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An interview with director Andrew Adamson

Andrew Adamson talks to Mark Broatch about the challenge of filming Mr. Pip on location, how Lloyd Jones tricked him and why he’s not thrilled with the movie industry.

Andrew Adamson. Photo/Getty Images

Mr. Pip was obviously a project you were keen to do.

It’s challenging in the size of the story, the location, the subject matter. All those things didn’t make it an easy film to get off the ground. But I was given the book by my wife and was reading it on a plane between London and LA while I was finishing up Prince Caspian [the second Narnia film, in 2007] and got to the dramatic turning point of the story at about 2am and had to reread [it] because I thought, “Did I fall asleep and dream that bit?”

I immediately had my development people in LA chase down the rights. It was something I identified with straight away on two fronts. I grew up in Papua New Guinea, so I understood the characters and the culture, but also it really illustrates in a concrete way the power of story for good and bad, the power of imagination. It’s rare you find a story that does all those things.

It’s quite different to your other work. Challenging?

Hugh Laurie and Andrew Adamson on set in Bougainville.

It was the most challenging film I’ve ever made. It’s a very dense film with a lot of different threads. At one point I found that I was trying to make two films, and the story became too weighted towards Great Expectations and took away from the foreground drama.

On top of that, the book read very cinematically. It wasn’t till I got into it and I called Lloyd [Jones] up and I was like, you’ve deceived me, you’ve done all these things in the book that have tricked me into thinking this would be easy. He actually jumps around in time and space and in and out of reality and into [Matilda’s] imagination in such a way that when you’re reading it, you go with it. But when you have to break it down to its structure for the film, it’s a lot more challenging.

Lloyd Jones was a producer – was he on set or did he offer advice?

He visited. He was mostly involved in the writing process. And he was always very supportive both in terms of being able to have conversations but also in embracing changes. He would frequently say, “Look, it was my book but it’s your movie.”

Then during the editing process I showed it to him several times. I felt he was somebody who was always a really good eye and ear for the integrity of the story and not getting too slick – keeping the rawness, some of the more harsh moments in the film.

The story is packed with themes: belief, colonialism, the power of literature, man’s brutality, even absent fathers.

That was one of the challenging things. The politics of the real situation of Bougainville was also incredibly seductive; you can make a movie just about that. I said, “No, I want to keep this as a personal story and keep true to this deeper theme – the power of imagination.” The byproduct of that, and where Great Expectations comes in, is the ability to reinvent ourselves, for story to be a tool of reinvention.

When you go into a society and bring your values and your educational system and your literature, you’re doing a lot of good potentially – you’re educating – but you’re doing harm as well. And that’s what this book does for Matilda: it almost destroys her. But it’s also the thing that pulls her out of her despair.

Were there delays in getting the film finished?

We were invited to the Toronto Film Festival last year, which is the first time we screened the film, and it was a little earlier than we were ready to. There were things that became apparent putting it in front of a non-New Zealand audience, things I needed to address, particularly in terms of clarity and context. Because there’s an understanding of Pacific Island and indigenous cultures we have here and somewhat of an awareness of the situation in Bougainville that didn’t extend to the US. So primarily it’s been ongoing post-production.

There’s a real sense of lushness and heat in the film, but did that bring its own challenges?

When I started the film, I thought there were three big challenges: adapting the book, the logistics of shooting it and, to be honest, getting it to a market. Because it is a film that doesn’t exactly line up against Superman.

But the logistics of it were interesting because we went in prepared, and it’s always the strangest things that catch you off guard. We had issues like containers not showing up and putting off the scene with the army day after day because the containers with the fake weapons hadn’t arrived. And in the end having to do a whip-round of the local population to borrow some guns.

When we got there, we were making dollies out of old aluminium ladders. We were working with the local population, who were used to surviving with nothing. One of my favourite stories was when the Bougainvilleans showed the New Zealanders how to make nails out of fencing wire.

And Hugh Laurie was a pro?

I knew he was an incredible actor, right back from the Fry and Laurie days and through Blackadder and House. I thought he would be interesting and unexpected in this role, but at the same time I could immediately see him in it. He read the book and fell in love with it and was a really strong advocate for getting the film made.

He was up there living in the same conditions as all the rest of us; he literally rowed a canoe to work each morning. Then he was the only really trained actor in Bougainville for that part of his shoot and very generous in working with people, particularly Xzannjah [Matilda]. The two of them were fascinated with each other straight away, so there was a sort of natural chemistry that suited the characters as well.

The book has a bleaker view of life, or did you see more of the optimism of Matilda?

I tend to be an optimist by nature. The book does present a very bleak perspective on things, but what became apparent also, when going to Bougainville and trying to figure out whether we could shoot there, was that we had to. Because we’ve got a country that’s reinventing itself. It has gone to the darkest places, has chosen to pull itself out of those places and is now trying to find its way forward.

So many of the people who left had the education, the hope, and it’s trying to draw those people back. The idea that Matilda had to go back was very important.

What’s next for you?

I’m not directing anything. It’s too tiring. I moved back to New Zealand about five years ago, did this, overlapped with the Cirque du Soleil [film]. I never really quite did the step back to see what to do next.

I don’t particularly want to go back to making big blockbuster films. I love film, I love filmmaking, but I’m not particularly happy with the film industry right now.

So part of what I’m trying to do is figure out how to navigate that – how to make films I want to make and that feel worthwhile and important within an industry that’s almost become a bit close to theme parks in the types of films that are getting funded and made these days.