Spencer screenwriter Steven Knight was always curious about Princess Diana. But his curiosity was heightened on the day of her funeral in 1997.
“I mean, like most people, she existed in TV newsreels and footage on the television. I also happen to know some people who knew her, so there was a slight connection, but nothing profound. But I mean, in Kensington and Westland at that time, she was around, she was visible to people, which I think people do sometimes forget. But I suppose the biggest impact was when she died,” Knight told MovieMaker.
“I was in Canada working. I was up early one morning, and I was watching the funeral on TV, and the gates of the palace opened and the funeral cortege came, and I heard and saw British people do something they never normally do,” he said. “They were wailing and sobbing and grieving, openly. And I just thought it was so strange. How did she have this effect on people who would normally — I mean, even when Churchill died, there was none of that. This was a direct, spontaneous, visceral connection. And it just made me wonder.”
Cut to more than twenty years later when he was approached by director Pablo Larraín about making Spencer, the new movie about Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ separation over Christmas weekend in 1991. The movie stars Kristen Stewart as Diana — a role that earned Stewart her first Golden Globe nomination this week.
“Then I met Pablo, and he said, What do you think about doing something about Diana?” Knight said.
To prepare to write the script, Knight didn’t do the traditional research one might expect.
“I didn’t read any of the books and I didn’t watch any of the movies or documentaries,” he said. “Because I think what happens when historians give an account of someone’s life or achievements it always seems as if whatever happened was inevitable. It always seems that everything was leading up to this moment and it was an inexorable march towards that. Whereas, as we all know, everyday life, real life, is sort of chaos, and anything can happen and it’s a bit mad.”
Instead, Knight decided to speak with people who knew Diana — and were present during that particular time in her life.
“What I did is speak to people. I decided quite early on not to do a biopic. It’s just sort of not really achievable. So I wanted to do a snapshot of a short period, and I thought, Christmas is good because it’s Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day — you’re three acts. It’s someone in the company of members of the family that maybe they don’t want to be with. We’ve all been there, we’ve all had that experience, and that would make it relatable,” he said. “But what I really wanted to do was find out about her really properly, not the image. And so to do that I spoke to people who were in the house at the time who worked and served and observed what was going on… Any writer knows that real stuff, real stories, real things that happened, are far more bizarre and bonkers than anything you could ever make up. So what I did is use those sort of real things as stepping stones and then wove the fable in between.”
Spencer is now playing in theaters. Main Image: Kristen Stewart and Sally Hawkins in Spencer. Photo Credit: NEON