Hope Gap at the London Film Festival

Tomorrow is the first of four screenings of ‘Hope Gap’ at the London Film Festival, starting with a Gala Screening at the Odeon Leicester Square. Tricia Tuttle, Director of the LFF, has embraced the film warmly. From her letter to me:

‘Our programmers were thoroughly charmed by this sharply scripted, gorgeously designed drama, that will have audiences leaving the cinema and rushing straight to the coast – the British seaside has rarely looked so lush. Annette Bening is extraordinary in a role that is perfectly calibrated to stay enthralling even as Grace works through the most unreasonable of emotions, while Bill Nighy is on equally top form as the man who has made up his mind. We know that audiences will be as charmed as we are with Hope Gap, and we are delighted to be able to present the film to them.’

The actual release is still many months away, but for me tomorrow is a big day.

Meanwhile I’m hard at work on what I hope will be my next film…

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HOPE GAP at film festivals

‘Hope Gap’ will have its first public screening at the Toronto Film Festival, on September 6 2019, and its second at the London Film Festival on October 4. This means it will get its first reviews, a couple at least, even though it won’t be released until next year. Right now I’m living under the happy illusion that the film is something very special, because only people who are kind to me have seen it so far. After Toronto and London, that will change. I’ve endured some brutal shocks following screenings at Toronto: ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ had a triumphant screening and a poor critical response; as did ‘Breathe’. I was in Toronto for ‘Mandela’, but not for ‘Breathe’, where the shock was all the greater because the screening, they told me, was so applauded. It’s a powerful film, beautifully directed by Andy Serkis, and will live on, but these festival roller-coaster rides are tough on the system. All this by way of indicating that I’m braced for whatever comes.

Glancing down the list of films also showing in Toronto and London makes me giddy: the kind of giddiness that takes the form of realising, when you look up at the stars on a clear night, how insignificant you are. So many famous directors, so many famous stars.

The solution: to set my thoughts firmly on the new project which I am even now devising, and to tell myself that whatever happens, the future holds wonder and glory. So I leap from one illusion to another, forever excited by tomorrow, like a small child. I suppose on my death bed I’ll be caught murmuring, ‘The best is yet to come…’

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HOPE GAP first public screening

Last night we screened HOPE GAP for cast and crew and a large gathering of my family and friends, about a hundred in all. It’s always hard to judge when an audience is so pre-selected to approve, but for me at least the screening was hugely encouraging. The film felt powerful, and visibly affected many. I’m beginning to get used to each viewer responding personally, as if the story is about them. My pride in the film remains intact, for now at least.

The UK and US distributors, Curzon and Roadside Attraction, seem to be settling on next spring for the release. This is a long way off, and hard for me, but they’re the experts on when we’ll have the best chance of getting noticed. Meanwhile we now begin submitting the film to the many festivals.

And I’m on the hunt for the right subject for the next film that I’ll write and direct…

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HOPE GAP completed

The final sound mix has just been finished, the picture is graded, and the film is done. I’ve now seen it in its various forms so many times I no longer have much reaction to it, but dimly through the layers of familiarity I’m aware that it has emerged as everything I had ever hoped for it. The whole film-making experience has been unexpectedly free from grief. I keep pinching myself, expecting something to go wrong, but so far so good. Almost the last element to be added, the music (by Alex Heffes), is deeply gratifying. The end of the film in particular is made doubly powerful by the score.

We’ve already sold HOPE GAP on the basis of script, cast, and a five-minute promo, to all territories worldwide except US and UK. These we’re holding back to sell following a screening of the finished film, which will happen in the new year. Once we have the distributors in place for these lead territories we’ll know the release plan.

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Shooting finished on HOPE GAP

The film is now shot, and we're in the editing process. Five weeks of intense work, in Seaford for the exteriors, in Leeds for various interiors, and in an industrial estate near Doncaster for the studio work. All strangely surreal. But we completed the schedule on time, thanks to the commitment of the crew and the skills of our cinematographer Anna Valdez Hanks, and the result - what can I say? I'm excited by what we've got, but daren't admit it. Some kind of superstitious dread stops me from admitting even to myself how high my hopes now reach. Enough to say the three lead actors, Annette Bening, Bill Nighy and Josh O'Connor have exceeded my wildest expectations. Whatever the limits of my work as director, their performances are superb.

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Hope Gap begins...

We're now in pre-production on HOPE GAP, which is fully financed and green-lit. This week a series of location visits with the team, and intense discussions with the Heads of Department. We start rehearsals with Annette Bening, Bill Nighy and Josh O'Connor on June 27. We shoot from July 10.

