Producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning first discussed Nicholas Winton’s story when they co-founded See-Saw Films over 15 years ago, having come across a clip of the ‘That’s Life!’ broadcast. With Nicholas’s daughter Barbara Winton’s blessing, screenwriters Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake gained access to Nicky’s archives and letters, as well as her book about her father, to craft One Life.
“We knew the first step was to meet Nicholas Winton, who we could tell from the television clip was going to be a very humble man,” says Academy Award, BAFTA & Emmy-winning producer Emile Sherman, co-founder and joint managing director of See-Saw Films, a world-leading film and television production house based in Sydney and London.
“We were very lucky to have had the opportunity to meet Nicholas Winton before he passed away,” says Canning. He was the most modest, generous human being, who felt the film should not glorify him, but celebrate how the most ordinary of people can make a huge impact.”
See-Saw’s past film and television productions include The Power of the Dog, The Son, Slow Horses, Heartstopper, The Stranger, Operation Mincemeat, The Essex Serpent, Lion, Top Of The Lake, Top of the Lake: China Girl, The King’s Speech, Widows, State of the Union seasons one and two, The End, Ammonite, The North Water, The New Legends of Monkey seasons one and two, Mr Holmes, Slow West and Shame. Upcoming films include Foe, directed by Garth Davis, written by Iain Reid and Garth Davis, made through See-Saw’s joint venture I Am That; Wizards!, directed and written by David Michod, and The Royal Hotel directed by Kitty Green, written by Kitty Green and Oscar Redding.
“If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it…” Sir Nicholas Winton, 1909 – 2015
In distilling the war era story, Sir Anthony Hopkins – who plays the older Nicholas Winton – says, “It’s about several people not just one man – saving the lives of children who are about to be consumed into the gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belsen.”
One Life tells the true story of Sir Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Winton, a young London broker played by Johnny
Flynn, who, along with Trevor Chadwick (played by Alex Sharp) and Doreen Warriner (played by
Romola Garai) of the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia, rescued 669 children from the
Nazis in the months leading up to World War II, Nicky visited Prague in December 1938 and found
families who had fled the rise of the Nazis in Germany and Austria, living in desperate conditions with
little or no shelter and food, and under threat of Nazi invasion. He immediately realised it was a race
against time. How many children could he and the team rescue before the borders closed?
Fifty years later, it’s 1988 and Nicky (played by Anthony Hopkins) lives haunted by the fate of the
children he wasn’t able to bring to safety in England; always blaming himself for not doing more. It’s
not until a live BBC television show, ‘That’s Life!’, surprises him by introducing him to some surviving
children – now adults – that he finally begins to come to terms with the guilt and grief he had carried
for five decades.
See-Saw approached screenwriter Lucinda Coxon to adapt Barbara’s book ‘If It’s Not Impossible’
“I felt it would be great to have a collaborator on the project, so I asked Nick Drake, who I have known for some time and worked with before,” says Coxon.
“I was delighted to come onboard – not least because my father and grandfather are refugees from Czechoslovakia,” says Drake. “I was immediately attracted to the possibility of writing a story which encompassed my personal family one as well.”
Collaborating with Barbara Winton, the screenwriting team gained access to Nicky’s archives and
letters, as well as her book about her father.
Producer, Joanna Laurie, describes the main challenge of development. “We had to do the thing which
Nicholas found difficult: singling himself out. He really didn’t see himself as a hero, so our challenge
was telling this extraordinary story while honouring his humility. The title of this film, One Life could
mean different things to different people but I think the movie asks us all to reflect, as Nicky did, about
our choices as individuals and as a community. ”
Director James Hawes says this is typical of the generations who faced the inhumanity of war. “We
have to put ourselves in the minds of that generation; you didn’t speak about the war. I’m sure many
people know grandparents and great-grandparents who have memories from the war and they don’t
talk about it because it was too awful.”
The challenges of bridging the two time periods (1938 and 1988)
Coxon explains, “We chose to tell the story with a 50-year time jump rather than in a completely linear way. Although the events of 1938 are very dramatic, the question was ‘what was the long-term impact on all the people involved?’”
One of the elements the screenplay needed to address was Nicky’s own family history, and how it informed him and his choices. Drake notes, “His Jewish ancestry meant he was alert to what it meant to be an émigré, from the rise of Nazism in Europe. He was ashamed by the Allies’ betrayal of the Czech people in the Munich Agreement.” Drake continues, “Nicky saw the consequences of that agreement in human terms and these appalling camps where refugees from Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland were living in intolerable conditions. He was motivated by the reality he saw in front of him and decided to do something about it.”
