Duncan Kenworthy: From Staging Muppets to Scottish Moors
From children’s television to an epic based on a favorite childhood novel, producer Duncan Kenworthy has done it all.
When asked what advice he has for young producers, Duncan Kenworthy replies, "I was 42 before I produced my first film, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I simply tell them, Relax. You don’t need to be an overnight success.'" Indeed, Kenworthy's career is a model of not only patience but also instinct, serendipity and following one’s passions. His latest film, The Eagle, an epic adventure set in Roman 2nd Century AD, dates back to Kenworthy’s childhood love of historical novels, particularly Rosemary Sutcliff 's young adult classic, The Eagle of the Ninth. Mixing action and character, Sutcliff 's tale of a Roman military commander and his slave traveling the Highlands to take back a prized spoil of war stoked the imaginations of several generations of British youth.
For Kenworthy, amidst the thrill of producing his first feature — Four Weddings and a Funeral, which one would go on to massive commercial success and launch the career of Hugh Grant — it was the memory of being thrilled by that classic novel that was recalled during a casual on-set conversation with director Mike Newell. Mentioning Eagle of the Ninth, Kenworthy remembers Newell saying, "'It's funny you should say that. My daughter is reading that and loving it.' So I went back and read it, and that was 1994."
It’s taken Kenworthy 17 years to bring that love to the screen, a span that included not only Four Weddings and a Funeral but Notting Hill, Love, Actually, Lawn Dogs, and other features. But to understand his professional trajectory, you have to go back to Kenworthy’s beginnings in television and children's programming. "I grew up in the Golden Age of British TV drama," he says. "And that was my ambition. I wanted to work in BBC Drama. I studied English at Cambridge, which was a traditional route [to television drama] in the U.K. But then I ended up going to the University of Pennsylvania for a graduate degree. So, when I graduated and started looking for a job, I was in the States. I got a job at the Children's Television Workshop in New York and I worked for them for six years. I ended up producing an Arabic version of Sesame Street in Kuwait, and then I went to work for Jim Henson in London. That's where I got my training in how to shoot film. We shot 35mm for this NBC TV series I produced called The Storyteller written by Anthony Minghella."
Continuing, Kenworthy says, "I was hired to be Jim's assistant in 1979 on The Dark Crystal, and I worked very closely with him for ten years. He was a genius, an amazing person, and when he died in 1990 it was a huge shock, not just to me but to the world. I had been running Henson’s U.K. arm, which was where most of the company’s production was based. Jim had five children, three of whom were working in the industry, and we all rallied to keep the company going for them. But this was in the midst of the company's sale to Disney, and we stopped being able to produce stuff. We had nothing to do all day but develop."
It was during this period that Kenworthy was shown a script about a group of friends looking for love written by his old pal, screenwriter Richard Curtis. "Richard wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral on spec," Kenworthy says. "He admired the things I had done at Henson's and seemed to think I had the ability to make [movies] emotional. His script was wonderful, but it was quite ‘TV,’ in the sense that it grew out of sketch comedy, which was what Richard's background had been. I said, 'I think it's the best thing you've ever written, and I'd love to work with you on it to make it even better, but I'm on staff at Henson's and I can't produce it. But then, of course, I got so attached to it, and took a leave of absence from the company…. " Kenworthy wound up taking a leave of absence and began packaging the project. Soon, Mike Newell was on board as director, the cast came together, and after a couple of years it was financed.
The scale of the film's success surprised everybody — including Kenworthy. When it was the talk of Cannes, Kenworthy wasn't even there. He had gone back to work at the Henson Company and was in a suburb of n orth London, he remembers, "supervising production of a pre-school children's puppet show for Henson’s. My movie was a world-wide hit, and I was making The Animal Show with Stinky and Jake. There I was, doing that, and my movie was in Cannes. I thought, am I going to continue doing this for the rest of my life?"
Kenworthy needed a follow-up, and he decided to bet on a passion project that, like The Eagle, had its roots in his childhood. "I had a wonderful script from Simon Moore for a four-part television adaptation of Gulliver's Travels," he says. "But it was in 18th century dialogue, a brick of a script, and it was impossible to get any network exec or agent to read it. After Four Weddings was released and was a big hit everywhere, I had a phone call from Henson’s agent, [CAA’s] Bill Haber. 'What are you going to do next?' he asked. I reminded him about Gulliver's Travels. 'Back to television?!” Haber shouted back. “When I write a book about agenting, you're going to have a chapter to yourself about tenacity. Let me tell you, no one in L.A. wants to your endless 18th century mini-series. Drop it!'” “Then I slightly lost my temper,” Kenworthy remembers. “I said, 'Your agency told me this little English movie would never work in America, and now it’s a hit around the world. Hugh Grant and Mike Newell can green light any movie. What do I have to do as a producer to get some credibility?'" Haber was won over and helped set up Gulliver's Travels with NBC, and it was produced by none other than the Jim Henson Company.
As noted, The Eagle has had a similarly long gestation. "I'm very slow in development," Kenworthy admits, "but when it happens, it's very satisfying." After his conversation with Newell about Sutcliff 's book in 1992, the story picks up again on the set of another of Kenworthy's productions, Notting Hill. "I remember shooting at the Ritz Hotel on the phone to the publisher, and I had just spent a year waiting for someone else's option [on the book] to expire.” The day it ran out, Kenworthy jumped into negotiations while also talking to a "starry U.K. writer who was desperate to write it and wanted me to wait [for him to become available]. I let the negotiations with the publisher drag on because I was waiting for the writer. Eventually, it became clear he was never going to escape his other commitments."