I've been refining the script as I go over it with Anna Valdez Hanks, our Director of Photography, and Simon Rogers, our Production Designer. We have a tight shoot - just under six weeks - and need to be super-prepared. But it feels good. I've been planning this for so long now that I'm eager to get under way. I feel as if we've already shot it, it's so clear, frame by frame, in my head.

In the end my film will succeed or fail on the performances of the three lead actors. My job, it seems to me, is to create a secure and trusting space within which they can explore and be adventurous and discover the truth of their characters. I still find great acting magical: I don't really know how they do it. I just know I want it.

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Hope Gap

This summer - if nothing goes wrong - I'll be filming HOPE GAP, directing from my own screenplay. It's based on my play THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW, which ran on Broadway some years ago with Eileen Atkins, John Lithgow and Ben Chaplin, and was Tony-nominated. I've developed the script extensively for the film version, which will be played by Annette Bening, Bill Nighy and Josh O'Connor. The story is small-scale - pretty much just the mother, the father, and the grown-up son - but it should be extremely emotionally powerful. I like to think of it as a mid-point between 'Brief Encounter' and 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' - not as sentimental as the former, nor as bitter as the latter. But I should be so lucky as to come close to either.

I'm still pinching myself that I've been able to get my dream cast. With such actors I feel I can't go wrong. I haven't directed since 'Firelight', nearly twenty years ago, a film I've always been proud of, but my experience of the distribution process (managed by Harvey Weinstein) was so bad that it's taken me till now to return to directing. I loved shooting it and editing it. I hated all that followed.

This time will be different. I have my old friend David Thompson as producer, and together we're putting together a fine team. We shoot from late June to mid-August. The finished result will be out some time next year.

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Seventy

Today is my seventieth birthday: as always, too near Christmas to make me want to celebrate in any elaborate way, but a small gathering of friends and family will be joining me over the weekend. It's commonplace for people to say they don't feel their age, and that's true of me too: I am as full of ideas, and of early morning eagerness to be at my desk, as ever, and I'm working as hard as ever, if you can call what I do work. But in another sense I am fully aware that a milestone has been reached. Seventy can't be called middle age. Seventy is old. Seventy is the beginning of the last phase of life. The effect this knowledge has on me is powerful, and in its way exciting: I feel that time is limited, and I must use it well. My ambition, always a great driver, has changed, though not lessened. I feel there is still time - just - to do my best work ever, and nothing else will do. In personal terms I find myself wanting to treasure every day that I have with those I love. In spiritual terms - and after all, for the first twenty years of my life I was a convinced believer in an afterlife - my goal is to make myself ready for death. That may seem premature, but I think it's going to take time. The instinct is to cling on at all costs. I want, when my time comes, to look back on my entire life with gratitude, not disappointment; and to release myself without regret.

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'Breathe'

I first began work on this film ten years ago, which is an indication of how long films can take to reach audiences; if they ever do at all. Jonathan Cavendish, its producer, told me the story of his parents, and I knew at once I wanted to write it as a screenplay, even though at that point there was no finance available. I was happy to embark on the project with Jonathan, and let it lead wherever it might. The result is now completed, and has proved to be one of the best experiences of my life as a screenwriter. Not since 'Shadowlands' has a work of mine been translated to the screen intact. I'm lucky to have fallen into the hands of a director as wise, as skilled, and as remarkable with actors, as Andy Serkis; and I'm lucky to have been graced with two lead actors of the talent of Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy.

So I love the film, and find it moving every time I watch it. But of course I'm aware that there are many who don't much like it.

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KING KONG - Legend of a Boxer

I want to pay tribute to one of the happiest experiences in my life. It took place in Cape Town, in July and August of this year.

A black township musical called 'King Kong' has just opened in Cape Town, a revival of an iconic show that was last performed in 1959. Back then it caused a sensation, and still lingers in the memories of South Africans. It was called 'King Kong' not after the great ape, but after a real boxer who had this as his nickname. The music - township jazz of the era - was written by Todd Matshikiza, and the show starred the then-young Miriam Makeba. It travelled to London, was acclaimed, then died. All these years later producer Eric Abraham has revived it. The original featured a number of glorious songs that are still well known in South Africa, and several spectacular dance numbers, but was weak on story telling and character. Eric called on me to work on the book and lyrics to embed the famous songs in a more coherent show.

In doing this I realised several of the characters needed songs of their own, so I ended up writing six new songs, as well as the revised and developed book. These songs have been set to music by the show's musical director, Charl Johann-Lingenfelder, who has brilliantly channeled the style of Todd Matshikiza. Eric then hired director Jonathan Munby and choreographer Greg Maqoma. We four, working in the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, then built the new show.

