'It was a little bit scary' - Olivia Colman on starring in Empire of Light shot in a Margate cinema

Natalie Boare speaks to the Empire of Light cast

The cast of Empire of Light have been back in Margate where they spent months shooting the film about the power of human connection during turbulent times.

The movie stars Oscar winning actors Olivia Colman and Colin Firth, who lives in Hampshire and BAFTA Rising Star Award-winner Michael Ward.

Written and directed by Sir Sam Mendes, it's the Berkshire born movie maker's first original screenplay. He says Margate was the perfect location for the film, "The cinema itself is this incredible old art deco palace called Dreamland...and I had conceived the idea with an art deco cinema looking out to sea... so this location brought us here and then I rewrote the script to fit Margate. I came and stayed here for a week and rewrote the draft because I was so excited by it as a location."

The film is set in the 1980s in and around the faded Empire Cinema. Olivia Colman plays Hilary, a cinema manager struggling with her mental health.

When it comes to the screenplay Olivia says, "I actually said yes before I read it... and it was a little bit scary as I knew what it meant to Sam and for anyone who has seen a loved one go through the issues that Hilary has or felt themselves, there's quite a responsibility."

Margate's Dreamland is featured in the film Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Sam says he started writing the script during lockdown, "It's been with me since I was a child, because I was writing a character, that Olivia played, that's based loosely on my mum...

I felt I wanted to tell a story about two outsiders and Hilary suffers from mental health issues and Stephen is an outcast mainly because of the colour of his skin...

I suppose I want people to reflect on how far we've come in the last 40 years - in some areas we've come a long way and in others perhaps not."

Michael Ward plays Stephen, a new employee who faces daily adversity. Michael says, "It's important to make a film like this that touches on racism because ... people are afraid to have these conversations...Sam's directing style... he can communicate very very well which I love."

Michael Ward plays ticket seller Stephen, seen here with Hampshire's Colin Firth Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Sam Mendes said directing a screenplay he had written felt different to previous movies he had directed, "It's much more vulnerable... you're going back into memories and places you're not always comfortable to revisit and so it did feel quite different and it was the first movie post-covid so it felt different and special."

Sam Mendes' childhood friend Toby Jones also has a role in the film. The Oxfordshire actor plays a projectionist. Toby says, "It's the only time in my career when I've been able to get out of bed, walk across the beach to work every morning and so it's been like the ultimate Hollywood experience."

The film has already earned Olivia Colman a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama.

Olivia says, "Anytime anything like that happens it still feels incredibly exciting and you don't want to think about it too much but it's a thrill and an honour and if you are proud of the work you have done it's a really lovely feeling that somebody else likes it to."

The film was written and directed by Berkshire's Sam Mendes Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Pippa Harris, the film's producer says, "Toby, Sam and I grew up together and so in the 80s that was the 3 of us listening to that kind of music and it had a real  poignancy to it and the mental health journey of Olivia Colman's character Hilary to some extent mirrors the mental health struggles Sam's mother faced... so all of that meant you wanted everything to be right."

One of the big scenes in the movies features fireworks and Margate residents were asked to come out and watch and be part of the moment.

Pippa told me, "We wanted the fireworks to be real rather than putting them on afterwards with CGI but that meant setting them off a number of times... so I think the people of Margate had had quite enough of fireworks going off."

Toby says "I arrived in town that night and there was fireworks going off, the streets were full, it was like we were in the middle of a festival."

Toby jones plays a projectionist Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Eddie Kemsley, CEO Dreamland Margate said, "It has been a real joy to work with Sam Mendes and the team behind Empire of Light. Watching them bring the iconic Dreamland seafront buildings back to life has been thrilling and inspiring. We hope that the film will encourage people to come to Margate."

The film is out in cinemas across the UK.

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