Written and directed by Jessica Swale, the wartime drama Summerland follows Alice (Gemma Arterton), a reclusive writer with a prickly personality who is content in her solitary life in England during World War II. When she finds herself in a situation where she’s to adopt a frightened young London evacuee named Frank (Lucas Bond), he warms her heart and allows her to re-evaluate painful secrets from her past that free her on her own journey.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Jessica Swale talked about what inspired her to write Summerland, telling a period story with a contemporary sensibility, collaborating with her cast, the changes that were made to the lead character so that Gemma Arterton could play the role, what she most enjoyed about creating and writing someone like Alice, why editing was the hardest part of the process, and the projects that she’s currently developing now.
Collider: This is an original story, but these characters are so alive and vibrant that it feels like they were real people during this specific time period. What was it that inspired the story and the characters for you?
JESSICA SWALE: It was piecemeal. At first it was starting to think about writing a story specifically for the cinema screen, which I wanted to do. At the time when I started writing this, it was on a bursary, and I’d been given the opportunity to write something original for the cinema. Whereas the two film projects that I’d had before that were adaptations of plays that I’d written. This was actually the first time somebody said, “Here’s some time and a bit of money. Write something for the cinema. It could be anything you want.” In one way, it’s a fantastic opportunity, and in another way, it makes things really difficult because there were absolutely no constraints as to what that story might be. So, I sat myself down and said to myself, “What can cinema do? Why write for the cinema? Why do I love going to the cinema? What am I interested in seeing? Well, I don’t want to see stories about the real politics of the world and everyday life. I want to go to the cinema to escape and to see beyond my everyday life experience because we’ve got the opportunity to have the big screen. What could it do?” And that’s where I started thinking about magical realism and how I love stories which push the boundaries of real life. I started thinking about this question of, “What if?” What if there is something beyond our experience? What if magic really existed? And then, I started reading about folklore, and the crossover between folklore and real life, and where those stories came from, and what people were looking at when they made up stories about things like islands that float in the sky. Had they actually seen something real? And if they did see something, then what was it? And then, I started thinking, “Here’s an interesting character whose job it is to work out what the truth behind the folklore.” From there, I started thinking, “What if it’s somebody who had believed in magic, and for some reason, has become a skeptic?” That was where the story began.
Now that you’ve taken that whole journey and you can look back on the finished product, are you surprised that this is the story that whole journey ultimately led you on?
SWALE: Oh, yeah. But I’m constantly surprised as a writer, because I don’t like to plan too much. I feel like the greatest tool I have in my toolbox, as a writer, is spontaneity and surprise. I’ve found, from experience, as much as I’m sure that there’s some people who work in a very different way, that I’m most excited, as a writer, when I don’t really know what’s going to happen. If I, for example, planned this whole movie in a three-page treatment, I don’t think there’s any way that you would ever surprise an audience, particularly because anything that I could plan in such a short space of time people are going to guess. Whereas what I like to do is to find the character by writing in their voice and getting to know them, and then discover what they’re going to do and what they’re going to say. And quite often, they then misbehave, and that becomes the interesting choice. When I started out writing this, I didn’t know that Alice was gay, and I had no idea that Frank was going to be Vera’s child. That struck me halfway through writing, on the top of the bus, when I cried out loud thinking, “No! Surely not! Is that possible?!” And then of course, when you come across something like that, you have to go back and rewrite what you’ve done in order to hide that and bury it, to make sure it is possible. That’s what I mean about the spontaneity of writing and how I take such great pleasure in having no idea. Hopefully, the audience does, as well, in enjoying the surprises that happen. I’ve always loved surprises in film. I love films with twists.
This is a wartime drama, but it has such a contemporary sensibility to it that feels really effortless. How tricky is it to balance making something feel of a specific era while still having it be relatable to audiences now? Is that something that’s really helped by the emotional arc of the story that you’re telling because the emotions don’t really have a specific time period?
SWALE: Yeah, I think so. I’ve done a lot of work that’s set in different periods, and that’s often a comment that people make. I’ve not taken it for granted, but it’s never a huge effort for me, and I think that’s because I don’t think about the period when I’m thinking about the characters. I think about them as people who are experiencing universal feelings, as the rest of us do. Of course, the circumstances that they are in might have a particular impact on how they react, but people still had broken hearts and fell in love and had turbulent relationships as far back as people have existed. I think it can alienate people if you write characters speaking in a dialogue form, which is, in any way, more formal or staid than we use now. It’s about people having conversations and feeling modern in the way that they interact. I’ve always thought the dialogue which I write for anything period needs to feel really new and contemporary and honest, and people should speak in short sentences, in the same way that they do now, rather than the notion of an Edwardian or a Victorian way of speaking where people speak in great, long, intellectual lines, and then trust that the circumstances that they’re in will remind us all what the period is.
