Nanny McPhee 2 – BEHIND THE SCENES
BEHIND THE SCENES
Five years after the success of Nanny McPhee, Emma Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran have once again combined forces with Working Title Films to bring forth the next chapter in the magical and enchanting fable that has delighted children through the generations.
"We always described the premise of the first Nanny McPhee film as ‘the magical nanny versus the seven most horrible children in the history of the world,’" explains Lindsay Doran, "and I think that’s what these films will always be about – badly behaved children, and the magical nanny who comes to help them. The chief difference between the first film and the new one is that the first film was about a war between a parent and his children, while the new film is about a war between children and children. Nanny McPhee must teach these children five new lessons, and instruct them not only about how to get along, but about how to solve their problems in a more constructive way than fighting."
Writer/Executive Producer and Actress Emma Thompson adds: "In both films, there’s a prevailing sense of absence. In the first film, the absence is caused by the death of Mrs Brown who’s had too many children which was very true for that era. In the second film, it is the father’s absence in a war which was true of that era and, unfortunately, of the era we live in now."
Thompson began creating the story for the new film while the original film was still in production, and wrote the script over the next three years. Throughout the process, Thompson tried to keep to the spirit of the original material. The Nanny McPhee character began as Nurse Matilda, the central figure of bedtime stories in the family of Christianna Brand and her cousin, Edward Ardizzone (who illustrated the Nurse Matilda books). The stories were passed down over a hundred years, with each generation adding to the legend of the family’s ill-behaved children and the supernatural nanny who arrives to tame them. Christianna Brand first wrote them down in the 1960’s, and by that time they had achieved a timeless quality that Thompson has endeavoured to preserve in her scripts. The story and characters may be new, but the basic attributes of a Nurse Matilda/Nanny McPhee story – her lessons, her looks that change from hideous to beautiful as the children come to love her, her magic stick, her heartbreaking need to go as soon as she’s wanted instead of needed – remain the same.
Director Susanna White was hired to bring Emma’s script to life on the screen. Producer Eric Fellner says, "Susanna’s TV films and dramas are stunning and that’s what drew us to her. She brought a unique sensibility to the project and was passionate about doing it. I think the finished film speaks volumes for her skills and expertise."
White recalls the moment that she received the script: "I was in Africa where I’d been directing huge explosions all day for the American invasion of Iraq in Generation Kill. I came back in the evening, read the script and immediately felt a connection with it. I’d loved the first film but I think the thing that really appealed to me in the new script was that it is the story of a working mother who isn’t coping, who is desperately trying to hold her life together. I’d loved what Emma and Kirk Jones had created in the first film which was this creature of myth – that Nanny McPhee is a magical nanny – she’s scary but she’s safely scary, and I felt that they created something iconic." White also felt inspired by classic family films such as The Railway Children and The Sound of Music "that combined emotion and comedy. I thought I could bring real emotional truth to it," she adds.
White felt that her television and documentary background helped to inform the way that she worked on the script. She explains: "I think the big thing that a documentary background gave me was an ability to understand people in a huge variety of emotional situations, and I always use that as my touchstone. I’ve been there when people have been dying, when babies are born, at post mortems, at all kinds of celebrations and I think I really know when something in front of the camera feels ‘real’ and I wanted to create that in a fictional drama."
The decision to make a second Nanny McPhee film necessitated the creation of an entirely new story. Doran explains: "People who haven’t read the three Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand might assume that we based the first film on the first book and the second film on the second book. But Emma mined every bit of story and character from all three of those books to create the script for the first film so there really wasn’t anything left. She had to start from scratch." But what should the new story be? A decision was made early on not to show Nanny McPhee returning to the Brown family from the first film to solve a new set of problems. Says Doran, "A director friend once said to me, ‘We should only make films about the most important day in a character’s life. Who cares about the second most important day in a character’s life?’ He was referring to sequels in which all the characters are the same, and the problems they’re facing just aren’t as big or as organic as they were in the original. It seemed like good advice."
