Allerton Park, Yorkshire, August 1992. Tony Earnshaw reports from the set of The Secret Garden.
A carriage and horses rattles briskly towards the grim edifice of a Victorian mansion, its occupant glaring balefully out of from its open window. Overhead, the sky threatens rain and, in in the near distance, the drone of traffic is masked by the gusts of wind that blow intermittently across the scene.
The carriage driver cracks his whip to spur the horses on, their hooves kicking up gravel from the path as they canter towards the door of the great house. Inside the carriage, its occupant sits motionless, his eyes never leaving the approaching building.
The atmosphere of the scene is suddenly shattered by the roar of a passing jet fighter from RAF Leeming, just 23 miles away. And with a barely perceptible nod of her head, director Agniezska Holland ends the take and calls for another.
Holland, 44, a Polish émigré now based in Paris, is one of a new breed of directors who have moved to the West after going as far as possible in her homeland.
From 1977 to 1981 a member of the Collective directed by Andrzej Wajda – the man responsible for Man of Steel and Man of Marble, among others – she collaborated on many of his scripts and picked up a clutch of awards for the films she made in Poland.
Her latest film, Europa, Europa, the story of a 13-year-old Jewish boy who escapes certain death at the hands of the Nazis by pretending to be of Aryan origin and joining the Hitler Youth, was Oscar nominated for its screenplay amid massive critical acclaim.
Big in demand after the success of Europa, Europa, Holland turned down a number of major offers to work with Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope company on what is, in effect, her breakthrough into the cinematic mainstream.
The story she chose to film was The Secret Garden, first published in the early years of the century and never out of print since. It was first filmed in 1948 with Elsa Lanchester and Dean Stockwell. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book was Holland’s favourite as a child.
“I was looking for something that I could do for an American audience while at the same time something that was also in my culture. I realised we can meet everyone in the world of our childhood, in the books of our childhood,” she said.
The story of the secret garden is the story of a little girl orphaned by an Indian earthquake and sent back to England to live with an uncle she has never met. She finds herself in a huge, cold house deep within the heart of the Yorkshire moors. She explores the house and its grounds, finding a locked and abandoned garden and slowly and lovingly nurtures it back to life.
One of the prime movers around this latest adaptation of The Secret Garden is producer Fred Roos (Oscar winner for best film with 1974’s The Godfather II)
“I think there’s a great need for this kind of film. There’s a great audience for it, if you put something good out there. A recent example is Beauty and the Beast, which has done way over $100 million. The ideal thing is to produce a family film which adults want to see for its artistic merit, not just a thing that you have to go to with the kids,” he said.
Roos recruited a highly respected crew of top-notch talent. Among them is cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot Barton Fink for the Coen Brothers, Michael Radford’s 1984, Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Mountains of the Moon.
Caroline Thompson (credits: Edward Scissorhands and The Addams Family) was enlisted to write the screenplay. Thompson, along with Holland, was a devotee of the story, and had harboured an ambition to adapt the book for years.
“It’s important to cherish the things you carry with you from your childhood. You need a whole history with this book to write the film,” said Thompson.
Double Oscar winner Stuart Craig is the production designer. A veteran of movies such as The Elephant Man, Greystoke, The Mission, Cry Freedom, Gandhi and Dangerous Liaisons, the last two garnering him his Academy Awards, he’s the ideal choice to recreate the secret garden.
If it seems odd that Zoetrope – the company responsible for Apocalypse Now – should be making a traditional family film, Roos has opinions on that, too.
It’s not really a departure for us. I produced a fairly famous family film, The Black Stallion, which, if I say so myself, has remained a family film that’s always shown and revived.
“The director of The Black Stallion, Carroll Ballard, and I were discussing what film he might want to do next, and he mentioned this book. I hadn’t read it but I did after he mentioned it. I liked it and found out what a classic children’s book it was. That was 12 years ago.
