Where did you first fall in love with Dickens?
It was at school. We read Great Expectations. I think we did Hard Times, then went on to read Oliver Twist. I thought, ‘this guy’s great.’ Then the next one I read was The Old Curiosity Shop, which is fantastic actually. Then Martin Chuzzlewit, which is enormous, and nobody reads it, but it’s absolutely hilarious. Then when you went onto things like David Copperfield and Little Dorrit his ambition, his confidence in taking on big topics. Remember at the time, Great Britain was this sort of superpower. It’s like an American writer attacking America or a Chinese writer attacking China now. It’s actually quite a risky thing he was doing, which is to challenge all the preconceived notions of how the country should work, and highlighting child labour and bad education and bad housing conditions.
When you were young did those themes immediately strike you?
It was the political aspect or the satirical aspect of it. Then also his language is funny, and we’ve tried in the film to use as many of his one-liners as possible.
Why Dickens now? British politics is a mess and you go back to the 19th century, why now?
What I liked about his writing is that he’s able to be very particular and humane and draw these fantastic characters, and yet never forgets the big public stage that he’s also talking about. In his novels he talks about politics and the law and poverty and the industrial revolution and children working in factories. He is always talking about the big issues but how individual characters are caught up in them. The timing wasn’t deliberate. For quite some time, I wanted to do this as a film. Not really thinking that it has to be a commentary on today, but I made it because it felt very contemporary. The issues in it felt very modern.
Is it your favourite Dickens novel?
Not necessarily. I really like Little Dorrit but that’s a more serious novel. I always liked Martin Chuzzlewit, which I think is the funniest one. It’s really very funny and full of great comic characters. He sends half his characters off to America for about 200 pages because sales started to dip – he brought it out in monthly parts, and sales went down. So, he thought, ‘what will I do now? Oh, I’ll just ship them off to America for no reason’.
Were there other novels of his you did consider as a possible adaptation?
No, it was when I was reading Copperfield and I just thought, ‘I want to make this’. Funnily enough, it’s been serialized on television but not that many film adaptations… People tend to go for Great Expectations or Oliver Twist. People think they know what Copperfield is, but they don’t really because no one reads it.
Reading it, it felt like such a good story to tell because of the language in it and the themes are so contemporary, all the status anxiety; background, is it something I should hide or something I should celebrate? Have I made the right choices with who my friends are and who I’m going to marry? All that kind of thing going on while people are getting rich and poor around him. I think it feels very contemporary and the whole thing of mental illness as well with Mr Dick [Hugh Laurie], it’s a really honest, realistic portrayal.
You’re famous for the sense of humour within the script, but this work is quite famous for seriousness. Did you want to draw out the funny aspect, a new angle?
When people have adapted it in the past, they’ve just stuck to the story and thrown all the language and all the comedy out. In fact, it’s a book full of comic moments, like when David gets drunk and says I’ve drunk in hair. That’s all in the book. Dickens describes how David sees London sort of swirling around and when he falls in love with Dora, Dickens describes him seeing the word Dora everywhere he goes and Dora’s dog on the faces of people. There was a really quite modern, surrealist visual cinematic sense to the writing. I’ve always been amazed that hasn’t been foregrounded in adaptations. In David Copperfield, I think the story is not necessarily the most interesting part. I think it’s about the characters and the language and then the emotion. It’s the emotional journey he’s going on and as he tries to turn his childhood into something that makes sense of him now. Then actually becomes a means of digging himself out of his financial hole as well, as he turns into a writer.
Is there a lot of plot and drama that you have to put by the wayside?
You have to simplify it or else take elements of it that may have been with a minor character and give them to someone like Mr. Micawber [Peter Capaldi]. In the book, Mr. Micawber disappears for 300 or 400 pages and comes back. In a film you want that sense of these characters being present more or less throughout. So, it was about that. The biggest, hardest, most work in the adaptation went into turning a big sort of baggy monster into something that had a kind of sense of progression and a sense of the themes gradually crystallizing and you being swept along by the, not just the plot, but by the thematic development that’s going on as well.
Does Micawber have linguistic dexterity in the book, or was that something you immediately matched to Peter?
That’s Dickens. We’ve tried as much as possible to stick to dialogue from the book, especially with Micawber.
How did you choose Dev Patel to be David Copperfield?
