HOLLYWOOD—Thinly disguised propaganda films played an important part in convincing battle-weary Brits to continue supporting the war effort during World War II. The British Ministry of Information mostly hired male writers to compose these morale-boosting melodramas but they also enlisted a few women, whose primary job was to write “female dialogue,” patronizingly referred to as slop, to tap into the hearts and imaginations of the ever-growing female workforce.
The dramedy “Their Finest,” based on Lissa Evans’ novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” tells the story of a smart yet nearly broke British advertising copywriter named Catrin Cole (played by “Tamara Drewe’s” Gemma Arterton), who is enlisted by the Ministry to partner with a male screenwriter to find a real-life story about home-grown heroism and turn it into an inspiring screenplay. Though her co-writer Tom Buckley (“The Hunger Games’” Sam Claflin) initially is reluctant to pair up with an inexperienced collaborator—a woman, no less—he has no choice. Up against a deadline, the duo is forced to settle on an incident involving twin sisters who set out to sea in their drunken father’s rickety boat to rescue brave, wounded soldiers during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Embellishing many of the details of what was actually a mundane event for the twins, Catrin and Tom spin together an imaginative tale of incredible heroism and sacrifice. Leading the production’s cast is self-absorbed yet charismatic Ambrose Hilliard (BAFTA award winner Bill Nighy), a one-time leading man who reluctantly signs on for a supporting role as kindly Uncle Frank at the urging of his longtime agent, Sammy (Eddie Marsan), and then the agent’s sister, Sophie (Helen McCrory).
Hilliard is joined in the epic story-within-a-story by heroic American pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), who doesn’t quite possess the acting chops of the rest of the professional cast, but who is hired because he can draw American audiences (and, by extension, the nation itself) to join Britain in fighting the Nazis. As the writers rework the material throughout the film’s production in South Wales, Tom and married Catrin cope with growing romantic feelings for each other.
During a recent stopover to promote the feature, adapted for the screen and directed by Lone Scherfig, stars Nighy and Claflin sat down together to discuss making the film, which delves into the important role cinema played in Britain’s war effort, working with their female director and co-star, doggedly trying to keep a straight face while filming one scene and filming on location in Wales.
Q: How did you feel when you read the script? Did you know right away you wanted to be in the film?
Nighy: Yes. It was a very successful script and everything about the project was very attractive. I love that the main protagonist was a woman attempting to do a job that was at that time, and indeed there are many jobs now, where women are, effectively, excluded. That is one of the world’s, if not greatest concern, we have. Until more progress is made in that area, then nothing truly will progress. It’s the great civilizing force that we need. But it’s also a good night out and you will have a good time because it has jokes and it’s romantic. It was successful as a piece of entertainment and yet it delivered a very muscular look at contemporary times in fact although through a medium set in 1940.
Q: What is interesting about your character is that you’re playing two people: an egotistical diva-like actor, which I’m sure you’re far from that as well as the jovial and fun Uncle Frank. How was it playing these two different characters?
Nighy: It was nice, from that point of view. It’s obviously a very nice part because I did get to play around a little bit, and I enjoyed it enormously. I’ve wanted to work with Lone Scherfig (the director) for a while and I was very pleased to get to do so. It’s quite nice to play somebody as pompous and as chronically self-absorbed as Ambrose Hilliard. It’s quite good fun to do all those things you haven’t done in your life, so you let the dogs out briefly.
Q: I hope you’re kinder to your agents than Ambrose is.
Nighy: (smiling) I have a very good relationship with my agency.
Q: Sam, you play a writer who is initially at odds with Catrin but eventually they develop feelings for each other. What was the attraction of the role for you?
Claflin: He wasn’t the typical leading-man type; he’s the standard hero. He is in his writing but as someone to look at, he wasn’t sort of physically the hero. He wasn’t the knight to lift up the damsel in distress. In fact, it was the damsel who ended up lifting him. That’s the beautiful side of this story. He’s a bit of a misogynist like most men back in that time but he clearly notices the potential in her and the fact that she is his equal, and that she’s probably better than him because she’s much more well-rounded. She’s someone who can write for the women as well as the men, and he can’t write for women. I loved the poetic nature of their relationship—the fact that they kind of find a sparring partner in each other. That’s the thing that he was forever lacking. As a role, that harmonious relationship was kind of unique.
Q: Did your director, Lone Scherfig, bring a needed feminine touch to the film?
Claflin: Yes. Working with Lone was something I’ve done before and wanted to do again. The opportunity to work across Gemma (Arterton)—she’s the seventh wonder of the world. She’s everything you could want in a leading lady. She’s so generous, and that mixed with the fact that Bill’s coming in as Ambrose Hilliard and Uncle Frank was great. The rest of the cast and the supporting cast were equally as wonderful. Every box was ticked, really.
Q: Bill, as reluctant Ambrose, you spend a lot of time at one restaurant with your agents trying to convince you to take on the role of Uncle Frank. How was that experience?