For Johnny Flynn, this aspect of the man was very important. He quotes the screenplay: “Nicky says, ‘I’m a European, I’m a socialist, I’m an agnostic’. His belief, his faith, was in humanity. He considered everybody to be the same and all lives worth saving. He had Jewish heritage, but he’d been raised as a Christian, and he was also able to relate with his own Jewish family originally from Germany.”
Expanding on his personal attraction to the project as his feature directorial debut, Hawes says “There’s something that pulls me to a true story. To find a story which is so human and resonant for today with what it tells about the world we live in now – but also has such redemption at the end, a message of hope – that drew me.”
Flynn agrees, “It’s rare to read something that feels so evergreen in its relevance. It’s a problem each generation faces. We’re losing touch with the sense of decency that Nicky embodied.
Casting not one, but two Nicholas Wintons, was a not inconsiderable task: firstly, to find the actor who could carry all the older man’s life experience. Producer Canning says, “When Barbara read the first draft of the script she called us to say that Anthony Hopkins would be perfect for the role, which we of course agreed with, but left us with a challenge because it was beyond our wildest dreams that Anthony Hopkins would read the script and want to play Nicky. But incredibly, he did, and it was magical for all of us to know we had an extraordinary actor playing a man who was such an inspirational humanitarian.”
With Hopkins attached to play the older Winton, the search began to find the right actor with the soul to play the young Nicky, who would match Hopkins’ look and style. Producer Guy Heeley recalls, “We decided early on to shoot the material with Anthony first and Johnny second, so Johnny could see how Anthony moved and what characteristics of the older man Anthony chose. Johnny could deploy the same characteristics.”
Flynn visited the set when Hopkins was filming in the UK and says, “Hooking into Anthony’s performance and trying to make sure there was a bridge between us, I watched and studied his movement, his rhythm.” Heeley continues, “They managed to come together as one, capturing the intensity and vulnerability of this man who did this incredible thing but hasn’t had a chance to discuss it – letting the burden of it seep through his body.”
The production days entailed long, very complex scenes running to five or six pages, Heeley explains,
“Anthony is one of the most amazing people to be around on a set. He wanted to do great work, and
the harder it was, the more excited he was about the work, he loved the challenge.”
A WWII Story or a Humanitarian Story?
Considering the perspective of the period just prior to WWII breaking out, producer Laurie says, “Nicholas wasn’t a soldier. He wasn’t fighting a battle, he was fighting for human decency. This story doesn’t show WWII but it’s a chance to draw some important parallels between then and today’s world.” Drake adds, “It’s about humanitarianism, and asking the question: ‘what is heroism?’”
Flynn elaborates, “It’s not a war film, it’s a human story, about real people. It’s not about soldiers but about people being compromised by conflict and how they deal with it; small and large acts of heroism and sacrifice. It is how people help each other in the cracks in between those conflicts. This is the story of a group of people helping the children get evacuated, a story about what humans do when they’re under immense stress and pressure.”
Reflecting on Nicholas Winton’s ongoing commitment to helping others, Coxon says “He responded to humanitarian need, which he did throughout his life. When he saw a need, he rose to meet it, he would be the first person to say he did not know at the beginning of the process in Prague it would turn out to be an operation on such a scale.”
Garai agrees, saying, “It’s about individuals risking their lives, to help people who were desperately in need. Big refugee organisations didn’t exist at that time. Sadly, we still need those people, and it’s important to recognise them, to celebrate them and to always be asking ourselves how much room could we be making for others?” Echoing the sentiment, Vera Schaufeld adds, “When Nicholas saw persecution, he acted and did something. We still have so many people who need shelter and are in danger.”
Silence makes us complicit. Coxon continues, “Unfortunately, it’s a story that doesn’t go out of fashion. The moral of Nicky’s story is to do something. You don’t have to solve war, you don’t have to solve world poverty, you just have to contribute.”
Returning to the children saved by Nicky, Trevor, Doreen, Babi and the team, they reflect on the importance of keeping their stories alive, to inform future generations. Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines says, “Time is going by and very soon there will not be anyone left who could actually vouch for everything that happened. It must never happen again.”
