Jane Eyre: A Passionate Adaptation of a Classic Novel

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Jane Eyre Photo Photo by Laurie SparhamMia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre

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For over 160 years, Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre has been one of the world’s most popular books. A mainstay of school reading lists, it has been translated into virtually every language. A story with a protagonist whom Brontë saw as "a heroine as plain and small as myself," it continues to inspire generations and to influence storytellers. 

The power of the story and the popularity of the 1847 novel have led to a host of adaptations of the book; there have been 18 feature versions (dating back to 1910, and most recently in 1996), and 9 telefilm versions. The team behind what would become the 2011 version, Jane Eyre, was motivated to reach a world filmgoing audience while also honoring the novel.

Producer Alison Owen, an Academy Award nominee and Emmy Award winner, offers, "If you say to someone, ‘What’s the definitive film version of Jane Eyre?’ no one really has an answer. Having made a number of movies from or about women’s fiction, I wondered, ‘Why not?’"

"We’re a company that is rapidly building a healthy reputation for being able to successfully convert well-known written works into big- and small-screen entertainment. Taking on Brontë seemed like the natural next step up the literary ladder," adds producer Paul Trijbits. "It’s a book we already knew had an enormous fan base, so the responsibility was also a major consideration. We wanted to move this interpretation forward into the 21st Century whilst maintaining the story’s haunting beauty."

Owen and Trijbits’ Ruby Film & Television began work on the project, which they took to one of the U.K.’s most prolific film funding organizations, BBC Films, to begin the development process.

Owen adds, "It’s timely in that Charlotte Brontë, seen as ‘the darker sister’ when compared to Emily and Anne Brontë, is being rediscovered much like Jane Austen was nearly 20 years ago.

"As a producer, I make sure to have general meetings with my favorite writers all the time; right after I’d thought about Jane Eyre, I was meeting with Moira BuffiniI happened to mention it and it turned out to be one of Moira’s favorite books, if not her favorite."

Buffini seized on the chance to adapt the book, and she and Owen quickly outlined their vision for a full-on big-screen approach to the story. They knew it had to differ from adaptations that had gone before. Buffini’s approach was to draw out the gothic elements of the story, and make them engines of the piece. 

"Moira wanted to make it dark and spooky on an intensely romantic journey. That was her take, which I wholly supported," recalls Owen.

Further, as the novel would be adapted into a two-hour movie, Owen found that "what was brilliant about the script Moira delivered was the structure she’d chosen. The book is quite difficult in some ways to translate to film. Everyone remembers the sections of Jane’s childhood, of Jane being a governess at Thornfield and falling in love with Mr. Rochester, and then bolting.

"But from then on, there’s another set of characters introduced – the Rivers family. You can do that in a novel, but it’s harder to do two-thirds of the way through a movie. Moira’s stroke of genius was that instead of abbreviating or losing this part entirely, which previous adaptations have done, she put it right at the beginning – and turned the novel’s early sections of the young Jane at Lowood and her initial days at Thornfield into flashbacks. Therefore, midway through the third act, we catch up with Jane and you get the emotional punch of being in real time at the end as she comes to terms with everyone and everything."

Buffini comments, "I hope this will please the many who love the book; while we may not be faithful to the original structure, our version does include every key stage of Jane’s story. Giving the complete picture was also meant to help the uninitiated – those coming to this story for the first time – to understand and identify with Jane all the more."

Once the script was ready, Owen sought a director who would be on the same wavelength. Student Academy Award winner Cary Joji Fukunaga had just made his breakthrough feature debut, Focus Features’ Sin Nombre, which earned critical acclaim and awards beginning with its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and continuing on through its global release.

The epic dramatic thriller about Central American immigrants seeking the promise of the U.S., "although seemingly quite far removed from the story of Jane Eyre, also tackled the subject of loss and the search for a better life," notes the producer. "What is apparent as soon as you watch Cary’s work is that he’s a visceral filmmaker with a strong auteur voice – something that we very much wanted for Jane Eyre."

Fukunaga admits to having entertained the idea of a Jane Eyre movie before, noting that "a few years ago, after writing Sin Nombre but prior to shooting it, I was looking for material to adapt that was in the public domain. Jane Eyre was one of the first novels to pop into my head. I’ve always liked exploring the idea of ‘family’ or lack thereof, and particularly remembered the protagonist’s having to overcome so many challenges in her youth to find love and true family.

"While I was in the U.K. for the opening of Sin Nombre, I learned that a feature version of Jane Eyre was in development. I wanted a chance to read what was being done, so I arranged a meeting."

However, having previously been writer/director, Fukunaga admits that the prospect of collaborating with a screenwriter made him "apprehensive at first. What made it viable to me was that Moira’s adaptation was founded on a structure that had an immediate, contemporary feel, while also remaining faithful to the story. I could see the movie I wanted to make out of it, so it was a compelling and convincing starting point. At the end of my very first meeting with Alison and Moira I said, ‘I’d like to make this movie’ and, surprisingly, they said, ‘We’d like you to make this movie.’ So it was off to the races."

Owen remembers, "Cary read the script and immediately responded with such passion. He really got it! When you meet someone, and they are on the same page as you, it’s as strong an indication as any that they’re the right person to make the movie. He explained from the outset how he would like to cast it younger than might be expected and how he had ideas to bring out the gothic elements. That was all music to Moira’s and my ears."

Fukunaga notes, "I knew I was taking on a story that is a period film and a romance with elements of horror. Walking the line among these tones would be difficult, because it’s easier to default to one or the other. I wanted to maintain consistency in the style of telling the story."