Nighy: It was funny because we had a Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Roxanne. Eddie Marsan, who was playing a man with one hand, who had an attache case, a hat and a coat and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier who had to walk in, take off his coat, place his hat on the hat stand, make it to the table whilst carrying in his bag a real-life sheep’s head. Once we’d done one take, Roxanne knew where the sheep’s head was. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever been involved with. It was just hilarious because Roxanne buried her snout into the bag which was in Eddie’s groin. Eddie did most of his lines with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier burying herself in his groin. And she was relentless because she’d seen the sheep’s head.
Q: You never cracked up while shooting it, right?
Nighy: Well, there were a couple of takes that went west but Loan said, “Just keep going. Whatever happens, keep going.” Eddie was heroic under the circumstances. I find dogs very funny. There’s something about dogs that gets me.
Q: Roxanne didn’t try to gnaw on your shoe, did she?
Nighy: No. She was a well-behaved dog but she just knew where the sheep’s head was.
Claflin: I just recently did a job with a dog. For whatever reason, during rehearsals, whenever the cameras weren’t rolling, the dog would do whatever was asked of her but the second the cameras rolled—and they even tried to do it secretly by whispering, “Action”—she would just wander off.
Q: The film within this film, “The Nancy Starling,” relates to the evacuation of Dunkirk. Many Americans don’t know how pivotal that event was to the British in World War II. Did you learn about it in school?
Nighy: It was one of the great events of the Second World War and an incredible demonstration of what people can do when pressed, and how regular people entered the war effort, putting themselves at risk in order to save those men. Just logistically, it was almost unachievable, and yet they did it. How about you, Sam?
Claflin: I wished we’d spent more time on it. When I read this script, I actually looked into (the history) more, just as a bit of background. But I’d seen a documentary on it with my dad. And I remember, statistically, being blown away by the numbers of men involved. Many of them perished but also a number of them were alive at the end of it all.
Q: There was an extraordinary amount of ammunition left behind on the beach. Had the Germans not stopped, that could have been the end of the war for Britain. You could be speaking German right now. You shot this in London and Pembrokeshire. What was it like working there and had you worked there previously?
Nighy: It’s a beautiful part of Wales. We were there during a wonderful summer. That beach we used is sensational. I’d never been there before so it was very pleasant in that respect.
Q: Was it a very intense shoot with long hours or did you have much downtime?
Claflin: I had quite a bit of time myself. Basically, any time that Bill (Nighy) was filming, I was able to go out and explore and vice versa. Whereas Gemma was the one who was driven into the ground. I’d actually been to Pembrokeshire three times prior. The surrounding areas are equally beautiful. We shot a bit in Swansea (in Wales). Some of the locations are to die for.
Q: Do you think as actors and being part of an art form that entertains as well as informs people, do you see current crop of films as reflecting what’s going on in the world?
Nighy: With recent developments in both the United Kingdom and the U.S., everyone as personally and collectively made a decision that whatever we do now has to be in opposition. We’ve always vaguely been in opposition to the prevailing authority but now it’s time to turn pro and we seek to do work that in some way helped, either by entertaining or informing or both. But maybe, more specifically, to try and find projects that more directly address our current concerns because it looks like there’s an emergency worldwide.
Claflin: Until something this drastic happens—the polls indicate that people think that everything’s going to be OK—but so many people didn’t vote and then they realized that their voices needed to be heard. A movement such as this is galvanizing and forcing people to have their voices heard. That hopefully will get more and more people wanting to write new material and whatever is happening in the world will indicate to them what to write and how to write it. That will probably will change what is in the theaters. I hope there is some change; it’s an insane world we’re living in.
Q: That’s why audiences love going to the movies.
Claflin: Yeah, they’re escapism as well. It’s an opportunity to forget about the madness of what’s happening in the real world. You can go and watch the “Teletubbies.” This film does, demonstrates how people act with great courage and compassion against great odds in truly dangerous times other than strategically invented dangerous times, mythical dangerous times, when everyone is united in peril. Any expression of how people can look out for one another is timely.
Q: What’s coming up for each of you?
Nighy: For me, the adaptation of a Penelope Fitzgerald novel called “The Bookshop,” which is adapted by Isabel Coixet and stars Emily Mortimer, which is one of the nicest jobs I’ve ever had. We filmed it in Northern Ireland and Barcelona, and I wanted to immediately live in both of those places. I’d think, “Everything will be fine; I’m just going to come and live here.”
Q: How about you, Sam?
Claflin: I’ve got “My Cousin Rachel,” which comes out a month after “Their Finest.” I also did a film called “Journey’s End,” which is based on a play by R.C Sherriff. It’s due to come out at some point this year. I’m excited about all three (films) for different reasons.
Q: Bill, are you curious to see “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” even though you’re not in it?
Nighy: Yeah, I’m always curious, and I love to watch Johnny (Depp). His is one of the great cinematic performances/characters of all time, and I get deep pleasure out of it. Those movies are beloved and they invented the language in a way that not many movies do. I’m really excited to see where the story goes.