Awards Daily talks to Spencer screenwriter Steven Knight about merging fact with fantasy, the significance of Anne Boleyn and Princess Diana, and the very un-Hollywood process of getting his script to screen.
It’s easy to watch Pablo Larrain’s Spencer and know the context of the story. After all, Princess Diana is one of the most well-known figures of the last 50 years. But Spencer screenwriter Steven Knight wasn’t just thinking about his current audience while writing the script.
“Imagine if someone had been able to write the story of Anne Boleyn within the lifetime of people who knew her,” said Knight, “who could speak to people who knew Anne Boleyn, rather than just getting an odd letter or snippets of information. To actually speak to people who were there, to record this life that we know in 500 years’ time will be one of those people along with Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots—she will be there. To chronicle that with some kind of touching distance of what really happened is a privilege for me.”
Rather than read all of the books about Diana or watch documentaries about her life, Knight took a different approach to drafting the script by speaking to the people who were there with the Princess of Wales on that particular holiday weekend (specifically those who worked there–under the condition of anonymity).
“My theory is always that reality is far more interesting and chaotic and bizarre than anything you can invent. I used specific things that happened as stepping stones and then moved in between them.”
Some of the facts Knight knew he wanted to land on included the weighing machine (“The idea that someone with Diana’s condition [bulimia] would be weighed upon arrival and departure is such a gift to telling the story”) and her childhood home being boarded up on the other side of the barbed wire fence.
“She spent a lot of time hiding from other members of the family and spent time with staff, because that’s who she felt most comfortable with, particularly late at night in the kitchen. All of these things came together to offer a true framework where one can then imagine how it felt to be her. She was observed from the moment she met Prince Charles, but I wanted this to be her observation, through her eyes looking out.”
Knight’s conversations with the staff provided an avalanche of useful facts, but he refrained from using all of it.
“Some of the absurdities of the rituals, I didn’t want to make it a thing about how odd the family is, because I believe every family, all of us including myself, is bizarre and has strange rituals and behaves oddly.”
Anne Boleyn, Pearl Soup, and Maggie
Knight has always had a great interest in certain figures within the royal family, which is why he wrote Diana (Kristen Stewart) having an imaginary conversation with Anne Boleyn in the script. But he didn’t count on the real-life association between the two women.
“In the research process, I found out that Diana was related to the Boleyn family. There was a direct connection. I thought for Diana to experience a meeting with Anne Boleyn would be so interesting, and that’s when I came up with the idea that she would see the ghost.”
The Anne Boleyn scene marks the culmination of Diana’s fantastical observations, with the “eating of the pearl necklace” another memorable imagined sequence.
“With the pearl necklace, I think Diana was required in her new role as wife of Charles to absorb and take in things, to accept things, to accept the tradition and wearing the clothes she’s supposed to wear. To accept the routine, and she never could. She would reject them, and that symbolized it. Chewing on the pearls is an absolute image of that. I like the idea of the white pearls going into the green soup.”
Another fantastical element that Knight included in the script is Diana’s relationship with Maggie (Sally Hawkins), a staff member to the royal family. While Maggie was a composite of real people, to Knight, she represented one of the biggest mysteries about Diana.
“For me, the effect that Diana had on large numbers of people around the world, especially in the UK, was quite unfathomable. Why did she have such an effect on so many people? And I wanted to distill that into just one moment where someone says, ‘I love you.’ And [Diana’s] so shocked by it. It’s not what she is expecting. And I thought that represented something I could never figure out.”
From Script to Screen
Remarkably, the script that Larrain shot was pretty much a first draft from Knight, with very few changes—a writer’s dream.
“It was a very un-Hollywood process. It didn’t go through all those changes, the endless calls and studio notes and all of that stuff. It was a very direct thing between myself and Pablo. I wrote it, he liked it, couple of suggestions, and then he went and shot it, but the thing is he shot what was on the page. And Pablo says this himself, so it’s not me. If only every filmmaking process were like this, I’d be very happy.”
Between projects like Peaky Blinders, See on Apple TV+, and even 2020’s Locked Down, Knight hopes that his collective writing work doesn’t have a lot in common, something he consciously aims for. If he does one thing, he tries to make his next script as different as possible.
“Partly to keep myself interested, but also just because, why not? Do as many different things as one can. If there is a common theme, what I try to do is invite the chaos and oddness of reality into the fiction. I try not to make it too organized as a work of fiction so that things happen that happen in real life, and I hope people recognize the bizarreness of reality in things that happen in scripts that I write.”
Spencer has a Golden Globe nomination (Actress – Drama) and two Critics’ Choice nominations (Best Actress, Score).