He offers, "Where Jane Eyre is similar to Sin Nombre is in its exploration of the mysteries of human relationships, especially familial ones. Jane hasn’t had a family her whole life and is in search of one, not to mention a place to call home. But every time she becomes close to someone, they are taken away from her.

"Another similar theme is that a female protagonist is on a journey and finds someone she can relate to, who has suffered loss like she has, as she is plunged into complex situations and emotions. With secrets from the past emerging, will she once again lose someone close to her?"

Fukunaga called in a key collaborator from Sin Nombre early on, director of photography Adriano Goldman, who reports that "for a cinematographer from Brazil, the prospect of shooting a period film in England was so intriguing, that it was enough for me to commit."

They decided, says Fukunaga, that their approach to Jane Eyre "was to be more traditional [than Sin Nombre’s shooting style]. For one thing, on this movie we had trained actors. We never considered going digital; this was always going to be filmed in 35mm.

"The next question was, which shooting format? 2:35/1 is the obvious choice for an historical film. But what are important in Jane Eyre are the relationships; Rochester and Jane’s pivots on tête-à-tête conversations, and there is tension underneath. So we flirted with going 1:33/1, which would certainly have put the focus on the characters. But we felt that the way to go was 1:85/1, which is old-school yet still gives you a lot of screen space." 

Fukunaga comments, "Both Adriano and I both like improvisation much more than storyboarding everything and over-planning. There was a moment in the first week of shooting Jane Eyre, where we were running out of time – so we just said, ‘Let’s shoot this handheld.’ It looked great; it’s a beautiful scene.

"When you’re laying down a camera track or committing to certain moves, that might box in an actor. You’ve got to take into account your time. Are we getting to cover the scene in the ways we need, while allowing for what comes out in a performance?"

Goldman clarifies that "the framing was conceived as being very well-balanced; we decided to put characters in the center of the frame a lot. I wasn’t going to put a lot of equipment around the sets, so we could move easily. Also, we were relying on natural light and, from the period, fireplaces or candles and oil lanterns. Which, after all, is what the characters would have relied on at that time.

"On our first phone call about the project, Cary told me that he wanted the colors to be muted. The approach was soft contrast, meaning, not much difference between ‘the bright side’ and ‘the dark side.’ So, even the dark colors are milky. This was going to be not only for the shooting and the lighting but also for the wardrobe and the sets, a consistent palette without greens or reds."

The cinematographer remarks that the classic Days of Heaven "was a base reference for us. Not so much because of its style or framing – we didn’t want to copy anybody – but because of the mood it created for its characters."

Given the story’s mysteries in and around a large residence, another classic film became a reference; Goldman notes, "Thornfield put us in mind of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining."

"Thornfield is an iconic character in its own right," notes Buffini. "It’s atmospheric and haunting – and, it would seem, haunted…"

Fukunaga says, "Finding locations that were what I envisioned – or close to them – was the biggest logistical challenge on this project."

Owen and Fukunaga rejected any number of potential U.K. candidates in favor of Haddon Hall, which location manager Giles Edleston states has "more rooms and sets than a filmmaker could ever wish for." Located in Bakewell, Derbyshire and built atop a limestone outcrop, Haddon is one of the oldest houses in England, with the original corner of the house dating back to the 11th Century. A private house that once stood in the same region is thought to have inspired Brontë in her imagining of Thornfield; since the setting in the novel is, in fact, Derbyshire, it marked another instance where the modern take was firmly anchoring the story in its roots.

"What rings true from the book is how intimidated Jane would have been when she first comes to a house like this one," comments Haddon’s head steward, Jo Walker.

Privately owned by a family and with no residents, Haddon offered the Jane Eyre team unparalleled flexibility. Haddon’s house and grounds are open to the public. They have been seen on-screen over the years in – among many other projects – Elizabeth, also produced by Owen. Edleston notes, "Although I’ve filmed there before, every time I’m at Haddon the place looks completely different on-camera. Around Derbyshire, you could shoot several films and not have to repeat the same landscape."

Haddon’s readiness extended to specifics that were required in the frame, such as fireplaces and candles. Production designer Will Hughes-Jones first had to "make sure that they were working. Haddon didn’t have restrictions on them, which most country houses do – due to insurance requirements. This is not to say that they didn’t watch us like hawks, to make sure that we were behaving ourselves. Also, Haddon does have fire alarms, light switches, and things of modern-day life that have to be covered up."

Readiness was not all; the Haddon dining room became not the Thornfield one but rather Rochester’s study, with the production’s furniture, carpeting, and tapestries temporarily replacing the dining room’s settings and rugs.

Similarly, although the most "modern" room in Haddon, in that it is from the Elizabethan era, was originally built as a combination exercise room and salon, in Jane Eyre it becomes an attic store room caked in dust.

In part because it had once been closed for 200 years, Haddon escaped modernization by the Victorians – something few stately homes in Britain can claim – and moreover has been deliberately maintained in a 1700s-era state for the past nine decades.

Hunkering down at Haddon enabled the Jane Eyre crew to better recreate the specific period in which the story is set. Hughes-Jones comments, "Haddon was a predominantly blank canvas that could become our Thornfield. It is actually mostly empty, so we had to furnish the rooms we wanted to use; putting curtains up in a room with more than two dozen windows, or filling up a room to become a store room of furniture."

"Cary’s concept for Thornfield, and the production, was to be as true to the book as we could make it. He wanted it to feel very dark, very masculine, with lots of wood and stone as a contrast to Gateshead, where Jane is early on in her life."

The production designer had to make sure to keep the timeline straight because, he notes, "The screenplay adaptation that Moira has written keeps you not quite knowing what’s going to happen next, because you go backwards and forwards through time and Jane’s memories. This is also extremely clever because Jane is in jeopardy from page one, so there is tension and you fear for her from the start."

