The United Voices of HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

Recreating the historical moment when the British King and Queen visited President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 required enormous skill from the crew and cast, including Bill Murray as the chief executive. Here they all come together for a free-wheeling discussion of what it was like to make HYDE PARK ON HUDSON.

DA: David Aukin, producer.

SB: Simon Bowles, production designer.

DC: Dinah Collin, costume designer.

OC: Olivia Colman, actress (plays the Queen of England, Elizabeth, in film).

LL: Laura Linney, actress (plays Daisy in film).

KL: Kevin Loader, producer.

BM: Bill Murray, actor (plays U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt [FDR] in film).

EM: Elizabeth Marvel, actress (plays FDR’s secretary, Missy, in film).

MR: Morag Ross, make-up designer.

SW: Samuel West, actor (plays the King of England, Bertie, in film).

OW: Olivia Williams, actress (plays the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, in film).

EW: Elizabeth Wilson, actress (plays FDR’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, in film)


DA: Hyde Park on Hudson is a fiction based on real events, with Richard Nelson’s insightful screenplay brilliantly evoking the period and the people.

BM: Roosevelt is the most formidable character I’ve ever been asked to play, and this story that I hadn’t known about showed his personal side. There was a humanity to Richard’s script.

After I read the script, I called up [director/producer] Roger Michell and we had more conversations on the phone. He then said, “I’ll come visit you [in America],” and we went to the beach and kept talking about what we could do with this story.

EM: We weren’t making a re-enactment of history. It was about humanizing the political.

SW: Or, exploring what these public figures were like in private. Don’t presidents and kings make mistakes or have minor triumphs, at dinner parties or in their bedrooms, like us?

OW: This is meant to be an illuminating story told affectionately, not washing dirty linen in public or diminishing anyone in the eyes of the world. Facts have come to light over the years about some of these leaders’ domestic realities; I think people will be interested, entertained, and surprised.

Richard puts massive world events into the context of a country house weekend, with all its social awkwardness. He’s made icons of the 20th century into three-dimensional people, and explores their political influence.

EW: When I read the script, I thought, “They’re not hiding anything.” I admire Richard’s writing, and this story was historic, honest, and humorous. I think the film is about survival.

I was thrilled to be asked to play this part by Roger because I grew up in Michigan in the 1930s and was such a fan of Franklin Roosevelt. I had been raised a Republican. But when Roosevelt became president – I was just as smitten as most of my friends, most of my family. We became Democrats.

It meant a great deal to me to be able to go back into the light of someone I worshipped.

DA: In terms of showing how a politician operates, it’s a story that still feels contemporary, blending the political and the personal.

There was a political bond that formed between Bertie and Roosevelt, but also an emotional one; FDR was older, and treated the King almost like a son. The King responded to that because his own father wasn’t caring. LL: It was the first time that British royalty had set foot in the United States. Given the two countries’ histories, this was a big deal.

SW: They’d had that spot of bother two centuries earlier, and nobody had gone back…But the unthinkable, the second World War, was about to happen, and Britain needed to know if it had an ally in America.

DA: Historically, this weekend in 1939 is when “the special relationship” between England and America began. After he left, the King sent a telegram to FDR thanking him and saying, I feel we forged a special relationship – that’s how the term came to be. The King’s eating a hot dog showed that England would finally accept Americans as equals, that Bertie wasn’t looking down his nose at them.

KL: It was a key moment in Anglo-American relations. The royals intuited the symbolic significance of the act of eating the hot dog, and they rose to the challenge. EM: A lot of mutual effort led up to that day; there was a long period of correspondence and diplomacy to make the visit happen, to build that bridge.

LL: At the time of their visit to America, the royals were vulnerable. There was anti-British feeling in the United States.

SW: Because Richard comes to screenwriting as a playwright, he trusts actors; he doesn’t put words in brackets that tell you how to play the part, like “worriedly” or “with anger.” This gives you an enormous amount of freedom, and makes you feel that you’ll be trusted to interpret the scene properly.

His writing is spiky, and feels spontaneous. He’s interested in little things that build up slowly, so then there’s a cumulative power that you didn’t see coming. I think that’s a real skill.

