Keira Knightley and Dominic West in a scene from the movie Colette.
Keira Knightley and Dominic West in a scene from the movie Colette. Supplied

Story of Colette a true labour of love

When Colette hits our screens next week it will mark almost 20 years since director Wash Westmoreland first dreamt of bringing the story of Sidonic-Gabrielle Colette to life.

Based on a screenplay that the English director from Leeds wrote with his partner Richard Glatzner back in 2001, this truly is a labour of love. Glatzner passed away in 2015, and it was his motivation and dedication to bring this story to life that drove Westmoreland to get the movie done.

"All directors are invested in a movie," Westmoreland says from Los Angeles where he is now based.

"The only person who can turn a script into a movie is you. My partner Richard and I wrote this in 2001 and thought this had such a good natural narrative we thought it would make a great film. It then took 17 years to get it on the big screen, with multiple script changes, three title changes and it was a very emotional process but also a rewarding one. I wanted to extend Richard's legacy, and it was a way for me to be close to him."

The story of Colette is something of a French national treasure. Colette was married to a playboy publisher, known only as Willy. With money fast running out, Colette wrote the Claudine books which her husband published, but under his name. The books were a sensation and Collette and her husband became possibly the world's first celebrity couple in Paris in the 1890s.

Keira Knightley in a scene from Colette.
Keira Knightley in a scene from Colette. Supplied

"I absolutely saw them as the first celebrity couple, this idea of taking something private and making it public was what Willy latched on to," Westmoreland says.

"You can see a bit of Malcolm Mclaren (manager of The Sex Pistols) in there ... the idea of taking scandal and making it an object of public fascination, and this idea of reality TV where you take your life and put it out there. Along with Claudine branding, they had so many products - way before Star Wars toys."

Keira Knightley and Dominic West are on screen for most of the movie, and they were two actors who Westmoreland wanted on board, with Knightley in particular attracting critical acclaim for her performance.

"Keira's a brilliant actress and did so much research to bring this character to life, and when you see the whole thing come together you see this character from age 19 to 35, and she grows into her own skin," Westmoreland says.

"It's a tremendous achievement to portray this artist.

Keira Knightley in a scene from Colette.
Keira Knightley in a scene from Colette. Supplied

"Willy is the villain of the piece but if he was just awful all the time you wouldn't understand the dynamic of the marriage, which had so many elements to it. Some were sexual, others exploitative, and Dominic got that, he got how to make Willy charming. If you saw the letters they sent to each other there was so much passion between them. He was a giant, pompous man with an ego to match, but had this glint in his eye, and when he walked into a room the party started. His exploitation of his wife was his epitaph, keeping her name down for his benefit, but to get there you have to understand who he was."

Making a period piece is never easy, but special effects help with the details.

"When you think of the revolution of CGI you think of Spider-Man and Marvel, but it has opened up so much for period pieces," Westmoreland says.

"With CGI we can put stuff on the buildings, smoke out the chimneys and show the river as it looked in 1890. If we didn't use CGI, the entire budget of the movie would be spent recreating that for real.

"I'm off to Paris next month. I'll either get flowers or they will throw tomatoes to me."

Colette opens in cinemas on Thursday.