Breathe

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

Total Film - - Contents - Words JoR­dAn FAR­ley

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.

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