OC: I’m not one for homework terribly, but Sam West would have books and pictures at the ready.

SW: I read biographies of Bertie and Elizabeth, and dipped into a couple of ones on Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt said that Elizabeth would smile or wave at a crowd and everybody would think that the smile or wave was just for them.

OC: Sam and I talked about how the King and Queen were this young couple with so much pressure on them, having to go and try to win over the Americans.

SW: They had made the mistake of reading their reviews before opening night, as it were.

OC: Elizabeth was dealing with cruel remarks comparing her unfavorably to Wallis Simpson [for whom King Edward VIII had forsaken the throne]; she had lost weight for the trip. All eyes were on them – not just their country’s, but the American public’s.

SW: These two had spent years thinking, well, I’m not going to be Queen, or King. It could have all been so different with Edward VIII [if he had remained King]…Bertie’s back was against the wall. One of the reasons he took the name King George VI was to name himself after his grandfather, to ensure continuity. He told Winston Churchill that he hoped he would reign long enough to make things good again. The trip was important for the country, but also for the institution of the monarchy.

BM: It was brave of the King and Queen to come and put themselves at the mercy of the American populace – to let themselves be gawked at, touched, and spoken about. They had to bring the idea to the American people of conceivably joining them in the war, but make it as if they were neighbors coming over because they needed a cup of sugar. They changed what people thought the royal family was about.

SW: We believe in America as a place where you can reinvent yourself. Bertie and Elizabeth came back to Britain in triumph. I think Bertie got out from the shadow of his father, and Elizabeth found that she was very good at meeting informally – which America loved. They both got on with Roosevelt.

OC: Acting with Bill Murray was a dream come true. On the set, he has a streak of anarchy. Between scenes, he would play the most random music on a large stereo; Beatles, Sinatra, Russian church music…

KL: …Simon & Garfunkel, traditional jazz, a bit of funk, traditional choral music…It wasn’t there at first; I think it crept in around week three.

OC: He would let other people mind the stereo while he did takes. He sincerely believes that if the atmosphere is fun and friendly, then the work will be good. He would order up doughnuts for everyone.

EM: When the camera wasn’t rolling, it was a party. But when it was rolling, he would morph…he would transform like any good actor does.

OC: People adored FDR’s wit, kindness, and generosity, and that seemed to fit rather nicely with Bill.

DA: When I went out with Bill, he was greeted wherever he went. People are so affectionate towards him, because he’s given so much pleasure in so many films to so many people.

Bill is a wonderful actor. What he plays so well is how the president manipulates and charms to get his way, but Bill catches the full spirit and essence of the man. Bill did a huge amount of research into FDR, who was never filmed or photographed with the effects of his polio made apparent.

KL: To fulfill the physical portrayal of FDR, Bill came to England a little early and met with representatives of the British Polio Society; a physiotherapist made calipers and taught him how to walk with them.

BM: My sister had polio, so I grew up with her wearing a brace. She’s had some of what they call post-polio effects that you have much later in life. It was extraordinary how FDR’s will overpowered that. You never saw self-pity from the man.

He was very straightforward about how there were not to be pictures of him being carried around on his crutches, or in his wheelchair. There was an understanding; in exchange for that, he would present an openness and have regular press conferences, which [the preceding U.S. president] Herbert Hoover had not.

SB: We wanted to recreate the wheelchair that FDR used, but found out that he had a number of different ones. We decided to go with the one that’s preserved today at Springwood, by his desk in the library. You would think that making one would be simple, but no; the wheels had to come from Holland, and we had to cut down a specially made kitchen chair to fashion a chair that would have parallel sides so that the wheels are able to pass. The metal structure underneath had to be made as well. We had to decide what kind of oak it should be and what color it would get stained, and check on the screws and bolts.

BM: The physical things were important. I also listened to his voice a lot, to his speech. In terms of upbringing, this was a man who grew up in New York City, in Hyde Park, and on Campobello – off both the U.S. and Canada. He’d travel to England; he went to school in Groton, Connecticut. So there were a lot of different vocal influences in his tones, yet his voice was very distinct.

You’ve got to be able to have a twinkle in your eye to get people to do what you want. He knew you had to be willing to give and take. He made people believe in him.

