016 Presidential Debate that had tens of millions of viewers and I would always joke that more people would watch it than all of Spielberg's films. Another standout moment was having a short film premiering in Cannes. Having that red carpet experience and standing up to an ovation was great.
Social media is rapidly expanding, and many believe in the importance of social media aspects in the film process. Are you on social media and do you use it in your work?
I am, but probably just because I have been forced to by my publicist and others in the movie. There is an Instagram and Facebook page for The Laureate movie, and I am on Twitter (@Willn10). Social media is good for getting the movie out there. Dianna Agron taught me and helped me set up the Instagram bit, as she has two million followers. She is a total expert on this.
The Laureate is out later this year
Interview by Connor Mantle
Subeditor Primrose Jeanton
Editor Jheanelle Feanny
Images courtesy of Laura Radford