Interview: Chanya Button, Director of Vita & Virginia

With only two feature credits, Chanya Button is a director you may not have heard of. Her debut feature was 2015’s Burn Burn Burn, a road-tripping black comedy inspired by Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ and that oft quoted line about people who “…burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles…”

For her second feature as a director, Button has picked another literary heavy-weight as inspiration: Virginia Woolf. A daring celebration of an unconventional bond, and a vivid exploration of gender, sexuality, creativity and passion, Vita & Virginia details the love story of two women, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woold, two writers who smashed through social barriers to find solace in their forbidden connection.

Sam Howlett spoke to Button about her literary inspirations, adapting a play for the screen, and working with the other Waller-Bridge.

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki in  Vita & Virginia

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki in Vita & Virginia

Curzon: How did you get involved in Vita & Virginia?

Chanya Button: Gemma [Arterton] brought the script to me. She has a real passion for supporting emerging filmmakers and other women in the industry, which is really more rare than you would think, she has this significant clout and influence in the industry to back people and projects who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to work or tell those stories, so I’m really grateful that she chose to work with me on this. Gemma was in a play, I believe it was ‘Nell Gwynn’. Eileen Atkins saw Gemma in that play and thought she’d make a wonderful Vita, and Eileen wrote the play ‘Vita & Virginia’ that was on broadway and the west end in the late 80s/early 90s, and had written an early draft of the screenplay . She sent that to Gemma, who sent that to me, and then Eileen very generously passed the baton on to me, and we spent a fascinating summer at her house in Richmond talking about Virginia Woolf and what she had always hoped the film could be.

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki in  Vita & Virginia

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki in Vita & Virginia

She had always wanted it to be a film and her husband Bill Shepherd, who had sadly passed away just before I came onto the project, they always hoped it would be made, so it was an incredibly personal project for a lot of people with roots stretching back decades. It’s an amazing opportunity to tell this story in a profoundly modern way, and I’m glad everybody we were making the film with was open to the bold and contemporary way this story came to life.

Plays made into films can sometimes be criticised for being stagey, how did you get around that for this adaptation?

Button: The word ‘adaptation’ is a very broad one. Doubt is an amazing play and an even more amazing film, which is more or less the play filmed. There was a film made of David Mamet’s play Oleanna soon after it was first written, which is a brilliant film and that’s a very literal adaptation of that play.

Rupert Penry-Jones and Gemma Arterton in  Vita & Virginia

Rupert Penry-Jones and Gemma Arterton in Vita & Virginia

Eileen’s play is wonderful. Vita and Virginia wrote hundreds of letters to each other across the many years of their relationship, and the play is those letters, staged. Our film has many other characters, it’s set over a very specific period of time, and the moments between Vita and Virginia where their friendship turned platonic and professional into something romantic. It’s not a literal adaptation of the play but something inspired by it.

The score uses contemporary electronic music, which is unusual for a period drama. Can you talk about that decision and approach to the music?

Button: We have an amazing electronic soundtrack composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge who was involved in the project from very early on. I met her when i was on my first draft of the script, she was on set, she was in our rehearsals, she was in the cutting room. Isobel and her work and perspective as an artist was woven into the very fabric of the film. With her feet that firmly under the table it felt appropriate to take big and bold choices. Of course, the soundtrack might feel surprising and unexpected, hopefully in a positive way. We didn’t think we were doing anything provocative, it felt very natural for us.

Elizabeth Debicki in  Vita & Virginia

Elizabeth Debicki in Vita & Virginia

This very progressive almost punky soundtrack is reflective of the characters: we didn’t just impose a modern soundtrack for effect, the film is about two revolutionary women who are very progressive and boundary breaking in their life and work, and it makes sense for the soundtrack to reflect that. Isobel is a total genius, and it was amazing to work with her. The actresses are closely mic'd in each scene, so much so that you could hear their hearts beating really loudly during takes, and I sent Izzo those files with the thought that those heartbeats could form the rhythm of the score, it was really fun to do things like that.

The script uses the letters sent between Vita and Virginia, and you chose for the actors to perform them, rather than the usual. Can you talk a little about this?

