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13 November 2014

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You are in: Cambridgeshire > Entertainment > Films > Inkheart director's Cambridge days

Helen Mirren

Oscar winner Helen Mirren

Inkheart director's Cambridge days

Inkheart director and Cambridge graduate Iain Softley chats to film critic Jan Gilbert about his student days, medieval Italian towns, and working with Oscar-winner Helen Mirren.

You can catch Jan’s weekly movie reviews and gossip with Antonia Brickell on Drive between 4 and 6pm on 95.7, 96FM and 1026 MW

Iain Softley is one versatile director. He made his big-screen debut with the Beatles biopic Backbeat. Then came teen computer drama Hackers with Angelina Jolie, and Henry James adaptation The Wings Of The Dove starring Helena Bonham Carter. Next up was sci-fi movie K-PAX with Kevin Spacey, followed by supernatural thriller The Skeleton Key featuring Kate Hudson in a rare non-rom-com outing.

Eliza Bennett

Rising star Eliza Bennett

And this month sees Softley move into new movie territory with family fantasy Inkheart, starring Brendan Fraser, Helen Mirren, Paul Bettany, and Eliza Bennett (Nanny McPhee). Based on author Cornelia Funke’s best-selling novel, Inkheart follows the adventures of a young girl (Bennett) and her father (Fraser) whose ability to bring fictional characters to life causes havoc in the real world.

When Funke, Germany’s answer to J.K. Rowling, agreed to bring the first novel in her Inkworld Trilogy to the big screen, there was only one man she wanted in the director’s chair: Iain Softley. “The Wings Of The Dove, which I made in Venice and London, was a favourite of hers, and she wanted that same sensibility and vision for Inkheart,” reveals Softley over the phone from his London home.

After reading Funke’s novel and visiting the north-west Italian region of Liguria where Inkheart is set, Softley immediately understood the author’s vision. “There are many medieval towns in Liguria that it seems time has forgotten,” he explains. “And I saw, when I went there, what it was Cornelia was seeing in The Wings Of The Dove, which was a sense of romance in a very real environment with all the dirt and the grime. It’s warts n’ all, but there’s still a sense of wonder about it.”

Eliza Bennett and Brendan Fraser

Inkheart is based on Funke's novel

Oscar winner

Keen to make the film feel authentic for both actors and audience, Softley made minimum use of special effects and maximum use of real Italian towns and old-school stunts. “I tried to work on location as much as possible and make sets as real as possible. When we were on stage we had really elaborate sets, and I know the actors found that much more stimulating than being in front of four walls of green cloth.”

One of those actors, Helen Mirren, had a particularly busy time while making Inkheart, jetting back and forth for awards ceremonies following her winning performance in The Queen. “More than once she arrived on set after an all-night flight, the most memorable of which was when she came back with the Oscar in her shopping bag,” recalls Softley. “It was great fun that day and we had a big party on the set, with a big Oscar cake. What was really wonderful was that she brought the joy and the appreciation of that accolade to her work. It really seemed to reinvigorate what it was she loved about what she did.”

Softley was equally impressed with the film’s young lead, 16-year-old Eliza Bennett, who plays Meggie, Brendan Fraser’s daughter. “It was an enormous burden that we thrust on her shoulders. She was fourteen or fifteen when she first turned up with these very illustrious actors. And I knew the film relied enormously on how well she characterised Meggie. But she took it all in her stride. She was very natural, hardworking, and could accommodate anything we threw at her.”

Bennett's character can make characters come to life

Characters come to life from books

And that included recording the film’s final song at Abbey Road Studios and shooting a music video. “Eliza sang a beautiful song written by Tom Baxter, and we were all taken aback by yet another thing she took to so easily,” says Softley. “I think the experience of the film is different if you know it’s Eliza singing the end song.”

Cambridge train cancellations

While the list of actors with whom Softley has worked during his career is truly impressive, even as an English student at Cambridge he was already performing alongside the award-winners of the future. “I was involved in a number of productions through BATS, the Queens’ College drama organisation,” says Softley. “I was a couple of years behind Roger Michell [director of Venus and Notting Hill] and we did a lot of productions at the ADC. I acted a couple of times with Emma Thompson and directed Stephen Fry in a production of The Tempest. It was a very stimulating time in drama.”

It was not only theatre, but film too which Softley developed a passion for as a student. “Gap years weren’t that common in the late 70s when I was at Cambridge, but I spent about a year in France, part of it in Paris, and really started to educate myself with French cinema,” he tells me. “I then continued that education at the Arts Cinema in Cambridge, which had an amazingly eclectic programme of European and American film, screening till one or two in the morning most days of the week.”

Fraser and Bennett

Fraser, Bennett and Mirren

And it was also at Cambridge that the director had an early taste of life behind the camera. “I was a member of the Cambridge Film Unit, a sort of loose society which made one or two productions a year,” remembers Softley. “I made a couple of my own Super 8 films, one of which involved a lot of time on a remote railway station in Cambridgeshire, and even more time when all the trains that were going to take us back to Cambridge were cancelled!”

With five successful feature films already behind him, and another out now, it seems that since graduating from Cambridge, Softley’s career has been right on track.

Inkheart is released on the 12th of December.

last updated: 15/12/2008 at 10:10
created: 11/12/2008

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