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'On The Set With Swann'

by Teressa Iezzi, September 11th 1995

Miranda Richardson sits at the bar of the dimly lit, tediously named Postcards lounge in Toronto's Sheraton Centre hotel, and slowly, deliberately, drops a sugar cube into her coffee. She wears a faraway look that suggests she wouldn't notice if the cup contained dueling scorpions or if the bar was surrounded by crew, lighting apparatus and a director instructing her to repeat the act several times, the latter being, of course, a reality.

Such is the star power that producers wanted behind Swann, a coproduction of England's Greenpoint Films (Enchanted April) and Canada's Shaftesbury Films (Camilla), being shot in various locations in Toronto and environs.

The film is based on a novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields, and was adapted for the screen by British director Anna Benson Gyles and Canadian playwright David Young.

The week's shooting has been taking place in various locations around the Sheraton. The previous day's shooting was done mainly in the lobby of the hotel, where Rose, one of the principal characters, makes a sweeping entrance down the main escalator to face a group of unamused academics attending the fictional Swann Symposium while jaded Torontonians shuffle by and curious itinerants look on.

At a midday break in shooting, Gyles breezes into the unadorned lunchroom set up across from the hotel, wonders aloud if she has time to comb her hair, and speaks articulately and affectionately about the film.

A former film editor, Gyles has won acclaim for producing and directing dramas and documentaries for the BBC. "It doesn't seem very different," she says of directing her first feature. "You have a good script, good actors and a good crew and you're in business." She adds that viewing rushes in 35mm rather than 16mm is a treat.

After reading Shields' novel, Gyles was interested in the characters and approached the author about bringing it to the screen. She discussed the project with Greenpoint's Ann Scott, whose partner Simon Relph was at the time shooting Camilla with Christina Jennings. Jennings, a poetry aficionado, liked the treatment Gyles had written and also liked the idea of making a film set in Southern Ontario.

"It's a story of two women from different worlds coming together. It's also a mystery, a sophisticated whodunnit," she says.

Besides being a fan of their work, Jennings says the casting of Richardson and Brenda Fricker was partially done to give the film a "commercial leg up."
"It's not an action movie, it's not a kids' movie, it's not a high-concept movie," says Jennings. "Miranda and Brenda have a profile. Because it's a coproduction with England, we were able to do that."

The film, budgeted at $3.6 million, was financed mainly through distribution advances as well as with Telefilm Canada, Ontario Film Development Corporation and Ontario Film Investment Program funding.

Swann tells the story of Sarah, Richardson's character, a best-selling author (whom Gyles describes as a Naomi Wolfe type), who is writing a book about Mary Swann, a poet from rural Southern Ontario found ax murdered at her husband's farm. While researching the mystery of the poet's life and death, she comes to her small Ontario hometown, where she meets Rose, the town librarian played by Fricker (My Left Foot). The film also stars Michael Ontkean (Twin Peaks, Clara's Heart), David Cubitt (Alive) and John Neville (Little Women). A David Cronenberg appearance had to be canceled due to scheduling conflicts.

According to Jennings, one of the major components of the story was the setting, the fictional town of Nadeau, Ont., which she says was almost like a character in the book.

The look and the color of the town was paramount to Gyles, who used the example of an Edward Hopper painting to approximate the palette of the film. The perfect location was found when Gyles "went bananas" over color photocopies sent to her of Schomberg and Mt. Albert, just north of Toronto.

Gerald Packer, whose credits include Booze Can and the bleak H, was the man responsible for bringing this vision to film. Packer says he used a lot of natural light and a state-of-the-art Austrian Movie Cam, which he says was like "driving a Rolls-Royce."
The six-week shoot began Aug. 14 in-studio and moved to Schomberg in week two where sunny skies and warm weather contributed to a smooth schedule. The only reported casualty is Friday, the prop supervisor who suffered a broken arm in a shoelace accident. (Sporting a cast and a stiff upper lip she was back on the job the next day).
The next challenge facing the shoot was finding the right library for the Rose character to inhabit. An insurance company in Mt. Albert stood in for the exterior shots, but the perfect library interior proved to be elusive. Production designer John Dondertman (I Love a Man in Uniform, When Night is Falling) was assigned the unenviable task of creating a library in Shaftesbury's studios. He describes it as a "set designer's nightmare."

Back at Postcards, after four takes it is determined that the sugar cube has reached the exact required trajectory dropping into the cup, accompanied by the perfectly nuanced moody expression, and Richardson is whisked away to be readied for a close-up. In filmmaking, as in life, God is in the details