Ella Purnell spent a lot of time up in the air whilst filming Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children – and she loved it.
Ella is Emma, one of a group of children who have unique abilities – known as peculiars – who live in an orphanage on a remote island protected by the exotic Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) in Tim Burton’s eagerly awaited blockbuster, based on the best selling novel by Ransom Riggs.
Emma is lighter than air and will float up into the sky if she doesn’t wear heavy, lead boots that keep her planted on the ground. And that meant that Ella had to do lots of stunts suspended on wires.
“Emma wears these massive, heavy boots to keep her weighted on the ground but when she takes them off she starts floating in the air. That’s hilarious! I spent a lot of time being held by a big rope around my waist so I spent a lot of time on wires,” she says.
“I did Maleficent so I’d done quite a bit of flying work before. But it is different. With this it’s a couple of guys yanking the wires up in the air and the first time it was a little bit scary but honestly, I love it.
“The stunt director Rowley (Irlam) said ‘OK, we’re going to go quite high but don’t be scared..’ We were about 40 feet in the air and I was having the best time in my life. It’s really good fun and I felt completely safe because I got to know they stunt team really well and they were brilliant.
“The cast and crew were like a big family and so I completely trusted them. I’d come back down and say ‘that was a bit jerky, shall we do it again?’ They were strong lads and I knew they wouldn’t drop me!”
Asa Butterfield plays Jake, an American teenager who has grown up listening to his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp) tell stories of the strange orphanage in a far away land that he had visited as a youngster – believing them to be tall tales.
But when Abe dies in mysterious circumstances, he decides to try to find the island and when he does, he discovers that Miss Peregrine, and the ‘peculiar’ children really do exist – albeit stuck in a time ‘loop’ to protect them from the outside world. Miss Peregrine has the ability to ‘reset’ time and they live during one day in 1940, just before German bombs fall on the orphanage and destroy it.
“Miss Peregrine can reset the day. At the end of the day she winds up the clock and suddenly it’s the end of the day before and the 24 hour cycle starts again,” explains Ella.
“And that’s before the planes destroy the school. The bombs are crashing down and right before they are about to hit the house Miss Peregrine can pause time and she says ‘this is my loop’ because any further than that and they would all be dead.”
As Jake enters the world of the peculiars he begins to fall for Emma and he discovers his own special power – he can ‘see’ the evil Hollows, who are hunting the children.
“Tim is so good at creating fantastic worlds on screen. But even so I feel like this is quite different to anything that he has done before. I can’t think of another of his films where he’s worked with a lot of children, for instance, and there are so many action scenes.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children also stars Dame Judi Dench as Miss Avocet and Samuel L. Jackson as the evil Barron.
Ella was born in London and her films include Never Let Me Go, Intruders, Kick-Ass 2, Maleficent, Wildlike, Churchill and The Legend of Tarzan.
Q: Tell us who you play?
A: I’m playing Emma and they changed her power from the book, the kind of swapped it with Olive’s power. So Emma now floats and Olive plays with fire. There are a couple of other things that they changed from the book like some of the kids’ ages. And the twins aren’t really in the book. They created characters that were necessary for the film and there’s a part of the film that happens in Blackpool (England) that isn’t in the book. So some things have changed and I think adapting a book for the screen is incredibly challenging and I think Jane (Goldman, screenwriter) has done a wonderful job. I spent a long time working with a movement coach and I decided that she isn’t fierce and fiery but more of a hopeless romantic and I think that makes more sense because of the love story with her and Jake. So I’ve tried to do my best in interpreting the script. So the way I interpret Emma is that she is a hopeless romantic who has failed to age and had her heartbroken by Abe.
Q: Abraham is Jake’s grandfather. Explain how he fits into Emma’s life?
A: Abe is Jake’s grandfather and he had a peculiar power that maybe Jake also has which is to seek out and kill the monsters, known as Hollows, that are hunting the children and he is really the only one that can save them. And with Emma and Jake, it’s teenage love and we have all experienced it. She has been heartbroken and then years and years later just when she thinks she has gotten over it, along comes Jake and she’s right back where she started falling for another one who can save the world.
Q: So you’re playing her as a teenager but she is someone who has lived for a long time. What’s that like?
A: Emma is really 112! (laughs) I think that is something that really fascinated me when I started preparing for the role. Miss Peregrine is essentially like her mother and she’s taken on a lot of Miss Peregrine’s phrases, her tone of voice and yes, she is an old soul – she has an assertiveness and she knows how the world works and she is Miss Peregrine’s most trusted of the children. I think Emma feels she has to step up but then she also has that childish side to her because I guess you do become institutionalised when you have a caregiver and you live in a bubble. And they live in a time loop really. But I think there are two sides to Emma. On the one hand she is comfortable with that and she becomes reliant on the day being exactly the same, the way it is reset every day. And there’s the other part of her that has been in that world for so long that just yearns to escape and live an adventurous life that they have all been denied.
Q: Can you explain how the time loop works?
A: It has taken me so long to figure it out because there are a couple of different loops in the movie so you are trying to figure out ‘are they in the loop or out of the loop?’ (laughs). So the loop is a day that repeats itself endlessly. Miss Peregrine can reset the day. At the end of the day she winds up the clock and suddenly it’s the end of the day before and the 24-hour cycle starts again. And that’s before the planes destroy the school. The bombs are crashing down and right before they are about to hit the house Miss Peregrine can pause time and she says ‘this is my loop’ because any further than that and they would all be dead.
Q: And the children don’t age when they are in the loop?
A: The children don’t age whilst they are in the loop, but if they are out of the loop they will start ageing and time will catch up with them so that’s the big risk – they can’t spend too much time in ‘real time’ because the years would catch up and in three minutes they would age 45 years and no body can deal with that kind of strain.