The solution was to have Nanny McPhee travel through time and space to visit a new family. Fellner comments, "She’s a bit like Batman in that she has her magic powers and can operate in whatever way she deems necessary for the situation. Says Thompson, "Nanny McPhee is ageless and timeless. Who knows how long she’s been visiting families or how many families she’s visited? Once we made the decision to move her through time, I knew immediately where I wanted to put her – wartime. I wanted her to visit a family in which the father was away at war, and the mother was home trying to hold everything together. New problems for the children, new problems for the parent, and five new lessons for Nanny McPhee to teach." A decision was also made to make the war non-specific. The period resembles the 1940s and World War II in many ways, but it is a resemblance rather than a strict adherence. Doran explains, "We wanted the war in this film to be a metaphor for all wars. And we didn’t want the look of the film restricted by a slavish adherence to what was real in a certain year. So we set it in what we called the ‘sort-of 40s,’ a period which has much in common with the World War II era but has a unique look all its own."
The decision to bring Nanny McPhee into another century allowed for some additional benefits. In the new film, we meet more than one adult who was Nanny McPhee’s charge at an earlier age. The first is Sergeant Jeffreys, the unusually large soldier whom Norman and Cyril encounter outside the War Office. Says Nonso Anozie who plays the soldier: "Sergeant Jeffreys is a towering guard at the War Office and at first you think he’s a very scary character. But when Nanny McPhee appears on the scene, you realise he was once just as vulnerable as the little children in the story. And indeed, in Nanny McPhee’s presence, he is still just as vulnerable." When Nanny McPhee first sees Sergeant Jeffreys standing to attention, she remarks, "Lesson Three paid off, I see." Thompson confides, "Many people have speculated as to what Lesson Three was for Sergeant Jeffreys. The answer is simple: Stand up straight." Nonso Anozie adds: "‘Stand up straight’ is a lesson Sergeant Jeffreys never forgot. In fact, he ended up in the post where he had to stand up straight the most!" Another revelation about Nanny McPhee’s former charges comes at the end of the film when we learn that a character we’ve come to know as Mrs Docherty, played by Dame Maggie Smith, is actually Baby Agatha Brown from the original film, grown old.
Another interesting aspect of a story set in wartime was that it affected the kinds of characters who would populate the world of the film. In this time and place, most of the men are away fighting. The only ones left are the older men (Mr Docherty, Farmer Macreadie), and the ones who got around enlisting either through military employment (Lord Gray’s chauffeur, Blenkinsop) or cowardice and guile (Uncle Phil). That leaves a world of women and children, many of whom have had to take on roles previously held by the men who are away. Mrs Green and her children are entirely responsible for the upkeep of the farm, while the casino Phil frequents has been taken over by a woman known as Mrs Big (presumably married to the absent Mr Big). Phil is being threatened by Mrs Big’s two "hit women" because all the hit men are away at the front. The hit women, Miss Topsey and Miss Turvey, seem to relish their new careers and it’s easy to speculate that, like many women left behind in wartime, they may find it hard to give up those new careers when the men come marching home.
Although the film is set against the background of an unspecified war between nations, the real war of the story is that between the Green and the Gray children. When the snobbish Gray cousins, Celia and Cyril, turn up at the Greens’ farm, a battle breaks out almost immediately between the boisterous farm children and their snobbish city cousins. Explains Lil Woods who plays Megsie Green: "When the cousins arrive it all goes a bit haywire because we’re ready to be welcoming, but they’re posh and wearing fancy clothes, and they’re really rude to us, so we decide that they’re in for it – and it just goes off from there really."
The Greens have other problems besides the arrival of the cousins. Explains Asa Butterfield who plays Norman Green: "Norman is 11 years old and is the man of the house because his dad’s gone away to war. His mother is trying to run the family but she’s struggling and they need to get money for their tractor."
Norman’s sister Megsie is also trying to help in any way that she can. Lil Woods describes her character: "Megsie is 9 years old. She’s a big tomboy and not at all a girly girl, and she doesn’t like making a fuss over things. She’s very direct and she gets on with things. She’s the mender of the family; if there’s something, like a gatepost that goes wonky, then she’s there to fix it, or a window that smashes, she’s there to fix it every time."
The last sibling in the Green family is six-year-old Vincent, played by Oscar Steer: "My character is Vincent and at the very beginning of the film he is really, really naughty, but by the end of the film he’s become good. At the beginning he smashes all the china with his cricket bat. But it wasn’t real china and they had to pick it all up and clean it away and luckily I didn’t have to clean it up at all."
