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Alan Rickman: "It’s too frustrating watching yourself"

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The late Alan Rickman on directing, drinking coffee with Harry Potter and his film A Little Chaos

A Little Chaos is the second film you’ve directed – how did it come about?

The script was sent to me a while ago by its writer Alison Deegan, who’d seen the other film I’ve directed, The Winter Guest. But it had to be put on hold because of Harry Potter. Once I was done, Kate Winslet was serendipitously the right age to play Sabine.

The story focuses on landscape gardeners in the court of Louis XIV – how much of it is true?

The character played by Matthias Schoenaerts, André Le Notre, did design the gardens at Versailles. But Sabine couldn’t have existed – that’s part of the film’s point. Women then were what they are in the rest of the film – set decoration, no other function than to look beautiful and wear nice clothes. And it’s no accident that it’s written by a woman saying, “We’re worth more than that.” The film’s historically inaccurate and completely implausible; by the time of this story, Le Notre would’ve been 70 years old. We ripped 35 years off of him – I hope the French won’t be too angry.

How was directing and starring as Louis XIV at the same time?

Not ideal – it’s too schizophrenic for me. It’s not something I’d have chosen to do, but it made the economics possible. It was a huge undertaking because we had extras, carriages and horses, and a period setting. We filmed on a flight path – we’re doing a period film and there’s a plane going over every 30 seconds. But I loved working on the film.

Harry Potter was filmed virtually year by year for a decade. How did it compare to this?

It wasn’t exactly like filming a TV series like someone said – we met for seven weeks once a year. At the time, you don’t notice the changes. It’s only when it’s all over and you’re having a coffee with Daniel Radcliffe in New York, who’s just popped down from his apartment – or going to see him starring in a Broadway musical – that you realise what’s happened in that period of time. Rupert Grint’s been on Broadway; you go on YouTube and Emma Watson’s talking to the United Nations. You realise things have happened.

How hard was it playing Snape with only the first Harry Potter books out, without knowing the character’s full development?

Hard. You couldn’t tell which way he was going. I had to pitch myself in the middle, ready to move off in whatever direction the books took. I read them as they came out. They’re a phenomenal achievement, to see kids getting lost inside this ancient thing called a book.

Did your life change? Did people on the street call you Snape?

I was smart – I played a character with black hair. So people don’t recognise me so much with my grey hair. But kids do. They always have a special expression in their eyes when they realise who I am.

You’re well known for playing Hans Gruber. Did you realise Die Hard was going to be such a hit? That it would change the action genre?

No, but I’m proud of it because nowadays every actor is seemingly looking for an action or superhero movie. In 1988 nobody was doing them. Die Hard’s lasted because of the strength of its writing. It’s witty, it has a really good story. And it has very positive black characters in it – they’re all strong. It’s not like anything’s being exploited in it.

Is it true that for Gruber’s Nakatomi Plaza fall you were deliberately dropped before the count of three, so your look of surprise was genuine?

Yes. Another reason the film’s lasted is that it doesn’t rely on special effects – there weren’t any. Everything in that film was actually done – including dropping me. Nowadays I’d be in a computer.

You’ve also been in a lot of comedies. Was Galaxy Quest as fun to film as it is to watch?

We all love that film. We all knew we were making something special – I think it’s extraordinary it’s taken this long for it to become a cult film. I’ve never even watched sci-fi, but I liked the central idea. All the cast – apart from Tim Allen – were from theatre backgrounds. There was this little theatre group, speaking the same language, then in the middle came Tim Allen. He’d kick open the door of the make-up trailer and say, “No1 is here!” He was joking, of course.

Did you enjoy being made-up as an alien?

That was a source of pride – making that head last for the whole shoot. There are wide-shots behind me where you can see my hand come up and scratch my head underneath. It’s in the film somewhere, you just see a finger.

What’s been your favourite role?

You become loyal to everything you do. A movie is two hours to most. For me, it’s maybe three or six months. It’s a lump of your life with some people somewhere.
I remember that aspect more than the movie really.

But you must have watched back your films?

No, never.

So you’ve never seen a Harry Potter film?

Apart from the premieres, no. I think there’s one I’ve never seen at all because I couldn’t go to the premiere. It’s too frustrating watching yourself – I’m happier watching other people in a film.


A Little Chaos is at cinemas now

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