Andrew Dunn BSC / The Lady in the Van
Andrew Dunn BSC / The Lady in the Van
There are stories that are quintessentially British and as cinematographer Andrew Dunn BSC says, the writer Alan Bennett and his work couldn't be more British.
The latest film to be based on Bennett's writings is The Lady In The Van, telling, in slightly stylised form, the tale of how a homeless woman came to live in the vehicle of the title parked on the author's driveway and the relationship that developed between them over a15-year period.
This is the third feature written by Bennett that Dunn has photographed and the fourth he has worked on with director Nicholas Hytner, who also directed Bennett's The Madness Of King George (1994) and The History Boys (2006), as well as The Crucible (1996), taken from the play by Arthur Miller. The Lady In The Van stars Maggie Smith as Miss Mary Shepherd and Alex Jennings in a dual role as two incarnations of Bennett: AB, who has to deal with the irascible woman living outside his home, and Alan, the writer telling the story.
Dunn says that having the same actor playing both parts - a change from the stage version, in which different actors take the two roles - called for visual effects work that in part dictated the choice of camera and recording format.
"We shot on the ARRI Alexa in 1.85 aspect ratio for the VFX but also because of the budget," he explains. "We used compositing, which was a lot more economical than motion controlled cameras, and allowed us to have Alex as the two Alan Bennetts interacting with each other. We had a terrific VFX consultant in Mervyn New, and a great crew in general."
The Lady In The Van is the first of the films Dunn has shot for Hytner to feature a digital camera. He says he is now used to "chopping and changing" between digits and film and thinks the Alexa was "the right choice" for this particular production, giving it "depth and texture", although he says that while digital cameras do deliver that more as a matter of course today, “it does take some TLC to give a human aspect".
"I was in there with Maggie using a handheld camera, clambering round with apple boxes to do the shooting."
- Andrew Dunn BSC
The Alexa also made it possible to shoot inside a van on location using low light instead of creating an interior set of the vehicle in a studio. "In a way it's anti-lighting," Dunn comments. "We were putting dark things around the camera and beyond it to so we can get into the darker parts of a scene. It was tricky shooting in the van, which was only four and a half feet wide and sitting in a ten feet wide drive. When daylight was fading we created daylight inside with minimal lighting, using a couple of highlights to make the sequences feel real and as though they weren't lit."
Dunn's gaffer on the shoot was Andy Long, who already had a lot of experience working in low light environments for Gavin Finney BSC on Wolf Hall. As with his other films for Hytner, Dunn operated the camera himself, which, on the interior van scenes, made for intimate working with the star. The camera, lens and grip package was supplied by Panavision.
"I was in there with Maggie using a handheld camera, clambering round with apple boxes to do the shooting," he says. "We thought it would be better if we filmed in the van so that the audience feels it is in there with her."
The realism of the film is heightened by it being shot in Alan Bennett's house in Camden Town, which he still owns but doesn't live in any more, and on Gloucester Crescent where it stands. Miss Shepherd arrived there in the late 1960s; in 1974 Bennett became worried that she was something of a target out in the street and offered her his driveway, where she and her van stayed until her death in 1989. That part of north London is now heavily gentrified and hugely expensive in terms of property and although Dunn says efforts were made to convey the different periods of time, the emphasis was more on the environs and characters involved: "We did pay attention to satellite dishes and road markings but on a budget like ours we were more interested in people in the street and the events that tell the story."
The Lady In The Van was shot in October, November and the beginning of December 2014. Dunn says he always uses some filtering for his shoots and on this one it was a mixture of Schneider and Tiffen filters.
"I have a collection of those in my personal filter case," he comments, "and it was a combination of the two to create the different lighting looks." He adds that he also worked closely with his regular DI colourist, Paul Ensby, to enhance the look and give it extra depth.
In addition to starring Maggie Smith and two Alex Jennings, The Lady In The Van marked a reunion for both Dunn and Hytner with most of the cast of The History Boys, who appear in small roles, including Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and James Corden, now a US talk show star, who plays a market trader. The star of that film, Richard Griffiths, died in 2013 but Dunn says by a coincidence a child performer playing one of the children in The Lady In The Van had the same name, so everyone felt the departed actor still had a presence on set.
Like Corden, Dunn has been splitting his time between Britain and America. He has continued working with director Lee Daniels, who he first worked with on 2009's Precious (as discussed in BC38), following that with the highly-acclaimed The Butler (2013) and the pilot for the TV music dynasty melodrama Empire. The two are reuniting for a biopic of the comedian Richard Pryor, subtitled Is it Something I Said?, which is in pre-production. With Keeping Up With The Jones for Greg Mottola and The Lady In The Van, Dunn sees this as his "comedy year". That continues as he now begins shooting a film marking the return of Bridget Jones, who he describes as "a slightly different kind of mad woman". Maybe there's a theme developing there.