Henry Hill interviews the director of Waiting for Anya, Ben Cookson, and learns about what inspired him to make the film, and how he recovered from the devastation of a project that fell apart to turn this life-changing project into a reality.
Cinephellas: How did you get involved in this project? Did the novel inspire you to want to put this story on the big screen?
Ben Cookson: I got involved when a film I had been working on for two years collapsed overnight. We were set to shoot a movie based on a true-crime event, and it would have starred one of my childhood, acting heroes. However, as often happens in this industry, the project was torpedoed by events beyond our control. Thankfully, the producers I’d been working with very quickly brought me the book and script for “Waiting for Anya” and I immediately connected with the material.
I lived in France for over 5 years and was fascinated by how the collective French memory of WW2 differs to that of the UK. For Britain, WW2 is thought of as something that people were evacuated from or sent away to fight. However, for the French, living under Nazi occupation meant the war was brought to their town and villages, even into their homes. It was this idea of living under occupation and how it brings out the very best and worst in the human spirit that drew me to the events that take place in “Waiting for Anya.”
I was also immediately struck by how this story, set nearly eighty-years ago, about people fleeing conflict zones and persecution, could feel so relevant with events taking place today. Since reading the book for the first time, we have witnessed a rise in the Far Right and an increase in anti-Semitism, I find its themes frighteningly current and hope they resonate with a wide audience.
CP: What was the filming experience like? Was this film actually shot in the historical locations? How long was the shoot?
BC: When I was first brought on board, there was initially talk of shooting in New Zealand or Canada – both English speaking countries with well-established film production facilities and very importantly, mountains. However, the village of Lescun, where Michael Morpurgo sets the story, is a real village that exists in the south of France, the last outpost of human habitation before the mountainous border of the Pyrenees, and I insisted that myself and the co-writer visit the region, for research purposes if nothing else.
We spent four days there, taking photos, walking the mountain paths used to smuggle Jewish refugees to Spain and talking to the locals, including the mayor who was quickly very supportive. I returned to the UK determined that this was the place we should shoot and thankfully the producers soon agreed.
We returned a little shy of twelve months later for a twenty-six-day shoot. Despite having over six inches of snow fall on day 2, which meant that our schedule was effectively torn up, and battling with the narrow switchback roads, it was one of the strongest creative decisions we made.
CP: What was it like directing such acclaimed actors as Angelica Huston and Jean Reno and having them work alongside an up and coming actor like Noah?
BC: It was a privilege and a pleasure to work with such an incredible cast. Anjelica and Jean have long been heroes of mine but to work with them both playing characters who share such a deep, emotional connection was a real honour.
Noah is such an exciting young talent. Not many will be aware just how difficult life is for a child actor, particularly one playing the lead and being in almost 90% of scenes. His work must be balanced with four hours of schooling everyday, which means that his time in front of camera is incredibly limited. Noah has to nail his takes because there isn’t the time to go again and again. This is a huge amount of pressure for a young actor to be under, but Noah made it look effortless and I’m very excited for the long career ahead of him.
CP: What did you learn as a filmmaker from directing this project and how will you take what you learned and apply it to your next film?
BC: I learnt an enormous amount from this project which right now, still being so close to it, is difficult to quantify. But perhaps the most valuable lesson came from how the project came to me. I was devastated when a previous film project that I’d been working on for nearly two years collapsed. It felt like a lot of hard work and effort had been put in for nothing. But hard work is hard work, it’s never wasted – You might not get the result you want but you still put in the graft. And you can’t dwell on disappointment, you need to pick yourself up, dust yourself down quickly because you never know what is around the corner. And in my case, it was this wonderful, life-changing project that took me to an incredible part of France, introduced me to a wonderful number of people and allowed me to help tell an important story that I hope resonates with a wide audience.
CP: The Oscars are right around the corner. What films were your favorites this year? Who is your frontrunner for best director and best actors?
BC: I have to be honest, I haven’t seen them all yet so it’s unfair to comment.
CP: What is your next project?
BC: I’m currently working on a number of projects that vary greatly – a historically-inspired comedy-caper; a true-crime limited series about the UK’s most prolific armed robber; a project about the inception of the 43 Group in post-World War 2 London, and a South African series based on the memoirs of their first and only female, serial-killer profiler.
We would like to thank Ben Cookson for taking the time to get by interviewed Cinephellas!
WAITING FOR ANYA was released in theaters, Digital, and On Demand on February 7th!