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Synopsis: From the day she is born, Mary Stuart’s hand in marriage is coveted with such “rough wooing” that her mother sends the five-year-old Queen of Scotland to France as the betrothed of Dauphin Francois. Mary and Francois grow up almost like siblings at the luxurious French court and are married at 15. Shortly after they become King and Queen of France.
However, Mary’s reign as Queen of France comes to an abrupt end after only a year, upon the death of the sickly Francois at the age of 16. Having lost her claim to the French throne, the young widow returns alone to Scotland, a country devastated by poverty and a nation divided by religion. As a Catholic, she faces the hostility not only of the Protestant leader John Knox but is reviled by her people as an unmarried French whore.
Elizabeth has just become Queen of England and for Mary she is like a twin sister to whom she can open her heart. It soon becomes clear that Mary must have a husband. Even Elizabeth takes action by recommending her own lover, a suggestion indignantly rebuffed by Mary. Mary does wed again and gives birth to an heir to the throne, but her second husband Lord Darnley proves to be a weakling.
When Mary finds the love of her life, the Earl of Bothwell, she has Darnley murdered and marries Bothwell. Horrified by this deed and the blind passion that motivated it, the nobles and the people of Scotland spurn her. In desperation, she turns to Elizabeth for help. In response, her once dear friend the Queen of England imprisons her.
Mehdi Dehbi (Rizzio)
Sean Biggerstaff (Bothwell)
Aneurin Barnard (Darnley)
Edward Hogg (Moray)
Tony Curran (Knox)
Bruno Todeschini (De Croc)
Roxane Duran (Mary Seto)
Joanna Preiss (Marie DeGuise)
INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS IMBACH
1. What initially inspired you, a Swiss, to make a film about Mary Stuart?
It wasn’t because I’m Swiss but rather as a filmmaker and a director. Mary intuitively struck a chord in me as someone I can relate to not in terms of her blue blood but because of her personality and her inner life. I don’t see her as being bound to a specific culture or country. She’s a European heroine caught between Catholic France and Protestant Scotland. And of course for me coming from (central)
Switzerland, there is a special appeal to making a film about a queen!
2. What made you decide to tell the story in its historical context?
At first I wasn’t sure whether to make the film as a period drama. I tried out several possibilities, even an African Mary or a Paris Hilton character, before deciding to stick to the time in which the story takes place. I took it as a challenge to address the genre of the period drama and, in the process, realized that the genre hasn’t really moved forward in any way over the past 30 years. Important milestones for me were Tarkovsky‘s Andrei Rublev and Barry Lyndon by Kubrick. And we took a backdoor approach to the script. A personal approach means more to me anyway and I left the grand, elaborate scenes up to the viewer’s imagination. Actually it was a wonderful experience to shoot a film without cell phones or cars. I wanted to work with reduction and generate a cinematographic feel for the era, which means, for instance, using lots of natural light – light candles or daylight – or gentle camera work with a handheld camera shooting at eye level. A “preindustrial“ narrative style where we watch the characters and rest on their faces just a little bit longer to capture the full effect.
3. What is the connection to literature and Stefan Zweig’s novel about Mary Stuart?
I had read Schiller’s drama about her in school and wanted to avoid any sense of “sublime pathos”. And in contrast to Schiller, I found it especially intriguing that Mary and Elizabeth actually never met in their entire lives. Then someone told me about Stefan Zweig’s biography and everything instantly became more concrete, especially since he put more emphasis on psychology than on history. So his novel ended up inspiring the screenplay.