Fukunaga adds, "The original novel featured many spooky elements, from early Victorian gothic atmospheres to outright spiritual presences; I liked the imagery and was excited by the idea of pushing that side of the story further than in previous adaptations – not full-blown horror, but a definite vibe."

Hughes-Jones elaborates, "We didn’t always look to obvious period references; often, we would identify visuals that we wanted, and only then make sure that they were period-appropriate. The term ‘gothic’ is often misunderstood. We are quantifying it as more of a genre for the telling of the story, rather than in terms of the gothic revival in Victorian architecture – ornate and spiky details, which we tried to avoid, because it was not right for the period.

"For the scenes where Jane moves around the house and is spooked, and other scenes, when Cary would ask us to impart ‘a gothic feel’ he was referring to the actual feel that you get within a space. Haddon Hall itself held a lot of secrets. One day, we were walking around with custodians of the building, and mentioned how we needed a secret door for the cast to go through.  One of the custodians said, ‘Like this?’ and pulled back a tapestry – and there was a secret door. Haddon is full of them. You can get lost in Haddon for hours. In lighting and mood it can feel dark and frightening.  Then again, when the sun is shining on it, it’s a beautiful place."

Outside the walls of Haddon, the county of Derbyshire was itself a character, providing arresting landscapes for Jane’s story.  Fukunaga and the crew were stunned at the gothic impression made by the surrounding rocks and cliff faces that make the Derbyshire dales so dramatic.

The director marvels, "There’s something about the craggy rocks, and the kind of bracken that grows here, that makes it darker and more oppressive than the more expansive Yorkshire moors. So we definitely wanted to shoot there, even though it’s more populated; it was challenging, because when we wanted to get an epic shot there would be a radio tower – or an entire village – in view.

"Although we made it seem like Thornfield is in the middle of nowhere, just beyond the edge of the frame was modern civilization."

Also in Derbyshire, the crew clambered to the top of the gardens surrounding Chatsworth House, the largest private country house in England, to film Rochester’s first encounter with Jane. Seen in Pride & Prejudice as the exterior of Mr. Darcy’s family home, Chatsworth is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. It was built in the 17th Century, with a farmyard and adventure playground added on in 1973.

Amongst the winding paths and woodland lay a high-set bend in the road, punctuated with a formidable dead oak tree. The morning of the location shoot, shrouding smoke and dark clouds engendered concern that the backdrop was almost too gothic to be believed. The tree seemed to loom over the actors and crew, warning of an enormous drop below from where Jane was supposed to have climbed.

But as stunt coordinator Franklin Henson worked closely with trainer Dan Naprous of The Devil’s Horsemen on the pivotal sequence, it was clear that Chatsworth’s landscape was a potent asset.

Two cameras had to be on hand to capture the memorable moment wherein Rochester rears his horse up when Jane suddenly materializes and the horse falls over. Mia Wasikowska, starring as Jane Eyre, was present and in the shot as much as possible, but the do-not-cross line for the actress was six feet away from the rearing horse being ridden by Michael Fassbender’s Rochester stunt double.

Large protruding tree roots were removed and heavy protective padding was laid into the path and covered with soil for the dramatic fall. The move was practiced with precision to enable the horse to tumble backwards without crushing the rider. But it was unnerving and tiring work for the stunt team to have the horse hit the mark and fall correctly for each take. "The horse doesn’t want to play after a while," Henson points out. "Maybe three takes and, after that, you’ve lost its patience."

Weather conditions added to the challenges of filming on the Derbyshire dales. What the British call "the Dunkirk spirit" was frequently relied upon when faced with freezing rain, snow, fog, and high winds, and only occasional moments of blazingly bright sunshine that fully reveal the untouched rural beauty of the region. Edleston reveals, "What the audience won’t know is that we were thick in mud, and that visibility was down to 100 yards. But the end result on-screen is worth it."

"We were completely at the mercy of the weather," remembers Fukunaga. "If you have only one day to shoot the rainy scene and there’s bright sunlight, you must change and adapt."

Goldman notes, "It was tricky. We always tried to be shooting outside when the light was best, but we had to be consistent with the mood that Cary had established from the beginning."

"So when there was no fog, Will Hughes-Jones would say, ‘Let’s bring in the fog!’ and the special effects crew would make some for us."

Owen laughs, "Filming in England makes for a Rubik’s Cube of daily reorganization, in terms of what the weather is doing. We’re used to it, but I did warn Cary beforehand."

Weather and locations are just part of making the past present in filming a period drama. Costumes, language, and manners must mesh perfectly. To ensure accuracy, historical advisor Jenny Uglow, OBE, was on hand to answer any and all questions about the period.

Fukunaga received a BA in history, and has been "passionate about it since I was a kid – especially the 19th Century." Accordingly, he would pepper Uglow with questions about "random things; what sorts of parlor games people would play, at what times the servants would eat, what kind of food was eaten in the main household and in what style it was served. All the heads of our departments tried to make Jane Eyre as realistic as possible. It goes to a level that most people won’t notice or appreciate, but having that is a help to me."

Dialect coach Jill McCullough worked with Wasikowska and Fassbender to get the accents accurate, taking them respectively "from Australian and Irish to Yorkshire. What’s interesting is that, back then, the upper class had broader accents than what is generally heard in period films; posh characters being depicted usually speak with RP – ‘received pronunciation’ – accents. But we’re having Rochester speak in an ‘unusual’ way that is more historically accurate."

On an even more specific design point, Hughes-Jones remarks, "Cary and I had long discussions about the pipe that St. John smokes. Through our research, my team found that the pipe that Cary had in mind did exist at the time but was not yet in the U.K. So we found something else. What’s refreshing is that Cary is collaborative and open-minded."

