The Toronto Film Festival is only half over, and though several promising festival films have already emerged as Oscar contenders—like Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything, and Wild—there are still several curious and intriguing movies yet to debut. One of them is A Little Chaos, Alan Rickman’s period romantic-drama that will be TIFF’s closing-night film on Sept. 14. Kate Winslet stars as Sabine De Barra, a strong-willed 17th-century French gardener who challenges sexual and class barriers when she vies to design and build one of the main showcase attractions at King Louis’s XIV’s new palace at Versailles. Using wit and intelligence, she attracts the attention of the court’s renowned landscape architect, André Le Nôtre (The Drop‘s Matthias Schoenaerts), and comes face to face with the Sun King himself, who demands the gardens become a paradise of unrivaled beauty.
Who else to play such an all-powerful king that Rickman himself, who can convey more disdain or disinterest with one raised eyebrow than most actors can with a lengthy soliloquy. A Little Chaos is Rickman’s first time back behind the camera since The Winter Guest in 1997—though he’s directed several theatrical plays in between. A Winter Guest starred Emma Thompson, a longtime friend of Rickman’s from Sense and Sensibility. With A Little Chaos, Rickman reunited with the other Dashwood sister, and the actor/director marvels at the actress and the woman she has become.
In an exclusive scene from the film, which is in Toronto hunting for distribution, Winslet’s Sabine arrives at the king’s gardener’s plot to swap some shrubs and flowers. But the head gardener isn’t there, sent away earlier by the king himself so he could enjoy some solitude surrounded by beauty. For better or worse, Sabine doesn’t recognize her king when she meets him face-to-face for the first time.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A film like yours, a period indie, doesn’t get made these days without someone who really loves it and protects it. Why was the story so special to you?
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, it’s as special as any good script that one reads. I was very close to directing something else, and then this one leapfrogged it in terms of actors availability and money and coming together and things like that. I really hadn’t been free to direct anything apart from theater—I’d done quite a bit of directing theater while I was involved with Harry Potter—but you’re shooting that seven weeks every year and that’s enough to make it impossible to direct a movie. This one had just beautiful writing in it, and that’s Alison Deegan, she’s the screenwriter. When you have Phyllida Law saying a line like, “My husband and son died in each other’s arms; I’m barely here,” you think, “Well, these are lines where great actors will let the line take care of itself.” And it’s a cumulative thing, with great writing. It’s not firing on all guns every moment, but hopefully it has a kind of cumulative effect.
What made you want to direct such a strong female character?
I just see Sabine as a person, but of course, I am and was very well guided by a female writer and by having Kate and her sensibility on the set. I can’t direct anything unless when I read it, images start jumping off the page. It sort of demands your involvement in a way, like [the script] is saying, “What about me?”
“Sensibility” reminds me that you and Kate first worked together in Sense and Sensibility. How did she come aboard this project?
Yeah, Kate and I worked together when she was 19, so that’s a huge jump to now. When you read the script, you realize that it’s a very short list of people who can believably get their hands dirty and scrub up well, and also make you believe in their mental energy, as well as their physical energy. Not very many people around who can do that. And by the time I came to see the movie as a real thing, Kate was old enough to play the part. If it had happened any earlier, she would’ve been too young. It’s got to be someone where you believe that she’s a professional woman, with an established business, and [old enough to have suffered great loss]. Kate’s now got three children, one of whom was kind of announced while we shooting. So one of them, we’ll be able to point to Kate’s corset at some point down the line and go, “That’s you in there.”
That’s right. I remember last year in Toronto, she was here for Jason Reitman’s Labor Day and she was very pregnant. So she must’ve been pregnant when she was shooting your film.
Yeah. She didn’t know she was, thank God, for the insurance. No, she didn’t know she was pregnant when we started and then she found out. That’s why—it’s a horrible thing to call her a resource, but she is, in miraculous ways, not just her ability to listen to her fellow actors and be there with them. But also her stamina is phenomenal, because she’s in almost every scene. And by the end of shooting, I think she was 14 weeks pregnant, and we were having her thrown in cold water at 1 o’clock in the morning. That’s a pregnant woman down there [in that scene], and that’s a very scared director and that’s a very supporting husband watching it happen.
