Movies - Summerland, be ready to live a great story
Summerland is an upcoming British drama film written and directed by Jessica Swale.
It was announced in April 2017 that Gemma Arterton has been cast in the playwright Jessica Swale’s directorial debut, with Swale also writing the screenplay. In May 2018, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay were added to the cast. Filming was underway by September, production occurring throughout East Sussex in the towns of Seaford, Brighton and Kent. Filming had concluded by November.
A young woman revisits her past when she opens her heart to a young evacuee in Summerland , a wartime drama with a contemporary sensibility. Set over one extraordinary and memorable long hot English summer, the film tells the story of Alice, a reclusive woman who has closed her heart to the world. She uses her scientific background to debunk the existence of other-worldly forces and magic. But Alice’s world is turned upside down when she is tasked with caring for Frank, a frightened and innocent young boy seeking shelter from the London Blitz.
Over sun-dappled days in the Sussex countryside, Frank’s curiosity and open-mindedness unlock deeply buried and painful secrets in Alice’s past, and make her re-evaluate what it really means to free your imagination. Set in the 1940s,1920s and 1970s and filmed along the stunning coastal vistas and villages of Sussex, Summerland is the feature directorial debut of Jessica Swale, who helms her own original script. The acclaimed playwright won an Olivier Award for her play Nell Gwynn, in which the film’s actors Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha Raw both starred.
For Swale, the project, supported by a bursary from BAFTA, offered her an opportunity to develop an entire project from scratch. “They asked: ‘What themes do you care about? What is the film that you’ve never seen that you think should be in the cinema?’ I thought, well I really want to write about imagination and hope. I want to make a film that people can enjoy. I wanted to write a film which had an important message about open-mindedness and the way that innocence and truthfulness and simplicity can actually uncomplicate all of our biases and prejudices.”
With a love story between two women, Alice and Vera, at its core, the film examines deep themes of faith, spirituality, loss and belief through the concept of Summerland, a conceptualisation of the afterlife which has long been used in paganism.
“Summerland is a pagan idea of what heaven is,” explains Swale. “It's a notion of a place that exists alongside ours. And the idea that you can communicate between Summerland and normal life by leaving signs or messing with the edges is something that's not specifically pagan, that's borrowed from a notion of lots of different myths and legends. It's more about what Summerland represents. It represents the possibility of something beyond and of something magical.”
While exploring the big themes in the film, her own father passed away. “I lost my dad when I was in the final furlongs of writing this film, which seems really odd, because when I started writing I didn't know he was ill. Yet that was the theme from the very beginning and so that's why this is sort of for him, really.
“He loved the simple things in life. He loved nature and going for walks and taking photographs of mushrooms. The mushroom seed (which features in the film) is a bit of a nod to him. SUMMERLAND is something to do with that, the hope that there is something that connects us with everything that's been before in all these people.”
For producer Adrian Sturges, who came on board when fellow producer Guy Heeley sent him the script, Swale’s moving, evocative and vivid story was an instant draw. He particularly liked the fact that while the film is set in wartime Britain, it deals with very progressive and contemporary ideas.
“What I really liked was it felt like a very fresh take on a period that we've seen quite a lot in film and a setting that we might think is familiar,” he says. “But then it does something really interesting in a sort of Trojan Horse way, quite a progressive story within the bounds of a familiar historical period. I loved its wit, its very strong emotion. It made me cry when I read it and I thought the turns in the story were really interesting.”
Having Arterton - with whom he’d worked on The Disappearance of Alice Creed - on board early helped greatly in terms of developing the project, he says. “She attached herself early, which was really helpful because being able to talk to people about it with an actor already attached made such a difference. People could visualise the piece but also they knew Gemma's work very well.”
For Guy Heeley, who has been involved with the project since the early stages, the blends of period setting and universal elements offered a unique form of storytelling, giving a twist to the confines of typical period filmmaking. “What I love about it is it's not steeped in the tropes of period filmmaking,” says Heeley. “It has a really contemporary theme to it and it's a story that could be told now - it happens to be set in World War 2 and it's really interesting to see those themes playing out in that context. I think that's an unusual way to go.”