“The Black Stallion was a Zoetrope picture. We also did The Black Stallion Returns and two very ‘young people’ films, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. It’s one of our agendas to try and do a family film once in a while. The Black Stallion, as an example, was a big, big hit because it was great for the kids but adults could appreciate it as well. It stood on its own as film art. If you have kids you study the newspapers hard to try and find something to take them to. You want an outing. You don’t always just want to slam on a videotape. You want to give them the experience of going out to a movie theatre, and it’s hard to find something that you can take them to. If you have a quality piece – like we hope this is – I think there’s a big audience.”
Roos knew the film would not sell on the basis of four unknown child actors, and chose Dame Maggie Smith as the nametag on which to hang the movie.
“I’d seen her in things for 20 years but I’d never worked with her and never met her before this film. I’d seen her in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – loved her in that – and most recently in Sister Act, which was a big, big hit in the States,” he said.
“That’s really Whoopi’s film more than Maggie’s, but Maggie just adds to it so much. I don’t call that a stereotypical English quality. Maybe I’m wrong but I find the quirky, unusual touches she brings are just that: very unusual, special, unexpected and delightful.
“She’s the only ‘name’ in the film. We didn’t cast her for that reason – to give a name; we cast her because she was absolutely perfect for the part. We knew she would bring little touches that you can’t write down on paper.
“Her part is not as big as Mary’s, the little girl [played by Kate Maberly] who’s in practically every scene, but she’s all the way through the film. She pops up every so often. She’s kind of a negative force that causes conflict. It makes her dominant but funny, too. She brings great humour to this film,” he added.
On the day of this visit Dame Maggie wasn’t on call. Consequently she wasn’t talking to the Press – which included a film crew from World Television News, John McCarthy’s company – and stayed tucked away in her trailer throughout the morning and early afternoon.
The film’s other ‘name’, Irish actor John Lynch, he of the anguished look and perpetual frown, wasn’t talking either. No egos here, though: he was worried whether his voice would last the course of the film, having screamed his way through a scene the previous day when his character, Lord Craven, had to shout at a pack of dogs.
Once he’s completed the carriage shot and a close-up near the house, he too retired to his trailer.
An up-and-coming star since Cal, his film debut, in 1984, Lynch has found himself in some pretty unusual productions since, not least the British sci-fi shocker Hardware, Derek Jarman’s Edward II and Television’s Chimera. His role in The Secret Garden sees him moving into cinematic period drama for the first time.
Casting the film’s four child actors proved a touch more problematic. Roos embarked upon the task of finding four kids to play his juvenile leads. He chose Kate Maberly, Heydon Prowse, Andrew Knott and Laura Crossley.
“It’s a very critical decision,” said Roos. “It took many months, hundreds of interviews and auditions in the States as well as here and even in Canada. Finally, we got down to the last few and we tested them – in this case we re-tested them – and these kids won out.
“The Yorkshire kids playing Dickon and Martha – Andrew and Laura – won their parts easier. They jumped out early to us but the roles of Mary and Colin went right up to the last minute before we finally made our decision.”
The lead role in the movie fell to 10-year-old Kate Maberly, who faced seven auditions and a screen test before being picked for the part. She plays Mary.
Colin, Lord Craven’s frail son, is played by 12-year-old newcomer Haydon Prowse, who was plucked from school for the film. Martha the maid and Dickon the stable boy are played by Laura Crossley and Andrew Knott respectively, both of whom are members of the Oldham Theatre Workshop, and TV veterans.
But what of the old adage ‘Never work with children or animals’? “Working with children is not difficult; the important thing is casting. If you don’t male mistakes with the casting, then it works. It’s a natural way of behaving with children, being asked to play-act,” said Holland. “They are good kids. They are all fighters, plenty of spirit!”
With the $16 million production of The Secret Garden scheduled for a summer release in the States, Fred Roos and Zoetrope are already thinking of new directions. Among the projects the company has on the boil are a new version of Pinocchio, a topical AIDS cure feature and Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road.
Agniezska Holland, meanwhile, concentrates on the matter in hand.
“The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books as a child in Poland. Before me, it was my mother’s favourite book. After me, my daughter… The book has great energy, intensity and a poetic quality. It has hope. I thought it would be good to spend this year of my life in the secret garden.”
This article originally appeared in the Film Review Blockbuster Summer Special 1993. A revised version also appeared in ArtScene magazine.