It’s just about coming up to lunchtime on a grey, wintry day at Holkham Hall, a palatial estate in Norfolk, England. As Kiwi director Toa Fraser calls cut and asks his crew to set up another shot, Peter O’Toole strolls past RT in what would be complete Edwardian period costume were it not for a pair of comfy-looking Ugg boots on his feet, and then disappears into a plastic hut only marginally bigger than himself. It’s quite the most anachronistic sight one can describe, but when you consider that the practitioner of this odd art is Peter O’Toole everything seems to make perfect sense.
Welcome to the set of Dean Spanley, a quirky period comedy based on a book by Lord Dunsany. O’Toole is the father to Jeremy Northam‘s narrator who stumbles upon the titular Dean – played by Sam Neill – as the trio attend a lecture on the transmigration of souls given by a swami, Art Malik. Intrigued that a man of God would entertain the notion that a soul can jump from being to being, the narrator attempts to strike up a friendship with the Dean, discovering that lubricating him with his favourite drink provokes unusual conversation. When the Dean sips an Imperial Tokay wine he starts channelling memories from his former life as a dog…
“Surreal” barely covers it, and that synopsis reveals little about the themes of the book, adapted for the screen by Rob Roy scribe Alan Sharp. O’Toole’s curmudgeonly father and his relationship with his son is the true heart of the story, brought to life by the sheer force of personality the 75 year-old actor injects. Indeed, as O’Toole returns for the next set-up opposite Neill, he ad-libs at the end of the line and forces his co-star to burst into laughter. As they go for the next take, O’Toole delivers the line as written, but Neill is gone again.
Catching up with RT after the shot, Neill explains the hazards of working with someone as notoriously devilish as O’Toole. “You just have to see a twinkle in the corner of his eye and you crease up,” he laughs, “He’s a very funny guy. Such a naughty and adept man; he’s extraordinary.”
For director Toa Fraser that personality, present in the entire cast, is what will make the film both funny and heartfelt. “It’s an emotionally compelling movie at its heart,” he explains, “but it’s been fun to play with these comedic elements and the period and the fantasy. And it’s really a performance-driven film so we were incredibly lucky to get the cast we’ve got.”
Inviting RT into his plastic hut, which we soon learn is warmed by several electric heaters to keep him toasty in the chilly hall, O’Toole explains the themes of the story. “Dunsany took the whole notion of the transmigration of souls, which is the foundation of belief for billions of people, and made it into a comical whimsy about a father and son who are separated by the inability of the father to accept the tragic loss of his other son and his wife. He’s treating his surviving son with indifference.”
For O’Toole, the film’s use of comedy to explore the relationship between a father and son was part of the attraction. “All of us have had these difficult familial relationships,” he told RT, “and I think it’s a film for all of us who understand the relationship between a father and son. It’s been interesting watching how various members of the crew have been looking at the monitors during scenes, because they come up to me and say, ‘I had the same thing with my father.'”
“For me it’s a story about what it takes to bring a family together,” explains Fraser, “and that was what my last film was about too. The connection between Peter O’Toole’s character and Jeremy Northam’s character is fascinating to me, because they start with this real icy relationship and they learn to break through that through their relationship with this guy Dean Spanley.”
Sam Neill agrees. “I think that’s the bit that we understand most profoundly; the ties that bind,” he says, “But I have to say I’m at a loss at this point as to whether this film is about something much more profound and beyond my understanding or whether it’s just completely hilarious tosh! I don’t know, I haven’t a clue!”
We’re sure we’ll have a better idea of that when Dean Spanley opens in cinemas later this year.