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The Fretts on Film Interview: Richard Nelson

December 4, 2012

Richard Nelson is better-known for his theater work—he wrote the books for the musicals Chess and James Joyce’s The Dead—than his screenplays. But his literately witty script for Hyde Park on Hudson, which stars Bill Murray as FDR, may change all that. As part of my New York Daily News piece on the movie, I interviewed Nelson about his personal connection to the project, FDR’s possibly incestuous relationship with distant cousin Daisy Suckley and the poetic license he took in telling the tale.

How did this project originate? I take it Daisy Suckley’s story is a local legend around where you live?
I live in Rhinebeck, New York. I’ve lived there for over 30 years now. And there’s this place called Wilderstein, it’s this old mansion and the grounds on the edge of town, overlooking the Hudson. And the tuckleys lived there for 100 years and Daisy Suckley, an unmarried woman, handed over her property to a public trust with the provision that she could live in the house until she died. So in her hundredth year, she died, and the trust took over the house. And under her bed, they found a suitcase full of letters and her diaries, and in those letters and diaries, revealed a very close relationship with Franklin Roosevelt.

So what intrigued you about the story, aside from the obvious titillation factor?
There was one part of the diaries that really struck me, which was her description of this famed hotdog picnic when the King and Queen of England came—the first time a reigning monarch ever visited the Western hemisphere, in June 1939. So what was intriguing, I think, was the chance of looking at a major historical event at a time when very significant things were happening and great tensions in the air, but to see them through the eyes of this woman who was not a player, but furniture in the room—like there’s a witness. And to have a stake in it, in terms of a relationship with Roosevelt, but not a political or a social stake, much more personal.

How did you feel about the ultimate decision not to shoot it in New York, but to take it to England?
Well, Roger Michell, the director, he’s an old friend. He came and spent a good bit of time with me in the area and it was pretty clear that we couldn’t film in the real places, and most of the places had significantly changed since 1939. So once you realize that, then he swore to me that he could find landscapes that were like the Hudson Valley, and he was right. The only thing he missed was the Hudson River! But besides that, I think he found it in England.

Were you surprised that Bill Murray could pull off the role of FDR?
I wasn’t surprised. Bill is a wonderful, wonderful actor. I think Lost in Translation is really one of the great performances of the last 20-some years. It’s just an extraordinary piece of acting. So I knew he’s a man of great mystery—there’s much going on behind those eyes, there’s a kind of loneliness there, a solitude, all of which I think is in Roosevelt in my script and what we wanted to find in the movie. So I think when Roger had this idea, it didn’t take me long to say, ‘That’s a brilliant idea.’ It took a lot longer to convince, or to find, Bill, really.

Richard+Nelson+Hyde+Park+Hudson+Premiere+Red+_ufvomh3ZFslEleanor Roosevelt is not the first person who springs to mind when you encounter Olivia Williams. How did you feel about a gorgeous Englishwoman playing a dowdy American?
I know, it was a very interesting choice. I’ve known Olivia since she was maybe 22. She was in a play of mine in London back in the early 90’s—one of the first things she ever did on stage. And I’ve seen her a number of times since then, of course. But it was an interesting choice. I was surprised when Roger cast her. I know what a wonderful actress so is, but you’re right, she’s a very beautiful woman. But they knew what they were doing. They put in some teeth and dressed her a certain way, and Olivia has a walk for the role—a big step—which I found very appealing, very interesting.

I’ve never seen Laura Linney give a bad performance. Why did you think she was right for Daisy?
Laura is one of the great American actresses. You’re right, I’ve never seen her give a bad performance either. And she’s able to do so much with so little, and I think this is a role of an observer basically, and that means doing a lot with little. I think she’s a fantastic choice. It’s also a really exciting performance.

Do you think people will come away from this movie seeing FDR and Eleanor in a different light?
Hopefully they’ll come away and see them as human beings, and that’s the most important thing. Complex human beings trying to connect their lives on a personal scale and a political scale, in terms of both of them, and how all of that is intwined. And I think maybe an audience will come with an appreciation of them. I think the more we put politicians or historical figures on a pedestal, the more distanced they are from us, of course, and that sort of takes responsibility off of our own shoulders. So if we can feel their humanity, that’s a very positive thing.