The director also praises "[costume designer] Michael O’Connor and his department for detailing the types of petticoats and undergarments, and the types of thread used."

Hugh-Jones remembers, "Michael and I coordinated color, tone, and patter. For example, we had a conversation about what Mrs. Reed would be wearing in a certain scene, with the furniture in the room tailored to complement her dress, and vice versa.

"We also worked closely with Adriano and Cary, since how light played in a room would determine how we decorated it and with what. For instance, there’s a canopy over Jane’s bed at Thornfield so Adriano can legitimately create shadow play over her face."

O’Connor reports, "In addition to the script, I’d go through the book, constantly marking up pages mentioning anything to do with types of material or clothes and branching out to how people lived, if there’s something to do with the setting or the style; the detail of a shop front, or the cover of a bed."

Calculating the dates when Jane’s story takes place has remained open to interpretation, so O’Connor had to pinpoint them. He muses, "The book was published in 1847, but Brontë seems to be writing of the 1830s and there is a spirit of an age even slightly earlier. Cary was quite tempted to go for the Regency period [1795 to 1837], when there was much social chronicling. We decided on the early 1830s for the young Jane, and the early 1840s for the teenaged Jane, which was noteworthy because that was when photography started. Up until then, there were images of people painted in costume.

"We looked at the work of painters like Franz Winterhalter and, in particular, a wonderful untrained British illustrator named Mary Ellen Best. Their works are romantic and beautiful. Then you would see a photograph around the same date showing the real clothes and think, ‘That looks like it doesn't fit quite so well as in the painting…’"

Fukunaga, as part of the contemporary perspective being applied to the conception and telling of the story, introduced O’Connor to the work of American photographer Alec Soth, as well as that of Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene, as a reference template for desired moods and tones.

The director reports, "With all creative departments, I normally use photographic references rather than ones from film or other mediums. I find that a photograph can very quickly communicate all that we are trying to accomplish in one frozen moment, and Van Meene’s photos were particularly relevant to what we were trying to accomplish visually with our movie."

"They’re incredibly beautiful shots," marvels O’Connor. "These are really clean images with strong colors; in some cases they are washed-out, yet with one strong color. Stylistically, they translated for parts of the movie; I kept them up on a wall to refer to.

"We also examined original costumes of the 1830s and 1840s to see how they were manufactured. This was before the sewing machine, so everything was still being made by hand."

All of the costumes for the principals on Jane Eyre were also made from scratch. O’Connor notes, "When you’re fitting an ornate costume and wig in a studio in Central London, you have to be aware of the reality of recreating that operation in the field. I’ve learned that from previous jobs."

O’Connor’s field experience has served him well; honored with an Oscar for his work on The Duchess, he knows that "in making the costume for the actors, you are forming part of their character.

"The first people the actors see after they’ve met the director are from the costume department. There’s conversation, a dialogue. By no means is everything made at that point; it's not a fait accompli, because I will wait for their feedback. I like having the chance to introduce some other element, sometimes just to be practical."

He states, "The satisfaction on-set – amidst modern elements all around you – comes when you suddenly see these shapes and these colors in the intended historic settings. The actor is ready and fitted, hair and make-up is being done, and the combination of all the departments’ work comes together and completes the picture."

Taking the Leads

Alison Owen states, "I would not have made Jane Eyre unless we had the right person to play Jane. This is not a role that you can shoehorn somebody into. Both Cary Fukunaga and I wanted someone with a natural affinity for the character, and who was of a comparable age to the Jane of the novel.

"In the book’s Thornfield sections, she is about 18 years old. One theme that Jane Eyre explores is a young girl’s awakenings to feelings that she didn’t know she was capable of having. Some are sexual, and some are emotional. A lot of the other pervious screen versions had cast someone who was older; as wonderful as some of these actresses were, they’ve been more women than girls."

Mia Wasikowska was the right age – and was at the right time in her career, now taking on leading roles. Owen remembers, "Mia just sang out to us. If you look at the range of actresses out there, you will find some fantastic ones; there’s no doubt about that. But Mia is born to play Jane; she inhabits and, ultimately, defines the role."

Kismet was at work; reflecting the enduring power of the novel, Wasikowska was already reading it on her own and after only a few chapters was moved to inquire with her agent as to whether "there was a script around or anything happening with it, because I thought it would be an incredible role to play. She e-mailed me back saying, no; there was one a while ago but it had gone away. A few weeks later, she said the movie was happening, sent me the script, and told me that the director, wanted to meet me."

At that meeting, an immediate understanding was forged. Wasikowska reflects, "I first met Cary in November 2009. We hung out for a day and talked about the character. We found that we shared similar ideas of what she was going through; we spoke about strength, and about the kind of agony you feel when you are in love with somebody.

"It’s an honor to portray Jane. What I love about her character is, despite all the hardship that she faces throughout her life, she has this innate sense of self-respect and an incredible ability to do what's right by herself as an individual. I believe that is key for people, especially women, to remember; it’s important to do what's fulfilling for you as an individual, even when it can be easier to do what's comfortable."

Fukunaga comments, "Mia didn’t just bring talent; she brought her ideas for the role. She was about doing what was right for it, ready to give her all."

For her preparation, Wasikowska collected a number of visual references "to form an image of Jane in my head. I looked at a lot of photographs and images, pictures, and drawings of the time – for example, the way people physically held themselves. I also went through the novel again, trying to find moments that were particularly pivotal to her character which would help me figure out who she was and how she was feeling at particular times."