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'Breathe'

A film I've been working on for a long time is finally completed, and will be in cinemas from late October. It's called 'Breathe', and stars Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, and is directed by Andy Serkis. I'm hugely proud of this film - the performances by the leads are remarkable, as is Andy's directing - and the result delivers an unusually powerful experience. It's based on a true story, in fact the story of the producer Jonathan Cavendish's father, a story he first told me ten years ago now. His father, Robin Cavendish, contracted polio just before Jonathan was born, and became paralysed from the neck down. On learning he would only survive by having a machine breathe for him for the rest of his life, he begged his wife to let him die. She insisted that he live so that their son could know him. He lived, and what should have been a disaster turned into an extraordinary affirmation of life, centred on an extraordinary marriage. Yes, I know, it sounds like a downer. I can only tell you it's glorious, and you'll have to see it to believe me. 

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Reviews of 'Adventures in Modern Marriage'

Highlights of the reviews so far:

From Melissa Katsoulis in The Times: 'William Nicholson is a gentleman of a certain age who lives in the country and writes novels about marriage... and has produced half-a-dozen well-regarded novels about contemporary life... Nicholson's insight into the female mind is uncanny and shows that he is a man who really listens when women talk... hard truths unearthed in this honest summation of heterosexual mores.'

From Alan Massie in The Scotsman: 'William Nicholson is a master of the ordinary... Anthony Trollope, the master of the novel of the everyday, gave perhaps his greatest novel the title 'The Way We Live Now'. That is Nicholson's subject too, and he has so thoroughly and credibly imagined his characters, their families, homes, careers, hopes, fears and lingering ambitions that he gives us an illuminating and penetrating picture of one part of modern English life in one section of society... Nicholson is a masterly writer, and this is a thoroughly engaging novel.'

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Adventures in Modern Marriage

My new novel, 'Adventures in Modern Marriage', is now published, and the first review, in the Times of Saturday January 14 2017, has appeared. It's the kind of review an author dreams of, and before things get worse, as tends to happen, I want to pause and enjoy the sweet moment. I was on the day flight returning from New York when the review appeared. I knew it was due, but was unable to access it because I was in mid-air. The result was an almost ridiculous seven hours of anxiety. Why should one review, in one paper, at this late stage of my career, have the power to make me so anxious? Well, it's the first, for this book. And the waiting made it harder, knowing it was out there, being read by others and not by me. And I suppose I was bracing myself, in a kind of protective flinch, for the pain of a poor review. After all, there are as many opinions as there are reviewers, and I had no way of knowing how this individual would respond. Virginia offered to wait for the luggage to come off the carousel, and I raced ahead to WHSmith in Terminal 5 Arrivals to seize the last copy of the Times. And there it was, like a late birthday present (I turned 69 last Thursday).

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Stockhausen and Story Telling

Not so long ago I found myself listening with fascination to a radio piece by Tom Service in which he explained, as I felt to me personally, what had happened to serious music in the 20th century. I've always felt guilty that I have so little understanding of the work of so many celebrated composers, of whom Stockhausen is a prime example. Little understanding, and no love. Worse than that, I react with a dislike that is downright suspicious. Tom Service explained all to me. Stockhausen and others were attempting to free themselves from the stale grip of the musical tradition they had inherited, which, they felt, condemned them to repeat old patterns ad nauseam. They wanted to make new music, but found themselves trapped by the existing musical forms. Every arrangement of notes seemed to be no more than an echo of a composer from the past. Stockhausen's solution was to banish the very basis of melody itself: repetition. He ordained that in his work no note would ever be used more than once. At a stroke this put an end to what we had understood to be melody. One simple rule - no repetition - killed all patterns that, for example, begin and return to the same point.

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My new portrait

For several weeks now I've been sitting for my portrait. I met the artist, Charlie Schaffer, through my daughter Maria, and was very impressed by his work. He's still relatively new, but passionately committed, not only to painting, but to portraiture. Being painted by him - six sessions, each about three hours, was a fascinating process. He started work not by roughly sketching my whole head, but by painting one small part of one eye. He says his entire technique is based on close looking. Little by little a part of my nose appeared, then part of the other eye. The extraordinary thing was, I could recognise myself even in such a fragment. You can take a look by clicking on the button below, or by going to the Bio page on this site.

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Reading Montaigne

I’ve been reading Montaigne. So long as you skip straight past all the chunks of Latin he inserts, I think because he fears his own thoughts are not sufficiently authoritative, there are some glorious moments. Here is his central statement: “The world always looks outwards. I turn my gaze inward. There I fix it, and there keep it busy. Everyone looks before him; I look within. I have no business but with myself, I unceasingly consider, examine and analyse myself. Others, if they will but see, are always going elsewhere; they are always going forward. But I revolve within myself.”

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How to do nothing in a hotel in Los Angeles

I’m just home from a few days in Los Angeles, going to meetings related to my TV series, and because my trip was short I did what I’ve done before, and stayed roughly on UK time. This meant having no meetings after 4pm, and going to bed as soon after that as possible; so simulating a late night at home. So far so good. However, as a consequence, I wake at 1am in my hotel room with eight empty hours yawning before me before my day’s business will begin.

