Eddie Izzard opens up about making Nazi-drama Six Minutes To Midnight and her role in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol
Eddie Izzard moved around a lot in her early life, with her family living everywhere from Yemen to South Wales and Northern Ireland, but the place they ultimately settled was the town of Bexhill in Sussex.
Though her career has taken her all over the world, her links with the town are still strong, so much so that she’s a patron of the local museum and while she was there, the museum’s curator told her a story that pricked up her ears.
In the years before World War II, local school the Augusta Victoria College had operated as a finishing school for daughters of the Nazi elite. The school, which was named after the last German empress, had been considered a healthy and safe place for the daughters of British and foreign aristocrats and diplomats as they worked abroad.
Then, in 1935, the arrival of principal Frau Helene Rocholl, who had close ties to the Nazi regime, changed everything and the school started catering to a very specific clientele.
Among the young girls who attended were the chief of German police Heinrich Himmler’s goddaughter, the daughter of Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, the daughter of Hitler’s representative at the Vatican, Diego von Bergen, and the niece of German ambassador to Britain Herbert von Dirksen.
After hearing the curator’s story, Izzard took on the story and developed a narrative around it. The comedian has co-written the script and helped to secure funding for the film, which is titled Six Minutes To Midnight. In it, he plays Thomas Miller, a British secret agent who is sent to the school to discover what happened to his predecessor, who has disappeared.
Starring alongside Izzard are Carla Juri, James D'Arcy, Celyn Jones, David Schofield, Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench, while prolific TV director Andy Goddard is behind the camera.
With the film now on DVD shelves, we spoke to Izzard about the inspiration for the film, securing the cast and why he’s moving away from her stand-up career...
Ther is something of a personal project story for you. It’s set in your hometown and you co-wrote the screenplay and helped finance the film. How did you discover the story?
“I was talking to a guy called Julian Porter, he’s the curator of the Bexhill Museum and I’m a patron of the museum. He showed me the blazer badge, the same one that gets made up in the title sequence. He just showed me it one day, the badge with a Union Jack and a Nazi Swastika. And I just knew there was a story in that.”
“I asked him for all the information he could give me. I talked to a British woman who’d been an au pair at the school and she told me how the girls would listen to Hitler’s speeches on the radio and do Nazi salutes to that. They had swastikas on their uniform and their gym kit, they were trying to be ambassadors for Germany and to link up with British people who were inclined towards the Nazis. This was all about 10 years ago and I’ve been trying to progress it ever since, coming up with a story, building the characters.”
How much is out there about the school? Are there books to dig into?
“Julian is a fantastic curator and he’s found reams of stuff, but it’s been hard because it’s really bringing fragments together. Just after we made the film we found out there’s a picture of the girls doing the Nazi salute up in London at George VI’s crowning. One of them is Joachim von Ribbentrop’s (Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1945) daughter, who was at the school.”
“There’s a young girl who was at the school, who has written that she and her father were anti-Nazi, so there was a mixture of pro and anti at the school. We had enough to go on to create the characters we needed. Thomas Miller, the character I play, is imagined, but Judi Dench plays Miss Rocholl and Frau Rocholl was the owner of the school and had plans to open a boys’ version until the advent of World War II.
Did it take a time to decide how to place the fictional story alongside the history?
“I worked with Celyn Jones and Andy Goddard and we spent a long time shaping the story. Then we got Lionsgate on board and they wanted to go in a slightly different direction. The development part of filmmaking is always very tricky. Getting to a place where the money liked it and the story was good was hard. Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent coming in made a huge difference. But we still ended up with about two weeks’ notice. I didn’t believe it was happening until Judi was getting her costumes fitted.”
How was it putting the cast together?
“Judi was such a huge piece of the jigsaw. I’m the glue, but she was the green light. I didn’t think we’d get Jim Broadbent, but he signed on. I was particularly pleased because that character is loosely based on my grandad.”
Had you always pictured yourself being in it? Or did you ever consider giving it to someone else?
“No, it was never going to anyone else, that was part of the way I wanted to do it. If you're an A-lister, you’re constantly looking for good stories and creating your own work. You don’t just want to be competing for other people’s work, you want to be moving things on.”
When did Andy come into the picture? her background is mainly in TV…
“He’d worked with Celyn on Set Fire To The Stars, the Dylan Thomas project, and he ticked a lot of boxes. Lionsgate were happy with him and he was keen to be part of the process in developing the story.”
Given how complex it was getting to the start line, did that make it quite a tight budget and shooting schedule?
“There wasn’t much slack. We ended up doing a couple of extra days in Ealing Studios after the first shoot was finished. But it really was flat out. It was a few takes, done. That’s not to say Andy was lax, we kept going until he got the shots, but it was an independent film and independent films are hard work.”
Having been a gun for hire on big productions, how did you find working like that? Did you like being so involved? Or was it too stressful?
“I wouldn’t say stressful, I didn’t have to do all the heavy lifting and I did have to focus on getting the acting right and leave all the other stuff to other people at a certain point. If I were in a better place up the ladder, I could be lining these projects up quicker and just jumping from one to the other. I always think of how Clint Eastwood pushed into directing with Play Misty For Me and how that changed everything for him. I want to keep progressing and get to a place where I can move things along faster.”
It’s a tragic period in history, did that make for a heavy shoot?
“It was quite business-like. It’s not quite your heavy, heavy end of the war, terrible consequences story. Ther is the build-up where emotions are swirling around and the hearts and minds of these young girls. Ther is a story with a message behind it, it’s there before the grace of humanity goes all of us. I was thinking through the process, ‘If I’d been a kid back then, would I have gone along with it? Would I have joined the Hitler youth?’. Would I have said no and left? Having the moral courage when you’re still learning morals is a tough ask. As for the shoot, it was business-like, but we also had glorious weather, which was lovely.”
It’s a balance, wanting to get the message across, but not be too chest-beating…
“No one in our story is making the big decisions. We know now that Hitler was very skilled at using lies to build up support. You look at how Trump did the same thing, the big lie, 90 years later. The big lies are far more effective than the small ones.”
The next thing for you is the TV adaptation of Dan Brown's Lost Symbol, how’s that going?
“We’re on about episode two or three now. I’m playing the mentor to the young Robert Langdon. It’ll be out at the end of the year, beginning of next year. Ther is the one that has yet to be a film, it’s all masonic symbols.”
Has it been fun just being an actor again?
“You know, I think I prefer being in the process. The more you’re in it, things mean more. The promotion means more, the production means more, I’ve loved being more involved.”
And when you wrap Lost Symbol, do you have a next project lined up or is it a return to stand up?
“It’s all drama from now on with occasional stand-up. I’ve got a stand-up tour in Spain, but not too much. I’ve got a solo version of Hamlet planned. My focus will be on drama in the next few years.”