How has Kate changed as an actress in 20 years? Or is she the same?
Well, obviously she’s not the same, but many of the things that one loved about her then are the same, which are she’s immensely brave and she’s phenomenally prepared, which is a great gift. Then, in the editing room, you can look at any scene, and the wide-shot, the medium-shot, the close-shot will all match flawlessly. The left hand will always be picking up the bag and the right hand will come across on the same line, and it means everything’s usable. But none of it’s done in a kind of pedantic way. It’s not as if it’s pre-planned. There are things going on that I wasn’t necessarily asking for or expecting. She’s thinking freshly all the time, so you can just put the camera on her listening [to the other actors], and it’s gold dust when you have an actor like Kate.
All the things you’re saying make me think that she would make an amazing director.
I keep saying that to her. I say, “When are you going to direct?” But the thing about Kate is that her life doesn’t only revolve around work. I can’t honestly remember her response, but it’s almost bound to be a shrug and then, “Wait a minute while I answer this phone call from my daughter,” or “I’ve got to sort out a birthday party for my son.” She came back after a weekend, and there were photographs of them all wearing protective paper suits because they’d had a birthday party throwing baked beans at each other. That’s Kate. She’s as involved in her life, as a wife and mother, as she is as an actor. There’s probably some connection in there somewhere that she could actually direct a movie, but—you know what it is? She’s such a force of nature. She’ll do it when she wants to, if she wants to.
In addition to directing, you play Louis XIV. How did you juggle those responsibilities?
I don’t know how people do it. Ralph Fiennes is a very good friend. I don’t know how he did Invisible Woman. I’m not saying one shouldn’t, but I don’t know how it’s done. It’s really hard to switch. The only way I could do it was because in a way, he’s like a director, Louis, so you kind of keep the same expression on your face. As a director, you see everything somehow. It’s like a huge all-encompassing eye that sees everything, and it’s able to cherry pick: “Move that,” “Don’t do that,” “Do it this way,” “Change this color.” And I don’t know where that comes from, but it does, once you’re given the job, and I have a feeling Louis probably would’ve been a great film director.
Yes, Louis has that all-encompassing stare that fans will recognize from Prof. Snape and other memorable characters of yours.
As an actor, I’m very interested in the power of listening. When people are really listening to each other, there’s an invisible kind of electric current that starts to happen before actors. If people are just taking it in turns to do their speech, that’s [all] you get. But when you get really active listening, something unknown is happening in the space between people. So that’s what I hope is going on in this film.
Well, that description reminds me of the garden scene from the film, where Sabine walks into the quaint garden and disrupts Louis’s peace and quiet—without knowing, of course, who he is. It’s a fine example of actors listening.
I think in a way, it’s also a kind of fulcrum of change in the story for them both. About how both of them move on. Having worked with Kate before, there is a level of trust, that means you can just sit down and chat. But in actual effect, the truth of that scene is the nightmare of the fact that we were on a flight path. So we had to focus hard all day long, because I think about every 30 seconds a plane was coming over. [Laughs] It was just hell, so the outtakes are pretty funny. We could certainly hear the planes flying over. We had gone to that location specifically to get away from the damn planes, and then we were crucified by it. All I’ll say is, “Thank God for two actors who trust each other not to get freaked out,” but also, “Thank God for the editing process.”
Has the experience cured your desire to direct?
Cured? That’s kind of an odd way of putting it. Is it a disease?
Well, I just know how much work it is. And maybe it’s like childbirth for some people; they need a few years to forget about the pain. Whereas others are eager to jump right back in.
I don’t know, I’m immensely encouraged by the energies of people like—and I’m not comparing myself in any way, but—of Clooney and Clint Eastwood and other actors. I think Gary Oldman is going to direct again, after an even longer gap [than mine]. I don’t know, I don’t think anybody asks George Clooney that, do they? They just let him do what he wants to do, and he gets excited by a project. I suppose that’s how it should be.