4. What kind of person do you think Mary is? Do you see her in our world today?
I see traits in her that I also see in myself and that aren’t terribly en vogue anymore today. She’s looking for something unconditional. We live in an age where the focus is on getting a return on your investments. That doesn’t interest Mary; she throws herself into life with a passion. I think that’s a quality that has been overshadowed in an age of totally connected, postmodern individuals. The 7
archaic nature of being human is important to me in developing her character. It’s not surprising that we hear less about Mary today than about her adversary Elizabeth. Elizabeth is like a modern manager
who has sacrificed her personal life for the greater good because of her “love of the people”. Mary figured prominently in 19th-century literature and music but she has never really come into her own in
contemporary cinema. There are a number of TV series about Elizabeth in which Mary plays a supporting part. But I was primarily interested in her. She represents values that we need to defend
because they are fundamental human qualities: profound, unconditional commitment instead of concentrating on the quantifiable results of everything we do.
5. How would you describe the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth?
Mary and her Elizabeth: their relationship is crucial to the film. I say her Elizabeth intentionally. There is no separate, self-contained Elizabeth in the film; she is essentially part of Mary, almost like her shadow. In that respect she is an inner figure, especially since Mary never saw her. She had only portraits and reports and formal diplomatic relations. Both women suffered an exceptional fate. Elizabeth went directly from prison to Queen of England. Mary went from Queen of Scots, and briefly queen of France, to prison. Both had a strong will and a horde of nobles hovering around them and trying to tell them how to rule. Mary was the more old-fashioned queen but the more modern woman; Elizabeth was the manager and unable to bear children. They both knew that there was a woman on the same island, struggling with similar problems. They were related and at the same time rivals since Mary, influenced by her French relatives, had laid claim to the English crown as well. Their relationship was always very ambiguous and Elizabeth was the most important person in Mary’s life. The presence of Elizabeth and Mary’s longing for her “sister’s” real presence are vital to the narrative of the film and it’s embodied in the combination of Mary’s inner voice and the puppet shows. You can interpret their relationship classically – two Queens who are very close, who are in conflict and never meet. But also psychologically as Mary’s inner struggle with her own being and who she is.
6. How did you deal with Mary Stuart’s eventful life in your screenplay? Was it important to focus on a specific time span?
Her life took a dramatic turn in a very short time but I also wanted to show the beginning and end of her life. That was very important to me, so it was a constant struggle to figure out how to do
that without having to retell the whole story. Again, I followed Zweig. Although he clearly takes a biographical approach, he keeps returning to those two dramatic, eventful years in which she falls in love with Darnley and precipitously marries him, witnesses her confidant Rizzio being murdered before her eyes, does nothing about the conspiracy against Darnley and finally marries Bothwell. It’s like a volcano, with one explosion after the other, and it’s just too much to weave into one storyline. Dramaturgically, therefore, we decided to treat the events like earthquakes that start out being barely perceptible and 8 then suddenly erupt. Along with Mary, we are suddenly faced with unexpected situations. I don’t want to hold the audience’s hand: the facets and highlights of Mary’s story are unpredictable and surprising; it takes a certain amount of time for them to come together and make sense. Her youth in France was also important to understand the luxury of the surroundings she grew
up in. It shows the contrast to Scotland, the poor, war-torn country that she voluntarily chose to return to, after her first husband died, not because she was homesick but because she was their legitimate
7. How did you decide on the music?
I took several different paths. I prefer working with existing music because it gives me the most freedom. I started out with “Complete Bitches Brew Sessions“ by Miles Davis. I’d actually already had commitments from the right holders. But after the first screening with my distributor, I realized that the choice would end up excluding a large portion of the audience. So I immediately dropped the idea. On the way home I heard music on the radio that reminded me of Miles and I continued listening after I’d parked until I found out that it was by Sofia Gubaidulina, who was Composer in Residence in Lucerne at the time. There is something cinematic about her music; the sound of her music is very distinctive and too powerful to be used simply as part of the background. I wanted to meet her in Lucerne but she had already left. Then she let me know that she was already 80 and didn’t have much time left but that it was all right with her if we wanted to work with her music. The next day I found an out-of-print CD
on Amazon with accordion pieces and over 50% of the music in the film comes from it. Finnish musicians recorded it in a church in Rostock for a small label. Within two days, we had new version.