Another draw for Heeley was the story’s accessibility, dealing as it does with elements of loss, anger and sadness and topics like family, childhood and motherhood. “It’s got something that appeals to everybody and we're all familiar with it - we can all remember nostalgic summer holidays in our childhood. It's got a really beautiful love story at its center. It's got themes that we can all relate to. And that's what makes it a contemporary movie.” For Swale, the elements of family and motherhood were hugely important as they were questions she and her friends were asking in their real lives.
“I was 30 when I was writing it and I was also at that point thinking: ‘Do I want to be a mother and have a family and do I want to work and how do I do both of those things?’ It seemed like a very complicated and knotty issue that we, and all of our friends were asking, a lot of these big life questions about what we wanted. It’s really hard I think for everybody but particularly for women, that choice of can you have a family and work and is it all right to just choose your work if that's your passion. And what's wrong with doing that? That was one of the questions at the heart of the film. I don't want to write a film and subject those intelligent actresses to a part that's not fully formed. Let's write some real women and I think film is doing much better in that department, there are a lot more interesting roles for women.”
Jessica Swale was already scripting the film as she got to know Arterton through their theatre work - and realised she had found her Alice. “I didn't write the part with Gemma in mind because I didn't really know her then. But once we met and we started working together it just became obvious that she would be such a good fit for it so I rewrote the part and made her younger.”
She says Arterton was drawn to the character of an independent woman who is unconcerned with the trappings of personal appearance. “I think Gemma is really excited about playing a character whose notion of anything glamorous was totally out the window. She lives on her own, she doesn't brush her hair. She never cuts her hair and doesn't wear make-up, lives by the sea, is a bit muddy all the time and that's the way she lives and why not?” For her part, Arterton was beguiled by the script and the story of this strong but mysterious woman. “I asked her to send it to me not as an actress, but as a producer. As I read it, I just thought it was absolutely beautiful and it really moved me. I called Jess and said: ‘We have to make this and you have to direct it’.” She was moved by the story of a woman, for reasons that are revealed in the film, who had closed herself off from society - until she is tasked with taking in a 14-year-old boy.
“She looks different. She dresses differently. She doesn't abide by the rules of everybody else. It's set during the Second World War and she doesn't really heed to any of the community rules and she doesn't blackout her windows. She really doesn't care to be honest. She's basically got all of her armour on and doesn't want anyone to come into her life.”
She says it was “a joy” to play a woman so unapologetic, and unlike anyone else she’s ever played. With her unconventional appearance and work as a folklore historian who disproves myths with science and has a house full of folklore memorabilia, there are even rumours that Alice is a bit witchy.
Life events have made her the woman she is - and when teenager Frank, seeking shelter from the London Blitz, comes into her life, she gradually realises she must confront them. “When Frank arrives, he really does sort of soften her and open her up and rekindles this warmth and affection and compassion that she naturally has but has completely extinguished.”
The casting of Frank was crucial to grounding a major relationship in the film, and the film’s producers were thrilled to find a great young talent in the form of Lucas Bond.
“It's a complicated casting process because Frank as a character has to be a very specific kind of boy,” says Heeley. “He has to be a specific age. He has to have a specific background and it's absolutely critical that he's on this cusp of being a teenager. Lucas is a fantastic choice for Frank. He's charming. He's got a gorgeous smile, you're drawn in to him and you know he's a very accessible boy for the audience.”
Bond says that working with such established actors has been a great experience. “We sat in the house in the front room and just went through the script, looking at some of the different scenes, talking about where we were going to film this, how we were going to film and putting the input into the script, changing some things. It was really good, because a lot of the time when you're a younger actor you go in there and you just do it. It's nice to talk about it and work out what you're doing beforehand.”
At the core of the film is a great love story between Alice and Vera (Gugu Mbatha Raw) which unfolds when they first meet as younger women in the 1920s. “It was really important for us to show a relationship between women that's not just sexual because often that's what's seen in films,” says Arterton. “It's about how brilliant they are together and how they bring out the best in each other.”
