Simon Aboud’s This Beautiful Fantastic is a contemporary fairy tale revolving around the unlikely of friendship between a reclusive young woman and a cantankerous widower, set against the backdrop of a beautiful garden in the heart of London. Bella Brown (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a quirky young woman who dreams of writing and illustrating a successful children’s book. When she is forced by her landlord to deal with her neglected garden or face eviction, she meets her nemesis, Alfie Stephenson (Tom Wilkinson), a grumpy, loveless, rich old man who lives next door and happens to be an amazing horticulturalist. I talked to writer/director Simon Aboud about this charming film.
Danny Miller: I really enjoyed this film and would even say I found it a bit “magical” even though I normally am not able to use that description for a movie without vomiting a little! I think this one pulls it off beautifully because you don’t have characters that are too cute or one-dimensional or overly sentimental.
Simon Aboud: (Laughs.) I’m very glad that you found a way to use that word in a positive way!
I really appreciate how you’ve written these characters with flaws and issues that can negatively affect people’s lives but which they’re ultimately able to channel in a positive way. That’s always so interesting to me in movies.
I did a Q&A last week in Paris and someone asked me where I got the idea for Bella’s OCD. While this isn’t the first film I’ve directed, it is the first screenplay I wrote — it just took a long time to get it off the ground — and the OCD characteristic came from me, I have OCD! It’s changed over the years but, you know, it’s a painful thing to have and I love the symbolism in the film of Bella’s experience with nature. What she finds in Alfie is the opposite of what she’s dealing with — his garden is wild, he doesn’t try to control it. I thought that was the perfect contrast to her where everything has to be completely controlled. Since Bella knows she can’t control the outside world, she becomes more and more obsessed about her insular world that she feels she can control. So for me, I wanted to explore the possibility of her embracing the “mess” of the garden.
Bella’s particular OCD must have provided such a dream for your art director and set designers, I was fascinated by every inch of her house, I couldn’t even take in all the delicious details, I want to see the movie again just for that!
We did have a lot of fun with it. One of my favorite ones is the scene when the landlord is coming around and as Bella is walking to the door you can see in the background all of these shopping bags that she’s collected but they’re neatly organized into these extraordinary geometric shapes! I remember when the art department brought that to me, we all started crying with laughter. I think I said, id, “What the fuck is that?” It was such an interesting challenge to design Bella’s house — there’s a huge level of detail in every room!
The costumes, too, were also amazing in what they conveyed about each character.
Ian Fucher was our costume designer and he was amazing and worked very closely with me and the actors to figure out the best approach. Bella had this very distinctive neo-Amish look about her — all of her clothes were handmade. I liked the idea that she’d always be very covered up, everything is there for a reason. Ian really nailed the characters. With Vernon (played by Andrew Scott), we kind of ended up with mid-1990s sportswear meets bad jeans! I can remember Andrew coming up to me at the beginning and saying, “Wait, you’re fucking serious?” and then a few days later he said, “Oh, this is totally perfect!” He knew that Vernon wouldn’t spend that much time thinking about what he’s wearing.
And as odd as Billy’s (Jeremy Irvine) clothes were, I can see a high-end fashion designer running with that look which was like part Parisian municipal employee, part The Little Prince!
Exactly! Jeremy got very involved in what he was wearing. Like with the jackets, he kept asking us to add pockets so we ended up with pockets for everything and they were all full. Sometimes the pockets even had pockets! Billy’s costumes really provided a great journey for Jeremy.
Alfie’s garden was also rich with incredible detail.
Alfie’s garden was a real place that belongs to a great horticulturist called Peter Beardsley. I’m a very keen gardener myself and the moment I saw Peter’s garden I thought, “Oh, this is the one!” And Peter was nice enough to let us really amp it up — we brought in a lot of plants to add to what was there and Peter became our horticultural advisor, he was incredibly helpful and patient with this big film crew that was trampling through his very beautiful garden — we were very lucky to find him.
I know it’s not fair to say, but I thought Jessica Brown Findlay was so great in this part it was the role that finally killed off Lady Sybil (her much beloved character from the TV series Downton Abbey) for me! Until now whenever I saw she was in something, I was thinking, “Oh, Lady Sybil has a new movie!” but Bella finally got Sybil Branson out of my head once and for all!
(Laughs.) I know that she’d be very happy to hear that — and I think you’re absolutely right, she absolutely carries this film beautifully and just created a great character. Even though I wrote the script, I think it’s a very difficult character to inhabit without being too whimsical or fuddy-duddy or whatever. Jessica brought a real fire in her belly to Bella and you could really believe she could look after herself even though she had her issues. That’s why I was very keen for Jessica to do it. When we first met she said “You know, you better watch out, you don’t want her coming off as some damp squid!” I think she’s just fantastic here, and I’ll tell her what you said about finally killing off Lady Sybil!
And needless to say, Tom Wilkinson is one of the best actors ever so what a joy to see him opposite Jessica.
Tommy, so great. He had actually been attached to the film three different times and by the time it got to the point where we were actually going to make it, I was praying that we could get to the starting line with him because he had a lot of other projects going on. But he stuck with us and I’m so grateful. You’ve got to be on you’re A-game with Tom every single day. He’d come over with the script and say, “I need to talk about this scene. “ You’ve got to justify every word on the page and as the writer and director we’d sometimes go back and forth. But you learn so much from people like that. And he was so great with the other actors, too, talking to them if they wanted to, even when he wasn’t involved in the scene. An absolute joy.
And even though he plays a curmudgeon here, it’s incredible how much emotion he’s able to convey.
When we did that scene with him and Jessica when he starts to talk about his late wife and you realize, “Oh, he’s a human after all!” Tom did seven or eight takes of that scene and after every one of them, I’d look around and the entire crew was in tears.