You’re dealing with some touchy and potentially distasteful areas in terms of their personal lives. How did you deal with Eleanor’s sexuality and the question of the open marriage?
If you take Eleanor’s relationship with Lorena Hickok, it’s pretty well documented. If you read the letters between them, it would be very hard to come to a conclusion that they did not have a physical relationship. And of course you could combine that with Eleanor living in a whole separate house, which she built and shared with lesbian couples for the furniture factory. So you start to see that this is not farfetched what I’m proposing, and something which many writers have dealt with before.

In terms of Daisy and Franklin and how true this is, obviously anytime this kind of a subject, in terms of sexual issues, it’s very difficult to prove these things. But I can say why I came to the conclusions I did—if you read the diaries, you certainly see an emotional intimacy between the two. And you have references to some physical relationship, but if you wanted to, you could try to dismiss those. It’s so interesting that Daisy is hardly talked about the in the biographies of Roosevelt—many, many biographies—until these diaries came out in the 1990’s, and yet she was always there. She was one of the handful of people, 3 or 4 people, with Roosevelt when he died, and the only two photographs ever takenof Roosevelt in a wheelchair were taken by Daisy. He created the first presidential library, he invented the idea of a presidential library, while he was still president and the first employee of that library was Daisy. He’s obviously extremely close. And if you put that in the context of Roosevelt’s whole life, where we know that his marriage early on was nearly ruined when it was discovered by Eleanor that Roosevelt was having an affair with Eleanor’s personal secretary, Lucy Mercer. At that time, he promised Eleanor never to see Lucy again, and we know now for a fact he broke that promise many times. And there are other relationships we know about. So in terms of historical accuracy, it’s not a wild invention to make this little leap, but we don’t know for sure.

What about the fact that she’s a distant cousin of his? Are they so distant that it’s not incest?
Fifth cousins, that’s so far removed. At that time up in Duchess County, everyone of a certain class were at least fifth cousins.

Beyond just the sexual aspects of the story, how much poetic license did you feel you could take? Obviously the dialogue is all invented on some level, but just in terms of the greater outline of the story?
Well, I try to stick to the facts, and when I didn’t for thematic reasons, I was very conscious of doing that. For example, Daisy was at the picnic, but Daisy was not at the head table putting on mustard—I made that up. So there are things along the lines there—the cottage, for example, that was something that Daisy actually was involved in designed with Roosevelt for the two of them, and in the film, to just make it clear and quicker, it was something he surprised her with. So there are choices like that made for dramatic reasons, to compact things, but basically, the way I looked at it is a fact would be like a dot, and I would just connect the dots. I would never erase a dot in order to make it what I wanted. So we know that the President and the King had a conversation on the Saturday night of that weekend. We know it was private in his study, and we know the King came out saying he felt that Roosevelt treated him like a father, the father he never had, and he felt that Roosevelt was going to help England in the war. So I created a scene, which that could be the conclusion.

What do you think the British perspective—not just the King and Queen being British characters, but the fact that Roger is British and it was shot in England—bring to the story? 
That’s interesting—being shot in England, I don’t think that has any…that was as much of an economic issue more than anything else. We could have shot it in Romania if we had the houses and it was cheaper. So I don’t think that was an issue. Roger grew up with his Dad as a diplomat so Roger grew up in all different places when he was young, different countries—Czechoslovakia, South Africa—and so I think that sense of being in different cultures has allowed Roger to look at America with a keen perspective, not necessarily an English perspective per se, but more of a traveler—someone interested in other cultures. So that’s something he does well. He’s wonderful at building worlds in his work. That’s something I try to do in mine, as well, and that’s where we come together as a team.

I know you’ve worked in film before, but you’re primarily known for theater. Is it a different process? Is it more collaborative as a writer on a film? Oh, it’s very different. In the theater, the writer obviously has much more control than in the film world. And mostly, my own experience, I haven’t done film for a while now because I found the film world fairly frustrating for that particular reason. The difference here has been both with Roger and the producers, who have involved me in every step of the way. I was there for a week of rehearsal, a week of the shooting, and then I had to come home for rehearsal for a play of mine, and they sent me the dailies so every evening I watched what they shot during the shoot and could comment on them, and they wanted my comments. I felt involved in the film like I’ve never even imagined what could as a writer be involved so I’m really thankful. It’s been just a really happy experience for me.

Is there a danger that you’re going to be overrun with tourists in your area after this movie comes out?
[Laughing]. I know! The Poughkeepsie Journal ran a story a few months ago about how this is really going to help the economy. Hopefully I’ll be a hero then!

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