The audience’s first encounter with the Gray children is not a sympathetic one, but as the narrative progresses, we learn about the painful events in their family that have brought them to the Green farm.
Eros Vlahos explains how his character behaves on arrival at the farm: "Cyril is a posh young chap who gets up to lots of mischief and fighting and makes lots of remarks that are quite funny. He comes to the farm against his will with his sister, Celia, because they’ve been sent away from London. When he arrives, there’s lots of mud and he obviously doesn’t like it because it ruins his clothes. There are no sweets around the house and there are chores!"
Rosie Taylor-Ritson plays Cyril’s sister: "Celia Gray is obnoxious at the start of the film, she can’t do anything for herself, has to have a thousand maids, and then one day her parents decide to send her and her brother off to the country."
To help with the numerous fighting scenes in the film, Olivier Award-winning Movement Director Toby Sedgwick was enlisted. With a background that includes training at the Jacques Lecoq School of Movement in Paris, Sedgwick choreographed all of the children’s chase and fighting scenes as well as a few others such as the one in which animals enter the kitchen while Mrs Green keeps turning just in time to miss them. Says Sedgwick, "I’m not aware of any film that’s used a Movement Director before, but physical comedy on film requires a lot of thought and precise timing, and Susanna and Emma wanted that kind of precision in the character’s movements. The work ranged from a relatively straightforward scene in which the Green children chase Cyril around the kitchen table to the very complex parlour scene in which the children fight each other, then themselves. In the parlour scene, there were a number of physical jokes that had to read very clearly, many of them going on at the same time. Luckily we had about four weeks to choreograph that sequence. We worked with certain mime aspects of movement in order to make it look, for example, like Cyril’s hand isn’t his own when it grabs his collar and throws him to the ground, or Norman’s hand isn’t his own when it grabs his ear and yanks him across the room. And the children were brilliant. Even Oscar [Steer], who was only six years old, quickly learned the techniques required to make it look like he wasn’t in control of his body or his cricket bat."
Maggie Gyllenhaal who plays Mrs Green explains her character’s state of mind at the start of the film: "Mrs Green is at the very, very end of her rope, and then it just gets worse and worse and worse! If anyone needs Nanny McPhee it’s Mrs Green. She’s got the kids fighting and breaking things and hanging each other upside down, and then there’s Mrs Docherty who really needs Mrs Green’s help, so in every way, she is barely functioning."
She continues: "I took on this film because I felt that Mrs Green is a real person and she’s a depiction of a mum that I really relate to. Obviously there are things overwhelming her, but I think every mum understands that feeling of not having a second to get her head above water. I think that’s very common, and the way that Emma Thompson has depicted it has a lot of compassion."
For Susanna White, the role of Mrs Green was absolutely central to the story: "It’s tricky directing a sequel I think, but what I felt was that this script was much more than a sequel. That it took the whole idea of the film to new places. What I loved was that it had this story of the absent father and really for me the big thing was the plight of Mrs Green. That she’s a woman trying to juggle a lot of things. Her husband’s away at war. She can barely cope with her own children let alone the impact of their cousins being sent from London to join them. She is trying to hold down a job in the village shop, run a farm – an impossible number of things. She’s juggling all these things at once and I thought it was a very contemporary story, and that Mrs Green was a very modern character." White continues: "There’s a warmth about Maggie, and an idiosyncrasy which I felt connected very well with Emma’s writing. Emma wrote Mrs Green as quite a quirky character and I thought Maggie could absolutely play that. And of course she’s a mother herself and she understood motherhood so she connected very well with children. I felt there was something very natural and open about Maggie as an actress that really worked for this role."
For Emma Thompson, it was interesting to put Gyllenhaal into a role so far removed from her usual work: "In this film, Maggie plays a slightly flappy Englishwoman and we usually associate her with those very cool, funky, edgy movies she’s done, so it’s great to see her doing something quite this different…she gives us a glorious Mrs Green."
Unlike the child characters in the first film who worked together as a team against their father and their nannies, the children in "Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang" are adversaries from the moment they meet. "There were only five children this time around rather than seven," says Lindsay Doran, "and that made it easier to give each of them a distinctive personality as well as a distinctive role in the story. But because each one is so different, even within their respective families, it made casting more of a challenge."
