WAITING FOR ANYA: Ben Cookson on Connecting with Living History

by Carrie Harris (@carrharr)

In Waiting for Anya, a young shepherd boy and a widow help smuggle Jewish children across the border from southern France into Spain during WWII. The film is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and stars Noah Schnapp (Stranger Things), Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston, and Jean Reno (Léon: The Professional).

LA Screenwriter’s Carrie Harris recently sat down with screenwriter and director Ben Cookson to discuss adaptation, crafting a multi-generational film, and the many benefits of shooting an historical film on location.

CARRIE HARRIS: When I watched the movie, I was struck by the fact that this is a quiet, pastoral, slice-of-life story that nonetheless deals with some very tragic realities of WWII. I imagine that striking the right balance there must have been rather difficult? I wonder if you could talk about writing a quiet story that is nonetheless tragic and historically accurate?

BEN COOKSON: Well, a lot of that thanks goes to Michael Morpurgo, the author of the novel, who most famously wrote War Horse, which dealt with the first world war. He’s a very successful and prolific and famous children’s author in the UK, and this book that he wrote is generally aimed at young adults, but he’s never shied away from dealing with some of the adult things that war entails.

When we approached the adaptation, we wanted to be faithful to the story and have it appeal to a younger audience that could still access it, but at the same time, try and open it up to almost like a family audience. Every part of it, really, contributes to walking that line. So when it comes to casting, we’ve got the fabulous Noah Schnapp, who thanks to Stranger Things has got this really young and massive fan base, whereas Anjelica and Jean, Thomas Kretschmann — they’re actors that an older audience is familiar with. They’re Hollywood royalty that hopefully will help draw in that audience so that families can go and see it. Not just young children and young adults, but their parents and their grandparents. And hopefully it’ll be a film that multiple generations can get a lot out of.

CARRIE HARRIS: I can see that. It felt very layered, so that different audiences could get different things from it.

BEN COOKSON: Yeah, well, it’s a story that may be told through a child’s eyes, but actually, one of the things that is original compared to the book is that I wanted to have that kind of voice over where you do get the older Jo recounting this story that took place in his village when he was thirteen years old, so it does kind of give that distance and a perspective from a wiser, older adult.

CARRIE HARRIS: The film features some really terrific performances and character moments. Korporal in particular tugged at my heartstrings. How did you work with the actors to elicit such compelling performances?

BEN COOKSON: Yes, well, my background as a director — my background is in writing, and then it was my attraction to working with actors, and I’m more hands on when it comes to that kind of thing. I’m probably more a performance-driven director than I’d say technical. But it kind of varies. It varies with how the actors like to work. We were obviously restricted with time, but we did rehearse, because on set we were up against it. We had 26 days to shoot 170 scenes, and shooting that in the mountains, when you’re up against snow and storms and things like that — it can be difficult, as well, being with all of the animals. And kids. The kids’ hours in France — you know, it’s tough in the US and the UK, but in France, they’re even more stringent with child actors on set and the time that they’re allowed.

So I would just spend as much time as possible with the actors away from set, maybe on weekends and evenings, talking through the characters, whether in small groups or privately. And then on set give as much time as possible to get in those performances, and you know I was pretty blessed to be working with these guys that I got, because they are the best in the world. That kind of helped make my job and my life a lot easier.

CARRIE HARRIS: I was very interested to learn that you visited the location of Lescun as a part of your preparation and eventually persuaded production to allow you to film there. The location feels like a huge part of the story and almost a character in and of itself. Can you talk a bit about how the location informed and affected the film?

BEN COOKSON: Yes, I think it’s one of the best moves that we did in the whole picture — convincing production to go and shoot in the village in the Pyrenees where Michael had set this story. And at the time I didn’t really know… I wasn’t aware that Michael himself was inspired by his own personal visit years ago to Lescun. He went there literally on a holiday, and he took his wife, because he wanted to stand with one foot in one country and one foot in another, and he could do that in the Pyrenees with one foot in Spain and one in France. And when he was staying in this tiny little bed and breakfast in the village, a little girl came in asking him to sign his book, War Horse, and long story short, he was invited to have wine and pate with her father, who told Michael about life under the occupation, during the war, and how these soldiers came to the village, and they were quite elderly, because they weren’t SS front-line fighting soldiers — a lot of them were old soldiers that had seen action in the first world war, and they came to patrol the border, because Jewish refugees were escaping to Spain and to safety. So they were tasked with this horrific job, but the way they interacted with the community was a complex relationship.

So Michael wrote this book when he came back, I read it, and having lived in France myself — I lived in Paris for three years and in Nice for a year — I wanted to go and see the place for myself, and it was literally that first visit, in my mind, there was no other place on the planet where we could film it. So thankfully production agreed and supported it, and we took the crew there. And it did affect everything about it, because we involved some of the locals as extras, we used their homes, their churches. The farming community was involved in providing the animals and acting as wranglers, and the cast and crew — one of the things that we were very aware of is that this is real history, and history that for some people is within living memory. There are people who are still there who are in their 90s who lived through this, and people were killed in those villages, and so the cast and crew were very sensitive to what we were dealing with. I think the community appreciated that, and it did sort of add to the DNA of the picture.

CARRIE HARRIS: In the director’s notes, you said that “authenticity isn’t just about transcribing words from a book into a script. Authenticity lies in the DNA of a film.” Can you give our readers a bit of advice on how to create an authentic adaptation of a work they love?

BEN COOKSON: I would say there is no sort of hard set of rules to adaptation, and it really depends on the source material, and the intention of production, and the people behind it. With this story, my approach was that yes, it was written by Michael Morpurgo, and it was passed to us, and we were privileged to get the rights to adapt it, but because it’s such a sensitive subject matter, and because it is a bit of true history that has a relevance today, my approach was that we needed to be faithful to the story, and the heroic actions of the people who risked their lives to do the right thing, to help people who were being persecuted and who were running for their lives, and that for me required going back to the place where it happened.

So that was my approach to this film, and it might be completely different for another adaptation, where it’s not based on a book about real events, for example, or something more contemporary. Or you get films that are inspired by poems or short stories, so there’s no blueprint, it’s just what feels right for that particular piece of source material.

CARRIE HARRIS: I strongly believe that every project we undertake teaches us something new about our art. What did Waiting for Anya teach you about filmmaking?

BEN COOKSON: Wow, that’s a pretty big question. On a personal and career level, this project was brought to me after a project that I’d been working on for a couple of years collapsed. It collapsed overnight. We had dates to shoot, and I was about to work with an actor that was a childhood hero of mine, and after two years of getting close to making my second feature film, within 24 hours, it was just dead in the water, which on a personal level was a pretty devastating thing to happen. But in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened, because around the corner, this project appeared, and this was just the best experience of my life, making this movie. The story resonated with me personally, the places and the people we got to meet along the way were just a privileged adventure, so what I’d take away from it is that when you’ve had the worst thing that could happen, it can actually turn out to be the best.

WAITING FOR ANYA is currently out in theaters, on Digital, and On Demand.

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Carrie Harris is a published novelist, game designer, and aspiring screenwriter. She lives in Utah with her husband and kids and is probably drinking caffeine right now. Learn more about her work at carrieharrisbooks.com.

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