Carmen Bryce talks to Pippa Cross, producer of Summer in February, currently screening in cinemas.
“What drew me in was the challenge of telling such an intimate story against such a big landscape,” said accomplished British producer Pippa Cross of her latest project Summer in February.
Based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Smith, Summer in February focuses on the love triangle between real-life British artist Alfred J. Munnings (Dominic Cooper), his friend Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens) and the girl they’re in love with, young painter Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning).
Smith was moved to write his story after he was introduced to David, the son of Gilbert Evans, who came across his late father’s diary entries dated between 1910 and 1914. Reading the diary, it became clear to Smith that Evans and Munnings had been in love with the same girl. After the book’s release in 1995, critics remarked how it could, in the right hands, be captured beautifully on film.
“It’s a story that had to be told,” said Cross. “Gilbert lived with a painting of Florence above his mantelpiece most of his adult life but only told his children she was a lovely friend from a long time ago. When his son found his diary, a picture of Florence fell out. It’s heartbreaking really.”
In 2005, Smith’s lifelong friend and film producer Jeremy [Cowdrey of Apart Films] and later Pippa Cross and Janette Day for CrossDay Productions came on board. Smith remained committed to the story as screenwriter with Christopher Menaul (Prime Suspect) joining as director.
While there are few stories more intimate than the anguished diary entries of a heartbroken man, the “big landscape” Cross talks about comes in the form of the rugged beauty of the Cornish coast just before World War I.
The story unfolds amongst the ‘Lamorna Group’ of bohemian artists such as Munnings and husband and wife Laura and Harold Knight who used the wild coastline as both their inspiration and their playground. The scenery throughout is breathtaking and a fitting backdrop for an Edwardian romance. The most effective moments in the film come when the turmoil of the love tryst coincides with shots of the dramatic Cornish landscape – rolling waves, violent storms, looming cliffs casting shadows on vast stretching beaches.
As Cross explains, the film has “such a Cornish story at its heart” so to shoot it elsewhere simply wasn’t an option.“Artists have been going to Cornwall for years for its light and our cinematographer Andrew Dunn painted Cornwall in his own way. He’s a genius,” said the producer.Aside from Dunn’s (Gosford Park) talented input, another winning feature of Summer in February is the casting with strong lead roles from Dominic Cooper & co. Cooper (The Devil’s Double, My Week with Marilyn), who plays the fiery-tempered Lorathio Munnings, is a magnetic presence on screen and dominates every scene with his bombastic charisma, especially those with his mentally fragile love object Florence.Dan Stevens trades on his Downton Abbey persona to convince as the honourable soldier in love.
“We always wanted Dominic for the part. His larger than life screen presence was perfect for Munnings,” says Cross. “Emily [Browning] read beautifully during her audition with such pose. We flew her in from Melbourne where she lives and she wasfreezing and exhausted during shooting. This came through in the emotional fragility you see on Florence’s face in the film. Dom is the rock star, seductive and charismatic and Dan plays the nice guy, who is almost too gentlemanly, too slow off the mark. Florence is faced with the universal dilemma – fall for the nice guy or the rock star. She is memorized by Munnings, powerless against his charms but immediately regrets it when it is too late to go back on,” said Cross.
“All three characters are wonderfully complex. Jonathon [Smith] was deep inside the characters and cared for all three immensely. He was very brave as a screenwriter and didn’t consult his book once. His dialogue is sleek and really scratches beneath the surface of the characters,” she added.
Cross, an accomplished producer with an extensive portfolio (Vanity Fair, Jack and Sarah, Shooting Dogs, The Hole) likes to vary her projects as much as possible. Quirky British rom-com Chalet Girls was her last film, and it “couldn’t have been more different than Summer in February,” she laughs.