Interview: Andrew Adamson talks Mr Pip (+video)

Filming Lloyd Jones' acclaimed novel Mister Pip was both a marked departure for Shrek and Narnia director Andrew Adamson and a return to his roots. He talks to Dominic Corry.

As the director of the first two Shrek films and the first two Chronicles of Narnia movies, Andrew Adamson is responsible for four of the biggest blockbusters ever made. But that certainly didn't make him an obvious choice to helm a big screen adaptation of fellow New Zealander Lloyd Jones' award-winning 2006 novel Mister Pip.

"I kind of went about it the wrong way," Adamson says. "Most people start with their small independent stories and if those go well they move on to the others. Ironically, timing-wise, it's much harder to do this sort of film now than it would have been when I started."

An intimate drama set against the backdrop of Bougainville's civil war in the early 1990s, the film Mr. Pip charts the friendship between teenager Matilda (played by a radiant Bougainvillean known simply as Xzannjah), and an Englishman (Hugh Laurie in his first big screen role since the end of TV's House) who reads Charles Dickens' Great Expectations to her and the rest of his village children.

Adamson warmed to the book immediately.

"My wife gave it to me for my birthday. I read it on a plane, and by the time I landed I was already chasing the film rights. I liked that fact that it was a New Zealand author, and I liked that fact that it was about a place I grew up in."

Knowing that Adamson spent most of his teenage years in Papua New Guinea - of which Bougainville Island is an autonomous region - suddenly makes it seem like a perfect marriage of film-maker and material. But it wasn't just the locale he was interested in exploring.

"The setting certainly resonated with me - I related to it straight away. I knew the characters. I knew the place. I understood what Lloyd was writing about. The other thing that spoke to me was that it was a story about a story. It's about the power of story, good and bad - the effect a story can have.

"I think stories are intrinsic to who we are. We dream in stories. We think in stories. We tell jokes. Whenever we meet up with friends we tell them stories. It's a really important part of who we are. And this book really illustrated the power of that."

The finished film deftly intertwines the unfurling of its own plot with an exploration of Dickens' most famous tale, which comes to life in colourful fantasy sequences featuring opulent costumes designed by Ngila Dickson (The Lord of the Rings, The Last Samurai). That balancing act was tough for the director.

"I didn't realise how difficult it was going to be to adapt and how I could visualise things that Lloyd wrote as thoughts. Right through to the editing process I was still figuring out the structure - how much of Great Expectations to have? Too much and it becomes a different version of Great Expectations and overwhelms Matilda's story. Not enough and it leaves the audience confused."

Andrew Adamson, right, with Hugh Laurie.
Andrew Adamson, right, with Hugh Laurie.

It seems even though Mr. Pip deals with a political reality, Adamson can't seem to avoid making films without a fantasy element.

"That has come up before. Probably. Why not? I don't know, because in some ways this film is very raw and documentary-like, but yes, there's a massive and important fantasy element to it.

"Certainly, the book is about the power of the imagination. I don't know if I'll always have a fantasy element but I do seem to be tending that way."

Laurie's early enthusiasm for the project helped get the film funded, and Adamson was then able to focus on the search for his Matilda, which led him to the remarkably self-possessed Xzannjah.

"It's just one of those things where you meet somebody who fits what you expect the character to be - it just clicks. She's just really bright and she got it right away. She doesn't do unnecessary things, her performance is very reserved; she gives what she needs to give, she doesn't overdo things."

"It was a whole new experience for me." Xzannjah says. "I had never been to an audition before so it was very different. I just did what I was being told to do, and then to my surprise I got the part."

Xzannjah and two other candidates, came to New Zealand to workshop the role. Was that a nerve-racking process?

"I guess I was ready to take what happened at that point because the other two girls were really good. We became best friends and we still keep in contact. I wasn't really worried about if I got the part or not because I thought to myself: 'This is a really important story for Bougainville, so what really matters is that they get the right person and tell that story'."

Xzannjah says Laurie (whom she knew from mouse movie Stuart Little) was great with acting tips. And she was impressed by Rawiri Paratene, who was her acting coach.

"It was really a privilege for me to work with Rawiri. He's a really famous actor back home because we use Whale Rider in our English lessons. He was really helpful in getting my emotions out, because I'm not the kind of person who could just cry in front of 30-plus people"

Making the film illuminated Xzannjah's view of the conflict in her home country.

"It allowed me to see the humanitarian part of it, like what the people went through. Most times when you learn about it in school what most people hear is the political part of it. But they don't see actually what happened, the events that took place."

Although Adamson is one of the most internationally successful Kiwi film-makers, Mr. Pip demonstrates his continued commitment to working in New Zealand, where he still lives. Does that impact on his ability to instigate projects?

"Because I've been making films in this region it hasn't been that much of a problem," he says, "but it's hard at times. I know my agents would wish I was much more available for casual meetings, because things come out of those - you happen to just be sitting with somebody and they talk about an idea and you respond to it and before you know you're making a film. And to be honest, Shrek and Narnia both happened that way."

Who: Andrew Adamson and leading lady, Xzannjah
What: Mr. Pip
When: Opens at cinemas on October 3

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