In "Hyde Park on Hudson," President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) hosts King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) at his Hyde Park estate in June 1939. The story of the eventful trip, when the king asked Roosevelt for support during the impending war with Germany, is told through the eyes of Roosevelt's distant cousin and Rhinebeck resident, Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (Laura Linney), whose secret relationship with Roosevelt didn't come to light until she died at age 99 in 1991.
"Hyde Park" screenwriter Richard Nelson came up with the idea for the drama after reading Suckley's diaries and letters, which were found under her bed posthumously and published in the 1995 book, "Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley." While discussing his inspiration for the screenplay, he said he was particularly intrigued by Suckley's recollections of the king's visit to Springwood, Roosevelt's birthplace and family estate in Dutchess County.
"[The letters] caught my eye because ... it was such an interesting point of view of this extraordinarily significant event: The first time a reigning monarch had ever been to the Western Hemisphere. You see the storm clouds of [World War II] and see all of these extraordinary world events happening, but as seen through the eyes of Daisy. I found that very, very interesting."
Nelson envisioned the story for the big screen and brought the project to director Roger Michell, best known for directing "Notting Hill." He wasn't immediately available, so "Hyde Park" was first produced as a BBC radio play in 2009 before being developed into a movie, which will open in theaters on Friday. Here is the story of that development, from inception to completion.
A screenwriter's connection
Like Murray, who lives in Rockland County, Nelson, 62, calls the Hudson Valley home. A renowned playwright who's lived in Rhinebeck for 30 years, Nelson said he has written most of his work while residing in the Dutchess County village, including a series of plays about a Rhinebeck-based family set in a house "just around the corner from my home."
A major reason he was drawn to Suckley's story, and felt compelled to make a film from her point of view, was their shared connection as Rhinebeck residents. Nelson, who saw Suckley at her Wilderstein estate a few years before she died without knowing her place in history, isn't sure what she would have thought of having her relationship with Roosevelt immortalized on screen.
"Oh wow, I don't know that," he said, "because you know why? She was so in the background."
Suckley took the only two known photographs of Roosevelt in a wheelchair, she was the first employee of the Roosevelt Presidential Library and was with Roosevelt when he died, but "until the letters came out, biographers ignored her," Nelson said. "She must have had a personality to stay in the background, and really that's what she liked."
"But on the other hand, she didn't destroy her diaries or these letters," Nelson continued.
Hyde Park on Hudson ... and Britain
In addition to extensively studying Suckley's diaries and letters, Nelson's research entailed multiple trips to Hyde Park to visit Springwood, Roosevelt's private cabin at Top Cottage, and Eleanor Roosevelt's nearby home, Val-Kill. Highlights of these sojourns include getting lost in the woods with Michell en route to Top Cottage and touring Roosevelt's home with Bill Murray.
"With Bill, you get into places you can't get into anywhere else. We were allowed into Roosevelt's closet, looking at the clothes," Nelson said, adding that Murray felt the visits were important in helping him to create his character. "He said many times that it was a very important visit and a very exciting visit."
Nelson's research also included trips to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, where he learned something significant.
"I never knew that the village of Hyde Park was called Hyde Park on Hudson. It was in going through the RSVPs to the picnic [held during the king's visit and depicted in the film] I noticed that a number of people had as their address 'Hyde Park on Hudson.' So the title came from that."
Ironically, despite the film's title, the Hudson River is never seen in the movie, as it was filmed at a private mansion just outside of London. Nelson cited the production's inability to film at the Roosevelt home as a major reason for bringing the project overseas, but noted that the English landscape closely resembles the Hudson Valley region.
"I certainly do think it captures the feeling of this area very, very well," Nelson said of the shooting location. "I've had some people who have seen the film and say 'My god, that wasn't shot in the Hudson Valley?' It feels totally like the Hudson Valley. The only thing missing is the Hudson River."
"They don't have a Hudson River in England, and we couldn't make one," he laughed.
Bill Murray as the perfect FDR
"There's something very warm about Bill. At the same time, there's something very lonely about Bill. And there's something mysterious going on in that head, behind those eyes," said Nelson, who described himself as a longtime Murray fan.
As Roosevelt, Murray depicts a man whose friendly demeanor not only draws the romantic affections of the shy, demure Suckley, but also disarms the nervous king, who is plagued with self-doubt before their meeting. Nelson said the actor has much in common with the historic figure he plays.
"There's something obviously very charming [about Murray]. He's very gracious and makes a room very comfortable. I think all of those things are strong elements that he brought to his portrayal of Roosevelt that also reflected the Roosevelt I was trying to ... convey."
"I think it was a great marriage of script and Bill," Nelson added.