Andy Serkis’ directorial debut Breathe tells the life-affirming story of revolutionary ‘responaut’ Robin Cavendish, who overcame tremendous odds to cheat death. Total Film talks choosing life and changing the world with Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy and fil
Andy Serkis and Andrew Garfield kickstart the awards race.
A great story is the unifying factor behind everyone’s involvement in Breathe. Andrew Garfield, who stars as the wheelchair-using pioneer Robin Cavendish, tells us “there’s something magical in the writing”, while The Crown’s Claire Foy, who plays Robin’s devoted wife Diana, is similarly effusive about Bill Nicholson’s “amazing” script. But it all started with Jonathan Cavendish – the producer behind Bridget Jones’s Diary and co-founder (with Serkis) of performance-capture studio The Imaginarium. Breathe has a unique resonance for Cavendish: it’s the story of his own parents.
“As a film producer, your life is all about trying to find stories,” Cavendish reflects, pulling TF to one side as Foy and Garfield inhabit his mother and father on the other side of the camera. “If you realise that you’re sitting on one, you feel you have to tell it.”
Cavendish spent two decades developing Breathe. The lightbulb moment came during a West End performance of Nicholson’s acclaimed C.S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands, which possessed exactly the right “emotional, witty tone” Cavendish sought for his father’s story. Years later the pair would work together on regal sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age, providing Cavendish with the perfect opportunity to court Nicholson over lunch. “I told Bill the story, and he agreed very enthusiastically to write it,” says Cavendish, pointing out that such was the double Oscar-nominated writer’s belief in Robin’s story that he waived any upfront fee. “What we developed was very much a love story, a triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”
Opening in 1959, and shot with sun-kissed elegance by Scorsese and Tarantino vet Robert Richardson, the whirlwind romance between Robin and Diana is torn apart in a heartbeat. During a trip to Nairobi, Robin contracts polio and is permanently paralysed from the neck down practically overnight. The most debilitating aspect of his paralysis is that he can’t even breathe under his own strength, forced to rely on a cumbersome, mains-powered mechanical respirator to stay alive.
“It’s all of our worst nightmares, I think,” Cavendish winces.
While the film doesn’t shy away from the horror of Robin’s situation, it favours a distinctly British sensibility, with pitch-black humour peppered throughout even the darkest moments.
“These people are incredibly unsentimental,” Serkis says. “Humour is the first line of defence.” Indeed, the wit, warmth and lack of Oscar-baiting agony-porn was precisely what
attracted Garfield to the role. “There’s that British gallows humour that gets us through the darkest of times,” he says. “It’s evident in Jonathan. It’s evident in his family. There’s a real appreciation of every breath of life.”
Rather than wait for death in a hospital ward, where the clockwork wheezing of half-a-dozen iron lungs counts down to oblivion, Robin plans a breakout, defying doctors who assumed no responaut (a person reliant on a respirator to live) could survive more than two weeks without round-theclock medical attention. “He says, ‘Get me out of hospital.’ Which is basically like saying, ‘Put me on the Moon,’” laughs Serkis, who was inspired by the “heist” element of Man On Wire when it came to his own film’s great escape. “That rang true for me, in terms of what this extraordinary, diverse bunch of people who surround Robin do to enable him to survive, and the adventures that they go on. You almost forget it’s a story about disability, and it becomes a caper.”
Chief among Robin’s besties are Ed Speleers’ Colin Campbell and Tom Hollander, who plays Diana’s identical twin brothers David and Bloggs
(the film’s only visual effect). On set,
TF witnesses the camaraderie Robin instils in those around him. Stopping at a hotel on the way to a disability convention in Germany, Robin, Diana, Bloggs and Dr. Clement Aitken (Stephen Mangan) reach an impasse. Robin’s bedroom door frame is too narrow for his chair to fit through. Cue (largely improvised) fumbling until Aitken eventually takes a hammer and chisel to the door frame, much to Robin’s delight. “This is our homage to Fawlty Towers,” jokes Serkis.