Button: I’d recommend to anyone to read the letters Vita and Virginia sent to one another. They are full of the most heartbreaking and eloquent expressions of love and friendship and passion and creativity. These were two women who weren't simply lovers: they inspired each other, like an alternative artist and muse relationship. They were incredibly close friends even after their sexual relationship ended, a relationship which is multi-layered and the letters reflect that. They were so expressive and so honest about moments when they were cripplingly jealous, or about the months they spent apart whilst Vita and her husband Harold were in Iran or Berlin. The longing that comes out of these letters and the passion, you’ll think “My God, if only I could articulate myself with such precision as these women.”

Isabella Rossellini in  Vita & Virginia

Isabella Rossellini in Vita & Virginia

In our film I wanted to give the audience an experience that they’d never get from reading them. I highly recommend reading them, but traditionally if you see letters in a film it will be a lovely close-up with beautiful handwriting and a voice over and i couldn’t think of anything more boring to be honest, I always switch off. What we have is a series of scenes where the actresses perform those letters and speak them directly to the camera, and just like the soundtrack that's surprising to the audience who has expectations about a period drama. I wanted to give the audience a feeling of what it might be like to be seduced by these women. I think these scenes are wonderful: raw and really stripped back, and incredibly seductive.

How did Gemma Arterton come to be involved?

Button: It wasn’t like I inherited Gemma as Vita: Gemma came with the project and brought it to me. In the most wonderful way she brought it to me and I never thought of anyone else. Vita Sackville-West is an incredibly complicated figure. She had relations with both men and women, she was very androgynous and would go out dressed like a man if she felt like it. She had a traditionally male attitude to romance and sex, all about the chase and conquest and she kept herself remote from that. That’s something Virginia understood more than anyone else. Gemma was able to understand all the layers of this woman, someone who is incredibly alluring and nourishing and maternal and lovely, but also dangerous and remote and someone who could really hurt you.

Gemma Arterton in  Vita & Virginia

Gemma Arterton in Vita & Virginia

What was it about Elizabeth Debicki that made you approach her for Virginia Woolf, and what were the characteristics of Woolf that you found and then wrote into the screenplay?

Button: Elizabeth is so incredible, I can’t describe what’s so incredible about her. I went to see a play she was in with a friend of mine, who is a younger person. Elizabeth really caught the attention of this friend of mine in the theatre and I thought “You’re who I want to see this film, I want young people, specifically young LGBT people, to watch the film and see themselves reflected in history in a way I didn’t see growing up watching these kinds of films.”

Elizabeth Debicki in  Vita & Virginia

Elizabeth Debicki in Vita & Virginia

With Virignia, from speaking to her living descendants and to academics who studied her, from reading her diaries and letters, from visiting the places where she existed, what I got from her writing was someone who understood emotion in an incredibly precise way and embodied a kind strength and fragility that exists in a lot of women, but we don’t often see on screen. That is why I wanted to bring the character of Virginia Woolf to life in 2019. Incredibly strong but very brittle and vulnerable. But she is deeply strong, and a lot of women identify with that; great empathy but great vulnerability, she’s someone who found strength through her vulnerability.

The crux of the film is when everyone around Virginia thought a romance with Vita would destroy her because she suffered such profound challenges with mental health over the course of her life, and Vita had a reputation for devouring people in that way and everybody thought this would overwhelm her. In the moment when Vita pulled away from Virginia, I think she realised Virignia would never give herself entirely to her because she needed her husband Leonard and needed her life to work in a certain way. But Vita needed that whole dedication so when Vita pulled away, instead of crumbling, Virginia used her profound creative genius to write her way out of it and it’s from that moment she created ‘Orlando’.

Most people can’t relate to being an iconic literary genius, I wish I could, but what most people can relate to is deep, profound, guttural heartbreak. I think it’s really empowering to watch this woman write her way out of Hell and that is what I admire so much about that moment in her life. It became a turning point in her personal and professional life, she revolutionised the way we write about peoples lives. And Vita gave her this experience she had never had before, a sexual and romantic awakening, which is amazing for someone who suffered so much to suddenly feel like her body was on her side for once.

Vita & Virginia

Based on a true story, Vita & Virginia details the passionate relationship between literary trailblazer Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), and enigmatic aristocrat Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton).

When their paths cross, the magnetic Vita decides the beguiling, stubborn and gifted Virginia will be her next conquest, no matter the cost. The ensuing relationship leads to the birth of Woolf's bold, experimental novel ‘Orlando’.

Vita & Virginia plays in our cinemas from Friday 5 July