It is a bitterly cold February day in deepest Nottinghamshire in the middle of England, with rain-clouds looming. But that does not stop cast and crew from braving the elements and putting their Thai curry lunch on hold while their enthusiastic, perfectionist director Stephan Elliott freeze-frames the shot he is chasing.
Australian-born Elliott, best known for the more sunny climates of his 1994 breakthrough The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, is hard at work on a UK period drama, an adaptation of Noel Coward's 1924 play Easy Virtue. Head of Ealing Studios Barnaby Thompson is producing, and Elliott co-wrote the script with Sheridan Jobbins.
Half way through a seven-week shoot, the cast and crew are in Flintham Hall, a privately owned stately home near Nottingham, and the day's first scene is being shot in 'The Great Room'.
With a touch of stage dressing here and there, the cavernous space is dripping with masterpieces, from a Tintoretto hung carelessly in a dark corner to the awe-inspiring chandelier centrepiece that, along with the fireplace, appeared at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Wearing North Face bomber jackets over elegant 1920s dresses, with pink hairnets to keep their hair in place, actresses Kristin Scott Thomas and Jessica Biel breeze past to take their places around the fireplace alongside Colin Firth. Everyone is hushed for the action - a scene in which the family discuss their latest fine-art acquisition, a Picasso oil painting given by daughter-in-law (Biel) to ungrateful mother-in-law (Scott Thomas).
The story, archetypal Coward, plays on the snobberies of the English aristocracy and the mistrust of all things American, as a young Englishman (Ben Barnes) brings home a US bride, much to the distaste of his father (Firth) and mother.
Ealing's Thompson, the producer and co-director of recent hit St Trinian's, was drawn to the script for its contemporary relevance and for the challenge of bringing another classic to a younger, wider audience. Thompson has already had plenty of experience producing period pieces such as An Ideal Husband and The Importance Of Being Earnest.
"Films like (Joe Wright's) Pride & Prejudice had that youthful feel that came out of a great classic, and comedy is another way we can achieve this," says Thompson. "If you are laughing, you are with the people and comedy is certainly a great way to attract a large audience."
The central aim of the film-makers is to bring Coward into the modern age without losing any of the essential qualities that made him one of the greatest wits of his age. "There needs to be a glass wall between us and the period piece," explains Thompson. "The challenge with any adaptation is getting the script right and working out how to make it modern and keep people caring about the characters."
This is not always an easy task, adds screenwriter Jobbins. She explains the cast struggled to find the right word to describe the Picasso painting, for instance. "Given that the image is somewhat pornographic in true Picasso fashion, we came up with 'gynaecological,' but would people have said that word in the drawing rooms of the 1920s' Instead, the cast ended up with the word 'monstrous', which wasn't as wicked but more in keeping with the times."
Thompson, who regards Coward as the godfather of true wit and priceless dialogue, had the Easy Virtue project on file for seven years. He passed it over to Australian duo Elliott and Jobbins three years ago, with the hope their take on the material might result in a fresh angle.
Now, with a $14m (£7m) budget, a UK production with a significant chunk of financing from Endgame Entertainment in the US and private UK film fund Prescience, and an Anglo-American cast in place, the project is finally a reality.
In terms of sales, Thompson is certain North America will prove a strong market, although deals have yet to be secured. "Things have changed and US distributors now tend to get involved later than they used to. They are more likely to wait to see the footage before committing themselves to the film," he says.
International and UK sales are being handled by Odyssey Entertainment, and North American sales by Endgame Entertainment and Ealing itself via the new Ealing Studios International arm headed by Natalie Brenner. Thompson has yet to secure a UK distributor. Odyssey has already confirmed sales in territories including Spain (DeAPlaneta), New Zealand (Hopscotch) and the Middle East (Phars). Easy Virtue footage will preview for private invitees only at Cannes on May 15, and the film is due to be finished in August with an eye on a Toronto premiere.
Before the madness of Cannes, Thompson is totally engrossed in the charms of Easy Virtue. "The mood of the film is dictated by the director himself, and Elliott has so much energy and gusto it's impossible not to get swept along. I cannot help wondering, though, if Noel Coward was with us now, what would he have been doing' Well probably making movies, of course. And I wonder how he would have done it'"
At a glance: Easy Virtue
Director: Stephan Elliott
Producers: Barnaby Thompson (Ealing Studios), Joseph Abrams (Joe Abrams Productions) and James D Stern (Endgame Entertainment)
Backers: Endgame Entertainment and Prescience
Budget: $14m (£7m)
Screenplay: Sheridan Jobbins, Stephan Elliott
Sales: Odyssey Entertainment (international and UK); Endgame and Ealing Studios International (North America)
Location: shot on location in Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire
Cast: Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes, Kris Marshall, Katherine Parkinson and Kimberley Nixon.
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