White saw Asa Butterfield for the first time in Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and was astonished by his screen presence. "It is not only that the camera loves Asa’s face, but there is an incredible sensitivity behind those amazing eyes. He is capable of great emotional truthfulness. And he also had the great advantage of really looking like Maggie Gyllenhaal." Adds Thompson: "Asa is perfect for Norman who is, in this story, the quintessential hero. He and his mother are the two heads of the household and are struggling together to make sure the rest of the family doesn’t go down. Asa is straightforward and emotionally very powerful which is crucial since Norman (which is my Dad’s middle name) has to carry the emotional centre of the film."
Lil Woods plays Megsie, the tomboy of the Green family. Says White, "Lil is the genuine article – a girl who lives in the countryside and actually has pet pigs [named Itchy and Scratchy]. She has a lovely openness about her and a natural sense of justice, a sense of right and wrong." Adds Thompson: "As soon as Lil walked in, I said ‘Now there’s a girl who looks like she lives on a farm.’ This was because Lil actually does live on a farm. Outdoor face, freckles, open features, she looked like fresh air. In fact, no-one else came close because the urban dweller really does have an entirely different atmosphere."
Oscar Steer plays the youngest Green child, Vincent. "We had to cast Oscar as he was totally yummy," remembers White. "I wanted a boy who was still young enough to live in a world of his imagination – playing pirates or living out a fantasy world. The external expression of that imaginative inner life is his explorer’s helmet. I had borrowed one from the costume department for a filming project my daughter had at school and it was sitting on the side, waiting to be returned, when Jacqueline suggested putting it on Vincent. That helmet tells you everything you need to know about Vincent’s adventurous spirit." Adds Thompson: "The lines I had written for Vincent were for a child who is still very young but just on the cusp of understanding sentences with sub-clauses. It was the combination of that understanding and Oscar’s extraordinarily mobile face, immensely impressive in one so young, that made us all shriek “He’s the one!” as soon as he’d left the audition room. Also, I have never known a child so able to make realistic NOISES – like sad noises and whiney noises and happy noises – without sounding actory."
Thompson feared that in creating the part of Cyril, she had written a character who was impossible for a child to play: "For a long time I thought, ‘We’re never going to find someone funny enough to play Cyril.’ I’d written a sort of lounge lizard part for a child – it was never going to happen. So it was miraculous that we found Eros Vlahos." Doran remembers watching Eros’s audition tape: "[Child casting director] Pippa Hall asked Eros to perform an improvisation about a haughty child who’d been sent away from home and was now begging his parents to bring him back. His improv was hilarious, and we later learned that he had been doing stand-up comedy from the age of eight. We could all see immediately that he knew how to play a dreadfully spoilt child. Our one concern was, could he be likeable? When Eros auditioned in person and performed some of the script’s more serious scenes, he was terribly moving, so casting him became an easy decision." Adds White, "What was also impressive about Eros was seeing him develop as an actor over the course of the shoot. His background was more in comedy than in acting, but he was very quick to learn from the great actors around. He paid attention and learned something from them all."
White remembers that the role of Celia took the longest to cast: "We looked and looked and couldn’t find the right Celia. We needed a girl who had an aura of class about her and who was capable of going on a big emotional journey. Then one day I was doing open auditions with Pippa Hall in a church hall near the British Museum. As soon as I put the video camera on Rosie I knew we had found someone very special. She looked absolutely beautiful on screen, combined with great ability as an actress. And there was something period about her face – her looks were classic rather than modern." Adds Thompson, "Rosie walked in and was so peach-like and delicate everyone immediately leapt to their feet in order to prevent her from getting bruised. In actual fact, she is incredibly un-bruisable and brave but just looks as though she has been carefully brought on in a hot-house with the other soft fruits. She had ballet training, of course, and held herself like Margot Fonteyn at all performances."
Comments Rhys Ifans who plays Uncle Phil: "I have to disagree with that old adage of don’t work with children and animals as the children in this film were just a joy to be with. I’ve worked with kids several times and it’s always a very fulfilling and joyous experience. They don’t have the hang-ups of grown-up actors."
