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‘The Duchess’ Producer Carolyn Marks Blackwood Talks About Her Film

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In 1998, Dutchess County resident Carolyn Marks Blackwood and her partner in Magnolia May Films, Gabrielle Tana, optioned the film rights to a soon-to-be-published biography, Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire.  The book went on to become a bestseller here and in the United Kingdom, and its author Amanda Foreman won that year’s prestigious Whitbread Prize for biography.  Four directors, two stars, three screenwriters, and ten years later, the film will premiere this Friday, September 19. 

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The Duchess is the story of Georgiana, “G”, Spencer, who at 17 marries the Duke of Devonshire, a powerful public figure, due, for all appearances, entirely to the law of primogeniture. From the first, he is an emotional cypher, in and out of bed.  Then Georgiana disappoints him by producing daughters instead of the requisite male heir, a situation he views as a willful dereliction of duty. He takes a lover, Georgiana’s live-in companion, Lady Elizabeth, “Bess,” Foster.  But even as G’s private life disintegrates, her public life grows ever more compelling: She is the reigning celebrity of her day, the best dressed, most adored, most politically influential and disarmingly unaffected aristocratic woman that world had, to that date, ever known. 

Blackwood kindly agreed to talk to Rural Intelligence about the picture that has been her passion for the last ten years. 

Rural IntelligenceAmanda Foreman’s book, on which your film is based, was published in 1998.  Start at the beginning, with acquiring rights.

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: Gaby, my partner, was a childhood friend of Amanda’s.  We read the book in galleys and optioned the rights just as it was coming out in the UK and before it came out in the United States.  Then, after a few years, we bought the film rights outright.

RI: What exactly does an Executive Producer do?  You and Amanda Foreman share the title, while your partner, Gaby, is listed as Producer.  Your neighbors are curious: what is the difference in these job descriptions?

CMB:  Gaby and I functioned equally on this film for many years—we found a screenwriter to write the original script (Jeffery Hatcher) and paid for it, then oversaw the development of the script and the project in general.  We went through four directors (among them Paul Greengrass, who left the project to do the second in the “Bourne” series, and Susanne Bier, who left to do Things We Left in the Fire), additional writers, and one other lead actress, who wanted us to wait for six months, which we did not want to do.  Which goes to show what Gaby and I have come to understand about the film business, and life—something that feels like a huge loss at the moment may actually turn into an opportunity.

Gaby essentially moved to England to make the movie.  She sacrificed much to be on the set.  She and her husband have an apartment in Paris.  Since I had worked on this project for 10 years preceding the filming—helping to develop it, both monetarily and artistically, underwriting part of the pre-production, writing notes on the script, and seeing dailies from home, I was given an Executive Producer credit.  As for Amanda Foreman, she was given an Executive Producer’s credit as part of the deal we made to obtain the rights, but she also was on the set for 10 days as a very valuable consultant to the director and the actors.

RI: You are a screenwriter; weren’t you tempted to take a crack at the script?

CMB: No, I was never tempted; it is not my area of expertise.  I felt intimidated by the English dialect of the 18th-century.  It would have bogged me down. Gaby and I read a wonderful script that Jeffery Hatcher had written that took place during that period.  His ability to capture the time and the language—it was quite natural for him. I did, however, feel equipped to give notes as the script was being written.

RI: The parallels between the Diana and Charles’ story and that of Georgiana, Diana’s direct forebear, and the Duke are striking.  How much did that influence the choices made with the screenplay?

CMB: Actually, the screenplay was not influenced at all by the Diana and Charles story.  The story we tell is the story of Georgiana and the Duke.  Any resemblance to the Charles and Diana story is purely coincidental.  We did want the story to resonate with modern audiences, so they could relate to her plight, but the use of Diana in the English publicity was the choice of the PR departments, not the filmmakers.  However, the two stories do happen to have an amazing amount in common—Georgiana was Diana’s great, great, great, great aunt and was raised at Althorp, as was Diana.  The other parallels are pretty obvious, but that was not on our minds in either the development of the script or the filming. 

RI: Keira Knightly had to bring together so many threads—fashion plate/party girl, political activist, loving mother, wounded/defiant wife, and betrayed-yet-loyal friend. 

CMB: I think that Keira did a fantastic job bringing all the threads together.  She was 22 when she filmed last year. The scene where G spies on Bess and her boys, while her husband lavishes them with attention, hits me particularly hard.  You feel how trapped she is.  She had to find solace in the very small world that was open to her—spirit encased.

RIAnd it fell to Ralph Fiennes’ to make sense of the Duke, who could have come off as one-dimensional monster.

CMB:  His performance simply blows me away in it’s complexity—watching the different takes in the rushes was an amazing experience.  He gave the Duke a humanity that could easily not have been there.  From his performance, we come to understand that the Duke was also a victim of his station and time. There was little in the script that showed the Duke in a sympathetic light.  It was the wonderful direction of Saul Dibb and the incredibly nuanced performance by Ralph that broke the back of this character in the film.  It would have been so easy to have just made him a villain; I think that Saul and Ralph did a remarkable job.

RI: For Americans it’s difficult to fathom the British aristocracy then OR now: how such barely housebroken people can wield so much power and influence.  According to the book, the Cavendish clan of the day had its own patois.  Georgi-ah-na became Georgi- ay-na, and they generally spoke in baby talk—evidence of laughable self-indulgance and insularity.  One would think the Duke would have been a Tory to the bone, yet he was the chief supporter among the aristocrats of the Whigs, correct?  This craven nincompoop was a political progressive?

CMB: It is surprising that the Duke was a liberal thinker, but he was, as was George III’s son, the prince. The Whigs were pro-independence [for the American colonies], against slavery, etc.  It is sort of the equivalent of someone like George Soros, or the rich and powerful in Hollywood supporting the Democratic party and Obama in this day and age.  Even so, the servants in the film stand about like furniture, overhearing the most personal conversations—as if they are not people, do not exist.

RI: You are also a photographer.  It must be gratifying that the cinematography is so exceptional—all those canddlelit palaces, and the outdoor shots that look like Turners and Constables.

CMB: Our Hungarian cinematographer, Gyula Pados, did an amazing job.  It was the intention of all involved to make the interiors look candlelit, and I think they succeeded.  One really feels as if you are in those times.  And when the Duke first undresses G in the film, when her corset is taken off, we see the deep grooves in her back from the corset strings.  I found that one picture so emblematic of her life: The film is like an emotional Das Boot—it feels suffocating. The double standard was complete.  Even an upper class woman like G could be ruined or banished. 

RI: What’s in the pipeline for Magnolia Mae Films?

CMB:  We are working on a number of projects, including a film that I wrote called Barbette, and a number of other things that we cannot discuss because we are in the middle of negotiations.  Now Gaby and I are being asked what we would like to do.  We hope it will be a little easier next time. 

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 09/11/08 at 11:34 AM • Permalink