DA: With the full moon out, there was something in the air that weekend; for me, there was a bit of the quality of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and that was part of the charm of the script.

DC: Roger had referenced Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to me. Richard’s piece has a strong narrative, tells an emotional story, and it’s funny, too.

I had a lot of pictorial resources to work from, but at the nub of everything was that we were going to be making this in the U.K., so I realized early on that all our costume stock had to come over from America. I went to Los Angeles for two weeks and found lovely dresses, hats, and suits in four costume houses there. We shipped over 54 boxes.

There weren’t many pictures of Daisy, so I had to rely on photos of American women in the late 1930s.

MR: The film is about specific people, but it was helpful to have reference files on general life in the States at the time. For make-up, we used modern products, which are better for the skin, and worked to achieve a period look.

DC: We were using original fabrics as well as newly created ones. One dress I had brought over was almost disintegrating, but I wanted it for when I met with Laura Linney in New York, just as a starting point. I also had these white shoes that were lace-up with a tiny buckle, and they actually fit Laura; we had duplicates made. SW: The nicest costume I had was an original pair of Macclesfield silk pajamas from the 1930s. Dinah had them fitted and altered to make the silhouette quite tight.

EW: I wasn’t terribly proud of my size, but Dinah was so helpful. I couldn’t believe that she came to America with all this wardrobe.

DC: I first met with Bill Murray in Boston, near where he was making Moonrise Kingdom. At the fitting, we talked about how President Roosevelt had upper-body bulk because he had strengthened that area.

BM: He rebuilt his upper body. He rebuilt his abdominal muscles, which had been lost, and got back movement in part of his upper thighs and the tops of his legs.

DC: Some of the older clothing was continuing an amazing journey. The costume has to take the actor into the character so that the audience will be brought along too. It may all be period, but you have to imagine someone in these clothes, not just who wore them originally but also the characters in the story and maybe even yourself.

DA: We did get the right clothes, cars, furniture, settings, and so forth, but Roger kept a balance so that it wasn’t “a period film.” You’re watching a story about people that just happens to be in a period setting. When you are in FDR’s study, you think, “Here is the office of a very powerful man.” EM: My character is called Missy, and her actual name was Margaret LeHand. She was secretary to FDR even before his presidency; they were introduced to each other when she started working for the Democratic Party in D.C.

People would say that she was like a wife to him; they were that close, that intimate. When he was struck with polio and went down to Florida, she lived with him on a houseboat. She helped him resurrect himself. Then, she helped him run the White House; she was a great organizer, and a cosmopolitan woman. She also had depressions, and suffered a lot to do the job that she did; she made her choices knowing that she would be in the room for history-making decisions, these incredible moments.

BM: Franklin Roosevelt would make a decision, and it would change the existences of millions of people. In a leadership role, he had to walk a very fine line of involvement and detachment in what was happening overseas, as well as trying to rebuild the American economy from the Depression. He had to balance fiscal responsibility and military responsibility. He knew when the time was to compromise, and he knew when the time was to be strong.

One night after filming, I drove to Grosvenor Square in London and by the American embassy, where there’s a great statue of Roosevelt, dedicated a year after he died. He’s standing in a navy cape, looking like the best friend England ever had.

LL: What that man accomplished in his life…! He was charismatic, vibrant, handsome, intelligent, and was skilled in political intrigue…People liked him, and liked being around him. My favorite scene in the movie is between Bill Murray and Sam West as FDR and the King.

SW: Getting to do a long two-hander scene with Bill Murray? Thank you very much indeed, that is one for the grandchildren. Bill was wonderful and generous; we did full run-throughs of the whole scene.

LL: It’s a scene between two incredibly powerful men who both have debilitating handicaps, finding a mutual understanding that only people in comparable situations could have. SW: Bertie had largely conquered his speech defect by this point, but it still made him shy about speaking in public and it could be very pronounced. When he’s with someone he likes and trusts, the stutter comes out less.

BM: Reading all the background on Bertie and Elizabeth, it seemed like theirs was a great love. SW: He respected her, and she gave him confidence. Other people wanted to marry Elizabeth, but she said yes to Bertie. I feel that – with the children they managed to bring up – their family was the beginning of the idea of the Royal Family as family, rather than as figureheads or status symbols.