While identifying those feelings, she also had to articulate them. She explains, "There were a lot of scenes to play that were emotionally challenging and intense – and with language that we don't really use any more. The trick is making that feel right so you can comfortably speak the words. A phrase such as ‘I am not speaking to you through mortal flesh’ is so poetic and visual, but I had to make it sound real as well."

With such emotions going from the page to being expressed by actors, Jane Eyre would depend heavily on the chemistry between the performers playing Jane and Rochester – and playing out the co-existing passion and restraint of the turbulent relationship. 

Owen remarks, "There’s more than a bit of the good girl/bad boy attraction in this relationship. That’s another instance of how the story has been a key influence on many women writers of fiction.

"Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender play it so beautifully. It’s tender, romantic, sexy, and exciting – the sparks fly!"

Fukunaga confides, "I’m not a highly emotional person, but there are powerful scenes between Mia and Michael – and I hope this extends to the audience – that nearly brought me to tears. You sense the desperation and the need in both characters.

"At that initial meeting I had with Alison and Moira, Michael’s was the first name out of our mouths. I thought his interpretation of Bobby Sands in Hunger was amazing and intense; I wanted him for Rochester."

Owen praises Fassbender as "a consummate actor, and I can’t think of another one around who’s got Michael’s sexual charisma. Certainly you could see both of those qualities in Fish Tank. I would bet that after this movie, people don’t read Jane Eyre without picturing him in their minds as Rochester."

The actor had seen and admired Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, "and I thought, ‘What a bold choice to direct this movie.’ I knew he would take on this classic British piece and bring a different edge to it. I don’t know if he’s aware of how many times Jane Eyre had been done for British cinema and television. But he’s brave and I think that’s exactly what was needed."

Iconic or not, Fassbender found himself drawn to a character whose "gruffness and darkness make him more challenging to take to. This is not a straightforward love story.

"I play Rochester primarily as a Byronic hero. He’s quite jaded, yet he is sensitive and has a good heart. He’s in touch with his sensuality and humor. He’s traveled, and some things happened along his journeys which have stayed with him."

Fassbender delved into his character’s history and how it informs Rochester’s interactions with Jane. He says, "Rochester has been hurt.  He went to Jamaica at such a young age, and his life got spun around. I think that he would have been quite happy without huge amounts of money, but his father said, ‘You have to go and marry this woman, because you need to be taken care of financially.’ Subsequently his older brother died, and he took over Thornfield.

"He’s somebody who is quite opposed to aristocratic judgments. He doesn’t mind crossing boundaries through perceived social handicaps. He doesn’t mind that Jane is a governess, or that for him to be with a governess would be frowned upon."

The actor sees the relationship as "Rochester’s last hope, really. He sees Jane when everyone else looks past her, and she inspires him, bringing him back to a point in his life where he was more pure and overtly better-natured, not as cynical and arrogant. When Jane responds to him in a way that doesn’t kowtow to his beliefs and that challenges him, he sees a real fire within her that she’s been suppressing. That intrigues him. The audience should be invested in the prospect that these two people can heal each other and nourish each other."

Since that is by no means a certainty in the story, both leads strove not to sentimentalize their characters’ interaction. Wasikowska enthuses, "Michael constantly surprised me on the set. I would arrive excited to see what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. He has this incredible strength that comes through; his eyes are so piercing! Acting opposite him, I could completely believe he was his character."

Fassbender was surprised by Wasikowska as well. He notes, "Mia comes from a dance background, which is so disciplined and so regimented. She has taken that discipline into the art form of acting.  She has so many facets to her, and has got such a maturity about her; she’s much more centred and together than I’ll ever be…

"She is fully present as the character in take after take, but the most impressive thing about Mia is that she is very comfortable in herself."

Lending Support

As impressed as Michael Fassbender was by Mia Wasikowska, there was one actor in the cast who truly knocked him back on his heels. "Well, you know – the Dame," he marvels. "To find out that Judi Dench was in the cast…! Then you feel blessed just to be sitting in the green room talking. There’s gold dust on her, and you hope that it might fall onto you when she passes by. I cherished our scenes together."

Fassbender and Dench joked around to keep spirits up while working in some of the colder and darker corridors of Haddon Hall. Wasikowska was thrilled "to get to see how Judi works."

Getting Dench to play Thornfield’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, was a coup for the production. It was a personal letter from Cary Joji Fukunaga that persuaded her to take the role. "When she said ‘yes,’ it made the process even more exciting," he notes. "Especially since we were bringing on someone who amounts to a cultural institution in the U.K. She is the epitome of gravitas and the mere idea – or, rather, fear – of working with her on-set made the challenge and joy of the project that much greater. What can you really say to someone who’s made more films with more talented collaborators than I could ever hope to in a lifetime?"

The Oscar winner cites having read the novel "when Charlotte Brontë had just written it" and laughs before reminiscing, "I read it at school, I think. I’ve always thought it was a wonderful story. It stayed with me."

Dench was therefore intrigued by the tone that the filmmakers were aiming for. She remarks, "This story has been done many times, but I felt that Cary had quite different, dark ideas about it – ones which I hope will excite people to read the book.

"The novel is quite ambiguous as to who knows what in Thornfield – does Mrs. Fairfax know the specifics of the secret of the house? There’s this very romantic mystery to the story."

For the sequences revolving around romantic rivals to both Jane and Rochester, Wasikowska and Fassbender were each reunited with actors they had previously played opposite – and in even colder climates. Rising star Imogen Poots, who had shared the sole low-key scenes with Fassbender in Centurion, was cast as Blanche Ingram, Rochester’s prospective fiancée; and Jamie Bell, whose character had courted Wasikowska’s in the fact-based WWII tale Defiance, would now be doing so again in the role of St. John Rivers.

