When British screenwriter Steven Knight and Chilean director Pablo Larraín started working on the idea of the film Spencer, an imagining of what might have happened during those few fateful days when Princess Diana decided to leave Prince Charles, Larraín was relieved Knight did not intend to write another biopic.
“I didn’t want to write a biopic, there were too many traps and pitfalls. Instead, I wanted to take a snapshot of her, as so many photographers did. I wanted to isolate a couple of days which illustrated her life,” says Knight, recalling watching Diana’s funeral in the early hours of the morning in Canada, where he was based for work in 1997.
“What I saw was something very un-British. An outpouring of extreme grief expressed openly and without hesitation for form or propriety,’ Knight explains. ‘In the years since, I have wondered often about the effect she had on the British people and the people of the world. I have not been preoccupied with it, it was just a question in my mind. Who was this woman who had this effect?”
‘We decided to set it at Christmas in Sandringham and tell the story about her leaving the family. Once we had the time, the place and reason, we had the starting point for our film,’ Larraín explains.
“Many of the personal, internal struggles which we depict in the film are imagined or guessed. Most of all, I wanted the story to be, at its heart, the story of a family driven together by Christmas where all of the tensions and grievances get magnified. I wanted to imagine that, beyond all the trappings, the Royal Family is just a family,” Knight explains.
For this research, Knight spoke to the people who were in Sandringham where the events take place at the
the time they happened.
“I deliberately didn’t read any background material because I didn’t want known history affecting the narrative,’ he explains. ‘I hope the film goes to places that the intrusive paparazzi cameras never reached and that we can begin to imagine ourselves in her situation.”
Making Jackie (2016) has made Larraín even more interested in discovering and revealing the intimate personalities of women who changed the face of the 20th century
“Both Diana and Jackie built their identities by themselves, not necessarily connected with the men they were married to. Both understood how to use the media of their times to convey certain versions of themselves to the outside world, though they did so in very different ways,” says Larraín.
“We all grew up understanding what a fairytale is, but Diana Spencer changed the paradigm, and the idealised icons that pop culture creates, forever,'” says Larraín. “This is the story of a Princess who decided not to become a Queen, but chose to build her identity by herself. It’s an upside-down fairytale. I’ve always been very surprised by her decision and thought it must have been very hard. That is the heart of the movie. I wanted to explore Diana’s process, as she oscillates between doubt and determination, finally making a bid for freedom, not just for herself but for her children too. It was a decision that would define her legacy: one of honesty and humanity that remains unparalleled”
“When Diana decides to leave Charles, the family, and the life that comes with it, it is a decision she takes for herself, realizing that her own identity matters more to her than that of the Royal family or the nation. But there is no idleness about that – she does it because she needs to. She is living in an environment that is crushing her, diminishing her, so she must protect herself and her children. Diana’s process, between doubt and determination, over the very condensed time of the Christmas holidays in Sandringham may just be a small glimpse at her life, yet it can say so much more than that. It is a life reflected in a few days.”
“A lot has been written about Diana, in newspapers, books and magazines. The stories are endless – some can be proven, some cannot. We did extensive research about Diana, Royal Christmas traditions, and the anecdotes of ghosts at Sandringham House. Yet the Royal family is notoriously discrete. They may appear publicly on some occasions, but at some point, the doors close, and once they are, you don’t know what is happening behind them. That gives a lot to fiction; that was our work. “
“We didn’t aim to make a docudrama, we wanted to create something by taking elements of the real, and then using imagination, to tell the life of a woman with the tools of cinema. That is why cinema is so fantastic: there is always space for imagination.”
Approaching UK producer Paul Webster at Shoebox Films with the idea for a film on a very British subject matter
Pablo Larraín and his brother Juan de Dios run Fabula, a highly successful production company in Chile. Fabula has always worked on an international scale and had been working with Jonas Dornbach at Komplizen in Germany, producing the Oscar-winning ‘A Fantastic Woman’ together. Juan and Pablo turned to UK producer Paul Webster at Shoebox Films with the idea for a film on a very British subject matter, Princess Diana. The three producers decided to team up and work together.
“Knowing Pablo’s work, I knew in the hands of a master like him, we were going to get an entirely different look at an institution that we’re so familiar with,’ producer Paul Webster recalls. ‘I loved the idea of a Chilean director coming in and looking at our British society and presenting it in a way that we perhaps could never see.”
Setting up the financing of the film independently was a challenge. There were several studios interested in the project, but it was decided to keep control and stay in the driving seat to best steer the film in the desired direction. This meant a trilateral production between Komplizen Film (Germany), Fabula Films (Chile) and Shoebox Productions (United Kingdom). FilmNation boarded the film as world sales and managed to secure important sales in Cannes 2020 ahead of the shooting.
