Testament of Youth lit up the big screen at the beginning of the year and is on the verge of being released on DVD & Blu-Ray. The movie is based on Vera Brittain's memoir of the same name and has been adapted for the big screen by Juliette Towhidi.
Towhidi has penned screenplays for Calendar Girls and TV mini series Death Comes to Pemberley in recent years, but Testament of Youth is one of her biggest and most challenging projects to date.
We caught up with the screenwriter to chat about Testament of Youth, adapting such a complex novel, and how she has been finding the response to the film so far.
- Testament of Youth is about to be released on DVD & Blu-Ray, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Testament of Youth is story about a young woman who comes of age on the verge of World War I and finds her life shattered by the events of the war. It is a story about the making of a pacifist; a woman who becomes a life-long pacifist campaigner as a result of her experiences of the Great War and who gave birth to the future great politician in Shirley Williams.
The film is really about her relationships with three key men in her life - her brother, her fiancé her Roland, and another man who was a friend of the boys from school. It is really this group of young people who have their lives ahead of them and the story is really what happens to them all as a result of these cataclysmic events. It is also about Vera's experiences as a nurse on the front line and her social and political awakening.
- You have penned the screenplay for the film - which is based on the memoir by Vera Brittain - so where did this project start for you? And what was the major draw of getting involved?
Vera is - to this day - such a fascinating woman and a woman who was very much ahead of her time. When you read the book, her voice really speaks out to you and she feels very modern in her dreams, aspirations for her own life, her frustrations with her lot; she feel like a thoroughly modern woman but from a different age. Also, it is just reminder, after a couple of decades of rolling back on feminism and women being slightly embarrassed to lay claim to that title, of what it was like for young women a hundred years ago - we really do forget at our peril.
It was difficult for women to get an education in this country at that time; Vera had to struggle hard against familial prejudice to go to university and get herself an education. When she did get to Oxford against the odds, it wasn't to get a degree, as women were not yet granted degrees. The feeling I had coming to the project was that all this had been a little bit forgotten. We wanted the film to be a story about war but also a very powerful reminder of what it was like a mere hundred years ago to be a women in this country.
- Testament of Youth is a very complex book looking at the lives of women before the war and how they changed during and after the war as well as the horrors of war itself. Which aspects of the book were you particularly drawn to? And how tricky was it selecting the themes you wanted the script to explore?
You have to be very selective because, as you say, it is a very rich context book and we had to cut away at it to get at a screenplay that would come down to two hours - it was very very challenging. Inevitably, you have to sacrifice things that you would rather not have to sacrifice but the key for us was to try and capture the essence of the book, which is Vera's character and her awakening as a human being through the events that she experiences. We also wanted to explore her emotional life, her love, her passions, and the relationship with her brother. Because it is so hard for us to encompass the sheer scale of losses from that war - it was called the Great War for a good and very sinister reason, as there were so many millions of lives were lost - and it is very hard to comprehend that.
Our hope and our attempt was to, by focusing on the life on one woman and the three key men in her life, to try and bring that to a human scale that we could comprehend and then fan out from and get a sense of how many families these devastations happened to and the mark that it left on British culture and life. I suppose that did make it a little self-selecting. The area of her life that we had to sacrifice the most was her post-war life and her journey through pacifism. However, we felt that if we left her in the right place at the end of the war, people would go on to discover more about Vera if they so wished after the end of the film.
- Leading on from that question. As I said, the book tackles a wide range of areas before, during and after the war, how tricky was it finding the story arc? And how did you find the balance between building up to the war and the war itself?
Obviously, the war is key, the war was none-negotiable, and it was going to be the centre and the heart of the film. The tricky challenge was deciding how much we had pre-war and how much we had post-war. In my early drafts, I had a lot of post-war Vera and her journey onwards, but it felt like the beginning of a new film. We felt that we needed to pull that stuff in and keep it very cohesive and keep the whole story in the world of her war experiences - immediately before and after. The story starts in the spring and summer of 1914; it is very close to the war but what happens in that time is very emotionally intense.