In-between set-ups for his scenes with Wasikowska, Bell could be found dazzling crew members with his ability to tap-dance on soggy wooden boarding that was barely keeping thick, wet mud at bay.

Wasikowska offers, "Knowing somebody who you could have a laugh with in-between scenes balanced out the intensity of some of the material that we were playing out together on Jane Eyre. I don't think that I ever have as much fun working with anybody as I do with Jamie."

Bell takes care to point out that "from rehearsal rooms to walk-throughs on the set, Mia is willing to do the work to make it better and make it her own. I knew she would do justice to the role of Jane Eyre.

"As part of this film’s exploring this story and these characters, you see the awkwardness and the energy of youth; Mia is a young person playing a young person, not a 28-year-old playing a girl. There is also some casting against the grain – especially me as a man of the cloth."

Fassbender took note of how Bell incarnated "Sinjin" Rivers; "I liked the way Jamie brought an edge to St. John. He and I talked about it. He’s the character as a man who has to keep his life so strictly regimented and controlled because he is afraid of what he’s capable of doing."

Bell elaborates, "My take on St. John is that he is emotionally repressed. I believe that he considers it a weakness to express emotions. He makes choices out of pragmatism, rather than emotion; he is the antithesis of Rochester.

"Charlotte Brontë describes him in the novel as ‘as inexorable as Death,’ and that pretty much nails it. While the story to me is about a woman searching for her own self-respect and individuality in a world with barriers, Moira Buffini’s screenplay brings all of the novel’s themes and undercurrents together as Jane comes to the precipice of decisions about her life."

Like Wasikowska, Poots was happy to be acting opposite a "familiar face, and Michael is so kind. I had a teacher who helped me through a big sequence, which was singing an 1830s operetta. But for me, the horse-riding was more fun."

Poots also welcomed the chance to bring different shadings to her character, knowing that viewers familiar with the story are poised to see Blanche as "the stereotypical rival. In the novel, she registers as quite conniving.

"But I wanted to play her as more surprised and unsure about how things are turning out. She breaks formalities in terms of being too tactile with Rochester."

Tamzin Merchant and Holliday Grainger were cast as the sisters to Bell’s St. John. Merchant notes, "I love being part of telling stories and my character, Mary Rivers, sees the story in everything. She’s so imaginative. She is fascinated by Jane – and thrilled at the idea of this stranger coming in from the moors and into her close-knit family."

Grainger says, "Tamzin and Jamie and I bonded one afternoon with a guitar-and-song session. Our harmonies never really meshed, though."

Merchant clarifies, "The sisters’ relationship is harmonious, but Holliday and I might have been a little off-key with our duet."

Grainger feels that "the Rivers siblings are close because their parents are gone and their home is remote, almost in the middle of nowhere. I made my character, Diana, maternal because she is the older sister. So she’s sort of taken over the mothering role, and behaves that way immediately towards Jane while also being sisterly with her."

Neither can be said of Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed. Golden Globe Award winner Sally Hawkins, who accepted the role, muses, "I think the most chilling people are the ones who wear the mask of a demeanor of niceness. Cary and I spoke about that early on, about how to make it unnerving with this character. I don’t get to play the evil parts much, so this was a good opportunity for me as an actor.

"But Mrs. Reed is full of contradictions, and I feel sorry for her. Her anger and hatred come from feeling threatened by this little girl. There’s a fire and intelligence in Jane that scares her aunt. However much Mrs. Reed tries to knock it out of her, Jane has more in her. Cary was very good at subtly ratcheting that up by degrees."

Hawkins took the initiative on research. She says, "I went to the National Portrait Gallery and looked at paintings from the time, studying the way women held themselves or sat, and what they did with their hands. I wanted to absorb the etiquette of the day."

Hawkins praises Amelia Clarkson as "brilliant, and able to summon real force in her emotions." Clarkson, along with Freya Parks and Romy Settbon Moore, is one of a cadre of child actors in the cast.

Fukunaga remarks, "They may have had classical training or attend acting schools, but I found these U.K. child actors to be quite natural."

The director had worked with children before, and with non-professionals. Settbon Moore, who had never acted prior, was both. Fukunaga took it all in stride, noting that "whether it was Romy or one of the older girls, it was about letting the kids play out scenes and then also giving them a little bit of direction."

Settbon Moore explains that she came to be in Jane Eyre as Adele, the orphan girl who takes to Jane being her governess, because "the casting agency sent an e-mail to my school looking for an 8-year-old girl speaking English and French. I did the audition with my friends, and I got called. Then I auditioned for young Jane. They found that I was a bit too young for that, so they chose me for Adele.

"Before every scene, Cary was really clear with me. I went over the movements, and I memorized the words, and I would do it. If Cary didn’t like it, he would say, ‘Actually, do it that way…’ Mia and Michael were like new classmates. I would like to search for more roles in films."

Although too young to have read the book, Settbon Moore familiarized herself with the story in another way before the film shoot; "I saw the [Franco] Zeffirelli film [version]," she offers.

Parks and Clarkson are at the age where the story of Jane Eyre speaks directly to them. Cast as Jane’s friend and inspiration Helen Burns, Parks sees her character as central "to the story’s message of how things can change in life, and you must overcome them."

Clarkson, cast as Jane Eyre at age 10, says, "As a child, Jane goes through a lot. She has no deviousness in her at all, but she gets through everything. I tried to let all the emotions that Jane feels build up.

"When I got the script, I went through it with my grandma. I did Jane, and she did the other parts. I would read the script before going to bed, and go over how I would react in a situation and how to say the lines – what they meant, where to put the emphasis, and with the right Yorkshire accent."