Getting production financing from the UK, however, proved to be difficult due to concerns over media attention. That is why it was decided to shoot most of the film in Germany, where it was possible to find suitable locations and finance a substantial part of the budget. Shooting then took place between January and March 2021 in Germany, before moving to Norfolk in the UK for the final stretch.
“German producer Jonas Dornbach: ‘We are extremely grateful for the support of our distributors worldwide, our partners and funders who have shown tremendous commitment to us in these extraordinary times. Over the last year, we have had to deal not just with the consequences of Brexit, but also a worldwide pandemic. But still, here we are, with an independently produced film made for the big screen about an iconic woman’s own declaration of independence. We couldn’t be more excited! “
With a concern that filming in the UK would get a lot of scrutiny and unwanted media attention, production chose to shoot in Germany instead. Production chose the two main locations of Schlosshotel Kronberg for most of the interiors of Sandringham and Schloss Nordkirchen for the exteriors and few remaining interiors.
“Of course, for a character-driven film like this, actors are of the utmost importance. A good relationship between the main actress, the camera, and myself was key to building a character everybody thinks they already know.”
“Building the character of Diana, we didn’t just want to create a replicated image of her, but use cinema and its tools, like time, space, and silence, to create an internal world that struck the right balance between the mystery and fragility of her character. Both these sides of her are very visible in the scenes that have supernatural elements,” says Larraín.
“My idea was not to drift towards the paranormal or absurd, but rather reflect an inner life. Everything Diana sees is a reflection of her memories, her fears and desires, and maybe even her illusions. These elements take something that is happening inside her and shows a vulnerability that is very beautiful.”
For Larraín, he knew Kristen Stewart would make a perfect Diana.
Kristen was introduced to worldwide audiences in 2002 with her gripping performance in Panic Room. Her star took a huge rise when she starred as Bella Swan in the hit franchise The Twilight Saga. In 2015, she became the first American actress to be awarded a Cesar Award in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. Most recently, Kristen can be seen as the title character, Jean Seberg, in Amazon Studios Seberg and starred in Hulu’s romantic comedy Happiest Season. Other recent projects include Charlie’s Angels and Underwater. Coming up, Kristen will begin production for David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future.
“Kristen Stewart is one of the great actors around today. She is where she is now because she has something very important in film, which is mystery,” says Larraín. “Kristen can be many things; she can be very mysterious, very fragile, and ultimately very strong as well, which is what we needed. The combination of those elements made me think of her. The way she responded to the script and how she approached the character is very beautiful to see. She has created something stunning and intriguing at the same time. As a filmmaker, when you have someone who can hold such a dramatic and narrative weight just with her eyes, then you have the strong lead who can deliver what we were hoping for. She is a force of nature.”
“It was crazy how confident Pablo was in my casting,” says Stewart, who was up for the challenge “Without even having a conversation with me or making me read anything, he knew I could do it.”
“I’ve worked for a long time as an actor and I wanted to see if I could go to the very top of the mountain so to speak. I just thought as an actor, if you’re not trying to do that, then why are you even an actor?”
“For Stewart, she felt like she got to know Diana through her research and found some similarities to her life that she could relate to. ‘I’ve felt extremely out of control in certain periods of my life, and that is a defining factor of her life.
She must have been aware that people were always staring at her, and I’ve tasted that, I know what that feels like,’ Stewart explains. “As soon as I got to understand her and build a relationship with her through my research, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to love her.”
“Kristen journeyed deeply into Diana’s soul, adopting not only her voice and mannerism but also her flaws and virtues. Her research was meticulous and the result speaks for itself,” Knight explains.
Stewart worked with dialect coach William Conacher to perfect Diana’s accent, a vital part of the process of becoming Diana.
“There are instructions that William has developed over his career that make it possible to create sounds that are totally new to your muscularity,” Stewart explains. “
As someone who doesn’t take a long time to prepare for her roles, for this one Stewart knew she needed the time to research and study Diana’s accent.
‘I watched and listened to her a lot and I remember certain things she has said that have really affected me and gave me goosebumps,’ Stewart explains. ‘She had this casual but incredibly intense way of speaking that was so disarming and really attractive.’
When it came to working with Larraín, Stewart felt her performance was safe in his hands.
“As an actor working with a director, you hate to think they’re missing what you’re doing,” Stewart explains. “Pablo didn’t have to say much because he felt so unbelievably present and watchful. I knew that I was being seen from all sides. If there was ever anything that felt untrue or wasn’t in keeping with the momentum of the piece he was putting together, he would put me right on track.”
“I had to create this intimacy with Kristen, to breath with her and live the film with her. The camera and I were very close to her, sometimes it felt like I was her in the scene,” says cinematographer Claire Mathon.