Q: Is the day that they live within the loop exactly the same or can they do different things?
A: They live on a very small island and they’ve been there for a long, long time and the same thing happens every day so the children have gone around and noted the behaviour of every single animal and every single person on the island and we can tell you every time a human has a meal and every time a sheep eats some grass – everything, because they have seen it so many times. So really the external world is the same and the children have to deal with that. But they are aware that they are living the same day over and over. And that’s the mental strain, it’s kind of ‘oh God, another day…’ It’s very easy to become trapped in that labyrinth.
Q: There are some big action scenes in the movie, especially when the hollows are attacking and for your character, you spend a lot of time floating because that’s her ‘peculiarity.’ Let’s talk about that aspect of the film..
A: I’ve done a lot of stunts because I spend most of my time in the air. Emma wears these massive, heavy boots to keep her weighted on the ground but when she takes them off she starts floating in the air. That’s hilarious! So I spent a lot of time being held by a big rope around my waist so I spent a lot of time on wires. I did Maleficent so I’d done quite a bit of flying work before. But it is different. With this it’s a couple of guys yanking the wires up in the air and the first time it was a little bit scary but honestly, I love it. The stunt director Rowley (Irlam) said ‘OK, we’re going to go quite high but don’t be scared..’ We were about 40 feet in the air and I was having the best time in my life. It’s really good fun and I felt completely safe because I got to know they stunt team really well and they were brilliant. The cast and crew were like a big family and so I completely trusted them. I’d come back down and say ‘that was a bit jerky, shall we do it again?’ They were strong lads and I knew they wouldn’t drop me.
Q: And do you have any fight scenes?
A: Emma is quite restricted because of her heavy lead shoes and she can’t really run. But she can manipulate air in lots of ways and one gust of wind from her mouth is like a bullet that will knock you back and that’s her main form of defence. She can pin someone against the wall like that for about 30 seconds but then of course, she will run out of air. But every great hero has a flaw (laughs).
Q: So what are your boots like to wear?
A: They’re a pain! (laughs). I don’t have to wear them all of the time, fortunately, and I wear my trainers around during the day but when I set on set to start filming it’s time to swap the shoes. The first couple of weeks it was very hard to get used to and I was falling over in them all of the time because the base is so wide. I’d be standing with my feet together and my ankles would be so far apart because the base of the shoes are so big. And if one thing throws you slightly off balance your shoe will tilt and your whole leg goes with it and you are on the floor. So they take a while to get used to and you feel very clumsy when you are wearing them. And you can’t sneak up on anyone, but you are stamping about like Big Foot (laughs).
Q: And the rest of your costume is period 1940?
A: Yes, the costumes are beautiful. They have done a fantastic job. I love 1940s clothes and I think I was born in the wrong era when it comes to fashion. But the costume is long and floaty in a light silk and it sort of fits in with my power and my character being a hopeless romantic. When I’m floating up and down it looks gorgeous – it’s like water because it’s so fluid. It’s really great and I think it will look lovely on screen. Everybody’s costumes are so perfect.
Q: Have you been studying for exams during filming?
A: I actually took them a few weeks ago. It was hard – both myself and Asa were in our last year of A levels. I knew it would happen. I started the year and my Dad said ‘you have to focus on your exams, no more films..’ all of this stuff and I was like ‘yeah, right Dad..’ and nothing really came up, a couple of things here and there and I had only missed three weeks of school and I was thinking ‘I’m doing pretty good with these A levels..’ And then four months before my final exams it was ‘you have a Tim Burton movie, you will have to miss six months of school..’ I knew it was going to happen. But I think I did quite well.
Q: So did you have to leave set to sit an exam?
A: I said ‘I’d love to do the movie but I have to do my exams..’ I didn’t want to go through 18 years of education to throw it away at the end and at the same time I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity like this. It was tough but I think having Asa doing them with me helped because on the days when he was tired I would say ‘come on, do some geography revision’ and on the days I was tired, he would say ‘come on, we’ve only got two weeks before the exams…’ It was good to motivate each other. I think if it was just me, I wouldn’t have tried so hard.
Q; Tell us about working with Tim? What were your favourite Tim Burton films before this one?
A: I don’t have favourite films of directors, I have favourite directors and Tim is most definitely one of my favourite directors along with Tarantino, Spielberg, Scorsese and Burton – that’s my top four. It’s the way he films. I didn’t expect him to be the way he is but then, I don’t think you can really predict what someone like Tim is going to be like on set. He’s an incredibly talented man and I’d love to work with him again. He’s very particular and very visual and even when he’s arranging the creases on the bed sheets you know that he knows exactly what he wants. And I know that when I watch a scene back I will appreciate that attention to detail. It’s all very visual and I guess that comes from his background in animation.
Q: When you read the screenplay and the book, did it strike you as classic Tim Burton material – a group of misfits living outside of society?
A: I was watching Dark Shadows recently and there’s a part where Chloe Moretz turns into a werewolf and you could take that character and put it in this movie and people wouldn’t notice it. Tim is so good at creating fantastic worlds on screen. But even so I feel like this is quite different to anything that he has done before. I can’t think of another of his films where he’s worked with a lot of children, for instance, and there are so many action scenes. It just feels so perfect that Tim is directing it. I’ve admired him my whole life.
Q: So now you’ve finished school will you continue acting?
A: I think so, yes. Ultimately I’d like to end up directing and writing – that’s where my passion lies. The next film I’m doing is called The Journey is the Destination and it’s really inspiring. It’s a beautiful story.
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is now available to own on DVD.