It all started when London producer Nicky Bentham, founder of Neon Films, received an email “from a man named Christopher Bunton telling me he had this amazing story in his family that he thought he could do. a good film”.
It turned out that in the early 1960s, Bunton’s grandfather, Kempton Bunton – a taxi driver, social activist and general troublemaker from the north of England – allegedly stole a priceless painting of Goya from the Duke of Wellington at the National Gallery in London. He was later tried for theft, and the story caused a huge stir in the press.
“It immediately caught my attention because it sounded such an amazing story,” says Bentham, whose credits include Corinna McFarlane The silent storm and co-producer on Duncan Jones Moon. Indeed, her first reaction was that it sounded “too good to be true”, so she started to dig. To Bentham’s surprise, “everything Chris told me in the email has been verified.”
Christopher Bunton had already written his own screenplay about his grandfather’s exploits, but Bentham knew the project would need an expert hand, given that it was a complex story starring several more characters. desire. “I was clear that if we wanted to have a chance to do it, it had to be written by a professional screenwriter,” she says.
Once Bentham picked the project, in 2015, she approached Pathé UK – a company with a solid track record of creating true British stories about underdogs taking on the system. Pathé came on board to develop the project alongside Neon Films, and would continue to strongly support The Duke – the constitution of around 50% of the budget, excluding the British tax credit. “When we have developed and produced something, when we distribute and sell it, we can reach that level,” says Cameron McCracken, executive producer and managing director of Pathé UK. The film is a Pathé, Ingenious Media and Screen Yorkshire presentation of a Neon Films production, and marks the latest feature film project from British director Roger Michell, who died in September.
McCracken says he considered Kempton Bunton’s story to fit the same mold as the company’s previous successes, such as Pride and Philomene. “There is a common theme to all of these films,” he notes. “They’re fundamentally inspiring in that they talk about how people can make a difference. I’m not making a comparison between Kempton Bunton and
Mandela or Martin Luther King, or the main suffragists or the children of Pride, but what unites them all is that one individual asserts a principled position and makes a positive difference.
The next step was to find the best writers available for the project. There were plenty of sources to draw on, as the Bunton family had preserved Kempton’s unpublished memoirs and plays, as well as albums of newspaper clippings about him.
“We thought we needed to find people who would understand this northern working class family and be able to bring real humanity, warmth and humor to the Bunton family,” notes Bentham.
In 2017, producers turned to writing team Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. The first is a working-class northerner, stand-up comedian and hugely successful playwright One man, two governors. Coleman, a former lawyer, was the BBC’s legal correspondent as well as a writer.
“I have a rudimentary knowledge of corporate procedures and Richard understands the human condition,” jokes Coleman, explaining why the two writers work so well together.
In their first treat, Bean and Coleman took “a very heavy, thriller-like approach,” as Bean puts it, but the writers quickly realized that wasn’t what the producers wanted. They restructured the narrative as “an emotional family story that takes place against the backdrop of an art theft.”
The storyline also features Kempton on trial at the Old Bailey, a court Coleman had visited on several occasions as a lawyer and legal journalist. His expertise ensured The Duke was more precise in appearance, tone, and language than most courtroom dramas.
As director, the team got close to Roger Michell, the original filmmaker Notting hill, Venus and Lasting love. “We thought it was a story of enough breadth and stature to attract a heavyweight director,” Bentham said.
Michell was initially busy working on something else, however. “I’m not even sure he read it,” Bentham admits. They approached Michell again after completing this project and, at that time, Jim Broadbent – who is, like Michell, represented by Independent Talent and worked with the director on the 2014 feature film. The weekend – had heard about The Duke.
“Roger said, ‘If Jim does it, then I will,’” recalls Bentham. “And Jim said, ‘If Roger does it, I will.’ We got them as a perfect set.
One particular challenge the filmmakers faced was ensuring that Kempton’s antics did not alienate audiences. “We had some concerns about it – that he was just a lazy waster and an unnecessary husband, and female members of the public wouldn’t appreciate him,” Bean acknowledges.
This danger was averted by the casting of Helen Mirren as Dorothy, the wife of Kempton, a formidable character and the backbone of the Bunton family. The actress “fell in love” with the project, says Bentham. “It was important that she [Dorothy] was portrayed with strength and dignity, ”notes the producer. “I think that’s what Helen answered in the script.”
Michell’s focus was sharper than ever when working with Broadbent and Mirren. “With Roger, it was always about the script and making sure we were telling the story in the best possible way,” says Bentham. “He doesn’t go over because he’s editing the film in his head. He’s very clear on the shots he needs. The cast and crew love it; nothing is wasted.
“The main thing is humanity,” says McCracken of Pathé of Michell. “It’s that deep interest in people. There was something very un-cynical about him. He was just a brilliant, massively imaginative director.
The Duke It may sound like a quintessentially British story, but it captured the imaginations of international distributors before production began. “The first market we took him to would have been AFM 2019, because we started shooting in January 2020,” recalls McCracken. Several territories were pre-sold and production ended just before the pandemic. Then, after the virtual Cannes in 2020, Sony Pictures Classics reclaimed the American, Scandinavian and Latin American rights as part of a deal announced immediately after the premiere of the Venice Film Festival.
But, as Covid-19 took hold, growers had to “shut everything down and sit on it,” says McCracken. The release was initially pushed back a year to September 2021, but McCracken decided to take another hiatus, resetting the UK date to February 25, 2022. “I was going to have to push the button on a really big one. spend on TV advertising, which becomes irrevocable, “says McCracken.” I just bottled it. I thought to myself, ‘The proof that an older audience is coming back to the movies in September just isn’t there. “
Despite the delays, the producers remain confident that the film will be recognized by voters and audiences. “It was difficult to wait for the right moment, especially difficult because this delay means that Roger will not see the film’s release, which is tragic,” notes Bentham. “But, as a producer, patience and optimism are the two bags that I have all the time.”