It was instant. He was the only person I could think of. I’d seen Dev be comic and socially awkward and all those things. But in Lion, he was very strong and determined and focused. When I watched Lion I thought, that’s David Copperfield. There he is. I instantly went to Dev and said, ‘I’d like you to be David Copperfield please’. Thankfully he said, yes because I really didn’t have a plan B; he could do all those things and he’s got the physicality. He’s got the charm and the charisma, he’s a fantastic actor. Being able to one day tell him, ‘Can you be a bit dorky and a bit Charlie Chaplin-esque?’ The next day, ‘Can you be emotional moment?’ His application to it and his thinking through all the kind of emotional twists and turns was actually great to watch.
What about the mixed ethnicity?
Well my idea was prompted by having Dev as David. I thought, ‘do you go down the very literal route and say, ‘so, is he from an Indian family?’’ I thought, no, I’ve seen it done often enough in theatre. Why not? Also, I want the audience to feel that they’re watching people on screen who are living in their present day. I don’t want it to feel like a museum piece or something that has got cobwebs and has been put away in a drawer for years and is now being brought out again. I wanted to feel contemporary, without adding modern music or things like that. We set it very much in 1840, and we researched the clothes, which are much more spectacular than you’d think. It’s all those big bright colours and their hair in strange shapes. So that’s all from 1840.
To me it just seemed, why can’t I just choose anyone I like for the part, as long as they feel right for that part. By the end of it, I just thought actually, strangely enough, if you don’t do that, then you’re not drawing from 100% of the acting community. Why should you not? So hopefully as people watch it, it becomes very clear how it works as an ensemble really in its own terms.
How do you think this film relates to your previous work?
I don’t know. I just knew after The Death of Stalin I wanted something really different, so there’s no guns, there’s no killing, there’s no swearing. I also wanted to do something that was happy, without trying to hide any of the harder themes within it about the poverty; and there’s a death. I didn’t want to hide that, but I just wanted something that was more of a celebration actually of what this country is really and which we don’t really talk about often enough in our Brexit conversations. The idea of community and friendship and so on… It just felt like maybe it’s a response, a reaction to what has been going on over the last four or five years that I didn’t want to make something that was negative and cynical. I wanted something optimistic really.
Did you get much reaction from Russian people that did manage to see Stalin before it was banner there?
Oh yes. Oh absolutely. They said, ‘It’s funny, but it’s true.’ They would tell about what their parents went through. I met someone who was at the funeral, and he was 14, he got caught up in the crowd disturbances and he said it was just like that. They would tell us about how you would go to bed with lots of layers of clothes on, so if you were pulled out in the middle of the night and taken off to Siberia, at least you had lots of clothes with you. You’d have a bag packed by the door always. So that if you were dragged, you could grab it on the way out, things like that. The nicest compliment was they would say, ‘Where in Moscow did you film it?’ I’d say, ‘In Russia, in London.’ But we went to Moscow and researched all the locations, Stalin statue, and tried to replicate it as much as possible. Then we went to Kiev to do some of the crowd scenes. They were quite happy to have Stalin die, in Kiev, so they came out in the hundreds to attend his funeral.
Your initial reaction to the banning, was that anger or disappointment or acceptance?
No, it was real disappointment. I just felt so frustrated that people said, ‘Hey, this is great publicity.’ I thought, ‘no, you can’t… You’re stopping people from seeing something, but it’s stupid in this day and age to think that you can stop people from seeing something. So, lo and behold, it had a million and a half illegal downloads. There was someone in the Russian parliament just saying, ‘This is ridiculous. You’re now making this the most famous film in Russia. What are you doing?’
How would you say that the current politics is inspiring you for your future artistic expression?
Well, what’s emerging is that there is no recognised code of conduct. That’s the frightening thing, it’s an anarchy, but the anarchists are in power, in that they now think that, well if they say it’s illegal, I’ll just ignore them. If they say this is not how it’s normally done, I’ll ignore them. I’ll say what I like. It’s very Orwellian as well; Donald Trump is saying, ‘That spy is calling me a traitor. He’s actually the traitor for spying on me, the president.’ He’s using the words that they use but use them against your opponent. It’s very Orwellian. It’s very Soviet as well and that’s the frightening thing. I think that sort of corruption of the decline of argument.
The fact that people don’t want to discuss anything with people who have the opposite point of view, they’d rather block them or unfollow them. That, I think, is a tricky area. That is probably something I will want to explore but I don’t know how or in what form. That’s the area, for me, that is the most worrying.
Who else is your big influence as far as satire goes?
Orwell, not just 1984 but his journalism because he’s very good at clarity, he said that if an essay starts becoming florid it’s because the writer of that essay is losing confidence in their argument. He’s very good at just making you think about the purity of the argument.
The Personal History of David Copperfield will release in cinemas on July 2, 2020