Before directing and producing Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Anthony Fabian gained critical acclaim for his film Skin (2008), a biographical drama about Sandra Laing, a girl who grows to feel like an outsider in South Africa during Apartheid. This film and others, such as Louder Than Words (2013), highlight Fabian’s sensitivity as a filmmaker and his aptitude for crafting films about complex, emotional topics. His most recent film, a documentary called Good Hope (2020), shared the perspectives of a post-Apartheid generation of South Africans.
While Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris may seem like a pivot for Fabian, his upbringing in London and Paris made him a perfect fit to tell this story authentically. His connections to the original source material, his creative team (he’s been friends with legendary production designer Luciana Arrighi for nearly 30 years), and his dedication to adapting this delightful character for modern audiences helped him create a film with flair in every frame.
I was delighted to speak with Fabian about his filmmaking process. We discussed his cinematic inspirations, recreating a 1950s couture House, and why this lovely new film is sure to capture the hearts of viewers everywhere.
Anthony Fabian: Good morning, Sophia.
Sophia Ciminello: Hi Anthony, thanks so much for joining me today to talk about Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. Congratulations on the release of the movie!
AF: Thank you! I’m delighted it’s being released (laughs).
SC: I’m excited for everyone to see it. So, this film is an adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. I would love to learn more about your relationship to this story. What made you want to direct this film and write this adaptation?
AF: Well, my manager in LA also manages the Paul Gallico estate, and he sent me a script of “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” about a decade ago. There had been another producer attached at the time. When I read the script, I immediately felt I was in very comfortable territory because my father moved to Paris when I was seven years old, and it’s like a second home to me. I speak fluent French. And, of course, I’ve lived in England most of my life. So I really felt that this was a story I could do justice to because I understand French and British culture. Very often, when you see depictions of France by foreign directors, they tend to be a bit chocolate boxy or a bit cliched, and I wanted to do something more authentic.
So that was my entree to the story, but I also immediately fell in love with this character. I wasn’t familiar with the books which I subsequently read. There are four books–four adventures, and she’s always a fish out of water. I think I’m naturally drawn to stories of outsiders and people who are perhaps unseen, who don’t have a voice, and who are underdogs. And Mrs. Harris is certainly someone we all want to champion.
SC: Absolutely. I was so invested in this film because it is so easy to root for Ada. She’s such a lovely, warm, resilient woman. How did you know that Lesley Manville was your Ada? What was it like collaborating with her to bring this wonderful character to life?
AF: Mrs. Harris is actually a very difficult role to cast. I would say it’s a bit of a “Cinderella’s slipper” part. You know it really only fits one foot, as it were. And there are two things that Lesley did that made me absolutely convinced that she was the one. First of all, of course, I saw her in Phantom Thread, where she was absolutely astonishing. I had never seen her perform such a frightening but nuanced character. If it had been that alone, I probably wouldn’t have thought of her as Mrs. Harris; I would’ve just thought she was a great actress. The next thing I was directed to see was a series called Mum which she did for BBC. There she plays a character who is so kind and, in a way, so put upon, but always with a kind of wisdom about why she doesn’t respond or rise to the appalling behavior of her family around her. The character of Mum is much closer to that of Ada Harris. So if you combine those two–that finesse and that nuance that she showed in Phantom Thread and the kindness and warmth of Mum, you have Ada Harris.
SC: Yeah, that is a perfect combination. I enjoyed that series, and of course I loved her performance in Phantom Thread. It was fun to see her arrive in Paris and at The House of Dior specifically, because I started to see a lot of similarities to the House of Woodcock in Phantom Thread. It was interesting to see her in a very different role, not so much as the ruler of the house, but as an outsider coming in.
SC: And I like what you said about London and Paris and you having familiarity with both of these cities. I was charmed by the magical realism in the film and how you capture the magic not only of Ada and her journey, but also of London and Paris as cities. With magical realism, there is such a fine line and you do a great job of making it feel realistic, but also making her world feel full of these magical possibilities. How did you assemble your creative team to do that and what was your approach to creating that world?
AF: Well, you’ve got it absolutely spot-on. It’s a very fine line to walk because too much magic and it becomes absurd and not credible and too much realism and it loses that fairy tale quality. So you do have to find that perfect balance between those two and I honestly didn’t know how I was going to do it (laughs). But, you’re right. It was partly about assembling the right team and conveying that dream and desire for magical realism.
I mean, this is a bit technical, but my cameraman and I did a number of camera tests that involved different lenses. The anamorphic lens, which is a very old lens from the ’50s that we use, creates a sense of magic in and of itself because it slightly blurs the edges of the frame and round objects become sort of elongated. So, for example, when you see the Albert Bridge in all of those scenes, those little lightbulbs are not round as they really are; they’re slightly elongated and have a halo and a glow around them. So, those lenses contributed enormously to the sense of magic. He wanted me to look at every single lens, but as soon as I saw that anamorphic, I knew we’d found what we needed.
The other big factor I think was that I’ve always conceived of this film as a musical, but without the musical numbers, without the singing. I think that also gives it a slight sense of magic, but what’s happening in front of the frame is very real. We did lots of long takes. We went from one character to another character. We used what we call the “Umbrellas of Cherbourg pivot,” where you start with one character and then pivot to another. We watched that film a lot and other musicals like Funny Face and Cabaret. So I looked a lot at the camerawork of musicals rather than straight films to imbue it with that sense of magic.
SC: I love hearing that because that’s something I definitely picked up on when I was watching the film. I thought a lot about musicals like Mary Poppins or My Fair Lady. I loved that warmth that was on the screen.