“Gugu had worked with Jessica as well and played the same part as Gemma in the very first production of Nell Gwynn at The Globe,” says producer Adrian Sturges. “So, there was something lovely about that symmetry, and we loved the idea of these two very different women who also have a similar kind of innate charm, and their ability to light up the screen. It was very exciting and the chemistry between them felt like a really interesting thing.”
Mbatha-Raw says she loved the story upon reading the script, and the new dimensions to characters it offered. “It's just such a beautiful story,” she says. “It's heartwarming and romantic and surprising and I just thought it was such a beautiful script and then the chance to work with Jess as a director was too good an opportunity to miss. It's a familiar world. But I think it's told from a point of view that we don't often see in these period dramas. So, for me that was really refreshing, the love story with Vera and Alice. And you get to see it through the eyes of a child. Vera is a very vivacious character getting to explore the Roaring Twenties and that energy and bright spirit that she has was a real treat. Vera and Alice meet at Oxford University. And Vera is this very flamboyant, confident woman who sort of draws Alice out of her shell. As the romance develops, the way the story is told is very much in flashbacks. Alice is having these flashbacks and we're not quite sure exactly how they ultimately fit into the story but you get these very vivid memories that are haunting Alice, actually.”
Acclaimed actress Penelope Wilton plays Alice in the 1970s in what is a very strong cast. “I'm the older version of the young Alice and I appear at the very end of the film,” she says, adding that she was drawn to the project by Swale’s script. “I can only go by the script and the words I have to say and the words that are being said by other people. So I judge a script by that and if I didn't think it rings true or is authentic or has some charm or has something special about it that there wouldn't be much point in doing it. But I felt that this one had and was very unique.”
Wilton also loved that the story incorporates all types of relationships in the emotionally heightened period of a wartime setting. “I think that evacuation was a very difficult thing. These children were very young and often had never seen the countryside and especially if you came from London, the big cities, they’d never been in the country. They were very frightening times.”
Acclaimed actor Tom Courtenay joins the cast as Mr Sullivan, the headmaster of Frank’s new local school. “He's come to the coast to get away from the bombs. And I'm very concerned about him and his welfare as I am with all the children at the school.” He was highly impressed with working with Swale on her feature debut. “My last scene in the film as it turned out was the first I shot and I was terribly impressed. It was a lovely afternoon and a beautiful place on the coast overlooking the sea near Eastbourne and I was just impressed with her calmness, considering not only is it her first film but she's written it. That calmness is very good in a director and especially the fact she knows what she wants.”
Also joining the cast is young actress Dixie Egerickx who plays Edie, Frank’s close friend. “She's a tomboy, she's quite feisty. But I think she's a really cool character. They're similar because Frank's a bit sad and lonely since he's away from his parents and he's been moved to this place he doesn't even know. And Edie is a bit sad and lonely because she hasn't got many friends and her mum's dead. They sort of support each other in their friendship and it's really nice and easy, how they grow to care about each other.”
In bringing contemporary themes into a film set in the 1940s, the filmmakers felt it was crucial to find locations that would complement this approach to the production. Several locations across the country were scoured before the filmmakers decided on East Sussex - a vital element, feels producer Adrian Sturges, in the finished film. “The area is very beautiful but it's quite simple and it's quite kind of real and I'm so pleased we went that way rather than, you know, lean into the cliché.
“It was wonderful because it gave us so much. And even further as we went into the location scouting we found more and more, like being able to use Herstmonceux Castle was an idea that came relatively late that gave us such a lot of interesting varied locations for different things.”
The actors also felt the location helped immerse them in the story. “I'd never been to Eastbourne before,” says Mbatha-Raw. “Being able to have these wonderful views of the Seven Sisters, every single day, the sky is different. The sea is different. We've got this incredible landscape to work with. It's a very immersive place to feel like you are in a remote place in a different period of time.” Almost a third of the film is set in Alice’s house, so the filmmakers felt that finding the right setting was crucial as the house becomes a character in the film.
“I worked on Atonement twelve years ago and we used parts of the same group of cottages for the end of Atonement,” says Heeley. “I came down here about a year ago and saw it and then we started talking to Carolyn, who owns the house. I think she felt that she could recognise the fact that her home is the house in the script. She loved the script, she loved the writing. She could see that her house was absolutely that space.”