Mathon is a French cinematographer. Graduated from French Cinema School Louis Lumière in Paris, she has practiced both fiction and documentary. She is known for her collaboration with Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake, Staying Vertical), Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Mati Diop (Atlantics). She has also worked with Thierry de Peretti, Maïwenn, Bruno Podalydes, Catherine Corsini and Louis Garrel. In 2020 she won a Cesar for best cinematography for her work on Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Los Angeles Critics Award for both Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Atlantics.
“For me, what film does is puts everything together so beautifully and makes it look more organic,” Larraín explains. “With the direction that Claire took with using very little contrast, it made the film look like a watercolour which I don’t think we would have achieved digitally.”
Filming with Larraín and Mathon gave Stewart a great sense of security in some of the more intense scenes.
“I was really lucky, in the moments I felt were most difficult, I felt Pablo and Claire’s presence as a huge support system,” says Stewart.” I lent myself to the process knowing they would catch me if something went wrong. I was almost driven by that knowing that Diana didn’t have that feeling.”
“It didn’t feel like a huge theatrical experience, it felt intimate,” Stewart adds. “I never felt like I had an audience outside of Pablo and Claire. I never felt like I was on display.”
“Pablo created a reality around Diana which was heightened to exactly the right degree,’ Knight continues. ‘A world in which paranoia, fear and self-doubt turn a family Christmas into a terrifying ordeal.”
For Larraín, working with Stewart was a rewarding experience that the whole crew felt.
“Kristen inspired all the crew to believe in the film. It’s good to feel inspired by an actor who is carrying that role with such complexity. Working with her was beautiful, I learned so much from her.”
For Stewart, being surrounded by a predominantly international crew came as a relief to her.
“Shooting in Germany was great for me,” Stewart explains. “I felt lucky not to be surrounded by an English crew who would assess my accent. It took a certain level of self-consciousness away.”
For Stewart, she believes from the moment the film begins, the expectations people might have for a film based on such a salacious topic such as Diana’s decision to leave the Royal family, will be immediately suspended
‘It’s a survival story. It’s a woman who is drowning and thrashing around and then finally coming up to shore and taking that successful first gasp of air,’ Stewart describes. ‘Then the film finishes, and you don’t really know any more about her as a woman; the film has such an unbelievable loss by the end of it.”
For Stewart, the experience of making Spencer is one she will never forget and credits Larraín for putting together the perfect team to bring this film to life.
“This experience cracked me open every single day, I wasn’t anything other than a raw nerve and it filled me with a new confidence,’ Stewart explains. ‘I wanted everyone to feel that too, that they could do anything. We got to set every day and I wanted to take care of everyone, I wanted everyone to really be connected and happy and mutually endeavouring to protect Diana.’
Director Pablo Larraín | Director
Along with his brother Juan de Dios, Pablo Larraín is a founding partner of Fabula, a production company
dedicated to film, television, advertising, and production services. Fabula has produced over 40 films, more
than 15 TV Shows, and 500 commercials.
In 2006, Pablo directed his first feature film Fuga, followed by Tony Manero (2007), which premiered in the
Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes 2008. Post Mortem (2010), premiered in the Official Competition of Venice Film Festival. No (2012), won Best Film in the Directors’ Fortnight of Cannes Film Festival and Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The Club (2015) premiered in the Official Competition of Berlinale in 2015 and went onto win the Silver Bear for the Special Jury Prize and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Neruda (2016), was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Jackie (2016) won the Golden Lion for Best Screenplay. Ema, his latest film, premiered at the Venice Film Festival 2019. In 2019/20, Larraín directed the eight-episode limited series Lisey’s Story, written by Stephen King.
Steven Knight | Writer
Steven Knight CBE is a Writer and Director. Steven’s first screenplay, Dirty Pretty Things, directed by Stephen Frears, premiered at the 2002 Venice Film Festival and won a host of prestigious awards including four BIFAs, Best Film & Best Actor at the Evening Standard British Film Awards, the 2004 Humanitas Award, the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay, Best British Screenwriter at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the 76th Annual Academy Awards. Steven went on to write Amazing Grace, about the life of the British anti-slavery politician William Wilberforce, Eastern Promises, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Pawn Sacrifice, Seventh Son, Burnt, Allied, The November Criminals, Walks Ahead, and co-wrote The Girl In The Spider’s Web. Most recently, Steven penned Locked Down, shot entirely in lockdown. Steven has also directed and written three films: Hummingbird (US title Redemption), Locke and Serenity. Steven is the creator and Executive Producer/writer on the BAFTA Award-winning Peaky Blinders, executive producer/creator/writer on BBC series Taboo and writer and executive producer on SEE. Steven wrote and executive produced A Christmas Carol. Coming up he will adapt Great Expectations for the BBC and FX. Steven has had four novels published: The Movie House, Alphabet City, Out of the Blue and The Last Words of Will Wolfkin, which was released in 2011 which was his first children’s novel. Steven’s first stage play was The President of an Empty Room, which opened at the National Theatre in London.