On the third day I showed the film to our commissioning editors and it worked. I gradually got more involved in this oeuvre until I found more compositions that correspond to Mary’s universe. If I hadn’t
detoured via Miles and happened to be listening to the radio in the car, it would never have entered my head to use Gubaidulina’s music.
8. What made you choose Lake Geneva as a location?
The production was an odyssey, too – from London to Glasgow to Dublin and finally to Lake Geneva. We went on recces all over Scotland and Ireland to look at castles, including several original locations. We didn’t have the money to stay in Scotland. Our next stop was Dublin. When I realized what it would take production-wise to do a shoot in Ireland, I finally settled on the castle in Switzerland where we had already done some preliminary shoots with Camille. The castles in Scotland have more of a museum quality while Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva is warmer and more atmospheric. The chimneys and fireplaces can still be used, which was extremely important for the mood and the lighting of the film. And then we came across Maison du Prieur, the oldest Cluny Priory in Switzerland. The writer Katharina von Arx spent decades renovating and restoring the building and we were able to use four important rooms there as backdrops. We found exterior locations in and 9 around Romainmotier and St. Ursanne. So we were able to shoot most of the film on location in two places in Switzerland and didn’t have to deal with the red tape involved in international coproduction. We shot the French scenes at Chateau Anet, a Loire Castle, where Mary actually lived as a child. I filmed the landscape and some original castles in Scotland without a crew.
9. If you could start again from scratch, what would you do differently?
A lot, especially because in the meantime we have learned so much about international operations in the film business. We would certainly be less naïve in our dealings with the English speaking business, where operations are very different from what we’re used to. It is considerably more professional, and there’s more division of labour and the market is much bigger. You have greater opportunities but at the same time absurd things like the importance of stars and other marketing considerations that don’t always have a priority for me.
THOMAS IMBACH – DIRECTOR / WRITER / PRODUCER
Thomas Imbach has consistently explored the boundaries between fiction and documentary, as well as traditional cinematic techniques and new technologies. Imbach’s inimitable style is already evident in two early films: Well Done (1994), about the daily routine of employees and managers in a high-tech bank in Zurich; and Ghetto (1997), about teenagers in their last school year shortly before being plunged into the working world. For his film Well Done he won, amongst others, the Fipresci price of the international film critics at the film festival in Leipzig, as well as the Zurich Film Prize in 1994. Ghetto won, amongst others, the prize as best documentary at the international film festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, the “Premio Giampaolo Paoli“ at the international film festival in Florence, and the Zurich Film Prize in 1997.
Since Happiness is a Warm Gun (2001), a drama about the unresolved death of the lovers Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian, Imbach has adapted his distinctive style to fictional material and a passionate directing of and with his actors. Happiness is a Warm Gun was nominated for the Pardo d’Oro 2001, was part of the official selection at the Berlinale 2002, won the Zurich Film Prize 2001 and was nominated as best Swiss feature film in 2001. Thomas Imbach’s next feature film Lenz, after Georg Büchner’s in 1836 penned fragment of the same name, premiered in the forum section of the Berlin Film Festival 2006 and toured festivals in Melbourne, Vancouver, Wroclaw, Linz, Locarno, Leeds and elsewhere. His feature film I was a Swiss Banker, completed in 2007, is an underwater fairytale about the Swiss banker Roger Caviezel. The film celebrated its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival 2007. The fictional autobiography Day Is Done was shown in the forum section of the Berlin Film Festival 2011 and, once again, Imbach received the Zurich Film Prize for it. His current project Mary Queen of Scots is his first venture into English-speaking cinema.
In 2007, Imbach founded the company Okofilm Productions in Zurich together with director and producer Andrea Štaka with the goal of producing independent and artistically challenging films for international distribution. Thomas Imbach thus serves as producer for Andrea Štaka’s new feature film Cure (Girls), while Andrea was the responsible producer for Mary Queen of Scots.
Swiss Film Prize - Switzerland - 2014
Camerimage - Poland - 2013
Locarno International Film Festival - Switzerland - 2013
Toronto International Film Festival - Canada - 2013