Director Will Sharpe tells us about making The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy.
In 2014, with a hat tip to the famous Black List of the best unmade screenplays in Hollywood, a similar list of scripts from Britain was put together. One of the pieces of work on it was a screenplay by Simon Stephenson, that told the life story of 19th century British illustrator Louis Wain.
If you’re not familiar with the work of Wain, his illustrations more and more involved increasingly odd and psychedelic cats. Whilst I confess I was new to him as I approached the film, reading around his life it became clear why there was appetite for bringing his story to the screen.
Still, an appearance on a hot list of scripts is no guarantee of getting a production the greenlight, and true to form, it took some time for The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain to gain traction. In fact, it’d be some five years later before it was formally announced in 2019, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy taking on the lead roles, with Andrea Riseborough and Toby Jones amongst the support.
Where there’s a Will
But a crucial turning point for the project had come just a little earlier, when a filmmaker by the name of Will Sharpe entered the picture. Sharpe is a man of several talents, across acting, writing and directing. And whilst you may have spotted him on screen in the likes of W1A, Sherlock and–yes!–the BBC’s Casualty, it was the Channel 4 series Flowers, that he created, wrote and directed–which firmly put him on the map.
As that show came to an end in 2018, so Louis Wain was to enter his life. With an existing script in place, Sharpe was keen to direct, but also keen to have a conversation with the man who got it to that point. “I have my process”, he tells me, but said of Simon Stephenson that “we had a conversation early on when I came into the project. We were on the same page of the story that we wanted to tell–the love story at the heart of this–but I did my pass [of the script]”. Stephenson has story credit, and is listed first on the screenplay credits too, to be clear.
Back to Sharpe. He did this knowing he was to direct the film arguing that “the directing process is quite closely tied to the writing process. They’re working together to try and take you into the world of the film”.
But what was it about the subject at the heart of the film that got him interested? “The thing for me that really sucked me into this project was reading about the life that Louis Wain led, and how remarkable it was”, Sharpe explains.“I was familiar with his pictures, I thought, but I didn’t know him by name. And I certainly didn’t know anything about his life. I just thought he was an incredibly inspiring figure. I kind of thought he led I guess a heroic life, and at a certain point I sort of fell in love with him,and wanted to share that story with a wider audience”.
What’s notable about the film he thus made is just how stylised it is.There’s a far more traditional biopic–the kind that cinema eats up–that was waiting to be made here. But Sharpe and his team went for detail, and it paid off.
“We start off with the heads of department, the director of photography Erik Wilson, the production designer Suzie Davies, Michael O’Connor in costume and Vickie Lang in make-up. And we try and get a sense of the world that we’re trying to build” he explains of how they prepared for the project. I should note too that Sharpe actively named his collaborators on the film. A small but welcome touch.
Going back to that look, though, “the biggest influence on the world of the movie was Louis Wain himself. We would look at his pictures, and notice how he seems somebody really delighted in the use of colour and patterns. We thought it was really interesting how, as a child, he grew up with both of his parents working in textiles. They were sort of fabric designers, so he was surrounded by colours and styles. And then that seems to sort of bleed into his work as an older man, so we came to use Wain’s world as a shorthand for that space!”.
Cats too played their part, and there’s no shortage of feline presence onscreen (real ones, not CG ones). As Sharpe notes, Wain’s pictures weren’t shy of having cats doing very human things, and the spirit of his offbeat work runs through the movie.
Still, whilst no budget figure has been published, this is still a modest production that juggled its resources well. “Whatever the scale of the production, you’re always trying to make the most of the means that you have. What comes with that is a certain amount of problem solving, as you adapt your plan to the reality in front of you. I felt like I was really lucky to be working with producers and heads of departments who were very good at finding ways of achieving something that felt sort of overly ambitious for out means”.
For instance, whilst the film–that was shot just before the first lockdown of 2020–takes us to New York, the production was UK-centric. Sharpe explains that for the US scenes in question, “we did a recce of the go to locations in the UK, certainly around London, and we found ourselves at Alexandra Palace”.
They were there to recce for a different part of the film, but as they explored, they found a space towards the back that they realised could double for period New York in its meatpacking district.It was duly used,and you’d be hard-pushed to notice in the film it was shot thousands of miles away from the States.
Going back to where Sharpe entered the project, he takes me right back again to the screenplay he was first given. “The first thing alongside Simon’s script that fascinated me is that at first glance, [Wain’s] cat pictures are very innocent and playful. But often there’d be a little detail or something scribbled in the description that betrays an underlying fragility and an underlying vulnerability. So I felt Louis Wain himself was creating really delightful pictures that were bringing light to many people around the UK. But I was curious where it was coming from and how he was able to do that, while going through very difficult times”.
Which brings us to another thread that runs through the film: that of mental health. Sharpe has tackled it before with the aforementioned Flowers, a show that across its three series explored some dark corners, whilst finding light too. Considering too where The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain takes us, it’s a surprisingly upbeat film. “I’ve experienced mental illness myself. But that doesn’t mind I can’t also find certain aspects of life funny”, he tells me.
“The primary influence was what we perceived to be Louis Wain’s own tone. He was diagnosed in his own lifetime, a diagnosis that’s since been questioned: some people think that he had a kind of Asperger’s or bipolar disorder. We felt it was important not to retro diagnose posthumously, to not get too clinical or medical about it. Instead, to look at the events of his life, the writing that was available to us in his journal and letters to other people, look at his art obviously. And you know, he’s probably most famous for his kaleidoscopic cats”.
You’re certainly not shortchanged on those in the film.
“I definitely wanted to try and get under his skin, and tell the story as effectively as possible”, Sharpe continues. “I guess to try to understand the world as best I could from his point of view. To find ways to let the audience get a sense of his mind, a sense of how it felt to be him in certain situations”.
The film arrived in cinemas at the start of January, with Studiocanal pushing for a theatrical bow for the movie at a time when others were abandoning release slots. It’s been muscled out a little by another Cumberbatch-headlined movie – The Power Of The Dog – yet The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, framed in 4:3 in part to make the most of its cats (true story) is now getting a second chance with its upcoming home release.
It absolutely deserves it. The film is available on digital video on demand services now, with a DVD and Blu-ray release on March 21st. You can find out more, and order a copy, here.
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