About the Production 

 

Actress Elizabeth McGovern's career in film and television has spanned decades and spawned an impressive list of indelible, varied performances. Yet until recently, there’s been one kind of role that she hasn’t tried: that of film producer, a title she’s earned in spades on her newest film, The Chaperone. The project is an adaptation of a novel that imagines the pivotal first trip silent film star Louise Brooks took from her home in Wichita, KS to New York City.


McGovern came to produce and star in an adaptation of Laura Moriarty’s acclaimed eponymous novel in an unlikely fashion—she was hired to read it aloud as an audio book. She remembers of the experience, “It was the first time in my life I’ve ever had that moment where I read a book and thought to myself, ‘this would be a fantastic film.’ I’ve always had in the back of my mind that I should be on the lookout in books for great parts, but that never connected for me until I was sitting at a microphone recording an audiobook. So, very uncharacteristically, I called up and found out about the rights and bought them.”


McGovern has maintained a longstanding relationship with acclaimed screenwriter Julian Fellowes through their collaboration on Downton Abbey, and she immediately thought to get the book into his hands. For her, “Julian has an uncanny ability to tell a story incredibly economically. He writes in a very kind of spare way but they are words that spring to life. I’ve found it time and time again, over the years working with him, that I’ll read something he’s written and not quite understand what he’s up to until I read the words aloud with other actors and it’s suddenly completely clear.”


For his part, Fellowes wasn’t exactly looking for another project to take on when McGovern approached him with Moriarty’s novel. He recalls, “At the time, I was fairly buried in Downton [Abbey], to be honest, but I am very interested by Louise Brooks, who is the central character in both the book and the film. She was a silent film star and rather unusual in that she was also very prominent in the German film business at the time. She wasn’t just a kind of Hollywood cutie. She was rather more than that. So, I became very intrigued by this idea of tracing her origins.” He agreed to adapt the novel quickly and McGovern could barely believe her luck, “This was the first few months of my foray into developing for movies,” she recalls. “It all felt so easy! I couldn’t believe it. Why haven’t I done this my whole life?”


It helped matters that Fellowes had an unlikely personal connection to Brooks, via his mother.  He says, “When my mother was a girl, she used to be mistaken for Louise Brooks, because, in those days, with silent pictures, nobody knew what their voices were like.  So, the fact that my mother was English didn’t put fans of the real Louise Brooks off. After a bit, she started signing autographs as if she were Brooks. So, presumably, her signature is in some movie museum at this very moment.”


Fellowes began the adaptation process by looking into the facts behind Moriarty’s novel. “I did a certain amount of research as to how much Moriarty had based her story on facts, and what fascinated me is that the whole Louise Brooks side of the story is completely true. She did come up to New York to study dance, she did dance with the Denishawn dancers, and she did come with a chaperone. The only thing is, we don’t really know anything about who this chaperone was. And, so, what the book has done is create a completely fictional character and placed her with her own story, alongside the truthful story of Louise Brooks. I thought that was just a wonderful idea.”  


He was also excited by the possibilities of making a largely optimistic piece from a life that was marked with many tragedies: “We wanted the feeling that Louise was learning a kind of discipline and a kind of self-belief from her chaperone, Norma. In turn, Louise gives Norma the strength to put back into her own life what she has a right to and what she needs. We wanted people to feel all of those things—that we need faith in ourselves, that we need to have a sense of the journey we want to make, that we owe ourselves a certain amount of fulfillment.”


McGovern was quickly excited by Julian’s take on the material, “He immediately found a way of doing the story, which I was so impressed by,” she notes. “The book itself is much more sprawling, and all-encompassing than what we ended up shooting. It would have maybe been a 10-part series if we’d stuck exactly to the book, because it goes forward into the ‘60s. But I just loved Julian’s take on it. This was the easy part. Like many independent films, it took a long time to finance it—it was a really steep learning curve for me.”


“Fibonacci Films agreed to fully finance and produce the film in partnership with PBS Distribution and Masterpiece Films immediately upon reading the script,” said producer Victoria Hill. Adding, “We need more stories in particular about women over 40 in my opinion.  I love the bravery and resilience of our heroine Norma and the equal courage and fortitude of Louise.”


“These wonderful female characters created by Moriarty and Sir Julian Fellowes dare to force and embrace change, they also compel us to look at the importance and power of self-love and generosity of spirit.”


“It is a warm and compelling look into two women’s lives and their enduring friendship that I am hugely proud to be part of.”


Once the film was financed, things moved more quickly and finding the right director was important. McGovern explains, “We had so little time to do it, and this is where the character of Michael Engler comes in. I don’t think there’s any human being alive that could have directed it except for Michael because he’s so good. We shot it in 21 days, which is unbelievable, especially considering that we were in Manhattan trying to control crowds in a period movie where we couldn’t show modern day things.”


Michael Engler had worked with both Fellowes and McGovern on Downton Abbey, (and directed the Downton feature film) and was excited by the challenges presented by The Chaperone. “I love Julian’s writing, and I love working with Elizabeth, so that was already exciting,” he says. “And then to direct a period story in New York…what was perhaps most appealing to me was the script’s intersection of history, sociology and imaginative storytelling, that covers this footnote moment to a very, very famous person’s life.”


Fellowes was excited that Engler was able to join the team: "Michael and I worked together on Downton, so I suppose you could say that what was great for me was that I knew we would have a director who fully understood my work and the way I construct a script narrative. Often, when I write a scene, what they’re saying isn’t what it is about, and he’s done enough of my stuff to get that. I think he has a very light touch. You never feel the director is manipulating the story with clever shots and angles of camera. Michael never does that.”