OC: During the Second World War, the King and Queen stayed in the palace through all the bombings and then would go out into the East End and shake hands. They were in tune with the people, and that was a similarity they shared with another popular leader – FDR.

SB: When I first was asked to do this project, I realized how important it would be to visit the main house, Springwood, as well as Top Cottage and the nearby town and countryside. Internet pages are helpful, but there’s nothing like actually going there and seeing for yourself. There were so many details we were able to add in. It was also a chance to meet with Richard Nelson – and I was very well looked after by him and his wife, with whom I stayed.

Since Springwood was turned into a national monument in the 1940s, almost nothing has changed. We went into the kitchen, the bedrooms, the study…the period details were still there for us to see. There were already Life photographs of the house in 1939, the year in which the movie takes place, which documented the décor. But those were in black-and-white, and by going there we could see the full color of the spaces. I took measurements and photographs that went back with me to the U.K., where Springwood was recreated at a private mansion.

KL: We found one within 10 miles of London, and couldn’t quite believe our good fortune. This meant that we didn’t have to spend to move a unit into the middle of nowhere. Much of what we hoped for, and needed, was already inside.

SB: I had taken pictures of the vents in Springwood, and we worked those in. Then there were the stuffed birds, which FDR created when he was a teenager, that we also put in. Throughout the actual house, it was more of an eclectic mix, a mishmash, than you would think; remember, it was FDR’s mother’s house and even he was a guest there.

KL: During his presidency, he split his time between the White House and his mother’s house, where he’d be surrounded by all the important women in his life.

EW: I was very proud to play [FDR’s mother] Sara Delano Roosevelt. Her family went through a lot, physically, emotionally – and they would have had more trouble financially, but she had a good deal of money. Things might not have happened the same way for Franklin if it hadn’t been for her willingness to support them.

BM: I couldn’t get enough of Elizabeth Wilson. She’s got a million stories; “Okay, about Jason Robards…” Roosevelt’s mother was a strong woman, and Elizabeth is old enough to be my mother. So when Olivia Williams was playing scenes as Eleanor with her, there was definite subtext; everyone had to defer. OW: I was playing a woman whose mother-in-law dominated what was an [laughs] extraordinary domestic set-up.

EW: I feel that Sara knew what was going on, and that she could handle it. Franklin was her one child, and she loved him so much. EM: So many American presidents – Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, FDR – have had profound relationships with their mothers. These women were dominant in their lives. Also, Eleanor was such a force for women’s rights.

BM: I think of how she impressed Admiral Halsey, who commanded the Pacific, with what she did in World War II, going out to visit the troops and being a representative for the Red Cross.

I feel that at the heart of FDR and Eleanor’s relationship was the education which formed them. He was taught to be fearless, and Eleanor had that famous quote; “Do one thing every day that scares you.” At the dinner table, growing up, they were told that they had to accomplish something.

They weren’t a traditional husband and wife. They both knew that they were about something else, that they could better achieve what they each had to do by staying with each other and working with each other.

OW: I’d made Rushmore years ago with Bill, so we had a pre-existing friendship – which was good for Hyde Park on Hudson, because at this stage of the Roosevelts’ marriage there is a longstanding understanding of each other, and there is an acceptance. Politically, she would be his emissary, traveling to places he couldn’t; he listened to her ideas, and incorporated some of them into government.

BM: With the hair and the dresses and the pearls, Olivia looked uncannily like Eleanor and unlike herself. She went for it.

MR: Olivia looks different and is younger than Eleanor was, so that was a challenge; Roger and I agreed that we would have to be subtle. So I did a bit of aging on her really lovely skin, and changed her teeth to match Eleanor’s.

OW: At the read-through, I had the teeth in and my accent would go all over the place. Fortunately, we had a proper rehearsal period.

EW: Each day we would sit and read different sections of the script and get to know each other over coffee, tea, and little snacks. It was very relaxing. We read through the entire script just before we started filming.

OW: I believe in over-researching, but Roger didn’t want me to do an impersonation. I would look at her speeches, but those were in her distinctive public-speaking voice.

