Andy Goddard on Eddie Izzard’s Thomas Miller, who “is like Robert Donat, being a wrong man being chased.”
The tautly wound historical thriller Six Minutes To Midnight stars Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench with Carla Juri (of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 and Frauke Finsterwalder’s Finsterworld), Jim Broadbent, Celyn Jones, Maria Dragus, James D’Arcy, David Schofield, and Tijan Marei. Shot crisply by Chris Seager (Goddard’s Set Fire To The Stars, starring Celyn Jones as Dylan Thomas) with impeccable costumes by Lucinda Wright, Andy Goddard’s second feature film (co-written with Izzard and Jones) is set ominously at a finishing school in an English seaside town during the summer of 1939, where high-ranking German officials had sent their daughters to learn English.
Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard) with Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench) Photo: courtesy of IFC Films
With a nod to Robert Donat’s Richard Hannay in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and an unintended wink to a bus trip in Torn Curtain with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, Six Minutes To Midnight conjures up moments from cinema history. Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform from 1931 may come to mind and when the girls are singing in the staircase, The Sound Of Music is in the air.
The plot is unique and the title elegantly explains itself, while Thomas Miller (Izzard) embarks on his mission. From teacher to spy is only a short step and waking up sleeping giants of old can spill helpful landscape clues. Miss Rocholl (Dench), headmistress of the Augusta-Victoria College, Bexhill-on-Sea, and her aide, the former Olympian swimmer Ilse Keller (Juri) provide lessons to the group of girls from Germany, who are in England to improve themselves through physical exercise and exposure to the language. They sing in English and German, improve their posture by balancing books on their heads, go on a field trip to a nearby castle, swim in the ocean and practice pronunciation and grammar.
Meanwhile, Europe prepares for the war that is only weeks in the future. This very precise moment in time is what gives the film its plaintive quality, the fact that we never know when what we consider quotidian and take for granted will forever become a thing of the past.
Andy Goddard on Ilse Keller (Carla Juri) with Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench): “She’s a character who is under a lot of stress.” Photo: courtesy of IFC Films
From Manchester, Andy Goddard joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Six Minutes To Midnight.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Where are you Andy?
Andy Goddard: I’m in Manchester.
AKT: I’m in New York.
AKT: In Brooklyn.
AG: Hey! I like that side of the bridge. I went there quite a lot and after a while I moved out of Manhattan and I moved to South Brooklyn. I was kind of in Greenpoint.
AKT: How long did you live in New York?
AG: Coming back and forth I was there for six months and then I went back and forth periodically, a month at a time, working on various shows. I was doing a lot of Marvel shows for Netflix for a while. I loved it there. I miss it.
AKT: It’s nice. You should come back as soon as things get better.
Andy Goddard on Eddie Izzard’s character: “Thomas Miller is very much this kind of straight, steadfast hero” Photo: courtesy of IFC Films
AG: When the world starts turning, I’ll be back.
AKT: First of all, I was very happy to see Carla Juri in your film.
AG: Yes (Andy gives two thumbs up)!
AKT: She is a wonderful actress and she gives a terrific performance. I especially liked the scene about the distinction between good and bad, the crocodile and the alligator, the bees and the wasps. Can you talk a bit about how she came onboard?
AG: I’d seen her in a film called Wetlands [directed by David Wnendt] and after that I’d seen her in the Blade Runner  movie. We didn’t want to be too on the nose with this character. When we started writing this character, the first kind of throw down was perhaps a little bit on the nose. I guess Celyn [Jones] and I writing as men, maybe she was a little bit more femme fatale. In retrospect it kind of wasn’t my best work. We kind of had to stand outside it. Let’s think about who this character is and go back to the source material which was the fact that this girl was real.
Andy Goddard: “In terms of Hitchcock, The 39 Steps was probably the biggest reference. Because the story once it gets up and running is a wrong man thriller.”
And then we liked the idea of a character who was more complex, who is more torn, who was more conflicted. Someone who was a young woman who had a real connection to the school and Judi’s character and yet who was growing up under the shadow of the historical events and this kind of tsunami of Nazism. And was being kind of nudged and steered and manoeuvred to make choices against her gut impulse. She’s going along with these choices anyway but then questions the things all along. She’s kind of being torn apart from the inside out.
She’s a character who is under a lot of stress. It was getting back to that thing that Eddie [Izzard] was always saying to me - that fascism was not a German problem, it’s a human problem, you know. The idea is to remind the audience that first and foremost she’s a young woman as the girls are teenage girls. Yes, they are “Nazi school girls” but ultimately they’re just teenage girls.
We thought it would hopefully challenge the audience to make them work a little bit harder if there are moments where Carla’s character is sympathetic. To be guided by the hand of a character who was maybe making some rather suspect choices with Hitler. How far down the road do you go with that character? You see she’s conflicted and didn’t want to do it and you want her not to do it. And only an actress like Carla can pull that off.
AKT: It’s very subtle. There’s a moment when she looks back from the door with so much ambiguity.
AG: I love all of that, yeah. Very Hitchcockian those moments. Her process of working is incredibly organic.