Engler found the script to be a classically Fellowes-ian piece of writing: “I think Julian loves writing about the tension between the social construct of how people are expected to behave, and then the realities of what’s going on internally—how they’d like to behave, how they’d like not to behave, what they really want. He’s able to define character through examining particular historical obstacles or restrictions placed on a set of characters and then watching the choices they make. Where do you push against restrictions that society places upon you?”


Fellowes was excited that they’d found an American director, for this very American story. “When I write for an American subject, I always, first of all, get my own American friends to read it, and then I make sure that the dialogue works and I haven’t made any mistakes in the research and so on,” he explains. “By the time it gets to the soundstage, a lot of American people have looked at it. But, even then, I feel safer with an American director. There are people who think that’s not necessary and they get fashionable Danish directors in to direct famous British 19th century Victorian novels on the screen and so on, but, for me, it doesn’t usually work.”


American Engler quickly zeroed in on what was most crucial to capture in Fellowes’s screenplay and structured the production around those elements: “What was most important were the subtle variations of character relationships, the arcs of them. I knew if we nailed them, that’s the most powerful thing you can do. So I organized the schedule around making sure we made time for the performances.” He feels it paid off: “I do feel like we made the right priorities in terms of wanting it to feel like a very intimate, very emotionally complex piece. And I feel good about the way it does that, particularly with regards to Elizabeth and Haley’s relationship in the film”


Finding Haley Lu Richardson to play Louise Brooks was another in a long string of lucky, unexpected breaks for the production. McGovern remembers, “We found her only at the very last minute. We had somebody else, and there was a conflict of schedules. It was producer Victoria Hill that found Haley Lu, and there again I feel, having seen the film, that, if we’d gone in any other direction, it never would have worked. She so suggests Louise Brooks in this really uncanny way, and she was so instinctive and brave and such a great dancer…how are you going to find that at the last minute, somebody who could act as well as she does and physically suggest Louise Brooks in the way she does AND then dance the way she does? And she had really no time to prepare and I was so impressed by her courage.”


But as important as Richardson’s performance as Brooks is to the success of The Chaperone, it is McGovern’s Norma who ultimately steals the show and wins the hearts of viewers. For Fellowes, “During their time in New York, Norma realizes she can’t go back to the pretend life she has been leading, and she must somehow reshape and change it into something that will fulfill her.” Fellowes intuits that, “Elizabeth had an instinctive realization that this was something she could play and play extremely well, and that it was, really, in a sense, what Hollywood used to call a vehicle, in that the role was perfectly tuned to her strengths. Elizabeth is able to put several emotions into one scene so that she will play the scene on a certain level that suggests a subtext that is not quite the same as what she is saying. And it gives a kind of depth to her work, a kind of layered quality that makes it infinitely interesting.”


McGovern adds of Norma, “To me, this is Norma’s story. It’s the story of a woman who realizes that she has a right to happiness, and part of the key to happiness is a fulfilling sexual life. This is something that people in my mother’s generation could never admit to, and I think I sort of inherited that in some ways from my mother and my grandmother that it wasn’t a thing that was necessarily acceptable for a woman to say. And I think that is Norma’s discovery in the course of the story. And it’s this woman that does it quietly for herself without causing a disruption that will hurt other people around her. I found that to be very interesting and also very truthful—I think, in my observation, there are generations of women who have done that, and I do think that’s a secret to a certain extent, to happiness. But it’s wonderful that in The Chaperone, there’s this parallel story, which is the icon, the Louise Brooks, who, famously, was a figurehead who broke open the rules for women. She was a woman who lived her life basically saying, ‘I’m going to have sex with whoever I want to. I’m going to be free. I’m going to be a rebel. I’m going to throw away my corset and cut my hair and be an independent spirit.’ And she did change things for women. She was iconic in that sense, in that she emboldened women in the ‘20s, in America during a period where the rules did break down.”


Even as challenging performances were clicking into place, there were still myriad, daily production hurdles to overcome. Engler notes that, “Other than sci-fi, period is the most expensive thing there is to make. So we had to be extremely surgical about where we spent our money and our time, because to make it feel authentic often meant keeping the scale just right. We had an amazingly resourceful production designer and costume designer who knew how to make it all feel and look right, and knew what to spend money on. They helped us figure out where to focus the camera—what to look at and what not to look at.” But ultimately the limited scope might have been for the better: “There’s something about when things are limited and intimate in that way where you just sort of pull out a few things and keep them very authentic…it actually is easier to make it feel authentic than when you’re trying to recreate every aspect of something on a very large scale.”


Engler still maintains an abiding interest in period filmmaking.  “I think the thing with period that I love so much is whenever you’re in whatever present-day culture you’re in, you’re living it. There’s so much about it that you absolutely take as given and that’s just the way reality works. But when you start to look into other periods, what you start to notice are the differences—what’s the same and what’s different. And the parts of people that are the same, and the ways in which there are certain assumptions we don’t have now that people had then, and vice versa.”


Looking back on the production, McGovern feels that for all the pitfalls and detours, there seemed to be a kind of kismet surrounding The Chaperone: “It felt like we had this angel the whole time making it happen for us, and whenever we felt that it was just never going to work, something would click. This happened in the casting, it happened in locations. Every time we had a total disaster, our solution would make us glad the disaster had occurred. It was one of the hardest things that I think any of us had ever done, yet there seemed to be this kind of magic that was following us. It was the strangest thing!”