Emma Thompson

"Wit" - Edinburgh International Film Festival 2001

Interviewed by Sian Kirwan

How did the film "Wit" come about?

"Wit" originally started as a stage play in the US written by Margaret Edson. She's a kindergarten teacher but had worked previously in a cancer unit for three years. She took what she observed there and put it into a play which ended up winning the Pulitzer prize. It's amazing considering she's never written before and is not going to write anymore. After winning every plaudit under the sun she went straight back into teaching. Luckily Maggie liked how the film turned out. When I first read the script I'd just had my baby and I thought, "I can't play a cancer patient, I'm the size of a sofa!" but then decided that I had to try it as it. In my view it's one of the best scripts to have come out of America.

It was your suggestion to bring in Mike Nichols, with whom you worked on "Primary Colors". Why did you feel he was the right director?

I seem to have inadvertedly claimed the credit for that but actually it was my partner Greg who suggested it. It was partly to do with the film's title because Mike is witty and his comedy has always been extremely funny and very sharp. Way back in the days of Nichols and May, Mike and Elaine May were like the king and queen of New York - and they still are. The other great thing about Mike is that he's terrified of dying and the whole subject of death - as is America. They seem to view it as an optional extra over there, rather than something that is inevitable. You see them getting incredibly excited about cloning and ice boxes, and thinking "Yes, we can live forever, we can!".

Why do you think the film was made for TV and not the cinema?

I think it's because you simply can't sell death to Hollywood. It got 22 million viewers on the small screen in the US but death doesn't fit with the big studio execs. And because "Wit" is about dying and not the transport of the human spirit, which they view as a happier subject, they're not interested. I'm currently re-writing a screenplay by Walter Newman Brown called "Harrow Alley" which is about the great plague. This script is 30 years old and known as one of Hollywood's long lost scripts. George C Scott has wanted to do if for years as there's a great part in it for him. So he took it round to all these studios but nobody wanted anything to do with it because as soon as you mentioned the plague the producers were horrified! But finally, I think we are going to make it with Miramax, who are the only people willing to take a risk on a film about such a tragic subject.

Watch a clip of Emma Thompson talking about working with Mike Nichols on the set of "Wit",

"Wit" will be shown on the BBC later in the year.

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