"The animals in the first film made a big impression on the children who saw it and we realised that was one of the things we had to bring back in the new film," says Doran. "So Emma wrote in some piglets, which turn out to be very important to the plot. They’re not just there to be cute, though they are certainly very entertaining; they’re there to serve a purpose. But it’s been so much fun having them around; they’re very smart and they’ve done virtually every single thing we’ve needed them to do."
Says Animal Trainer Gary Moi: "Pigs are wonderful to train. They’re brilliant animals – very clever. We get them when they’re about three weeks old and they’re trained up and shooting by the time they’re six weeks old. Pigs grow so fast that we’ve had to have two groups of eight for this film and we shoot on each group for about a month."
The pigs used were Yorkshire hogs, which are generally just pink. To make them resemble the Gloucestershire Old Spot breed that Director White had requested, Make-Up and Hair Designer Peter King designed stencils to paint distinctive markings on each pig which also meant that two sets of piglets could play the same piglet roles.
Of course there were a few things in the script that the piglets couldn’t do such as synchronized swimming and climbing trees. Those images were added later by the visual effects wizards at Framestore, but it meant that the children sometimes had to react to piglets who weren’t there doing outrageous things that weren’t there either. "In the synchronized swimming scene, the children were required to react with spontaneous and unbounded delight to an empty pond," says Thompson, "and that’s a very difficult thing for children, or even adults, to act." To help them with their reactions, Thompson unexpectedly popped up in the pond while the cameras were rolling. She then acted out everything the piglets would be doing while the children reacted with astonishment. "What you’re watching in that scene is children laughing with unbounded and spontaneous delight at me, drowning," says Thompson with feigned resentment. "That just shows you the kind of respect there was on that set."
The farm is also populated by a number of other animals. A cow and a goat play central roles, three geese turn their heads at the perfect moment, chickens roam the yard and, occasionally, the kitchen. A baby elephant even shows up a few times, just to keep things interesting. But Nanny McPhee reveals a new side to herself in this film through the character of Mr Edelweiss, her jackdaw familiar. Mr Edelweiss has a predilection for window putty, even though it gives him the collywobbles and wind, but what seems like a very bad habit comes into very good use at the climactic moment of the film.
Explains Doran: "When Emma and I were first working on the story, we thought it would be fun to give Nanny McPhee a familiar. Witches often have familiars (i.e., animals that help them carry out their magic), and though Nanny McPhee isn’t a witch, we thought it would be fun to give her an animal companion. Out of that grew the character of Mr Edelweiss and his somewhat co-dependent relationship with Nanny McPhee. He’s been following her for who knows how long, trying to win back her friendship, because he did something that upset her a long time ago and she’s never forgiven him. There’s a slight mystery set up at the beginning of the film: what did he do to make her so angry with him? He just won’t let her go. He won’t give up. He’s going to persist and persist until she lets him sit on her shoulder again, and his faith is a little story within the big story of the film."
Says Thompson, "Nanny McPhee has a relationship with Mr Edelweiss that’s miles more normal than her relationship with the children she looks after. She gets very irritable with this bird in a way that she doesn’t ever get irritable with her charges." Thompson enjoyed her work with the jackdaws who shared the role of Mr Edelweiss: "We trained with the birds for months. I loved that. I really grew very fond of my jackdaws Al and Devil and Dorian – they were just great. I worked with six to start with and then it was narrowed it down to three – one was better at flying, another was a little more cheeky, one could dart out from under my skirt, and so on."
For White, the inclusion of Mr Edelweiss added something to the role of Nanny McPhee: "I think the great thing about Mr Edelweiss is that you get more insight into Nanny McPhee as a character, you get more of her back story through her relationship to him. Through her relationship with the bird you get just a chink more insight into another life she’s had."
As with all good stories, there always have to be some baddies. Rhys Ifans plays Phil Green: "Phil is Isabel’s brother-in-law, and whilst his brother Rory is bravely fighting for his country abroad, Phil pretends to have flat feet to avoid having to go to war. So he’s just hanging around. He owns half the farm, but also owes a lot of money from gambling debts and the only way he can come good on one of his debts is to give away the farm." He continues: "For me, the key with Phil is that he is a guy who has dodged conscription and he’s just a good old-fashioned coward."
