Interview: Helena Bonham Carter On Geniuses, Bugs, 3D Filming and ‘THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET’

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"The Selected Works of T.S.Spivet" Day 41 Photo: Jan Thijs 2012Preston Barta // Features Editor

There is a sensitivity and whimsicalness that Helena Bonham Carter inhabits in bringing her latest film, THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET, from novelist Reif Larsen’s pages to the screen. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (AMÉLIE) and also starring Kyle Catlett (THE FOLLOWING, TV series), the film marks one of the most visual and endearing films of the year. It’s also a smartly constructed and emotionally riveting adventure-drama that is equal parts charming and thoroughly entertaining.

THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET tells the story of a 10-year-old prodigy named T.S. Spivet (Catlett) who lives in Montana with his mother (Bonham Carter), father (Callum Keith Rennie), and two siblings (Niamh Wilson and Jakob Davies). T.S. is quite the inventor and extraordinaire, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. takes notice. They award him the Beard Award, not realizing he’s a child.

Bonham Carter, who is continuing her streak of striking films, such as CINDERELLA (2015), HARRY POTTER films (5-7, pt. 1 & 2), and the Academy Award-winning THE KING’S SPEECH, has capitalized in a big way here. Approaching her character with the strength that made her fascinating to watch and known, she excels as T.S.’ mother and beetle enthusiast Dr. Claire. She layers her character with affection, grief and mystery, leaving you with material to cherish and take home with you.

Fresh Fiction had the pleasure of speaking with Bonham Carter about her film, the people she considers geniuses, what she inherited from her parents, and the bugs she learned about.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Helena Bonham Carter during the making of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Photo courtesy of Sportsphoto/Allstar.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Helena Bonham Carter during the making of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Photo courtesy of Sportsphoto/Allstar.

First off, I really enjoyed the film. And I personally loved while this family was damaged by tragedy they still remained fascinating and quirky. It left you with a hopeful feeling.

Helena Bonham Carter: “Aw, that’s nice of you. Did you see the film in 3D or 2D?”

I saw it 2D. I wish I could have seen it in 3D, though, given Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s visuals.

Bonham Carter: “Oh, that’s a shame. The 3D was partly of the reason why I decided to do the film. I mean, I adore and have always just been a huge fan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet anyway, because I love his imagination, the way he sees things and his whole aesthetic. But I’ve also never seen anyone use 3D like this to get inside someone’s head and imagination. It’s really magical and poetic in 3D. I think it’s opening up in the United States somewhere in 3D.”

Yeah. It’s only opening in 2D here.

Bonham Carter: “At least the story remains intact and being shared. It’s an adorable film.”

I agree. I’ve always enjoyed films of youth and coming-of-age stories. Are you like that as well? Do you resonate with stories like this, and this one in particular?

Bonham Carter: “Yeah! Absolutely. I love movies where people see the world from a different angle. T.S.’s courage, running away, how he responds to tragedy, just the way he sees things is enchanting and interesting. I love anybody who’s curious. The kid who plays T.S., Kyle, is incredibly curious. He’s tiny, too. He’s a ridiculous small package of a human being [Laughs], but he’s super abundant in his curiosity.”

I feel as though this film shows how kids are greatly influenced by their parents. You could say T.S. inherited his mother’s interests in the unknown. How were you influenced by your own parents?

Bonham Carter: “I don’t totally know. We can never properly see ourselves. I think I inherited a lot from both of them, which is pretty good because my mum– both parents are people that I respected. I think my father, apparently his stubbornness, but I’m quite stoic, which is probably bizarre for an actress to say. I’m not really emotional and my father’s quite stoic, but I have a pretty good blend of both sets of genes [Laughs].

Ultimately, also I’ve always said that my biggest privilege in life without being too stuffy was having them as parents, because they just happened to be great parents, but not all parents are equipped with that talent, so I started off in life with the greatest of privileges.”

That’s true. Have you noticed any signs of your kids following in your footsteps?

Bonham Carter: “No, I hope not [Laughs]. I think they’re pretty grateful to not be. I don’t think so, no. I mean, it’s too early to tell. I think my daughter Nell loves blood, so she might end up being a surgeon or a doctor or something. I think in a way, I became an actress because I became other people, and I never really grew up, but I think these two are probably going to do something much more adult with their life, something much more useful. I’ve no idea really what they’re going to be.”

TSSpivet_01-0-2000-0-1125-crop

L-R: Callum Keith Rennie, Helena Bonham Carter, Jakob Davies, Niamh Wilson and Kyle Catlett. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

So you always knew you wanted to be an actress, when you were T.S.’s age in the film?

Bonham Carter: “I pretty much knew that I wanted to. I don’t think I would have liked to have admitted that because I just thought I wasn’t very equipped. I think it was because I was an introvert and introverts don’t become actors. I probably knew by then, yeah.”

