When shooting Ben Cookson’s Waiting For Anya starring Noah Schnapp in France, the production had to battle the remote location, inclement weather and the busy diary of a bear.
Sunset waits for no one in the mountains at Accous, high up in the French Pyrenees. One minute, the crew of Ben Cookson’s Waiting For Anya is shooting in late-evening gold; the next, darkness has taken over. Four weeks into a five-week production in early spring 2018 and the cast and crew are unfazed after having already faced down plenty of other challenges while filming in a remote location.
Frederick Schmidt, who plays Jewish refugee Benjamin, is full of joie de vivre: “When we sit around the breakfast table it’s the most dysfunctional family, and yet…we’ve all become such good friends.”
“We had to tear up the schedule on day one due to a blanket snowfall,” says producer Alan Latham of UK-based Goldfinch Studios. The adverse weather meant the caterers had to bed down in sleeping bags in the town hall to ensure food could be served to cast and crew the next day.
Further challenges included shooting with a real bear, which had been hired by the production for a key scene in which it is hunted by local villagers. But the sequence had to be moved to the end of the shoot as it turned out the bear was already booked to appear elsewhere. (How much did that cost? “Don’t even ask,” laughs Latham.) When the bear was finally available, Latham says it rained for 12 hours straight. “The entire crew had to be wrung out, they were so wet,” he recalls.
Goldfinch is working with Phin Glynn’s Bad Penny Productions on the feature. Glynn acknowledged the changing parameters: “We came in guns blazing…the impracticalities of shooting it somewhere authentic really reared their head. We worked through it, and now it’s just been a blast.”
Waiting For Anya is Cookson’s second feature, following romantic comedy Almost Married in 2015. The film is an adaptation of the novel by Michael Morpurgo about a French boy who helps Jewish children to escape across the Pyrenees into Spain during the Second World War.
With a $10m budget from private equity, sales agent 13 Films and its own funding, Waiting For Anya is an ambitious project for Goldfinch Studios. The company was created last year by the merger of London-based film financing outfit Goldfinch Entertainment with York-based production company GSP Studios. CEO Kirsty Bell sees this film as the natural next step. “We believe in a commercial project. Two years ago, we were definitely heading in that direction, but we’re there now.”
Waiting For Anya stars Anjelica Huston (The Witches), Jean Reno (Léon: The Professional) and Noah Schnapp, one of the young stars of Netflix series Stranger Things. Even in secluded Accous, youngsters have queued for a selfie with Schnapp. With his bar mitzvah approaching, Schnapp says his Jewish faith was a motivating factor in taking on the role. “It’s so important to me to be a part of this story,” he says. As for his first experience leading a film: “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun too.”
Local villagers welcomed the production with open arms and many have appeared as extras, playing their 1940s counterparts: the dentist came on set after treating Latham and the mayor can be found serving tea and coffee.
The warmth is due partly to a local adoration of Morpurgo, who has a long connection to the region. Several decades ago, while he was visiting the area, a young girl asked the author to sign her copy of his children’s novel War Horse. She introduced him to her grandfather, who told the author about his childhood, living under German occupation. It was these memories that inspired what became Waiting For Anya, a story about the complex relationship between occupiers and the occupied. “It’s not all jackboots,” says Latham of the tone of the book and now the film. “The children were given sweets and biscuits by the soldiers.”
A similar meeting sparked the film adaptation. Waiting For Anya’s screenwriter Toby Torlesse says he was 11 years old when he met Morpurgo at a performance of the stage version of War Horse. He asked him to sign his copy of the book and the encounter ignited his love for the author’s work.
As Torlesse is the 21-year-old son of Goldfinch’s Latham, the producer/financier was the perfect fit for what is Torlesse’s debut project, and the screenwriter worked closely with Cookson on the script when the director boarded the project. Cookson knocked back talk of shooting in Canada or New Zealand. “It’s not just set in France, it’s set in a place that actually exists,” the director explains.
When Cookson scouted the area with Torlesse, their Air BnB host provided a book about shepherds in the Pyrenees, proudly pointing out his father on the cover (now 90, only recently retired). This symbiosis between the visiting UK production and the local community runs throughout Waiting For Anya, with Goldfinch determined to get the story to cinemas. For Bell, it’s “the kind of film we want to be known for”.
Waiting For Anya is produced by Alan Latham for Goldfinch Studios and Phin Glynn for Bad Penny Productions. It is executive produced by Kirsty Bell, Phil McKenzie, Tannaz Anisi, Greg Schenz and Geoff Iles. Principal photography wrapped on April 18 and the film is in post-production.