But the sphere of Robin’s influence extends well beyond his circle of friends. Alongside brilliant Oxford professor Teddy Hall (an exuberant Hugh Bonneville), he developed the groundbreaking Cavendish Chair – a wheelchair housing a battery-powered respirator that forever changed the lives of severely disabled people. Garfield saw much to admire in a man who “kept reaching beyond what culture tells us we can do”, something Serkis, whose pioneering work alongside digital artists in the performance space, could innately relate to.
“I knew Jonathan’s father was part of a lineage of pioneers,” Serkis nods. “His grandfather was one of the first people to fly a plane over Everest. We’ve always connected in that way. I wanted to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over such adversity, but go back to the pioneering aspect of living with such a disability.”
Serkis also had first-hand experience with debilitating illness. As well as playing polio-sufferer Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, his mother taught disabled children, while his sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the ’90s. “I knew how difficult it was
‘I wanted to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over such adversity’ AnDy SeRkiS
for kids of that age to exist outside the hospital, even then,” he says solemnly. “I look around and think how difficult it is still for disabled people to get around. What must it have been like when this story was set in the 1950s through to the ’80s?”
escape to vIctory
Back on set, Robin’s triumph over extraordinary adversity culminates when he emerges from the hospital he was once expected to die in alongside six fellow paralytics, all in Mk II Cavendish Chairs. Appearing before members of the press, Robin, in brown blazer and distinctive tracheotomy-covering cravat, is flanked by his ever-present wife Diana and Dr. Aitken, who deploys a carefully prepared soundbite for the baying journos: “If you want out, give us a shout!” As Mangan repeatedly bellows the line, Jonathan Cavendish looks on before beckoning TF into nearby church grounds.
For Cavendish, Breathe is much more than a film. A young version of himself appears throughout, and he admits it was “emotionally a little wearing” watching his parents’ often fraught lives play out on screen. But he proved an invaluable resource for Garfield and Foy, who signed on to the film with less than two months’ notice – all the more impressive considering Garfield’s physical transformation. “Robin was an incredibly athletic person who was turned into a ragdoll, basically,” Serkis says. “All his energy went into his intellect and his facial muscles, so he had a lot of quite extreme facial expressions. Andrew’s really embraced all that and researched it incredibly thoroughly.”
Garfield found it useful to stay in character for the duration of emotionally challenging days. “Some days, it would serve me – and everyone around me – to stay in the chair, and stay in the mode of the scene,” he recalls. Indeed, he surprised even Cavendish with the depth of his preparation. “When he turned up on the first day, he’d met people my father had been in the army with and had been at school with. He’d brushed up on his cricket and his tennis. He’d learned how to breathe and talk like he did. And he’d spent a lot of time lying in bed and in wheelchairs. He’s a transformative actor in the best sense.”
And yet, Robin was only able to achieve all he did with the help of his loving wife Diana. The responsibility of playing such an extraordinary person was not lost on Foy. “It’s a real life, and they were just exceptional people, so it’s a real privilege to play her,” she smiles, in full period attire. “I met Diana quite a few times. But actually it’s very simple: if you love someone, you want to make them happy. That was the main way in, for me. It’s too simple to say she’s strong and that’s it. She’s afraid of a lot of things as well.”
Fear isn’t a word in Serkis’ vocabulary, however. Though technically his directorial debut, he brings years of behind-the-camera experience to Breathe, including a credit as second unit director on The Hobbit trilogy. “There’s a real motor and propulsion behind everything that he does,” says Garfield, who also acted alongside Serkis. Sort of. “There were a lot of scenes where he would play my young son off camera. Even without motion capture, Andy became my three-year-old son, with his face and his voice and his being. It was really remarkable.”
Serkis may have some major performance-capture projects on the horizon in The Jungle Book (where he also plays Baloo) and as the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but Breathe is proof that even filmmakers at the forefront of the technological vanguard aren’t ready to leave traditional filmmaking behind just yet. “I see myself as an actor, and a filmmaker, and a director of performance capture and whatever. In the same way I wouldn’t choose to play a performance-capture role unless it was great script, I wouldn’t direct a film unless it was a subject matter I was really passionate about, because there are such good stories to be told.”
Breathe opens on 27 octoBer.