Carrie Cracknell showed tremendous guts in choosing Persuasion as her first feature film to direct, but for those who know about her, it should come as no shock. Her recent credits include directing theatrical productions such as Macbeth, Medea, and A Doll’s House. Indeed a powerhouse trio of source material that would scare away most directors, but not Cracknell. Cracknell has always made bold choices. At University, while most students are simply trying to study for exams, Carrie started her own production company, Hush, with a group of friends, including actor Ruth Wilson. She became the youngest artistic director in British Theatrical history when she took over The Gate Theatre at Notting Hill.
Her first piece at the Gate Theatre was I Am Falling, which later transferred to Sadler Wells due to its enormous popularity and qualified for South Bank Show Award. This was the beginning of a trend. Her shows were consistently popular with both fans and critics as well. Her play, A Seawall/A Life in the Public, was nominated for 4 Tony Awards, including dual Best Actor nods for Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge. Right now, she mainly collaborates with The National Theatre on various projects because her attention has now turned towards a new medium.
While Jane Austen fans might not be thrilled with the idea of updating a piece like Persuasion, Cracknell accomplishes her goal with this film of making the material relatable to a broader audience. Being bold sometimes alienates, but it does bring in people without ties to Jane Austen’s work. With all this discussion about what Persuasion should have been, we were lucky enough to get to the bottom of some of those burning questions when we spoke with Cracknell recently. What stood out to me was how she wasn’t shy about tackling those tough questions head-on, and her answers clarified what many of us have been wondering about this film.
Dewey Singleton: How did you get attached to this project?
Carrie Cracknell: I was sent the script, which was already well-developed, and Dakota Johnson was attached to play Anne and immediately fell in love with it. I just thought it was laugh-out-loud funny, which is very rare to read something on the page that makes you laugh. I loved the kind of soul, romance, and melancholy of the original novel, a beautiful piece of literature, and the way it had been adapted for the screen, so I jumped on board.
DS: So let’s start with the first thing everyone likes to bring up, which is modernizing the language of the source material. Why did you go in that direction?
CC: The idea with the modernization of the language was to make the psychology of the characters a bit more accessible for a younger audience and a new audience to Jane Austen. The book is a beautiful but quite formal novel; we were looking at ways to open that out and draw in a new group of people to the story. I think it allows for some pretty brilliant humor and casting some of the characters in Anne’s life as these narcissistic and, in our version, almost slightly millennial sort of self-obsessed characters. I, for one, really enjoy that playfulness and the kind of freshness.
DS: Why were Henry Goulding and Cosmo Jarvis cast in their respective roles?
CC: Cosmo seemed to be a fascinating Wentworth because he encapsulates the character. He was interested in the backstory of this self-made man. He’s not upper-class. He comes from a naval family, which is Cosmo’s story. He has deep roots and is just not a shiny, flashy, upper-class character. It felt perfect to cast Cosmo in that part.
On the other hand, Mr. Elliott is a more charming, harder-to-know, upper-class… Also, obsessed with class and with status. He has a very different kind of energy. It felt super exciting to bring Henry Golding into that part. I think he felt incredibly at home, able to play in that milieu in a way he probably wouldn’t have been cast in that role five years ago. So it felt fresh, actually, and I love Henry in the part. But also Henry’s family is British, and so he had this intense connection, I think, to that element of the character. For me, the most important thing with all color-conscious casting is to find the actor who profoundly resonates with the part, and that’s what we were looking to do.
DS: I couldn’t agree with you. I can’t imagine you putting him in any other part. According to my research, when Henry read for his part, it was a situation of, now, correct me if I’m wrong, “That’s that.” Is that what was uttered or something along those lines? Was there no other person going to take Henry’s role?
CC: He just loved the part. We loved him for it. He jokingly described him as a… I don’t know if I’m allowed to use the F-word on here, but-
DS: You can use it. Use it.
CC: Yeah. He said, “Regency fuck boy.” and it’s so Henry. He just had a kind of charm and boldness and humor that felt fizzy for Elliot. So it was a kind of natural match.
DS: Dare I say, somebody steals the show at times with some of his one-liners and his wit, and it happens to be Anne’s father. Talk about that casting. How did you get to that particular actor? I’ll let you tell the audience who may not know who’s playing Anne’s father.