Parks also worked on getting the right accent, and read through parts of the book with her grandmother. Her take on Helen was that "she is strong. Even when she is dying and I had to act weak, I knew that Helen would not cry. I cried afterwards.

"I also thought of all the gunk she would have in her lungs, and from pretending to cough as Helen I developed a cough myself."

Parks also reports that "when Amelia and I would rehearse she would put all the emotion into it, which was doing it right. [On the set,] Cary would tell us what he wanted to see, and have us say our lines in different ways."

Having spent time rehearsing and on-set together, Clarkson and Parks forged a close connection paralleling the one that sustains Jane. "Freya and I became close friends," reveals Clarkson. "Meeting her was the highlight of the shoot. So the toughest scene to do was the one where Helen dies."

"Those bonds that are created off-camera play out on-camera," notes Fukunaga.

Along those lines, at Pinewood Studios before shooting began, Clarkson sat with Fukunaga and Wasikowska so that the actresses could discuss their shared character with the director. "We went through my scenes," remembers Clarkson. "Mia played Aunt Reed, which was fun! She and I then walked around Pinewood and talked about what Jane goes through, and how lines would relate to different times in the story. It was like Mia had memorized the script."

Eyeing the bigger picture in another regard, Wasikowska was inspired by the company and the locations to follow in the footsteps of such actors as Jeff Bridges and Peter Sellers by exercising photographic skills; she would have cameras on hand to avidly grab shots between scenes and set-ups.

She explains, "My parents are photographers and I grew up around cameras. I never thought it would be anything that I’d do, but in the last few years I've become interested in it – and I really love it. As an actor, you're constantly waiting until they’re ready to shoot, so this is a release for me.

"I’d notice that we were on a period-set film, and there would be all this modern-day equipment trucked into a historic mansion."

That motif became one of the themes of her photographs; another was the concept of asking the subject to jump up in the air. Time and again, Wasikowska captured cast and crew members seemingly suspended in mid-air, flying away from the surroundings and costumes.

So, who leapt best? No surprise; the onetime Billy Elliot did. Fassbender reveals, "Jamie Bell gets five stars. His body control is pretty impressive."

Directed and Dressed

On the set, Cary Joji Fukunaga was intent on allowing the cast freedom to explore their roles. Harry Lloyd, who plays Richard Mason, a man who has "a complicated history" with Rochester, reports that "Cary is the quiet eye of the storm.  He’ll come up to an actor and talk you through a particular bit; ‘Try something like this.’"

Holliday Grainger notes, "I once worked with a director who told me to ‘throw my thought to the left.’ I said, ‘Do you mean just look left?’  There’s none of that with Cary; he’ll tell it to you straight.

"On a lot of the scenes, he’ll get in with the crew to work on the practical elements as well."

"I trusted him immediately," confides Sally Hawkins. "He is on it! I hope I work with him again."

"Cary is a perfectionist," assesses Michael Fassbender. "You can see him trying to get the best out of every shot, every moment, every beat. He’s got youth and enthusiasm behind him, and is strong in his views."

Adriano Goldman comments, "He always wants to be able to improvise – after we’ve done prep, wardrobe and make-up, and rehearsals, it’s time to imagine, ‘What is going to happen here?’ I try to give him the freedom he needs."

Fukunaga, as he had on Sin Nombre, was concentrating on every part of what’s on-screen – and taking nothing for granted. Jamie Bell took note of the director’s way into one scene that "we all know from other adaptations of the story, where Jane is rescued and brought into Moor House. The way Cary filmed it was brilliant; it’s all from her perspective, through her eyes. So we’re with her in a real world, not ‘a period piece.’"

Tamzin Merchant comments, "The way scenes are filmed, you feel that the camera is capturing moments rather than intruding. For the actors, it feels more fluid and natural than set-up."

Judi Dench found Fukunaga to be "gentle on the set. He also has a sense of humor, and I don’t want to work with anybody who hasn’t got that. If somebody has that, the returns are greater."

Alison Owen calls Fukunaga "incredibly pragmatic. He is calm, laid-back, but totally in command. He adapted quickly to a different way of working than on his earlier projects. I’ve been so impressed at how he will give a tiny little note on a take and it’ll be beautifully judged, beautifully timed. Early on, I checked in with [film editor] Melanie Ann Oliver and said, ‘What do you think of the footage?’ She said, ‘He’s a proper filmmaker.’ That’s a lovely phone call for a producer to have."

Fukunaga was in turn impressed by his lead actress in particular. He comments, "Think about wearing 20-30 pounds of clothing, soaking wet in sub-freezing temperatures, and having to fall into puddles while also acting. Then think about doing that for two days straight. Those were our first two days of production and Mia never complained once, even though she almost passed out from near-hypothermia." 

Extra weight or not, Wasikowska regards the costumes as "the last pieces of the puzzle. They transform you. It’s like stepping into the skin and feeling the character. I had worn a corset before, but this one was so restrictive. I couldn’t even eat properly!

"The constriction of the corset helped me play Jane, and helped me recognize the repression women had to deal with in that era. When walking long distances or running, it was hard to breathe. Surprisingly, for as much fabric as there is, the costumes were not very warm."

Michael O’Connor notes, "We did shorten some dresses to a more practical length so that Mia would be mobile. All of Jane's undergarments, which encompassed many components, were a high-maintenance job. On-screen, you’ll just see the dress; underneath, Mia is wearing a pair of pantaloons and long knickers, which are handmade. Then there's three petticoats which have got pleats in them – and they're handmade as well; the lining and the hems are all turned by hand – as they would have been back then."

