4 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Dearbhla Walsh speaks to IFTN - Director of ‘Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot’
11 Dec 2014 : Seán Brosnan
Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench in 'Esio Trot'
Starring Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman, ‘Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot’ tells the tale of shy old man Mr Hoppy who is hopelessly in love with his downstairs neighbour Mrs Silver who only shows affection for her pet tortoise.

The television movie which will air on BBC One on New Years Day at 6.30pm was directed by Dearbhla Walsh –whose acclaimed work in the last decade has seen her win an IFTA (for ‘The Silence’) and a Primetime Emmy award (for ‘Little Dorrit’), while also directing episodes of internationally renowned shows such as ‘The Tudors’, ‘Penny Dreadful’ and ‘Borgia’.

Here, IFTN talks to Dearbhla about the pressure of adapting a Roald Dahl story and the pleasure of working with cinema legends Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench.

IFTN: How did directing ‘Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot’ come about?

DEARBHLA WALSH: ‘I was sent the script to read by my agent over two and a half years ago. I read it in a hotel room in New York when I was in the middle of an edit for ‘Borgia’ and I fell in love with the script – it was utterly charming and joyous and a real page turner. Normally when you’re reading a script you’re thinking about how you’d make it but this was just like reading an adult fairy-tale. It was an absolutely delightful love story.’

Directing a cherished piece of work from a feted writer is not breaking new ground for you after 2008’s Charles Dickens adaptation ‘Little Dorrit’ – but is there still pressure there to get it right?

‘Sure, so after I read the script I did a telephone interview and then I did a face to face interview with seven people – two people from the Dahl estate, a couple of agents and people from the BBC. After the project eventually became mine to do – there was no cast attached at that time and the pressure really came from that and also not to mess it up [laughs]. Roald Dahl’s stories are famous and magical.’

‘We started off that it was going to be made here in Ireland so I started to crew it here and we got a cast together. And then one day I got a call from my producer to say that Dame Judi Dench has said that she would absolutely love to play Mrs Silver. And that was obviously wonderful news but she had two conditions. One was that she works a five day week and the other was that she sleeps in her own bed at night. So, the lady is a dame and the dame gets what she wants! I admired her two conditions – I’d have the same myself if I could! So, we had Dame Judi Dench on board and we moved to setting it up in England. About five weeks away from shooting, we still didn’t have a male star to play Mr. Hoppy that was worthy of matching Dame Judi. So, we stopped production and then we all went away. And then, Dustin read the script that Christmas and loved it and we got him on board. So, the pressure was a slow mounting pressure – it started with taking a great British jewel like Roald Dahl and adding the gems that are Dame Judi and Dustin Hoffman so there was no shortage of pressure to get it right. And if all that wasn’t enough pressure, add to that a hundred tortoises!’

Take us through working with Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Dame Judi Dench?

‘Well they say don’t meet your heroes but in this case I would stand on the tallest building and sing their praises as loud as I can. From the moment of meeting, they were just extraordinary. I spent two days with Dame Judi down in her home reading and talking about her part and she was utterly charming. I then spent a week in LA with Dustin in his office reading and talking and going through the character. They were both utterly professional – they were nervous and excited. They never worked with each other before – they had only ever spoken once. Their excitement and nervousness and delight to be working with each other went all the way to the very end and they were a joy to work with.’

And any nerves on your part to be working with two of cinema’s greats?

‘Oh, of course! I was nervous obviously that I would mess it up! I listened to all their interviews on the radio and read up lots about them but obviously this had to be about the story we were telling and I wanted us to form a relationship based on that. And I was thinking that maybe they were more nervous working with me because they hadn’t heard of me. Also, this is television not film and these are two cinema actors so I think it was a huge leap of trust on their part. Thankfully all our faith in each other paid off and it was a joyous experience.’

With a Roald Dahl story that was written in 1990 – did you feel like you had to knit together a tone that would appeal to kids and adults reading it then and today’s generation, not to mention the generations of Roald Dahl fans before that who expect a certain standard from something bearing his name?

‘Well, I suppose my audience will tell me that when it broadcasts whether I have or not! But for me, it’s all about the story feeling emotionally true. You believe the relationships between the characters. Roald Dahl writes all this incredible magic but at the heart of it is always real life experiences and emotions. So for me the tone was about keeping that real. This is a love story about two people of a certain age – two lonely people and this is their last chance. When I was being interviewed by the Dahl estate, Roald Dahl’s daughter said “my father is famous for all the darkness he writes and of all his books, this book is noted for having the least amount of darkness and if anything has been accused of being too soft” and I disagreed with that because I think this book does have darkness. It’s emotional darkness, it’s about loneliness, not finding love in your life and being alone until the day you die. That’s a real darkness for a lot of people. It’s about not connecting with people so for me the darkness is loneliness and that is a way more insidious darkness. It’s subtle and I hope that’s what people find appealing about the piece. The involvement of the tortoises is a metaphor – because Mr Hoppy is like a tortoise coming out of his shell and finding the courage to woo Mrs Silver. I met a guy who was friends with an actor that I worked with on ‘Penny Dreadful’ and he told me that ‘Esio Trot’ is his favourite Roald Dahl book and I asked him why and he said that Mr Hoppy taught him to always go the extra mile for love. I thought that was absolutely gorgeous and really signifies what the story is about.’

The book is a short one at 56 pages, was there much fleshing out to turn it into a 90 minute film?

‘Yeah, it’s 56 pages and half of those are pictures so in text alone it might just be 25 pages so it’s a very slight book. Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew Archer did a beautiful job adapting it and they turned it into a 100 page script. Which had its own difficulties because there was a lot to shoot! We shot for five and a half weeks and I could have shot for at least another week. They fleshed it out so we have a third character Mr Pringle, a pet shop keeper, a narrator and a couple of other young characters and at the end of film all the characters are connected in some way or another. So, it definitely has an added sprinkling of joy from the writers but the essence of story is still the same. It’s about a man, a woman and a tortoise and the man wanting to be where the tortoise is – in Mrs Silver’s arms.’

You have indelibly left your mark on television now with this film, ‘Little Dorrit’, ‘The Silence’, ‘Penny Dreadful’ and ‘The Tudors’ to name but a few, any plans to move into feature films?

‘Yeah, I am constantly working on developing feature projects. Unfortunately, film is a slow process – it’s a bit like the tortoise [laughs] and television is the hare. So, yes I am developing a few feature film projects but also working on a few television mini-series projects as well. Ironically now though, lots of feature directors are moving into television. Television has proven that as a canvas it can tell a story in greater detail and be more long-running and often have a greater audience than the cinema. But for me, it’s always about the story and it doesn’t matter whether that’s on the small or large screen. But there are plans afoot for future feature films.’

As one of the more prolific directors on the international scene today, do you have any advice for any budding directors reading?

‘There’s no science to filmmaking. Work hard and make sure you are working on something you love because if you are excited about what you are directing, that passion and excitement will spread to everyone around you and seep into the project itself. Even something that is small and low-budget, if it’s done with passion it will sing. Just like ‘Once’ really, that ended up being so big because it had so much heart. Trust the process because the process works. ‘Esio Trot’ stopped and started so many times and if you told me three years ago that Dame Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman would be in the film I never would have believed you or if I did I would have said ‘oh well that’s me gone’! But yeah, the commitment to a project and the passion and doing things for the right reasons definitely pays off as a director.’

‘Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot’ will broadcast on New Year’s Day at 6.30pm on BBC One. Check out the trailer here:

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