A perfect opportunity to catch up with writing, of course. Except I don’t. Something about hotel rooms renders me floppy. And the surprising truth is that I’m capable of doing lots of nothing. So I decided to jot down a list of the various forms of nothing that occupied me one night. Here it is:

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Birthday thoughts

Today I turn 68: not a very memorable age, but within spitting distance of 70, which has to be counted as old age. And yet I don’t feel old. Of course this is commonplace among the ageing, and is part of the armoury of self-delusion which keeps us going. But there’s another reason too. For so much of our life we live through such tumultuous change, as the baby becomes a child, as the youth becomes an adult, as we make our rackety way to a sort of maturity: at which point, or so it seems to me, everything settles down, and from this time onwards, nothing changes. This second part of life began for me at about the age of 40, when I got married and took on the life of a professional writer. As a result I’ve felt much the same age ever since. The thought that I’ve in fact grown older seems not only improbable but unfair. Am I now to endure a dismantling as prolonged and uncomfortable as the making of me?

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Oscar voting

Soon I must vote for Oscars and BAFTAs, so I've been having marathon screening sessions. Top of my list so far is ROOM, which is brilliant in every way. The boy actor, Jacob Tremblay, is astounding. But most of all, it's a film that never stoops to the rigged mini-plots so often used to generate viewer excitement: it goes its own way, always surprising, always utterly believable. The writer of both the novel and the screenplay, Emma Donoghue, has produced a perfect work. People seem surprised that a first-time screenwriter can be so good, but the truth is screenwriting's not hard, it's having something strong and real and true to write about that's hard. Emma Donoghue is original and wise: that's rare.

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Lottery living

I’ve never played the lottery. Secretly, I’ve prided myself on the fact that whatever rewards have come my way have been earned by hard work. So it comes as a small shock to realise that I play a kind of lottery every day. This happens without my conscious intention, but it underpins everything I do. More than that, it makes the process of living possible to me. It works like this: at any given time I’m nursing a secret hope, exactly like the hope of the lottery player that his numbers will come up, but my secret hope relates to me alone. Most commonly it’s to do with the work I’m engaged on: my film script will become the basis of an Oscar-winning film; my novel will be acclaimed; my television series will be the talk of everyone I know. As projects come and go, I shift my secret hope from one to the next, juggling all the time to keep open the possibility that my life will be transformed, at some unspecified time in the future. I think this is one of the reasons I work on so many projects at once. They can’t all die on me at the same time, can they? My actual experience is that most projects do either collapse before completion, or fail after completion, so my spread-betting makes sense. For example, right now I’m at different stages on a film project for a brilliant director; a ten-part TV series; a novel; and most embryonic and distant of all, a plan to write and direct a small film of my own. These projects may all die, but they can’t die soon. I reckon I’ve got at least two years of hope bottled up here.

Then there’s all the lesser beacons that I set shining on the path ahead: we’re planning to refurbish our London base, and I love to picture how it will be when it’s done. Christmas is coming, and all the children will be home. In January there’s skiing. In July there’s Corsica. And in the meantime, each day reaches out some little gleam of delight: the glass of wine in the evening, the sinking into my bed to sleep at night. All of which is commonplace, until I start to see the pattern running through my behaviour.

These are all childish longings for what’s not yet come. At no point do I seek my delight in the present moment.

As soon as one of these anticipated rewards arrives, I’m reaching ahead again; not exactly wanting something better, it’s not greed; but I have become addicted to living in hope. There’s something ridiculous about this. I’m now undeniably in the later stages of my life, but here I am, still acting like an eager teenager, for whom the best is all to come. When do I give up? When do I say, This is it, this is my life, it’s a good life, and it’s happening to me right now? When do I let myself off the treadmill?

I’ve always loved the Nunc dimittis, that moment when Simeon, who has kept himself alive until he finally sees Jesus, takes him in his arms and says, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.’ That’s a moment to live for, the moment when you tell yourself, There’s no more. I can be let go. I’m not on the way to somewhere else. I’m here. Now.

So I’m tired of the conditional life, the not-yet life, the waiting on the lottery draw. But I’m addicted to it. It’s the engine that drives me. How do other people get from day to day? As my friends age with me I want to ask them: how do you do it? After retirement, after the children have left home, after the phone has stopped ringing, after the emails no longer fill the screen, what happens?

This, by the way, is one of the main themes of my next novel, where it becomes known as the ‘half-death’. One life ends, but you live on, perhaps for decades. Doing what? Living a real life for the first time?

I love the evening prayer from The Book of Common Prayer:

‘O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.’