After spending time writing this and living with these characters, what was it like to then find the actors that you would turn the material over to and watch what they brought to them?
SWALE: Gemma [Arterton], who plays Alice, is a very good friend of mine, but I didn’t actually write it thinking about her. I started writing it before I knew her so well, but it was also because Alice, in my head, was a bit older. It was only when we were having dinner together and I found out that she’d read it and loved it. It was an opportunity, where I thought, “Actually, I could adapt this. Wouldn’t it be great if Gemma played Alice ‘cause she’s such a comedian, as an actress, and she’s so fantastic and versatile? It’s also not the sort of part that we’ve seen her play before, so it would be surprising and interesting for an audience, I hope.” And then, of course, we worked on it together because I was rewriting it with her in mind. Rather than handing it over, as the director, you are there for every element of the actor experiencing that story. What I love is that what they bring to it is always more than you could have ever imagined. They bring a huge amount of their own work and thought and personality into it, but you work with them to do that and you’re both there, shooting it together. Rather than it being my work, and then handing it over to her, it’s much more of an ongoing transaction, where as soon as an actor gets involved, there’s a beautiful thing where you do a dance together and create something that is better than either of you could have done individually. At least, that’s the hope, unless you mess it up in the edit.
Once you did know who would be playing Alice, aside from changing the age of the character, were there any other major changes to the role that you made specifically for Gemma Arterton, or did you just make little changes?
SWALE: It really was that. It was about age. I knew that she could do comedy and that she was a brilliant comedian, so I wanted to make sure there was enough of that in the story, and that’s my voice, too. I think we’re such good friends because we both have very similar senses of humor. But to be honest, I’m always very wary of rewriting something for an actor because the tendency then is to turn that character into something that you know the actor is capable of because you’ve seen them do it before. Actually, I think a brilliant performance comes from an actor looking at something and thinking, “Here’s an opportunity for me to stretch outside the bounds of what people expect.” One of the reasons Gemma wanted to play Alice was because it was the sort of part that we’re not familiar with her doing. It would have been really easy to make Alice a bit more like Gemma’s usual fare, but actually that would discredit her, as an actor, and it would make a less interesting story. For example, it was Alice’s crankiness and the fact that she’s not a particularly likable character at the beginning which really appealed to Gemma because she so often plays the bright, lovable heroine. I wanted to challenge her because I think that’s where you get the best work out of people.
Alice, as a character, can be very difficult at times. What did you most enjoy about getting to explore someone like her, especially through the writing part of it?
SWALE: Oh, I absolutely loved it. There’s nothing more boring than writing a very soft, lovely, kind person. For me, to write somebody who speaks their mind entirely and doesn’t give a flying ounce is so refreshing. There’s a bit of all of us that’s constrained by the polite notions of society. I’ve often thought, “I really wish I could just speak my mind entirely and didn’t care what the consequences are or what other people think.” There are always reasons why you can’t do that, so the joy of writing someone who just does exactly as she wants, sometimes to rile people, was just delicious. The other part of that is that I try not to judge my characters. Lots of people have said that Alice isn’t particularly likable, but I actually think she’s pretty justified, most of the time, in her behavior. She’s so bullied by the town and forced out. The local children are cruel to her, and they cast her out and avoid her, and they’ve made her put up a barrier. They don’t like her and they think she’s strange because she’s an intellectual woman who lives on her own and studies. So actually, when she doesn’t have the patience and the time for people who are essentially interrupting her work, particularly being a writer myself, I really understand that. I sometimes feel like, “If I could just tell people to go away ‘cause I’m in the middle of my draft, I’d like to do that.” She’s not as outrageous as people might think she is.
What was the post-production process like for you on this?
