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A new take on the nanny diaries

After the protracted effort of writing the screenplay to 'Nanny McPhee,' Emma Thompson kept a journal on the amusingly bumpy project. Worm sandwich, anyone?

January 22, 2006|Emma Thompson

Emma Thompson is virtually unrecognizable as the snaggle-toothed caretaker who uses magic to rein in the seven motherless youngsters under her care in "Nanny McPhee." The London-born Thompson, wrote the screenplay for the family film, basing it upon a popular children's book, and also recorded the ups and downs of the sometimes-trying movie-making process. Excerpts from her diary follow:

ONE day, while dusting the bookshelves in my TV room (pointlessly, since no one reads books in the TV room, they watch TV), I hoiked out a small hardback called "Nurse Matilda." It was a neat little rectangle with a good weight to it, and it featured on the cover a pen-and-ink drawing of a fierce-looking female with some sort of dental problem.

This looked promising, and flinging aside my ersatz feather duster, I read it immediately. I remembered it rather vaguely from my childhood and decided it might make a good film. It had taken many long months, nay years, to adapt "Sense and Sensibility," and perhaps I secretly thought it would be easier to write a film for -- at least on the surface of it, and for want of a better word -- children.

I can safely say that with the possible exception of doing stand-up comedy on Nelson's column to 60,000 hot, tired, angry people for a nuclear disarmament rally in 1984, this has been my most difficult assignment. You try writing something that pleases, delights and intrigues children without boring their parents. Go on, try it. At any rate, nine years have passed since that day, and I have written many drafts of the film this diary records, but I still haven't finished dusting the bloody bookshelves.

Jan. 22, 2005

We've begun the task of casting the children. Having played games with hundreds of young and teeny hopefuls, we are now asking some to read in front of a camera. We are looking for charm and intelligence and fun and wisdom, which, of course, they all have. But we are also looking for an ability not only to be spontaneous and natural, but to repeat that spontaneity. A tall order for most actors, even grown-up ones.

Jan. 23

Thomas Sangster (who appeared as Liam Neeson's lovesick son in "Love Actually") is our Simon, we've decided. He came in and read wonderfully -- portraying a boy who's hurt and angry about his mother's death, who's the leader, who's inventive and clever and who really listens. He's a really good young actor, and now we need to find five children who can match him. The seventh is a baby, so goodness knows how that works. How do you cast a baby? Babies don't do, they just are. Help.

Feb. 17

Kirk [Director Kirk Jones] takes me to see workshops at Pinewood Studios. The chippies (carpenters who build the sets) have actually started to cut wood.

"I think that must mean it's going to happen, don't you?" he says, turning to me owlishly.

"What's going to happen?" I ask.

"The film," he says.

I nod and we give each other the thumbs up again. But he's expressing the traces of doubt left from our most difficult route to production. Lindsay Doran, our producer, who did the march all the way, says bringing this film to production was the hardest thing she's ever done. We are supposed to start on April Fool's Day. I half believe I'll turn up and everything will have disappeared. Just a few script revisions with "April Fool" written on them blowing about the vacant lot.

BAFTAs last night. I glammed up. Nearly killed me. Was up for supporting actress in "Love Actually." Very deservedly, Renee Zellweger won for "Cold Mountain." I ate all the sweets in my free baggy and felt sick. Bill Nighy won again, and Paul Bettany and I were very rude to him. It turned out to be a lovely, sociable night even though I kept stepping on my boa, and now there's a few days' rest before this huge machine actually cranks into life.

March 2

Nearly finished casting. Shooting script ready. Apparently, it is cheaper to have the animatronic donkey doing Irish dancing instead of tap-dancing as originally scripted. Something to do with donkey anatomy. Fine by me.

March 18

Saw the outdoor set, which is in a beautiful place called Penn village. The Brown house is enormous and looks completely real, except, of course, as you go up the stairs and there's no upstairs. And some of the downstairs rooms are just filled with old dust-sheets and props. It is most peculiar.

The children couldn't believe their eyes when they saw the house. "Is this not real then?" said Sam. Met animals -- dog, pig, donkey and so forth. Also the tarantula that the children plant in someone's hairdo. Large. Pinkish. Hairy.

March 19

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