She fights to get into Oxford and succeeds as well as falling in love for the first time - she is like a young woman on the brink of her life really. We wanted to spend time investing in the characters and getting to know them before the war broke out, in order to give meaning to the events that you see happening in the war; we felt that if we went straight into the war there would not be enough context there. It is too easy to see people in warfare as slightly 'other' and to show them just being normal kids felt really important as we wanted to make it feel real and grounded.
- I read that you met Vera Brittain's daughter Shirley Williams. How did you find that experience? And how did your time spent with her influence the script and perhaps how you depicted Vera?
It was amazing to meet Shirley and her blessing on this film has been really important to us. At the same time, we knew that we had to do our own thing with it and a film is inevitably going to be different to the book: which is also going to be different to her real life. We couldn't hope to depict Shirley's mother as she knew her, but we could just try to be as true as possible to the Vera that we got to know through her writing.
Meeting Shirley was great. I suppose I realised when I met her that she remembered her mother from the Second World War and just pre Second World War and the Vera that I was writing about was Vera aged twenty - which was quite a while before Shirley Williams was born. In a way, this did give me a certain amount of freedom as I felt that I could make her my own, as it was pre becoming a mother and that was quite liberating and a relief in a way.
Shirley's memories of Vera are invaluable but they are from a different era of her life. I didn't do huge amounts of research with Shirley, but meeting her was very very important, just to get a feel for the person and the fact that she is a direct connection to Vera. I think that is always a great thing to have when you set out to write something like this.
- Testament of Youth is widely regarded a great piece of feminism literature as it depicted women's struggles during the First World War really for the first time. How daunting a task was adapting such an iconic memoir?
It is very daunting as you are taking on something that is beloved to many people and for those who don't know it, you want to do justice to the book so that they will go and discover it. There was that double-edged thing of bringing it to a new generation as well. It is very daunting and, in some ways, you don't want to mess around with it too much but you have to mess around with it a little bit to make it work as a film.
At the end of the day, you just put your head down, do the best you can, and get on with the job. I have to do what I do, which is write screenplays, and so other instincts have to kick in at a certain moment to make thing work dramatically. We were very careful to stay as true to the book as possible and where we couldn't stay literally true to the book, we tried to stay true to the spirit of it and what she was trying to express.
- The movie sees James Kent in the director's chair, how much did you work with him on the script? Did he have much input?
James came on board quite later in the development; we had a fully formed script by the time James cam on board. I worked very closely with the producer Rosie Alison on the script - we were working on the script on and off from 2010 through to 2013/14 before James came on board.
Of course, any director will have strong feelings and thoughts about a script and there were a few things that we worked on with him, in particular the end of the film. He had some great ideas and thoughts that really had an impact and informed the final film. He was very good in that sense.
- Testament of Youth hit the big screen earlier this year, so how have you found the response to the film as it has played around the world?
People seem to be incredibly moved by it and very affected it, which is wonderful. It is a really great experience to feel that you have helped bring that story to life for people - or life to people for the first time if they don't know Vera. It felt like an incredible privilege to be honest and I am really proud of the film.
It is never going to be a big multiplex blockbuster - it is not playing on that level - but we just hope that it will have a long life and people will discover it through the various different platforms from cinemas, to DVD, to television in a few years. I really believe that it will have staying power and I just hope that I am right (laughs).
- Throughout your career, you have written for film and television, how does writing for the different mediums compare?
It is not as different as you might think actually. Obviously, there are different scales and constraints but it is very very similar - you are just putting your dramatist's hat on and trying to make compelling characters. I have done a lot more film than television and so I haven't worked for a commercial challenge; I haven't had to deal with ads breaks or anything like that as yet. In my experience, they are really not too dissimilar at all.
I am working on a couple of projects at the moment. I am working on a feature film about the origins of the Notting Hill Carnival as well as a political thriller for Film 4. I also have a television project, which I am going to keep under my hat for now (laughs).
Testament of Youth is released on digital platforms from 8th May and on Blu-Ray & DVD from 25th May.
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