I had begged, in a slightly undignified way, to be part of this movie. But it was very daunting playing someone of Eleanor’s caliber; she did so much for civil rights and race relations, using her position as First Lady to help others. I wanted to do her justice, and I also got to explore this world figure in a domestic situation – one where she had less power; her bedroom was her mother-in-law’s dressing room.

Eleanor didn’t patronize people. She wouldn’t curtsy to the King and Queen because she didn’t feel that anyone should be curtsied to. This was her principle, and I aimed to carry that off with dignity and without looking petty.

MR: Roger had found one image of Eleanor at the picnic, where her hair was very loose and free, and said he wanted to capture that flyaway feeling and not have all this set hair. OW: I wanted it to be unkempt; I felt it demonstrated her informality. Even when Eleanor made an effort with the hair, it seemed to be quite out of control.

MR: Norma Webb, the hair designer on the movie, did a fantastic job. Wigs weren’t used; Norma adapted and colored the actors’ own hair. Roger wanted the hair to look as natural as possible. The King and Queen did have to look more put-together and perfect than the Americans. I loved seeing Sam West and Olivia Colman in those iconic period looks and thinking, “It’s working!”

But Roger also didn’t want dead ringers to be created; it was about trying to catch the essence of the real people. FDR’s face is well-known, so I had tiny prosthetic molds made for Bill Murray of the melanoma above the left eyebrow and the mole on the right cheek. Bill asked that he look like someone who had been in the sun a lot, because FDR loved to sunbathe as often as possible.

SB: The pieces in the house show the family history, and point to the character of Sara and her influence.

Roger and [cinematographer] Lol Crawley and I would always have to check on how spaces would work for the actors and crew to maneuver through, including for possible 360-degree coverage.

We added shutters to the windows like you would find in that region of upstate New York, a classical balustrade atop the porch, flags and flagpoles at the front, and replaced the gravel in the driveway.

BM: The thing about rich people’s gravel is, you can walk on it without hurting your feet. It’s like reflexology.

KL: We knew we couldn’t recreate the house brick by brick, so we concentrated on the scale and the atmosphere.

BM: As the first president to use radio as a force, Roosevelt would give these very conversational addresses from home, at the dinner table with the mikes moved in after the family had eaten. He’d talk to America as if he was a father speaking at the head of the table.

SB: For the “Fireside Chat” scene where FDR gives his address to the nation while sitting at his desk, we brought microphones over from the United States. Also on his desk, my wonderful props department did a lot of research into finding out exactly what the stamp collection looked like, since it’s a key part of when Daisy first comes to see FDR, including what the book was that the stamps were kept inside. There was some photographic evidence, but FDR’s collection was sold at an auction house some time ago, and apparently the stamps weren’t worth very much because he didn’t collect specialized ones; it really was more of a hobby.

We needed to have the large oil portrait of FDR that hung in his study, so [stills photographer] Nicola Dove posed Bill as identical to the painting as possible. He would often talk and act in character when being photographed at length, and this took a lot of patience but he was game. He made his own suggestions to help get it just right. We then got the finished photo and made it into a canvas; it looks like the real thing.

To recreate Top Cottage, the President’s retreat where he wanted to write detective novels, we built a house entirely from scratch in a woodland clearing in the Chilterns [Hills in southeast England]. We had sketches and models, including with little plastic people, for the process. It was an impressive set; Roger would sit on the porch and read a newspaper.

BM: I went from visiting the real Top Cottage to the recreation in the space of a few weeks. The view from the elevation was so much alike.

KL: FDR took genuine solace at Top Cottage. It was where he recharged. He encouraged friends to buy adjacent plots and build their own cottages nearby, so he had a great impact on the growth of the Hudson Valley. SB: At that location, we had to know where everything was going to go for the picnic. There was a record of the schedule, so there could be no surprises; “the drinks will be prepared here, the plates will be here…” We had to know where the characters were going to sit, too, of course – just like that day in 1939.

I had pictures from the picnic up on my wall. Everyone would look to them for reference. Someone took a few photographs of his children that also captured the excitement “in the background.” You can see the moments between the King and Queen. KL: We had 100 extras for the sequence. The Chilterns were a pretty good ringer, with their gorgeous beech woods. There was a cultural convergence even before it happened on-screen.