Very cool. I believe that many would consider T.S. to be a genius, but who do you consider to be a genius in your life, whether it be a filmmaker, an actor, or whoever?

Bonham Carter: “I don’t know if I’ve had the luck to meet a genius. It’s interesting what you call a genius. I’m here in Florence, Da Vinci is obviously a genius, Leonardo, and without knowing, I can’t remember. I wouldn’t say I’ve met a genius. I think Tim Burton, the father of my children, has some genius aspect to him, and I think Jean-Pierre is a genius with some of the– I mean, it’s genius the way he sees the world and his imagination. I don’t know, actually. I think a true genius as far as a Leonardo Da Vinci, I’ve never had the luck to meet. Have you?”

Hmm. Well, I’ve interviewed filmmakers who I think are geniuses just because I admire their work.

Bonham Carter: “Really? Which ones?”

Right now, probably Richard Linklater, he’s one of my favorite directors. The sense of realism he brings to his movies is astonishing.

Bonham Carter: “Right, yeah.”

I admire Wes Anderson’s style.

Bonham Carter: “I love Wes Anderson, too! But are they geniuses? It’s difficult to know what the definition of a genius is.

Yeah, I suppose everyone’s definition is different. What’s your definition?

Bonham Carter: “I guess a genius for me is somebody who invents right from the original, it’s of the original and in a way films are created– I don’t know, I’m bullshitting here [Laughs].”

So do you think they have to start out great and continue to make great work, or can they just have certain moments where, you know, they have bad days?

Bonham Carter: “For their whole period [Laughs]. I think Woody Allen is pretty much of a genius, too. I’m thinking of filmmakers every century or two, but I’ve never had the luck to meet them. People who create their absolutely own world and are totally inimitable. But yeah, you’re allowed to have bad days, I think, as a genius.”

TSS Day 20 "The young and Prodigious Spivet" Photo: Jan Thijs

Kyle Catlett as T.S. Spivet, and Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Clair. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Right. I read that Jean-Pierre pretty much gave you a Bible for this film. You got the script, but you also got the storyboards. Did you find that to be any more helpful than previous projects where you just got the script and the conversations that you had with the director?

Bonham Carter: “I was really amazed by that. I’ve never been handed a storyboard of the whole film before, ever. What was good about it? At first I found I a bit daunting, because does that mean there’s going to be a rigidity and no flexibility and does that mean that I’m, it doesn’t matter what, I’m going to be told exactly what to do, it’s going to be, what’s the word, restricting? In fact, it wasn’t. Of course he’s like any other director; he accomplishes it out of his own prowess. If he saw something and said, ‘No, we’re going to change that.’ It was incredibly easy, the filmmaking process with him. It was the least stressful film I’ve ever made, partly because it was in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Canada, and a very small crew but with a huge great lumbering camera, which is a 3D camera.

It was a very intimate film, a very small crew. Half in Montreal and then half in the middle of Alberta, so no, he knew exactly what he wanted. They were very short days, and it was an easy, because film sets can be really chaotic, but it wasn’t at all chaotic, it was very calm. He would be like, ‘You can start whenever you want.’ He didn’t even say action, it was just like, ‘We’ll start, we’ll stop’ [Laughs]. It was great. we had a really good time, a really great understanding.”

Oh, good! I was curious because I didn’t know if there was any more added pressure because of that way, since he’s more precise with his filmmaking.

Bonham Carter: “No, not really. Sometimes you can get a bit anal about about the shot. There will be just one whether you liked it or not, and sometimes there’s more pressure because I have to get it right, I can’t spread it between takes, I just need something. That’s basically what he pays for: to just get on with it [Laughs].”

How funny. We’re about out of time, but I wanted to ask about the character you play, Dr. Clair. Sh is obsessed with morphology of beetles. Has playing this character increased your interest in bugology at all?

Bonham Carter: “I will say, I don’t really like bugs. There was one scene, I think I had to pick up some maggots, and I hadn’t really thought about it until I had to do it, and I thought ‘Jesus, I don’t like this.’ No, but I did learn a bit. I went to see a great bug man. He was extraordinary. He had about eight million bugs in his basement. That’s really the gift of the acting profession: you get all these green cards or passports to meet the most amazing people.

In a way he’s a genius. What I love is his sheer enthusiasm and love for all the varieties and species of different kinds of bugs around the world. He’s been to something like 250 countries collecting bugs. I saw the world. Although, I wouldn’t say it has engendered a life changing. For those two months I was into bugs and then when the film work was over I stopped, but I found it very touching that she was in search of something that didn’t exist, a moth that didn’t exist and that was the expression of her grief.”

THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET opens in limited release tomorrow.
Dallas: Angelika Film Center in Plano

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.