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Glenn Close heads an enigmatic cast in the new movie Albert Nobbs, based on a story that the award-winning actress holds close to her heart. The drive behind the movie adaptation was very much fueled by Close’s personal interest and experience with the story and with the character and story resonating across the years, Close sought out the best people to help her realize her vision for a big-screen adaptation.
At the turn of the 1990s, when she was shooting Meeting Venus with Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, Close handed him the story and received in return her very first treatment. By 2001 the actress, turned writer and producer, had a draft with which she was satisfied, and arrived in Ireland to scout locations. Among the buildings she found was Cabinteely House in southeast Dublin. Now, ten years on, the house is finally transformed into Morrison’s Hotel.
Irish producer Alan Moloney explains, “Glenn suggested the main location. She had come here ten years ago and it’s a wonderful choice. We also shot at Portmarnock Beach, Dublin city centre, but most of the piece unfolds in Morrison’s. It really helps when Glenn Close is also your location scout!”
From her first scouting trip in 2001 through the start of production in 2011, Close refined and honed the script — most recently with input from acclaimed Irish writer John Banville — although it was only when shooting her second project with filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, 2005’s Nine Lives, however, that she settled on her ideal director.
Close recalls, “I had a wonderful time on Rodrigo’s movies. He loves and understands women. (The pair also worked together on 1999’s Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her) It’s beautiful to be on a set with a director who truly loves women. He is also a masterful writer and has written great female parts.”
Colombian filmmaker Garcia is the son of iconic writer Gabriel García Márquez. “Rodrigo has that heritage,” says Close. “Not only is he the perfect director but he’s also deeply collaborative, and astoundingly open to my ideas.”
The director remembers his first discussions with Close. “I was a little nervous about reading it,” he concedes. “I love working with Glenn but what if I read it and felt as though I couldn’t do it, or it wasn’t my thing? I knew it was her passion. She’d done the play twenty years earlier and had scouted locations. So I went into it hoping that I could connect and I really did.”
Garcia responded to the piece the moment that he began reading Close’s script. “The themes are very contemporary although the story is very much of its time, late nineteenthcentury, and is very much about the inner life of a person and her problems with identity, erasing herself and living in hiding,” he says. “But the story is also about a lot of characters and is very rich and full of drama, which is rare nowadays.”
“Today in a lot of scripts characters talk about their problems. Instead of the audience being told a story, you hear characters bitching. This was the opposite. It had a very laid-out story that unfolded in a beautiful way and you were never ahead of it while you reading it. Five pages from the end, I still didn’t know what would happen. It seemed a great challenge.”
The director says that he found the themes of the story especially appealing. “One of the main themes is people’s dreams and what they want for themselves, their true ambitions and their hopes,” he explains. “Albert, like all the characters in the script, wants more for herself, and most of all, the characters want to be their best selves. A lot of them are trapped with low ceilings over their heads, masks and fake identities.”
“This is set in late nineteenthcentury Dublin where poverty and the threat of poverty had a huge impact,” he continues. “You could find yourself on the street within weeks of losing your job or losing a position. But it still feels contemporary: how can you find a way to be yourself? Living in secrecy and having to please others in order to survive, that has a universal connection for people.”
Producer Julie Lynn, who has worked with Garcia no fewer than seven times, believes that he is the perfect director for the film. “I cannot think of a bad thing to say about him,” she smiles. “He says that he does not know who the character is until the actor tells him. He used to be a DoP, and all his crew will tell you that he is their favourite because he’s such a collaborator. He’s always the smartest person in the room and was always so clearly in control of the vision for the piece.”
Garcia’s vision for Albert Nobbs is one that he shares with both Close and director of photography Michael McDonough. “I love period movies but I’ve never really thought about myself as a director of one,” says Garcia. “When Glenn showed me the script I thought that it had so many themes, was well dramatized and was funny, but we did think, “How are we going to shoot this so that it would have its own look and its own tone and is not just a period look? How would it have the ‘Albert Nobbs’ look, whatever that may be?”
“You want to try and shy away from something that is too stuffy, but on the other hand you don’t want to go too far the other way and make it too modern so that it becomes like a music video. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Michael McDonough was that he can find a new yet subtle way of looking at something.”
McDonough and Garcia opted for what the latter describes as “a contemporary feel but still believable for the period.” He explains, “You need to maximise your resources to make the piece as rich as possible. The movie is shot in a widescreen format and that does give you a bigger dimension. You put your money in a few key scenes that are larger scale, like the big party scene, and then our exteriors, which let the story breathe.”
“When you start thinking that you’ve been a while in the hotel and it’s all quite contained, you come in with bigger things that you can afford. That gives it some scope. The important thing for me though is that actors always take pressure away. People always say, “Do you feel pressure working with such accomplished actors?” But really the opposite is true, it takes pressure away from me. And alongside Glenn we have some really amazing characters and wonderful actors.”
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