Notes On A Scandal is a story of school staffroom politics, as new teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) begins a tentative friendship with veteran Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench). Things become complicated when the seemingly happily married Sheba begins an illicit affair with a student at the school (Andrew Simpson), a potentially explosive secret that Barbara uses to turn matters to her advantage.
Adapted from Zoe Heller's best selling novel by playwright Patrick Marber (Closer), the film was directed by National Theatre director Richard Eyre (Iris). So it's hardly surprising that the film garnered awards across the boards.
Blanchett, Eyre and Marber sat down for a chat about the film...
Patrick, you've described adapting Notes On A Scandal as being like an act of "benevolent piracy".
Marber: It was very difficult, I read the book many times and underlined all the things I wanted to use and all the scenes I wanted to keep and ended up using much less than I thought I was going to. You find that after a few drafts the thing takes on a life of its own, and you start to stray from the book. And you find that you end up inventing a lot more than you thought you would.
The tone of it, in the end, is more like an unreliable memoir.
Marber: I think I stayed true to the darkly comic tone of the novel, or at least I hope I did. The thing that seduced me about the book was the truth of it and the comedy of it and the nastiness of it. And I think that's all very much in the film. The first thing that Zoe Heller said to me, when we first met to talk about me adapting her novel, was, "I'm terribly sorry about Sheba". And I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "Well I feel that I spent so much time working on Barbara that I didn't give Sheba enough time and character. So please will you, in the screenplay, do some work on her?" I said I felt Sheba was very alive in the novel, but I know what she means because the novel is from Barbara's point of view. I think I made Sheba a more Bohemian and slightly lonelier figure than she is in the novel. I think in the novel she is scatty and posh and a bit of a flibbertigibbet. Whereas I don't think she's scatty and a flibbertigibbet in the film. You tell me [to Cate], what do you think?
Blanchett: There's a sort of plaintive quality to her in the novel which could be a bit annoying on screen. And also the film is so much more a literal medium, what you see is what you get, and I think it was important to give Sheba her own voice.
What were the challenges for you, Cate? What about the emotional and physical demands of the seduction scenes between you and the 15-year-old boy?
Blanchett: I'm not interested in playing characters who see the world through my prism. I think the journey of understanding any character is to see how they tick and how they differ from you. Probably the hardest thing was to liberate her from my own morality. I was quite shocked at the tone I took, the judgements I had of the relationship that she embarked on. But it's the stuff of great drama.
How did you find working with an inexperienced actor, Andrew Simpson, who plays the student Sheba falls for, Steven Connolly?
Blanchett: I think the casting process was really interesting. Maybe this is my morality coming in again but it was important to me that the actor was above the age of consent. At the end of shooting he wrote me this handwritten letter that made me want to weep, about what the film had meant to him. It was then that I thought he was so young. You just tend to treat all the actors like normal actors once they're there. It was a very welcoming environment, and Richard made us very at ease.
What other concerns did you have about those scenes, in a practical sense?
Eyre: One of the things I like about the film is when her husband, played by Bill Nighy, asks, "Why?" and she says, "I don't know." I think it's great that the film doesn't provide you with a neat equation, either moral or psychological. The answer to your question of how we did it is because they're very grown up about it. For all that Andrew is 16, there wasn't a coyness or embarrassment. They just approached it as a professional task and the choreography of it was kind of surgical."
Blanchett: It was a complete veneer, I'm glad it was dark because I blushed my way through the whole thing.
Eyre: Also Cate did something I think is completely brilliant. Infinitely generous, she endows this boy, and he's an attractive boy, but she endows him with a great sexual allure. That is her acting achievement; by making you believe in this passionate obsession that she has, she made him seem very sexy. That's acting genius.
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