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The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Wicked Little Letters.

Thea, I’d love to start by hearing about your first exposure to the script.
Thea Sharrock: I was sent the script by Studio Canal, and they said look, we have a new spec script by a guy who’s never written a screenplay before, and we think it’s great. And I thought, oh that’s interesting. Then they added, by the way, Olivia Colman is playing the lead, would you like to read it? And I was like, um, yeah, I’ll be reading that one. And they needed this process to happen in a certain way, quickly, due to Olivia’s availability. They didn’t tell me it was a comedy, they didn’t tell me it was based on a true story, they didn’t tell me all the kind of usual stuff that you would pump into a director beforehand. Basically, I went in blind and I read it and it was amazing because I could hear Olivia’s voice in my ear and in my head.  It made a huge difference because Edith is such a complicated character. Already having Olivia in my mind made the first read not only much clearer but it also gave me the freedom to laugh out loud. It’s not very often that you get a script that makes you laugh out loud on the first reading. I just knew. I thought the writing was wonderful, and I knew it was a great script for actors. What I love most in my job is working with really great actors. This was going to be a great vehicle for actors. So that’s what drew me to it.

This was going to be a great vehicle for actors

And Anjana, can you tell us how you came to the role of Gladys?
Anjana Vasan: My agent sent me the script and said Thea Sharrock wants to meet you, have a read, and Olivia Colman’s attached and before she could finish saying Olivia Colman I went, yes! And she went, no, no, no, you read the script, I’m going to set a meeting with Thea. I was like yes, of course of course, and I did all those things. Thea and I met and we really got on and we had sort of the same idea, the same approach, it was a good vibe. We were on the same page. And before I knew it, I was filming the movie. It all felt quite organic and easy. And usually it isn’t; usually you send a tape and you never hear back. Maybe you find out you’re not in the movie when they announce the cast or you see the movie. But this felt like a genuine conversation and a collaboration. And Thea was assembling the most like wonderful group of actors.

You mentioned that you didn’t know it was a true story when you got the script. How did that aspect come into play?
TS: Anjana, it was one of the first things we talked about, wasn’t it? Because Gladys was a real woman. And we talked immediately about how that comes with a level of responsibility. It’s a responsibility when you’re telling someone else’s story, but at the same time, we of course also wanted our own free range, so we needed to strike a balance. And the story is absolutely bonkers. The fact that it’s real, it still makes me laugh. It makes me laugh at British people because I think we’re mental. For example, how about if I told you that the whole invisible ink thing was true? And so was somebody hiding in a post box. Also true. I’d love to say that we came up with those embellishments, but they were already there. This is a story that was waiting to happen. The other thing I’d like to add is that Anjana was wearing a full yellow jumpsuit, a bodysuit, when we met. And when I say yellow, I’m talking like canary yellow.  So if you think I wasn’t going to cast her on the first meeting, you don’t know me well enough!

AV: Yeah, I didn’t do method dressing, clearly. I didn’t think about that. I should have dressed up more like what Gladys would have worn!

TS: If you’d actually shown up to a coffee shop in that…

AV: You know, what I really loved about Jonny Sweet’s script was that, yes, it was based in history, but it felt like it had one foot in the 1920s and one foot now. Something about the way the dialogue worked; it felt modern. I think I love that sort of element of irreverence within the history. I think we’re used to seeing very quaint period pieces and I think this story sets it up as if it is that, but then it completely subverts expectations and feels quite fresh.

How did you approach the visual nature of the film, keeping in mind the time period? 
TS: For me, aesthetically, two things are really important. One is the use of color. The other thing, which is combined within that, is how you work together with your DP, your production designer, your costume designer, and your hair and makeup designers. If we all work very closely together, and everybody understands what it is that I’m looking for, you are more than the sum of your parts. We build the aesthetic together. I think that you have to be even more careful of that when you do a period piece. Because we’re not living a hundred years ago—we’re living right now. That imagination that you need to make somewhere look and feel like it’s a hundred years ago, you’ve got to be coming from the same place and understand those aspects in the storytelling. I knew, for example, that I wanted to keep away from red in the palette as much as possible, so that every time you saw the letterbox, it would really pop. Those kinds of things are subtle, but they mean a lot to me. Some people notice them, lots of people don’t, and that’s totally fine, but it’s something that hopefully adds to your enjoyment of the film.

The character arc of Gladys is terrific. I felt completely different about her from the beginning to the middle to the end.
AV: A lot of that is in the script and it makes it easy when it’s charted properly, and the production details help. Thea and I talked about this. At the beginning you see someone who’s sitting up a bit too straight, a bit too buttoned up. It’s almost like she’s wanting to demonstrate that she can do the job. We also wanted her hat to be slightly too big, because it’s the first woman police officer in Sussex and they wouldn’t have had a perfect fit. She’s trying to fit into a place that isn’t quite accepting. And she’s trying to fit into the uniform. And then you realize that in some ways it’s quite restricting on her because the system and the men around her aren’t letting her do her job and follow her instincts. So actually you see a different side to her when she isn’t in uniform and she’s a bit freer. There’s more of a sparkle to her, I think, when she isn’t in the uniform and you see her brain ticking away. I wanted to chart the physical journey of what that might have been like. By the end, you see someone who is a different person than at the beginning. There’s a bit more to her than meets the eye.

Absolutely. And one of the things that makes this so effective are all the tone changes throughout the film. How did you make the comedy and drama work so cohesively?
AV: That’s probably the hardest thing, getting the tone right.

TS: It is, but the truth is that when you shoot something you break it down, right? You break it down scene by scene, and moment to moment within that. We would always know because we’d rehearsed it, we talked it through. If it was a scene with Anjana, we would have talked beforehand about what we wanted to achieve for the character in that scene. We’d discuss it at length, before shooting, right before shooting, and during shooting. You always know going in. Okay, this is the one where we reveal that her dad is everything to her. For Gladys, so much of her past is an obvious given even though nobody else ever talks to her about it. We were really aware of that going in. I would say for me, the shooting of it on set was never a problem because we always knew what the aim was.

What was more difficult, a much bigger challenge for me, is that you have to keep the whole film in your head all the time. The work that you do in prep is absolutely crucial in that you feel confident that you have a good hold, as much as you possibly can, on the thing as a whole. You need to know when you’re going to have your poignant, dramatic moments and when you’re going to have your laugh-out-loud moments. And then you shoot it with that plan as much in place as possible. Where it gets crazy is in the edit. Sometimes, lots of that works out, and sometimes, lots of it just doesn’t. There are laughs that you didn’t realize were going to be there, and there were laughs that you were sure were going to be there, but they aren’t!  And something you leave room for, something you hope for, is that actors will always bring something extra. However hard you’ve tried to anticipate everything, good actors will always bring something extra. Finding those moments in the edit is amazing. There’s nothing more exciting than an editor saying to you, I’ve recut that scene. Have a look at this. It can be so different from one cut to the next, even with a very short scene, something that’s 45 seconds. You use different cuts, different angles, and you can go from a comedy to a drama. That’s the power of it. And so, tonally, it was really in the edit that I had to keep the ship steered in the right way. And even then, it’s very easy to lose your way. The really scary part is when you start to let other people come in and watch it. If you have a trusted producer, you let them come in, and that’s when you really start to learn—through an audience, of course. But yes, without question, the challenge of maintaining the right tone for this film was the biggest and most important part of the job.