The Laureate tells the story of the remarkable relationship between Graves, Riding and Nicholson until it fell apart when Graves and Riding left England for Mallorca. They discovered Deià together in 1929.
Director and writer William Nunez has assembled a stellar cast.
Tom Hughes, best known for playing Prince Albert in the ITV drama Victoria, is Graves. Dianna Agron, who played Quinn Fabray in Glee is Riding. Laura Haddock, who recently starred in the hit Ibiza-set Netflix series White Lines is Nancy Nicholson, Graves’s wife at the time he met Riding.
Nicholson was to become the third member of the eyebrow-raising ménage à trois with Graves and Riding which is integral to the story of The Laureate.
William has been making commercials and documentaries through his company North End Pictures for the past 20 or so years. He has also been a news director for NBC, Bloomberg and CNN. He is currently working on his next feature, to be set in Spain.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking to him about The Laureate. He was in New York and I was in Hungary, counting down to my return to Mallorca.
Why Graves, William?
He’s always been my favourite writer. I read Martin Seymour-Smith’s bio of him when I was on honeymoon in Mallorca in the early 1990s. I immediately thought the story of Graves and Riding was interesting but didn’t think I was old enough to tackle these themes. I put the story aside, but 15 or so years ago I started thinking about it again and writing.
Has it been a real slog to make the movie?
Obviously, 15 years is a long time, but I’ve also been getting on with my life and making a living. During that time, we’ve been through various producers and financiers. People have fallen in and fallen out. We were about to go in 2018 and a bunch of financing fell out. I rethought the script to cut down the budget, found partners to fill the gap and did it. The film cost just £2 million and people are impressed that it looks so good.
How about the script?
The first script encompassed the entire Graves and Riding relationship all the way through their time in Mallorca until it dissolved in the USA in 1939. It was a 140-page epic.
I realised the script was a bit polemic and the same things happened over and over. Graves was a bit of a doormat for Riding in this version and I thought people weren’t going to like him. I put the project aside.
Around the same time, friends of mine were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD. I noticed they were changing their lives radically – getting divorced and so on. I thought ‘bingo’.
I rewrote the script so it ends just when Graves and Riding are going to Mallorca, starting afresh after he’s finished writing Goodbye to All That. The new script emphasises Graves’s PTSD after World War I and the strain it put on his marriage to Nancy Nicholson, which was the impetus for Riding to come and live with them.
I felt that this would give an audience a more rounded understanding of Graves than would a longwinded story.
What about the cast? How did they connect with the story?
Tom, who plays Graves, is a rock and roller at heart, a big Beatles fan. So I equated the story with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon was married, a great writer and singer, but when he met Yoko something changed in him. Like Riding, Yoko was very controversial. But, like Graves – like all of us – Lennon couldn’t help who he fell for. That’s the crux of the story and Tom connected with it.
I encouraged Dianna to take a more modern approach to Riding. People describe Riding as manipulative, suggest she had mental issues or whatever, but she was living at a time when, no matter how talented she was, she was never going to be given a fair hearing. It was important to me to make her a little more sympathetic than she perhaps was because this is a movie for general audiences, and they have to relate to her character.
Laura Haddock who plays Nicholson is the emotional heart of the movie in many ways. She gives her husband willingly to this kind of threesome yet she’s very progressive in her thinking when it comes to women’s rights, nutrition and so on. That’s a great balancing act. Laura does a phenomenal job in the film.
What about colourful characters like the New Zealand artist Len Lye who was a close friend of Graves and Riding?
At one point he was part of the script but, for budget reasons, we had to cut him out. We were also having difficulties getting the rights to use his work which would have made including him difficult.
I’ve cast T.S. Elliot, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Jonathan Cape, Graves’s publisher.
Alfred Perceval Graves, Graves’s father, is played by Julian Glover. Julian is Grave’s godson. His parents Honor Wyatt and Gordon Glover lived in Deià in the 1930s and were great friends with Graves and Riding.
Julian told me some great stories. The funniest thing was that he told Dianna Agron she was too beautiful to play Riding. I had to say ‘Hey Julian, it’s Hollywood.’
How have you worked with the Graves family?
I’ve worked mainly with Robert’s son William. He’s been a tremendous help. He recognises that a drama is different from a documentary or a book. Ella Graves, the granddaughter of Graves and Nicholson gave the rights to Nancy’s work.
You showed The Laureate at the online version of Cannes recently. What has been the response to the movie so far?
We premiered the poster and a three and half minute sales promo and I’m told they went down very well. But we’re still three to four months away from completing the project, finishing up editing, special effects and things like that. We’re supposed to deliver the finished movie in September.
Are you done with Graves and Riding now? Or are you tempted to tackle some of their time in Mallorca?
I am tempted but I would do it from a different angle so it’s not just a straightforward biographical movie.
Right now, it’s going to be interesting to see how The Laureate is received. By casting Tom, Dianna and Laura, I’m really targeting young people. Dianna has over two million Instagram followers. Laura’s profile is high because of White Lines. If we can get some people in their twenties to check out a book by Graves or Riding or look up Nancy Nicholson online, we’ve won.
Follow the progress of The Laureate here.
Read my blog post on how Graves and Riding came to Mallorca here.
Photos copyright Cool Web Pictures 2020.
Written by David Holzer, a Mallorca-based author, journalist and blogger.