CC: So, Richard E. Grant plays Anne’s father. He’s a kind of national treasure. I was working with Dixie, and we were looking at the list of actors and thinking about who we might cast in that part, and we both loved the idea of Richard for him. I had the most incredible Zoom… We were casting through the pandemic, everything on Zoom, and I had this lovely chat with Richard, and then he just said, “Hey, sign me up. I’m in.” It was great. Richard brings this kind of; I don’t know, deeply eccentric, really-funny, very-classy quality to the film. We just loved working with him.
DS: Did working through the pandemic make it harder on you as a director?
CC: No. It was challenging, and I think I’ve made much of the film from this spot on my own in this room.
CC: Yeah. An enormous amount of the preparation for the film was me, and the assistant sat here at our two desks. We couldn’t all meet up. We couldn’t be together. So we were virtually designing, shot listing, and casting. Then over time they were allowed to meet up and travel around locations. But, to start with, we were really all working entirely separately, and the whole of the press junket was me in my bedroom. I’ve had COVID, so I’ve not been allowed out. So, yeah. It added a different kind of energy and quality to the filmmaking process. But luckily, there was so much love in the film and so much joy in the collaborators that we got through.
DS: Now, what was the one thing you obsessed about most of all that you knew you had to get right with this film?
CC: Excellent question. The biggest challenge for me was working with the carriages and the horses and all of those elements because there was something I’d never done before, and it was technically challenging. Those days were pretty wild. You’ve got your carriage and horses, and you’re trying to wrangle scenes around them and getting the horses to stop in precisely the correct position. We had this incredible company, The Devil’s Horsemen, who did it all majestically. But it’s a significant technical challenge, so we went into those days with much consideration and thoughtfulness.
DS: Are you the type of director that if one little detail is not exactly how you planned it out, you must start back at square one to get that detail right? Or do you just roll with the punches?
CC: I think, filmmaking, it’s very, very hard to control everything, and I don’t know that you would want to. I think, for me, the key is to be working with people who you trust and whose taste you love. Then the hope is that they’re making offers that feel tied to your vision. The kind of speed and the scale of what we were doing, you can’t be in control of everything. So, of course, sometimes you turn up, and there are things in the set dressing that were not quite how you’d anticipated, and you have to be responsive and live to those things. I love collaborating. I love the conversation with people that I’m working with. So those new things often are quite enlivening, and they make you just be responsive and trust your instincts.
DS: What were some of the challenges of capturing the countryside?
CC: The recces were so incredible. We would just get up early in the morning on the bus and go to whole stretches of the coastline and walk and walk and look for pathways along the cliffs. We were looking for beaches. We were looking for tree-lined alleys. It just felt so magical. The English countryside is beautiful and bucolic. I guess it was a massive character in my life and my childhood, growing up in the countryside and spending a lot of time doing those kinds of walks and playing in those kinds of places. So it felt very spiritual, almost trying to find the perfect spots. I think we’ve got some stunning locations in the film. It sort of becomes a character in the movie almost-
DS: I can see that.
CC: Yeah, which we loved. That’s a big part of Jane Austin’s writing. You think of Anne as a walker who loved to be outdoors. That was a big part of the landscape in people’s lives.
DS: Now, is there one moment when you sat back and were like, “We’ve come this far. I am so happy. This is all coming together?” Or do you obsess after the fact and go, “I wish I could go back and fix this?”
CC: There are moments in the film that I think are beautiful and as strong and true as they could have been. I particularly loved the day when we shot the beach scene. I love the day when we shot the beach scene. We were there with Cosmo and Dakota. They were both so charged with each other and acting so beautifully. We worked quite a long time on the scene, did lots of detail, and worked in different takes. The light was shifting and changing, and it just felt utterly magical. It was an absolute pleasure to edit that scene as well. Then, of course, there are moments in the film that you revisit and look at and think, “I would’ve done them differently.” But I don’t know. It’s a process of accepting imperfection, I believe, making anything, and being kind to yourself, in a way, about that and trying to cherish and be in love with the material that you’ve shot and to make the best film that you can out of everything you have. There’s a sort of, for me, a pragmatism about that, which I quite enjoy. It requires humility sometimes.
DS: What do you hope the audience takes from the film?
CC: I think this kind of evoking the fear of life running away is at the film’s center. Everybody fears that things are happening to you, around you, and that you’re not the agent of your own story. I think what’s so beautiful about the story, and I hope we’ve captured it in the film, is that she doesn’t compromise, she’s true to herself, and she finds a way to begin her life and become an adult and be free with him. I love that about the story.
Persuasion will premiere July 15 on Netflix.