Photo by Keith Bernstein
Kenworthy finally optioned the book in 2004. Oscar-winning documentary director Kevin Macdonald climbed on board a year later. "'Make it like a doc' — that was our mantra," Kenworthy says of their early designs on the project. "Two actors, the Highlands, the heather, the horses — we wanted to get in the skin of 2,000 years ago, and knew that what you'd lose by [not having large-scaled effects] you would gain by the proximity of the impact."
The focus on something "small and intimate and real" became a new direction for the project. "When I originally wanted to make it," Kenworthy says, "it was before Gladiator, and I thought it deserved to have the big Hollywood treatment. I loved Gladiator, but after it there have been so many films where everything has been inflated with digital effects. I have gotten so tired of shots with 150 identical boats , or 5 million replicated soldiers on a plain fighting each other."
But as the project developed, it became bigger than what the phrase "make it like a doc" might signify. Macdonald was also growing as a director, making his narrative feature debut with The Last King of Scotland and going on to direct Russell Crowe in the journalist thriller State of Play.
"Kevin is very imaginative and resourceful and he was always finding ways of giving [The Eagle] scale," Kenworthy says. " Adding fire to the nighttime battle at the beginning — that was his idea. It immediately gives a tremendous sense of scale and surprise. In pre-production we decided to overspend for these scenes so audiences wouldn't feel they were in a skimpy version of the Roman world. But I also wanted to make sure we conveyed the reality of the book, because that's what hooked me originally. [Sutcliff ] was such a brilliant writer, and she beautifully described the physicality, the nature, and the detail of [the period]. She had had Stills Disease from childhood, and was in a wheelchair all her life. Because she was immobile, she lived inside her imagination. She would be in the garden in the summer, lying on the ground and she studied everything — the structure of the leaves, the habits of insects — and her writing as an adult is informed by this extraordinary ability to describe things, to make the physical world real to the reader. We’ve tried to stay as true to her instinct and spirit as we could. I was obsessive about everything being accurate and unfaked. We spent a lot of time and a huge amount of the budget making all of our costumes from scratch."
One aspect of The Eagle required a greater degree of invention, however — the languages spoken by the actors. Indeed, Kenworthy is eager to get out ahead of any discussions about historical authenticity about a film in which American-accented actors play the Romans. “Obviously when the Romans were in Britain they were speaking Latin,” explains Kenworthy. “Italy was one-and-a-half thousand years from being invented as a country, and the Britons spoke a language that’s alien to us. So this idea of ‘American accents, you sold out to Hollywood’ – it’s quite complicated. What would you have liked [our actors] to speak? Latin?”
He continues, “Many [Roman] period films were made in the ‘50s, and the Romans were often played by classical actors using clipped English accents, especially if they were playing evil characters. But that was a convention [of these films]. Romans didn’t speak English with English accents. We decided to have all our Romans speak with American accents because we wanted to differentiate between the Romans and the Britains but also mainly because we wanted people to quickly get as far away as possible from the [idea of] ‘the toga movie.’ It’s all about making a creative choice, and we made one that we hope will allow audiences to more quickly jump into this mindset of the past.”
During the 12-week shoot Hungary stood in for England but, says Kenworthy, “we knew from the start we were not going to fake Scotland.” In the months leading up to production, he wondered why so few films have been shot in the Highlands. “You in America are so brilliant at using your assets — like Death Valley in The Searchers — again and again,” he says. “The Highlands are one of the wonders of the British Isles, but they’ve only been used in a few movies. Even Braveheart, which should have been filmed in Scotland, was filmed in Ireland.”
When Kenworthy, Macdonald and their team arrived on location, they discovered why the picturesque area is seen in so few films. “It’s too hard,” Kenworthy admits. “And it’s not just the hillsides and the weather. You look at the hills of Scotland and they look like hills in America. But once you get there you realize they are solid rock covered by half a meter of peat — rotted vegetation — with a thin layer of heather on top that makes it look solid. The moment it rains, the rain soaks into the peat, and everything becomes squelchy and soft. Horses can’t gallop, and you can’t get a vehicle up there. Access becomes impossible.”
The production wound up adding $150,000 to their budget for 4x4 vehicles along with things like wet suits and winches. “If we had been Harry Potter, we never would have [shot there] because the [studio] would have said it was too dangerous, too risky with the terrible weather and inhospitable terrain. And if we had been a smaller film, we never would have been able to afford the support vehicles, the infrastructure you do need. We were in the middle — wild enough not to worry that we didn’t have a Plan B. If it had snowed for a week, we’d have had to keep on shooting. We had no contingency plans. We lucked out.”
Now that The Eagle is finished and ready for release, does the finished film line up with Kenworthy’s childhood memories of Sutcliff ’s story? “It’s hard to answer,” he says. “As I’ve gone through the process, that childhood vision has been transformed. A film has different requirements; a film imposes a different structure. Different sorts of resolutions have to be found or created. A film is a different beast; it’s related to the book, but lives in parallel to it. For example, we changed the ending of the book. I said to Anthony Lawton, executor of [Sutcliff ’s] estate, that I thought if Rosemary had thought of [our ending] she would have done it that way too! So, it’s different — but I’m just as passionate about it.”