Thompson not only plays the role of the magical nanny who takes on a brood of unruly kids, she also adapted the script. Thompson won an Oscar for adapting Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" in 1996 and also nabbed acting's top honor for her starring role in the 1992 film "Howard's End," making her the only person to have won Academy Awards for writing and acting. "Nanny McPhee" is definitely Thompson's baby and her affection for this project is readily evident in the way she discusses the film.
Emma Thompson on the Origin of Nanny McPhee: Well, it was an odd genesis because I found a book I read it when I was little but it wasn't one of my favorites. But I found it when I was dusting, actually. I found it on the bookshelf and read it. I look at this strange, dumpy woman on the front with these huge teeth and I was like, 'I think that I remember that book.' I thought that there was something about this that would make a good film because visually that thing of someone changing is interesting and it being completely subliminal, and so you're not sure why. Film is so much to do with perfection and how differently you can feel about someone at the beginning of the film and the end of the film. I thought that something like this would be easy to adapt. In fact it was more difficult because there's not in fact a narrative in the book. I suddenly discovered that I just agreed to write this and there wasn't a story.
I had to make a lot of it up, really, and kill Mrs. Brown who was still alive, and then kill a lot of the children because I couldn't have them. They had groups. My first version of this film had 35 kids in it. Can you imagine? Clearly, as the years went by, they would kind of ground me down. They were like, 'You can't have that. It's too expensive. You can't do it.' I was like, 'Okay. 29.' Then I slowly went down to 17, 13, 11, 9, and I absolutely stopped at 9. I said, 'I'm not going any less than nine. It's not going to make sense and there's not going to be enough kids.'
I was looking specifically at the kids roles because what I find in children's movies, when there are children present, that they're often very generic. My view of children is that they are people with vague but specific personalities and character traits. When I had nine there were two others and they were these sorts of tomboy figures, but I realized I could not chart nine kids in an hour and a half. It just wasn't going to be possible, and thank God. I mean, there is that thing about not working with animals and children I don't think that's true. Although you should never work with donkeys.
Emma Thompson confesses donkeys are not her favorite animals after filming Nanny McPhee. That donkey was supposed to be doing things and it just stood there as if it was injected with a half pound of heroin, explained Thompson before adding, You know that thing that's said at the end of movies where no animal was harmed accidentally or otherwise? I wanted to harm it. I wanted to have at the end of the film, 'Emma Thompson harmed this animal.' I had a real profound desire to hurt it.
Emma Thompson on Letting the Food Fly in Nanny McPhee: Food fights [are] incredibly cathartic. You think that I'm joking but I'm not. You can't imagine what satisfaction can be gotten from throwing a pie into someone's face.
Believe it or not, Thompson actually threw the pie that hits Angela Lansbury in the face in the film. I did. I actually became very adept at throwing pies. The boy, the best boy, didn't want to do it because it was too much of a responsibility. They thought that they'll hurt her and be fired and that'd be horrible. So I said, 'Okay.' I talked to him and I said, 'You can hit me. You can do what you want to me. I'll do it.'
I practiced with a lot of pies against a board and it was all going very well. I was kneeling down in front of her behind the camera and I lifted up my hand with the pie and I suddenly thought in my head, 'I can't do this. I'm going to miss.' So I handed over responsibility over to the pie. It was like Luke Skywalker with that thing where he got a hold of the Death Star. I just said, 'You have to make a pie that will go to the face. Use the force. Let the pie leave my hand and hit Angela's face.' And wham! Right there. One take. It's the most wonderful day in my life, apart from giving birth. I'm not kidding.