Agreeing, Lia Lesser adds, “There are very few of us left, we’re either in our late eighties or nineties. Even now, a lot of people don’t know about the Holocaust. Unless the story is passed on, it’ll be forgotten.”
Emile Sherman surmises, “We live in polarised tribal times. This film cuts through to the core, that we’re all human, we owe a duty to each other.”
Focusing on the human spirit and the strength of resilience portrayed in the film, Garai adds, “It’s incredibly rare for us to be reminded of how wonderful human beings can be, and this story is able to
categorically state that in the right circumstances, the right person can be extraordinary.”
Anthony Hopkins concludes, “I only hope this will send a message lest we forget, because we forget so quickly.”
Johnny Flynn, Alex Sharp and Helena Bonham Carter in One Life: © BBC FILM and SEE-SAW FILMS
JAMES HAWES – Director
James Hawes is a BAFTA nominated director who helmed the opening season of Apple’s TV hit, Slow Horses. He is one of just three directors to have directed multiple episodes for the Emmy and BAFTA winning series, Black Mirror, with feature-length episodes, ‘Hated in the Nation’ and ‘Smithereens’. Winning his first BAFTA nomination in 2010 for his TV movie Enid starring Helena Bonham Carter, James won The Royal Television Society award for best TV movie in 2015 for The Challenger Disaster, with William Hurt. In 2019, James completed work as lead and producing director on TNT’s Snowpiercer, a global hit for Netflix. One Life is James’s first feature film. He is currently in production with The Amateur, starring Rami Malek, Rachel Brosnahan and Laurence Fishburne for Twentieth Century Studios.
LUCINDA COXON – Co-Writer
Lucinda Coxon’s screenplays include The Little Stranger starring Domhnall Gleeson and directed by Lenny
Abrahamson, The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander (who won an Academy Award), Wild Target starring Emily Blunt and The Heart of Me starring Paul Bettany and Helena Bonham Carter. Her four-part adaptation of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White was screened to great critical acclaim on BBC2.
Her stage plays include Alys Always at the Bridge Theatre, Herding Cats at the Theatre Royal Bath and Hampstead Theatre, The Eternal Not for the National Theatre, the award-winning Happy Now for the National Theatre, Yale Rep and Primary Stages New York, Nostalgia and Vesuvius for the South Coast Repertory heater, Improbabilities for Soho Poly, Wishbone and Waiting at the Water’s Edge for the Bush Theatre. Her plays for National Theatre Connections include What Are They Like?, The Shoemaker’s Incredible Wife from Federico Garcia Lorca and The Ice Palace from Tarjei Vesaas. She has commissions for new work from The Bridge and from Yale Rep.
NICK DRAKE – Co-Writer
Nick is a playwright, poet, screenwriter and dramaturg. Nick adapted the acclaimed memoir Romulus My Father by Raimond Gaita as a feature film for Arena Films in Australia, directed by Richard Roxburgh and starring Eric Bana and Franka Potente. The film won Best Feature and many other awards at the Australian Film Institute Awards. All The Angels, about the premiere of Handel’s Messiah in Dublin, opened at The Globe in 2015 and was revived there in the Winter of 2016/17. His original libretto Between Worlds (ENO) was produced to critical acclaim at the Barbican in 2015, directed by Deborah Warner, in collaboration with composer Tansy Davies, with whom he also wrote Cave (2018) for the London Sinfonietta and tenor Mark Padmore.
His libretto Earth Song for composer Rachel Portman, was premiered in 2019 and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Nick adapted To Reach The Clouds by Philippe Petit, an account of his 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, for Giles Croft at Nottingham Playhouse. He has also written a stage adaptation of Anna Funder’s prizewinning Stasiland. His one-hour play for young people, Success, was commissioned by the National’s Connections project, and performed at the Olivier Theatre and around the country. The Man In The White Suit (Bloodaxe) won the Waterstone’s/Forward Prize for Best First Collection. It was also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His subsequent collections are From the Word Go (2007), The Farewell Glacier (2012) and Out of Range (2018). His poem ‘The Future’ was recorded by Andrew Scott, and appears in Letters to the Earth (Collins, 2019). Nick has collaborated with United Visual Artists on ‘Message From The Unseen World’, a permanent poetic installation about Alan Turing at Paddington, and ‘High Arctic’ about climate change at the National Maritime Museum in London. He has also published a study of ‘The Poetry Of W B Yeats’ (Penguin).