Continues Susanna White: "Phil is someone very weak. He thinks he’s a good person but he just gets into terrible trouble. He’s an eternal optimist who’s always thinking the next scheme he has is going to make money for him, and Rhys connected with that idea of the villain instantly… He is brilliant at the physical comedy but behind this there is something very truthful emotionally that people connect with.. Nobody could have played Phil better than Rhys Ifans – this wonderful villain who is strangely sexy."
Into Phil’s shady world arrive Misses Topsey and Turvey, the henchwomen of the shady Mrs Biggles (aka Mrs Big). These "lady heavies" carry Phil’s marker ("IOU one farm") and have come to lean on Phil to pay up. Explains Ifans: "All the men are at war, so we’re left with these strong, scary women and Phil’s very frightened a lot of the time as they’ve threatened to remove his kidneys if he doesn’t come good on his debt." Adds Katy Brand (Miss Turvey): "They work as enforcers for Mrs Big who runs a casino. It’s the war, and Misses Topsey and Turvey are the people for the job. They’re sick of dried egg, they’re sick of porridge, and if they can get the farm that Phil Green owes their boss, they’re going to be rewarded and gorge on Turkish Delight." Continues Sinead Matthews (Miss Topsey): "I’m threatening him through flirtation and insane giggling." Katy Brand concludes: "And I’m pure muscle with the mind of a psychopath."
Mr Green is the absent father who has had to go off to fight in the war and who has not been heard from for months. His character, however, is revealed through his playful invention – the Scratch-O-Matic – that he has created for his home, his family and his pigs.
Six-year-old Oscar Steer explains: "The Scratch-O-Matic is used to scratch the pigs. When his dad is away at war, Vincent can scratch the pigs with the machine. If it was my real life I’d probably get my brother and sister to sit down in the barn and I would scratch them."
Director White adds: "When I first read the script I felt that it was vital to create more sense of the father in the world of the farm. I felt that it was only by feeling his presence that an audience would get a full sense of the ache of his absence. I suggested to Emma that there be some sort of toy or play space he had created that the children could use. She came up with the great idea of the Scratch-o-Matic."
Adds Thompson: "Pigs love to be scratched. It makes them go to sleep and puts them into a deep state of bliss, and Mr Green is represented in his absence by this pig-scratching machine. It indicates a man of imagination, compassion, depth and ingenuity."
Art Director Nick Dent cites Heath Robinson as one of the inspirations for the Scratch-O-Matic. He explains: "We looked at various ways of creating incredible machines and devices with household objects and I think there is an element of crazy professors who have done that before us, so we knew where we were starting from. What we had to make sure of was that it didn’t appear to be a purely mad and crazy invention. It was something that had been put together with a lot of care and thought, and we had to convey that this was something that the Dad had built – this was how he felt about his children and his piglets." He continues: "It was built from scratch and we knew that we had to have a certain cut-off point where our technology had to stop as it couldn’t be anything post-1940s. Secondly, we knew that it had to be visually very exciting, with the feeling that Dad would have wanted it to be interesting and fun for the children."
"This is a fantasy film and we didn’t want to be restricted to any particular time period or even any particular place," says Doran. "We chose not to adhere to what was accurate for the World War II period in order to make the film more delightful to look at and to make the war a metaphor for all wars. This is a classic story of a family with one parent away at war. The Green family’s problems should be recognizable to the people of any country whose armed forces are engaged in a conflict away from home. The family members left behind are worried, they are saddled with responsibilities they wouldn’t ordinarily have, there are financial consequences, and parenting is much harder."
In keeping with the idea that the film is set in the "sort-of 40s," the design team was encouraged to venture into flights of fantasy. Emma Thompson explains, "When I’m writing, I work with words and character and story. And whilst I did see things in my head, Production Designer Simon Elliott came along and created something so perfect and beautiful and original that it blasted away everything I had envisaged. That’s the glory of writing a screenplay – that other people come along and add something that you could never have thought of."
Susanna White decided on Elliott to be the designer when she first read the script: "Simon and I are very much in tune," she explains. "He takes design influences from around the world – the drawers in the shop are based on a village shop in France, and the haystacks are from a shape we had both liked in Romania, but he can take all those disparate things and make them very English. We used Norman Parkinson photographs as references and the British decorative tradition of the Bloomsbury group. We both love the tradition of the English surreal – Stanley Spencer was on our mood boards – hence things like the strange topiary in the village."