In designing the production, there was a strong sense from everyone involved that the look of the film should feel authentic and real. Set decorator Philippa Hart says the location and period helped form her inspiration. “It’s very homespun. It's very old England, it's a eulogy to the landscape so all that is inspiration for you,” she says.
“I don't think I've filmed in such a beautiful location actually. But you do have all the elements, the Seven Sisters so nature has to be on the sets, the landscape and the beach. The art and the graphics team were brilliant and they photographed lots of nature, so that the landscape definitely played a big part in our interiors as well.”
She sourced footage from the BFI and photography from Getty Images in preparation for set decoration. “There was a lovely image of children in this instance. I thought they were sitting down playing in the playground. I thought they could be cutting up apples and so forth for the playground break time scene. It's really images that inspire you. For instance, in the bomb shelter at Chatham. There are elements of salvaging and you see one of the things where people, after the bomb raids, pulled out things.
“People were carrying plants and radios, things that were personal to them, their own things. It must have been devastating. The imagery of clothes over their arms. Little vignettes to bring it to life rather than just being a mass of debris.”
For costume designer Clare Finlay-Thompson, the project was a rich and fulfilling one to work on, with different colour palettes for different characters and the opportunity to costume in three different period settings.
“The script usually gives me quite a few visuals, gives me loads of ideas and I use a lot of colour and texture,” she says. “We've made a lot of costumes on this. It's been really nice to design them from scratch and really lovely periods to work with and having specific colour palettes for each person is really nice as well.”
One of her favourites was a gold dress that Mbatha-Raw wears in a key scene. “I wanted it to look like she'd come out of the ground and in liquid gold. She looked wonderful.
Even the kids’ shorts are really cute and we copied them off originals, we've done quite a lot of things like that. Getting original pieces which are too fragile to actually film with but recreating them. The challenge is always going to be time. Doing all the supporting artists is always really hard work because I think they're really important to make the whole look right. I absolutely loved Jess’s script and when I met her, I just clicked with her straight away. So I really wanted to work with her. She's great. She's really visual.”
Costume collaborated closely with hair and make-up designer Lisa Cavalli-Green in completing the looks for the characters across three period settings. “The story really captured my heart,” she says.
“Gemma’s character is so natural and so unconcerned about the way she looks, that we have to be very careful not to put too much on her at all. She's so beautiful, her skin is so perfect, that we didn't have to worry too much about that. But she's still very stylish. When she was in her twenties, she took a bit more care about fitting into the period, so her hair is softly curled but she's not as dressed up or as polished as say Gugu, who plays the lady she meets.”
“The inspiration really has all been mainly from photographs of the period of real people. We wanted it to look as credible as possible. A lot of period productions are so beautifully done and everyone's perfect. This is not how we wanted it to look. So you do get bits of fly-away hair, you do get people with messy hair and you do get people who are slightly unkempt which I think is very refreshing to see on screen. But it was mainly from period historical photographs, original photographs of people that I've worked and also obviously working with Jesse's ideas and the artist’s ideas.”
It’s an authenticity that producer Adrian Sturges hopes fills every frame of the movie, breathing new life into the period drama. “I hope people enjoy Summerland as a moving beautiful story with a sense of humour but also a real emotional truth at the heart of it and it's something that they can reflect on and hopefully stay with them. A great film is a film that you remember. And for me, that's the ambition.”
Alice is a reclusive writer, resigned to a solitary life on the seaside cliffs of Southern England while World War II rages across the channel. When she opens her front door one day to find she’s to adopt a young London evacuee named Frank, she’s resistant. It’s not long, however, before the two realize they have more in common in their pasts than Alice had assumed. Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Courtenay star in this intensely emotional story of love’s endurance in trying times.
Written and Directed by Jessica Swale
Produced by Guy Heeley, Adrian Sturges
Starring Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton,Tom Courtenay
Music by Hauschka
Cinematography : Laurie Rose
Edited by Tania Reddin
Production companies : British Film Institute, Quickfire Films
Distributed by Lionsgate (England) , IFC Films (USA)
Release date : July 24, 2020 (United Kingdom), , July 31, 2020 (United States)
Photos : Copyright IFC Films