AKT: You just mention Hitchcock - there is a scene with the bus where it doesn’t stop. You stole that from Torn Curtain, didn’t you?
AG: Oh did I? The bus not stopping?
Colonel Smith (David Schofield) with Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard) Photo: courtesy of IFC Films
AKT: So we know it’s a spy bus. That’s exactly what happens with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain.
AG: It’s a long time since I’ve seen Torn Curtain. No, I wasn’t aware of that. Thanks for reminding me, I wasn’t consciously thinking of that. In terms of Hitchcock, The 39 Steps was probably the biggest reference. Because the story once it gets up and running is a wrong man thriller. We had long conversations with Eddie. Eddie is like Robert Donat, being a wrong man being chased. As well as that a lot of British 1930s to Forties thrillers. Things like [John Boulting’s] Brighton Rock.
There’s a propaganda film called Went The Day Well? by a Brazilian filmmaker, Cavalcanti. Then even films like [Peter Weir’s] Dead Poets Society - again the saving the hearts and minds of young people. And [Lionel Jeffries’] The Railway Children is another film that I kept thinking about. Just the idea of innocence, I guess the rural countryside of England. We had this glorious summer when we were shooting. Which was just fantastic, it gave us this beautiful production value layer.
AKT: You mentioned Robert Donat for Eddie being chased. I thought during that scene on the pier when it turns from thriller to the totally absurd, almost slapstick, almost like Danny Kaye in The Court Jester when he is dressing up, losing his pants whatever it is. It’s quite fascinating how you manage to get us to care, have the suspense of a thriller, and then these chase scenes that are so slapstick.
Eddie Izzard as Thomas Miller - “HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?” Photo: courtesy of IFC Films
AG: Maybe we had too much fun. I hope not. I guess it’s getting back to those influences. Those thrillers that we enjoyed, those old movies. I mean 39 Steps has such light and shade to it. And it dips between paranoid neurosis, darkness, and then farcical elements and romantic comedy. And then, of course, it’s Eddie Izzard. Thomas Miller is very much this kind of straight, steadfast hero.
And there’s just something warm and reassuring and nostalgic about the English seaside at that time in our perception of it. I suppose we were trying to scratch the surface of that and have a little fun. It’s the last time we can have fun in the movie, because things get really serious after that. Editorially it’s a challenge to balance those things.
AKT: By the way, a French documentary that just opened New York’s Rendez Vous with French Cinema, it’s called Petite Fille (Little Girl) - it’s a fantastic documentary, if Eddie doesn’t already know about it, by Sébastien Lifshitz.
AG: Sébastien Lifshitz, Petite Fille, Little Girl. I’ll text Eddie about it.
AKT: A word about the costumes [in Six Minutes To Midnight]. I really liked the costume design.
Andy Goddard on costume designer Lucinda Wright and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well?: “So when Lucinda referenced that film she was already saying the right things.”
AG: Yeah, beautiful. We had a costume designer called Lucinda Wright and when I interviewed her, she mentioned the film Went the Day Well?, which not a lot of people know about. I mean cinephiles do. I thought wow. I had that reference in my mood board but I was like _ how do you know that film and we talked about it. It was a film made in the 1930s at Ealing Studios, I think, by Alberto Cavalcanti who was a Brazilian documentary filmmaker. And it’s ostensibly a propaganda film, but it’s got a dark undercurrent to it. It has that mix of cosy little England but with a darker European sensibility to it, which informed some of the things we wanted to do in this film.
So when Lucinda referenced that film she was already saying the right things. Her palette and her eye for colour, it was just fantastic. And especially, we obsessed so much about what the colour of the school blazer should be. When she showed that kind of powder blue, it felt just so so right. I love the shots of the girls when they’re making the mass exodus over the clifftops and all their hats and great coats and the colour palette, it’s fantastic. With the resources that she had, she made a lot out of everything. I think it’s one of the beautiful things about the film, the costumes.
AKT: It also made me happy to see Maria Dragus.
Six Minutes To Midnight poster
AG: No and I was reminded that she’d been in White Ribbon, when she was much younger. All that was after the fact. I just saw her on tape and she was just incredible and I thought, well jeez, we got to go and meet her. And so I did.
AKT: She’s the one when Thomas is asked [by Gretel] what do you fear? And he says “Astrid”!
AG: Yes, and I think that line came in quite late. After we’d been filming and because in that scene he was kind of making Tijan [Marei], who plays Gretel, he was making her laugh, because we were trying to get these reactions from her. And Eddie was saying different things, with his stand up hat on. As he was riffing on it, he talked about “I fear Astrid!” Specifically Astrid, as played by Maria.
AKT: That’s beautiful. I think we got Astrid, we got everything. Thank you so much.
AG: You’re welcome, thank you. This has been really nice questions, thank you.
AKT: Really nice film too. Hope to see you in Brooklyn sometime soon!
AG: Yes, when we’re out of the woods, I come back.
Coming up - Andy Goddard on Eddie Izzard’s hometown memories, the production design by Candida Otton, the cinematography of Chris Seager, a MacGuffin, and the soundtrack for Six Minutes To Midnight.
Six Minutes To Midnight opens in cinemas in the US and on the Internet in the UK on March 26.