AF: Yeah. My Fair Lady is also a good call. I looked a lot at that ascot scene. The other very important factor–that’s where Jenny Beavan and Luciana Arrighi, my production designer, really played a role–is that I wanted to create two very different worlds. I wanted London to look very different from Paris. We did that not only through the locations and all of the objects in the frame but also through the color palette. As I discovered with my first film, that’s not something you can necessarily do in post-production with grading. You actually have to choose your color palette very carefully during the production design and costume phase. So, I had a meeting with Felix Weidemann, Jenny Beavan, and Luciana to discuss the palette. We agreed that London would have soft greens, grays, browns, and a sort of muddier palette if you like. And Paris would be sharper, so black, white primary colors. I think that also contributes to a sense of magic–that you’re going from one sort of world to another sort of world. One that’s a little bit drab and one that has a little more color and vibrancy.
SC: You can definitely feel those two distinct worlds in the film. You mentioned the great Jenny Beavan. I loved that you got to experience that fashion show through Ada’s eyes. You also see those costumes, and you instantly think of the iconic ‘50s Dior looks. How did you know that you wanted to work with Jenny Beavan and what was your collaborative process like with her?
AF: So, I was aware of Jenny’s work, particularly through the Merchant Ivory films she had done with Luciana Arrighi. Luci was a friend of mine; we’d never worked together before, but we’d known each other for about 30 years, and I’d always hugely admired her films. She’s an absolute icon herself, everything from Women in Love, Sunday Bloody Sunday, My Brilliant Career, and all those Merchant Ivory films–A Room With a View, she won an Oscar for Howards End. She’d worked with Jenny several times, and she was the one who said to me, “you want Jenny for this particular job.” When I had my first meeting with her, I said, “well, this is magical realism. I want you to look at Dior’s designs, and I want you to “Jenny Beavan” them. I want you to create your own inspiration based on Dior.” And she said to me, “you’re absolutely mad. Christian Dior was a genius. I’m not going to improve on Christian Dior. We have to dream and hope that we can come close to recreating exactly what he did.” I was a little disappointed, but she was absolutely right, as she is about most things.
We went to the archives at Dior and spent a lot of time with the archivists and historians. They were brilliant because they said, “Okay, what year is this film set? What’s the season we’re depicting here?” We decided that because it’s the 10th-anniversary collection, it was practically Dior’s last show. So, we would turn it into the 10th-anniversary show, representing several of the dresses from across that decade but concentrating primarily on Spring/Summer of 1957, which is sort of when we imagine this happening. So they brought out the books, and we went through all the different options together. It was a combination of, what’s makeable because some of these dresses would’ve taken six months and a hundred women in an atelier to recreate–just too complicated and too detailed, and you know, what do we also love? So that was a long process. But in the end, and this is why Jenny is so much fun and so contrary sometimes, she did end up creating three dresses inspired by Dior but made entirely by her eye and design, and that’s the three hero dresses.
So, the first dress that Ada sees is based on a Dior dress called “Miss Dior” from, I think, 1950. It’s subtly different from the original and isn’t an exact copy. It has a bit more glint, I wanted it to sparkle, and it has a bit more intensity of color and so on. The second dress she created was “Venus,” the green dress that Ada thinks she wants until she sees “Temptation,” which is the third dress. And so “Temptation” was the third dress she made, inspired by a dress called “Diablotine,” which was part of the Spring/Summer ’57 collection, but again not an exact replica. I think she was just incredibly clever. I don’t think anyone looking at the film could distinguish between the real Dior designs and the Jenny Beavan Dior designs. But it really pleased us both that only the story dresses were invented. All of the other dresses were real, so again, we come back to how this magical realism was achieved through a combination of the invented and the real.
SC: Wow, I will tell you, I couldn’t tell the difference between the real Dior and the Jenny Beavan designs (laughs). I have one last question for you, which I hope ties in nicely with what you shared about the dresses. I was really struck by the fact that Ada’s happiness isn’t just about getting this dress like we initially thought it might be. Can you talk about your decision to show why the journey she takes and her experiences in Paris were even more important to her development as a character?
AF: I do love the questions you ask, I must say.
SC: Oh, thank you!
AF: Because that’s one of the most important aspects of this adaptation. Paul Gallico doesn’t really give an explanation as to why Ada wants this dress, and his explanation is very vague–“oh, all women love beauty,” or something like that. Well, that was never going to do for the resources and the effort involved in making a movie and expecting an audience to sit through something that’s just about a dress. It had to be about something much bigger. Because she’s a widow, I became fascinated by why older women such as Ada and particularly at that time but even today, dismiss themselves as sexual and romantic objects. Why do they no longer think it’s possible that they could ever have another relationship or find love again? And it’s partly to do with her devotion to her husband and her sense that “till death do us part” means both of them, not just him. It’s also partly because for a long time, he was MIA, and she didn’t know if he was alive or dead.
So the springboard of the story is when she finds out he is gone. And she has this wonderful line that she tosses off: “Well, that’s it then, footloose and fancy-free.” It’s a bit bitter and sad when she says it, but it’s the truth because that’s the beginning of her emotional adventure. So what this dress triggers is her emotional adventure and the possibility of opening her heart once again to love. And that’s the blogger journey that’s not in the book and that I thought would be more satisfying for an audience to experience.
SC: Absolutely. It was one of my favorite things about the film. Thank you so much for talking with me today! I loved hearing about your process, and I can’t wait for people to see this movie.
AF: Thank you! I look forward to seeing your article.
SC: Thank you!
AF: Have a great day! Bye.
Focus Features will release Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris on July 15 only in theaters.
Photo: Dávid Lukács / 2021 Ada Films Ltd – Harris Squared Kft