SWALE: The edit is the hardest part. I absolutely love the openness of the creative process, and I love collaborating with other people and I love the beginnings of things. I was inspired to write the story because I liked the question of, “What if?” When you’re writing, there’s still the possibility of it ending any way you want it to. Similarly, when you’re shooting, you’re collecting material. The tricky thing, for me, about the edit is that you have to make tough decisions in order to hone it into one thing. Because I’m used to directing theater, in the theater, you never have a final product because it’s different every night. That’s partly the joy, and also the frustration of it. Whereas in film, it’s a great bonus to be able to create a final piece, where the experience of watching it will never change. Frame by frame, it’s cut in a particular way, and that is the story you’re telling. As a soft-hearted romantic, there’s something tricky about making those decisions and making it so final because there are so many different possible ways to tell that story. There are so many scenes that you have to cut because you want it to be a certain length, which you still love. That’s probably the hardest piece of the process for me.
It’s one thing to think about a comedy where the filmmaker has to choose between alternative jokes, but with something like this, it seems like it would be so hard to edit the film down because you have to get rid of scenes that you actually really love.
SWALE: Yeah. A lot of the time, it’s whether you want this shot or that shot of a scene. Sometimes you want the funniest version, or a moment where you really see the vulnerability. But there’s always that question of length and pacing, and that sort of thing. There were lots of parts at the beginning where Alice was even more outrageously behaved, which we couldn’t keep in terms of making sure that the pace kept up during the film. But I loved seeing how mean she was. I think there might be a director’s cut, one day, that’s about three hours long. That will just be for the die hard fans.
Do you know what you would like to do next? Would you like to return to the theater, or are you focused more on film and TV now?
SWALE: Because we shot Summerland two years ago, I’ve got three films which are going to be, depending on COVID, made within the next nine months. I wrote a play, Nell Gwynn, which I’ve adapted into a feature film, so we’re hopefully shooting that at the end of this year. And then, I’ve got two adaptations of books. I’m doing Persuasion with Fox Searchlight, and Longbourn, which is a fantastic book by Jo Baker. And all of those have directors attached and they’ll be out in the world. And then, I’ve got a couple of other secret projects, which I can’t talk about yet, but there’s one film which I’m desperate to make. That’s my next original feature, which I’m writing and would love to direct. It’s an idea that’s very different from Summerland, but it has a similar tone, in that it’s a heartfelt story with an optimistic streak in it, and elements of comedy and tragedy. It’s set in the North of Italy, so it will not be a hardship to go make that film in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
When you write scripts that you then hand over to a director, what is that like? With any of those scripts, did you think about specific actors while you were writing it, but then you don’t know who will end up getting cast in the roles?
SWALE: One of the nice things is that I’ve been really consulted in the casting process on those films, so I’ve been very involved. And all of the directors that are directing them know that I’m also a director. There’s an element of making sure that I have some say, but they also feel like they can own it while I keep my writing hat on and try not to tread on any toes. It’s a hard transition. If the timing or circumstances had been different, I would have loved to direct any of those other three. But having said that, I feel like I’m learning such a lot by working with directors who were much more experienced than I am. And so, by the time I shoot my next movie, not only will I be making my feature, but I’ll have made another three with another three directors who I hugely respect and admire. It’s all a part of the learning process, really.
As a director, whether it’s for film or on stage, what do you like about working with actors? How do you approach working with actors throughout a production? Do you have to adapt to each actor different because they all have a different process?
SWALE: I’m really glad that I did a good 10 or 12 years directing in the theater before I moved into filmmaking, because the part of the process that I know very well is working with the actors. There were a lot of new experiences, in terms of cameras and equipment and the way a set works, but working with actors, I feel like I’ve done from the very beginning of my career. I love actors, and I love working with actors. It always surprises me when directors say, “Bloody actors! I don’t like working with actors. They’re the hardest part of the process.” I feel like the vulnerability that actors and their sensitivity and what they bring to the process is enormous. And if you can help to foster that and allow them to do their best work, it can be the most joyous collaboration. Part of it is about realizing that every actor works in a different way and that, yes, in one way, you can have your process as a director, but you also have to be sensitive and flexible, in order to know how to get the best out of somebody. If an actor likes to be very quiet and not rehearse a lot, and they need silence to come in and do their bits, that can be very different to working with someone who’s very energetic and really game to just try anything. For me, what’s important in an actor is for them to be able to be spontaneous in terms of, if we’re changing scenes as we go, but also to be happy to make offers as well. One of my favorite things about working with Gemma is that she’s really game. She can give us three, four, or ten very different versions of a single line, if it might be useful to have different interpretations of that. She can also hold a whole story in her head and keep track of the order that elements of the film are playing out in. In theater, you’re very used to telling a story in the right order, but when you shoot a film, you’re not in the right order, at all, so you have to really be on your toes about making sure you’re getting the tone right at any one point.
Summerland is available on VOD and digital.