The exterior of the farmhouse and several of the fields used for the piglet chase were shot at Tilsey Farm, near Guildford. The Tilsey location was perfect, a valley between England’s green and rolling hills, with little evidence of twenty-first century progress. However, although the farmhouse nestled into the side of a hill looks like it had been built hundreds of years ago, nothing could be farther from the truth. Explains Elliott: "Apart from the barn, we’ve constructed everything that you’ll find here, the house, the outbuildings, the garden and the ponds. We had to move an enormous amount of earth to set the house into the side of the hill, make terraces, excavate a couple of ponds, plus for crew access we had to build a road into the site as well. It was all done in eleven weeks and everybody worked phenomenally hard."
One element that was already in the screenplay was an abundance of mud, and director White instructed the art department to create a special mud-like substance that looked particularly gooey and chocolate-y on film. As a result, Eros Vlahos discovered a new form of muscle training: "The mud slows everything down, so it feels like it’s all in slow motion. The crew has to lug the equipment through the mud in their wellies, so everything takes a lot longer. Wearing wellies has been a new kind of exercise for everybody because they’re not that easy to walk in through mud. But it’s kind of fun at the same time."
Whilst the exterior of the farmhouse was shot at Tilsey, several interiors were also required. Says Simon Elliott: "The script dictated that we needed to show five rooms in the farmhouse – a kitchen, a best parlour, the children’s bedroom, Mrs Green’s bedroom and the bathroom," and these were built at Shepparton Studios. He continues: "For the period feel, we went for a kind of nostalgic English countryside from the 20s, 30s and 40s. We’ve sourced the furniture and all the bits and pieces that you see around the house from all around the country and had great fun going to car boot sales, flea markets and even eBay. The house is supposed to feel very creative. Mrs Green makes her own clothes and makes things for the children, so it’s supposed to have a feel of handicraft to it." The child actors in the film helped to decorate the set, as during education and the rehearsal period they were given crayons and asked to draw what they thought their characters would draw. The artworks around the kitchen set are theirs.
Another set built at Shepperton was Mrs Docherty’s shop. Although the story is set in a time of wartime deprivation, we encounter the shop on the day when a month’s stock of deliveries has just arrived, so it’s chock full of wonderful colourful things. Says White: "I knew Simon could create a really imaginative and magical space that had the spirit of old English villages about it." A wall of drawers was built to accommodate the scene in which Mrs Green hears voices telling her that the person she needs in Nanny McPhee, and other parts of the set were specially prepared to accommodate assorted "talking" objects as well as the volcano of flour that Mrs Docherty creates behind the counter.
Perhaps one of the most idyllic locations in the film was the barley field, which was sown with an old-fashioned long stem crop that would allow a 1930s harvester to harvest it. Set in the Oxfordshire countryside, the field was planted on the crest of a hill, with a beautiful view over the valley below.
It was essential that this thirty-acre field of barley was perfect, for as Thompson explains: "The harvest is a sort of central character in the film. The barley was sown by the production team the year before, then grown and looked after for eight months, and I’ve never worked in a more beautiful environment, ever. Because barley moves, it moves all the time, and it moves with the wind and you would never get the effects that we got if we had been using CGI. CGI is brilliant and it can be extraordinary, but a barley field is something else because every blade moves differently and it speaks to you and it makes noises in the wind. It was a living, breathing thing and you could understand why farming is this passion, that you have this relationship with your fields because we really did."
In stark contrast with this countryside idyll, Norman and Cyril race to London with Nanny McPhee in an attempt to trace Mr Green with the help of Cyril’s father Lord Gray. Explains White: "We saved the colour red for London. We had a restricted colour palette for the countryside, and then in London the reds ping out at you, from the buses, pillar boxes and phone boxes to the guardsmen’s outfits and the red nails and red lipsticks on the supporting artists. We wanted London to feel very alien compared to the soft lines of the countryside. We limited the aesthetic to buildings with strong expressionist lines such as Battersea Power Station and the War Office, and, other than the bright reds, we limited the city’s colour palette to blacks and greys. It was important to me that it should feel like ‘a war’ rather than specifically the Second World War, and that the red should stand out like poppies."