For what we do see on Jane, O’Connor and his team chose shades of gray and shades of brown. "She's so often in the background, standing alone" he says. "So everything she has is subtle and quite plain, nothing too ostentatious. When Blanche Ingram, the opposite of Jane, arrives, the contrast is reflected in the costumes. In fact, with all of the other female characters’ costumes, it’s about how everyone else relates to Jane. Later, Jane’s own costuming reflects how her situation is finally changing – bits of silk trim, nicer buttons, and better-quality fabric."

O’Connor was even able to unify both on-screen Janes; although Wasikowska and Amelia Clarkson have no scenes together, "there was a chance to put them in a shared fabric, a similar tone of color, for scenes when Jane goes to the same room as a child and again as an adult. Her character is formed quite young."

Fassbender made several suggestions that Fukunaga liked, among them that Rochester "would always be physically busy doing things – like gardening – just before scenes outdoors with Jane, so we’d prepare waistcoats and shirts together without jackets on, and know that we had to pay attention to the shirtsleeves," notes O’Connor.

Hawkins reveals, "Michael enters into a collaboration with you. He’ll see what works on you, wrap something around you – and the next thing you know there’s this incredible dress and you can go into character."

Merchant muses, "The corset I wore apparently got my waist down to 22 inches. Waists aren’t meant to be 22 inches!"

Dench, who has spent more time in vintage and period costumes than the remainder of the cast combined, chalks it all up to experience. She states with authority, "Being given wonderful corsets to wear is so helpful – you’re halfway there.

"Slouching? You don’t have the option."

Back to Brontë

Motivating the making of Jane Eyre was a collective love of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, and a desire to share the story anew. By exploring the mystery, drama, and emotions of the original tale Jane Eyre draws a new generation towards Brontë’s novel.

Alison Owen comments, "Jane Eyre is, in many ways, a social document. It provides a window on a period in British history that saw great changes in art, architecture, and fashion."

Moira Buffini adds, "Jane Eyre was considered a very radical novel in its time. Jane, a girl with no money and no status, perceives her equality with Rochester and will settle for nothing less. Despite every knock, she is keenly aware of her own value. Her cry of ‘equal – as we are!’ was a clarion call for the next century. No wonder we love this book; it enabled us to know our worth and to imagine freedom."

Cary Joji Fukunaga reminds, "Here is a young girl facing what in many ways they continue to face in today’s society; finding emancipation and equality."

Adriano Goldman adds, "Since Brontë wrote a character who was ahead of her time, this period drama is actually very contemporary."

Imogen Poots notes, "The characters are multifaceted, with flaws – human, really."

Michael Fassbender elaborates, "What stand out in this story are the complexities of human nature; what people are capable of doing to one another and, all the things that aren’t said. Relationships are hard, requiring both parties to give themselves up. That hasn’t changed for people. We must continue telling stories like this one; they’re classics for a reason."

As with any enduring work of storytelling, some will be coming to it for the first time; others will be revisiting it with subjectivity.

Owen states, "Jane Eyre has been my favorite book since I was a young girl. Most people read it when they’re 12 or a little older. It tends to be a book for school, or one that girls’ mothers give them to read. Readers at that age, especially girls, strongly identify with Jane – though she’s a few years older, she’s led a sheltered life. She’s never really known the society of men or society at all. So this waking up to feelings she’s never previously experienced helps to engage young readers in a way that has made the novel remain among the world’s most popular books."

Indeed, the book is one that women find themselves "paying it forward;" Holliday Grainger recalls, "I was a teenager when I read the book. I’d read chapters while commuting. On a completely packed train, I finished it and started sobbing. It is one of my favorite books.

"When I was meeting with the movie’s casting director [Nina Gold], I was telling her how much I loved the book. She told me that her daughter hadn’t read it, and then went and got her daughter. She said to her daughter, ‘Holly, tell her, tell her about this book.’ I think I praised the book so well that her daughter then read it.  Perhaps that’s why I got the part…"

Sally Hawkins reflects, "When we read the book in my school, we were 15 years old and all feeling like Jane Eyre – and here was a story that focused on a teenage girl who is not necessarily the obvious heroine."

Tamzin Merchant adds, "Jane confronts emotions that weren’t then being addressed by literary heroines. When I read the book as a teenager, I sat in my bedroom for four days and didn’t want to be torn away from it. Brontë conveys a raw, concentrated humanity. Making this movie has been like stepping into the pages of the story."

As it happened, the film medium was how Fukunaga himself came to know the tale; his frame of reference was the 1944 Robert Stevenson movie starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.

He reveals, "My Mom was a big fan of that movie, so in turn I became one too, wearing out our VHS copy of it by the end of primary school; I really loved it…I’m obsessed with authenticity, so when the prospect of making my own version of it became reality, of course I had to read the book.

"It’s a page-turner. And there are a lot of pages. A lot. Charlotte Brontë was no minimalist. The descriptions are hauntingly vivid throughout, all observations made from Jane’s perspective with Charlotte’s keen insight on the human spirit and, of course, wit. Even though I’d read Moira’s script and was recalling the 1944 movie, there was essential ammunition in the prose – information that was invaluable for me as a director to create an overall feel in the film that would be faithful to the world Charlotte created for Jane Eyre."

Speaking as one who also came to the novel only recently and who sought to make the character her own, Mia Wasikowska assesses Jane Eyre as "timeless in her relevance – and her resilience. Instead of letting her situation grind her down, or becoming damaged, she becomes a stronger person. Jane always challenges herself and follows her gut feeling as well. She knows what's important for her to do. As hard as it might be, she gets on and does it."

When asked what audiences should take away with them from Jane’s story, Wasikowska states, "It is about having self-respect and finding self-fulfillment."


 

 

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