Interview: Mike Fraser – Director Of The Honourable Rebel

The Honourable Rebel hits UK cinema screens on 4 December and BRWC was lucky enough to ask its director Mike Fraser, who has over 47 years of industry experience about what drew him to the story of the indomitable and inimitable: Elizabeth Montagu, co-writing the script with Elizabeth’s nephew and the need to temper and balance out even the most exciting stories!

What attracted you to this project?

I was immediately attracted by her story. Here was a woman born in the first decade of the 20th century who had the courage, determination, ability, intelligence and quick wittedness to lead a life that most people could only ever dream of or watch in the cinema or on television and yet in this case it was real.

What do you think is so compelling about Elizabeth Montagu’s life story?

Her story is so compelling because of her character. She was feisty, talented, impulsive, interesting and interested, loved music, her home at Beaulieu and her fellow man, and woman.

Why did you decide to use a mixed narrative to tell this story: the dramatic scenes as well as interviews with people who knew Elizabeth Montagu?

There was no footage of her. None of her peers (she would have been 105 when we made the film had she lived) could be interviewed. So I used a mixture of dramatic feature film re-enaction interspersed with interviews with people who knew her in later life, to remind us that this was a real story and of course the inimitable Diana Rigg narration with that wonderful, tremulous voice of an elderly lady looking back on her very exciting life and how she felt at the time.

Whilst it is an interesting documentary, it struck me that it would also work as a thrilling feature film: were you ever tempted to scrap the documentary and shoot it as a straight feature film?

Her story is not just interesting but also thrilling, so I was very tempted to make it into a feature film, but my budget was limited and there is too much to tell. There is enough material in the book to make 30 x 1 hour episodes for television.. I had just enough money, if I was careful, to make a 97 minute documentary drama feature.

Do you think there is a risk of information overload from having the dramatic re-enaction, the wonderful Dame Diana Rigg narration and interviews with people who knew Elizabeth Montagu? Was there ever a point where you were tempted to edit out the interviews with people who knew Elizabeth?

With such an incredible story over a period of many years there was a risk of information overload. I needed to create a balance between her exciting life and real people talking about her. These two then coupled with the inimitable Diana Rigg describing, as if she was Elizabeth reading from her own book, how she felt at certain moments during the film, her story. The fact that we were able to shoot the film mainly at and around Palace House in the beautiful Beaulieu Estate also gave it that realism.

Watching this documentary, I wondered whether it might have been more engaging to just focus on one part of her life rather than telling from cradle to grave. Why did you think it important to tell the story in the way you did?

There were so many chapters and stories in her autobiography that it would have been impossible to choose one part to focus upon. I knew that I had a maximum hundred minutes to tell the story and rather than focus on just one point of her life I decided to make it as a ripping yarn with narration and interviews folded into it.

You co-wrote this documentary with others including Ralph Montagu – was that beneficial or were you worried you wouldn’t be able to tell the story as you would like given Ralph’s participation?

It was very easy to co-write this film with Ralph Montagu. We had collaborated before on a cut-down version of his father’s life and no one knew more about his aunt and her book than him. He edited her original transcript.

The casting of Elizabeth is central to engaging the audience in her story – how did Dorothea Myer-Bennett get involved in the project?

Dorothea Myer-Bennett was the first of 17 actresses who auditioned for the part. She walked out of the room. I turned to my casting director and two other colleagues and said we need not look any further. They reminded me that I had 16 other people to audition for the part. So we continued. It turned out that six of them were also superb. So the seven returned for a later audition. I still chose Dorothea. The others were brilliant, but choosing Dorothea was the best decision I made.

Looking at your filmography you’ve worked on a number of major feature films as editor – would you ever go back or are you now firmly focused on being a director?

I have been in this industry for 47 years and I have suddenly found that I love telling stories on film so that is what I want to continue to do. Tell stories with a beginning, a middle and an end and a distinct lack of visual effects and any sort of technical trickery which muddles that storytelling.

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