Helen O’Hanlon: Mirette

As a kid, I loved going to the library, especially seeing posters of all the Caldecott Medal winners. Sure, some were familiar classics like Cinderella and Rapunzel, some were scary, like Golem, and others were whole new worlds. Mirette on the High Wire was one such book, telling the story of a girl in a Parisian boardinghouse who meets a tightrope walker and takes part in the art herself. The children’s picture book has already been transformed into a musical, but now it’s been transformed into a live-action film, with up-and-coming Dixie Egerickx in the title role. We’ve got an exclusive interview with the director of the film, Helen O’Hanlon, to get a first-hand look at transforming a children’s story into reality. Take a look! 

What inspired you to adapt ‘Mirette on the High Wire’ into a short film? 

I saw ‘Man on Wire’ became obsessed with wire walking through Philippe Petit’s story of his twin towers walk.  I saw that there was little or no live action footage of wire walking so set about researching the art form more.  This led me to find Mirette On the High Wire.  As soon as I read it, I fell in love with it and believed it should be a film.  I immediately wrote to the author, Emily Arnold McCully and so our journey to screen began.  Having just premiered at Tribeca Film Festival we welcomed both Emily and Philippe Petit to our red carpet – it was a very special moment in time for me. 

We’ve made Mirette as a half hour ‘special’ following on the coat tails of animated children’s book adaptations like Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo, The Snowman but ours is ‘live action’.  I think there is a demand for more high quality live action content such as this in the family arena, so we are trailblazing with this format.

What challenges did you have recreating a Parisian boardinghouse or even a high-wire?

We needed to shoot on location and it was difficult to find the perfect places to shoot.   Our interiors were shot in London but finding the right place for the exterior scenes demanded a huge amount of research.  When we stumbled into Périgueux we knew we’d found somewhere very special and the beauty of the surrounds really infuses the film.  The Dordogne Film Commission were a fantastic help, as were the people of Périgueux many of whom became extras in the finale scene.

Erecting tight wires for the shoot was immensely challenging.  We needed a specific width, height and ability to be able to transport it to locations and erect it with the right tension, meeting all safety requirements.  The amazing people at Aircraft Circus custom made us a rig.  We couldn’t have done it without their help and support.   

What issues were faced or changes were needed for adapting the story into a short film?

Our 2 lead actors had to learn to wire walk for real and become so good they could ‘act’ while wire walking.  Our trainer, James McCambridge taught our actors to wire walk prior to the shoot (over an 8 month period!) and we worked with Fratelli’s in Paris and the National Centre for Circus Arts in London for further training.  Independently making a special on this scale, with these production values was incredibly challenging every way, we were blessed that it caught the imagination of cast and crew and the genuine love and excitement for the project got us through to the finish line. 

What was it like working with well-known names like Tom Conti and Miriam Margolyes?

They say never meet your heroes, well that’s nonsense.  Miriam and Tom are the most gracious, charming and insanely talented actors you could wish to work with.  I am indebted to them both and loved every minute of working with them.  We shared a lot of laughs and I learned so much from them both.  I hope I get the privilege of working with them again.  I think the absolute world of them both.

That said, Dixie Egerickx is the real star of the show, who even has a background in wire walking. Was it hard finding your film’s Mirette?

Dixie had never wire walked before being cast in Mirette, we taught her specially for the role, but she has kept it up since.  She is simply amazing.  I had several casting sessions before spotting her photo in a long list from our casting director.  I knew it was her immediately.  She is a remarkable talent who will soon be hitting our screens in the remake of The Secret Garden.  She is the lead, accompanied by Colin Firth and Julie Walters.  I can’t wait to see her in it.

There is even a musical number snuck into the film, the ‘Friendship’ song among the boardinghouse. How did you choose the song and why was it cut off before it ends? 

The song in the boarding house was specially written for the film by the brilliant Art Lewy.  The song begins at the beginning of the scene where we meet Tom Conti’s character (Charlie Meyer).  At the end of the scene our Chanteuse (Shola Adewusi) stands to sing the verse which then flows into the chorus we heard at the outset.  It bookends the scene as we leave the song where we first joined it, completing a circle.  When I told Art I wanted a singsong he, in his usual brilliant way, went away for a few days and came back inspired with the demo.  His Mirette score is so clever:  there is a theme for Mirette, a theme for Bellini, the singsong for the boardinghouse,  and for the final scene all 3 themes intertwine for a big soaring climax. So the singsong reprises again in the finale scene too.  This is my second film with Art and I’m in awe of his talent.  A true creative genius and a dear friend.

Tell us about other projects you are working on?

We want to continue making live action children’s book adaptations and have an NY Times bestseller in development.  Plus the reaction to Mirette at Tribeca and beyond has been incredible.  We are adapting it further into a feature length film which we hope to go into production with next year.  I have also been creating a unique and hilarious food travel series with Vic Reeves called 8 Bites (www.helenohanlon.com)

You know, the story was made into a musical in the 1990’s. Have any thoughts on that?

Yes I know about the musical of Mirette by Elizabeth Diggs who was an Associate Producer on the film. I haven’t been lucky enough to see it yet but hope to someday. I was very grateful to Liz’s insight and understanding, she even read early drafts of my screenplay and gave her input.  Our feature will be a slightly different adaptation of the story.  Slightly darker than the special or musical but will retain the magical realism inherent in this story….but as with the special music will continue to play a featured part of it.  We are all very excited to be taking Mirette further.

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