After a whistle-stop tour of famous London landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, some of the filming took place over several weekends in Park Crescent, adjacent to Regents Park, and at Senate House, off Russell Square.
Another crucial design aspect of the film was the costumes. Jacqueline Durran, the costumer of films as varied as Atonement and Happy-Go-Lucky, was chosen to design them. Says White, "I wanted the costumes to feel timeless and classic, and Jacqueline embraced that idea in a brilliant way. It was vital to me that an audience should feel they could run into Mrs Green on the streets of Notting Hill now, in her tea dress and plimsolls, and that she would fit right in. Jacqueline drew on classic British designs – Liberty prints, Fair Isle sweaters – and gave the Greens’ clothes a handmade feel because Mrs Green not only embroiders her own clothes but also those of the children. When she patches Megsie’s dungarees she does so in a fun and colourful way.
The Greens’ clothes reflect the same design aesthetic that we see in the way that Mrs Green has decorated the walls of their house. It is all part of one world, a world very different from the world represented by Celia’s frilly, expensive frock and Cyril’s Saville Row suit."
A central feature of the Nurse Matilda books on which the Nanny McPhee series is based is the fact that the title character’s looks change as the children’s behaviour improves. These changes are never explained, but the filmmakers cite a Norwegian proverb – "That which is loved is always beautiful" – as the closest thing to an explanation they’ve been able to find. Everyone reacts to Nanny McPhee’s hideous looks when they first see her – Mrs Green stops dead in her tracks, little Vincent makes an undisguised noise of disgust, Uncle Phil screams out loud, and Cyril describes her features as "a face that could win the war hands down." But as the children grow to love their unusual nanny, and as they themselves become more caring and generous, her hideous features melt away. Whether this transformation actually happens, or happens only in the imagination of the family, is never addressed. In the original Nanny McPhee, Mr Brown and his children notice that her face is changing, but in the new film only the animals notice – Mr Edelweiss squawks, a piglet winks. The changes happen so imperceptibly that even the audience has a hard time knowing exactly what’s different from scene to scene.
Hair and Make-Up Designer Peter King remembers his first thoughts when creating the look for the Nanny McPhee character in the first film. "It had to be scary, but not too scary," says King, who won an Oscar for creating wizards, trolls and hobbits for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. "It had to be funny, but not too funny or it would detract from the more profound themes in the story." In the Nurse Matilda books, Christianna Brand never shies away from describing the initial hideousness of her central character when she first arrives at the family’s door – two hairy warts, a single eyebrow, a protruding "tombstone tooth," and "a nose like two potatoes." Coordinating his efforts with those of the costume department, King and his team recreated that initial look as well as the various stages the character goes through over the course of the story.
"It’s a very complicated process," explains Doran. "Nanny McPhee’s looks sometimes change in the middle of a scene, and everyone has to know exactly where it happens. There were five stages for the costume and seven stages for the make-up and hair, and there had to be absolute clarity as to what the character looked like at each moment in her scenes. To achieve that clarity, we created a chart that contained entries such as the following:
Scene 24B – The children hit each other, then themselves
Costume Stage 1 continues throughout
Hair/Make-Up Stage 1 continues until Vincent exits the parlour towards the end of the scene. As she watches him go, mid-scene, Nanny McPhee enters Stage 2 – one wart is lost, but everything else remains the same. (Stage 2: Largest nose, largest earlobes, 1 wart, largest plumpers for cheeks, lowest hairline, mono-brow, horrible tooth)
"The chart was distributed to the hair, make-up and costume crew as well as to the assistant directors so everyone knew when we had to stop and make a change."
In spite of the complications of the costume, hair and make-up transformations, Thompson was happy to tackle the role of the magical nanny once again: "Nanny McPhee isn’t normal. In some ways she is not human and I always think of her as a collection of projections. Whilst she is certainly a moralist, her system is more like that of the Zen mistress than any other. It’s a tremendously interesting part to play."
Eric Fellner concludes, "I love Nanny McPhee because she creates a world that children love to inhabit. Her authority actually makes children slightly nervous but also really excited. They’re excited because they love seeing what she can do and they’re slightly nervous because they think that she might tell them off as well. It’s wonderful to be able to make a film that extols some kind of classic family values."