SW: The photos from the picnic showed how at some point Bertie took off his tie. To do that at an official engagement was a statement. So we could get that in, his catching the American vibe and thinking, “Perhaps I don’t need to wear this.”

MR: It was very satisfying to walk onto the finished set that day; there was a great sense of achievement. You saw everyone’s contributions, dozens of people’s work, coming together.

LL: When I heard the movie would be shooting in the U.K., I thought, “I see how that could work.” We would be re-creating a different era and time. Also, it looks like Hyde Park; there’s the occasional odd tree. After we finished shooting, I missed England; everyone was terrific over there.

KL: We were only sorry there wasn’t more sunshine. But people enjoyed themselves; they socialized after work, going to see shows.

Roger and I have made a lot of movies, but here we were bringing American actors over to work with British ones. It was an inversion of the movie’s story.

BM: As a director, Roger asks real simple questions, gets you to say “yes” a lot, and then doesn’t stop until he gets what he wants – which is good. You feel comfortable. SW: Roger would have, for our scenes together, Bill play with responses and words slightly so that I would be slightly surprised and be able to react to what was happening in front of me. The takes were fresher.

This was the fourth time I’d worked with Roger. He is so attentive, and he makes things un-scary. On our first movie together, Persuasion, we were doing a scene and he said, “Don’t do that, it’s too much. We’re looking for ambiguity, not confusion.” That remains perhaps my all-time favorite note from a director.

OW: To me, Hyde Park on Hudson has the same qualities as Persuasion, in that Roger completely nails how much passion and how much import can lie beneath a polished social surface.

I wanted to work with Roger because I wanted to be directed; I wanted someone to tell me what I might not be doing quite right – which he does, with extreme charm!

EW: I think Roger enjoys his work, because he smiles a lot; many directors never smile. His technique is to do a lot of takes, which is terrific. I trusted him.

SW: When he gives you notes, like “Try this on that line,” you want to use them.

LL: I had such good notes from Roger while I was working. He’s so good about watching a take; he will literally write down notes and come over to you. Most directors don’t do that. He sees what you’re doing, or trying to do, and helps you make it better.

DA: Laura brings such positive vibes to a set, such warmth and friendliness, that I would recommend having her around whatever the film.

OC: Her character of Daisy is at the heart of the story. She shows the hurt in Daisy’s eyes, and the adoration as well.

LL: Richard knows how to write for actors. The story explores how people deal with fame, and power. What is the psychology of fame? How does it affect someone’s day-to-day life, their decisions, and the way they treat people? In the movie, Daisy is often quiet. In many ways, she is Alice in Wonderland. She’s brought into a world of big personalities, and observes.

MR: Laura’s look in the film is a bit more free-looking than the real Daisy. Our Daisy is more ephemeral, whereas the real Daisy was neat with never a hair out of place.

EM: We all did research, but Laura arrived fully loaded. [Laughs] Then what we had to do was lay that aside, and play the emotional truths.

LL: I’ve always had a deep fascination with the Roosevelts, particularly Eleanor, and their era. I’ve visited Hyde Park many times. But I knew nothing about Daisy Suckley. When this script came along, I felt grateful that this movie was getting made at all.

By 1939, Daisy’s family had lost a good deal of their money. Her father had passed away, and she had a number of siblings, so Daisy became responsible for the family. Daisy went to go work for her aunt [Mrs. Woodbury Langdon] as a secretary and paid companion. The small amount of money that she made was handed back to her family to help keep their home – the large mansion they lived in – going.

I spent a little time on the property, with its entire history of Daisy’s family, and was able to learn about her and her disposition. I visited her bedroom. I saw the books on her bookshelf, and got a sense of her interests.

BM: When you read Daisy’s letter and diary, you see what Roosevelt shared with her as someone who he could trust completely to be supportive. There were moments when his job had to be the loneliest in the world.

Top Cottage was built with his post-politics life in mind. But that never got to happen; it was two terms [as president], then three, then a fourth. He died on the world stage, with America a different country in 1945 than it was in 1933. I envy his kind of courage.