Tony Phelan, Joan Rater and Susanna Fogel on A Small Light: ‘We wanted to show an ordinary person stepping up’

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Writers Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, and director Susanna Fogel, discuss their Disney+ drama A Small Light, telling Miep Gies and Anne Frank's story, and more

A Small Light tells the true story of Miep Gies, a young woman who worked for Otto Frank in Amsterdam – and later went on to help him and his family hide from the Nazis for two years. The series, which arrives on Disney+ this May, dramatises Miep and Otto’s first meeting, charts the time the Frank family spent hidden in the annex, and depicts Miep preserving Anne Frank’s diary before later giving it to Otto. 

Writers Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, as well as director Susanna Fogel, recently joined NationalWorld’s Alex Moreland to discuss their work on A Small Light. They revealed what first prompted their interest in Miep Gies, as well as why they wanted to try and tell her story and what they hope audiences take from the series.

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They also went on to explain how A Small Light sits within the wider genre of WWII-set historical drama, discussing how and why they wanted to make the series distinct from what they described as the ‘canon’ of Holocaust stories, both in terms of the perspective of their characters and the way they presented the rise of Nazism visually. 

What was your starting point for A Small Light, where did work begin on that for you all? When did you first encounter Miep’s story, and why did you want to tell it? 

Tony Phelan: Joan and I, about seven years ago, took our kids to the Anne Frank House, and we've long been interested in Miep just as a fascinating character. We read about how young she was when she first started working for Otto, and also that she said “yes, I will help you” so quickly, and never backed up from that. She kept saying yes, throughout this long two-year period. Once we began to dig into her, we discovered that she was hiding other people at the same time as she was hiding the Franks, and that she was the person who discovered the diary and preserved it for Anne for when she came back – and then when she didn't come back, gave it to Otto. 

Joan Rater: You know, she's his employee, and suddenly he needs her to do something that risks her life – and she says yes. We began to think, what would that be like? What would I do? I imagine it would be terrifying, and sometimes hard. Sometimes you would wonder, how do I do this? Do I want to keep doing this? We wanted to show, you know, she was an extraordinary person – because history happened, and she stepped up – but she was an ordinary person, she could have been anyone. We wanted to show what that looks like, for an ordinary person to step up. The reason I think Anne's diary is so iconic, and beloved, is because she's so honest, and vulnerable, and funny, and angry, all of these emotions. We wanted the same, we wanted to show the same sort of fully baked character for Miep. 

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Liev Schreiber as Otto Frank and Bel Powley as Miep Gies in A Small Light, speaking to one another in the annex (Credit: National Geographic for Disney/Martin Mlaka)Liev Schreiber as Otto Frank and Bel Powley as Miep Gies in A Small Light, speaking to one another in the annex (Credit: National Geographic for Disney/Martin Mlaka)
Liev Schreiber as Otto Frank and Bel Powley as Miep Gies in A Small Light, speaking to one another in the annex (Credit: National Geographic for Disney/Martin Mlaka)

I was curious as well about the literal starting point of the first episode, opening in 1942 before skipping backwards. Could you explain a little about that choice, what you were hoping to achieve there?

TP: I think that people coming to the show, many of them know the story of the Franks going into hiding, and so starting with that day I think was a strong choice – but then to understand that day, we have to go back and see who this woman is and where she came from. The fact is that she wasn't this very serious, dour, heroic person, she was a party girl who was sleeping off her hangover from dancing all night. 

JR: We see the person who was chosen to help Margo get into hiding: you start with some sort of very exciting, iconic moment, and then you go back and begin to get to know Miep.

You’ve recreated 1930s, 1940s Amsterdam. I was curious if you could speak to some of the choices behind the visual style of the series, and in particular how you decided to present Nazi symbols?

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Susanna Fogel: I think we really resisted focusing on that as where our lens was going, just because if you're just a person like me getting up and going through your day and going to work and going shopping and seeing your mom and going on a date with your husband, all of that symbolism is in the backdrop of everything you do when you step out your door. So, the idea is that’s the backdrop. There's one shot where it has her sunglasses, and the reflection in the sunglasses is the swastika flags. It was as she was just walking to work, so we catch it here and there – there are signs, there's vandalism, there are things going on, but I think we wanted to take people by surprise in terms of showing, first and foremost, her story. Then in the background, it becomes almost like a normal part of what she's seeing: she's not stopping and looking at every swastika flag for the entire war after it because everything becomes her new normal to walk past that. So, we want it there, but we didn't want to make it the tableau of every scene, because the tableau of every scene is really just Miep’s experience.

TP: There was also I think a desire, mostly by Susanna to… there are these tropes of how you tell these stories, and visually what you show, and we were actively fighting against that to try and find different ways of flowing the audience into where they were in time and what was happening. [We wanted] to always maintain Miep’s perspective, to never jump back into a big wide shot of thousands of Nazis marching through the streets of Amsterdam. First of all, we couldn't do that [laughs], and then second of all, we've seen that – we know that, we carry that with us.

SF: With stories like this that feel historical, or like something that is part of the canon of stories about the Holocaust, people can become complacent viewers? If they see something that they recognize immediately as this trope, they're like yeah, yeah. They don't actually feel the thing they're supposed to feel, which is horrified – it's more horrific to immerse yourself in the story of a real person, and then watch her see a very specific granular thing that is upsetting to her. That, hopefully, is going to jolt people out of their complacency more than seeing yet another rally on a lower budget than the Spielberg version of rally, you know? They just don't need it, it doesn't have the impact that we want it to have really.

Liev Schreiber as Otto Frank in A Small Light, a yellowing Star of David sewn to his blazer (Credit: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)Liev Schreiber as Otto Frank in A Small Light, a yellowing Star of David sewn to his blazer (Credit: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)
Liev Schreiber as Otto Frank in A Small Light, a yellowing Star of David sewn to his blazer (Credit: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)

That leads a little into what I wanted to ask you next, actually. When you were putting the show together, did you look to any previous stories about Anne Frank, or those set in this era of history more broadly? Is that something you’re aware of, either in terms of things you think have been effective elsewhere, or maybe things you’ve seen or a way of thinking you wanted to move away from?

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JR: This story, Anne’s story, has been told many different times in many different ways, and we all feel like, because of that, if you're going to tell that story or an adjacent story, it should be told in a different way. There should be something new, some reason to do it. This isn't Anne’s story, it's Miep’s story: Anne is a big part of the story, Anne is the reason for the story, but it's what happens on the other side of the bookcase. So, that was a new perspective, something really important to talk about – the people who stepped up and stepped into history to help hide these people and many others in Amsterdam. We were conscious that this fresh perspective would help introduce and reintroduce this story to people who might not know it. It’s a whole new audience, and that was exciting to us.

TP: We also wanted to make sure that we maintained the point of view of the show, which is from Miep’s – and then meet Miep and Jan’s – perspective. So, we never go up to the annex if they're not up there, and in episode seven, when everyone is arrested, we stay with Miep. [Occasionally] we go a little bit with Jan, but we stay with Miep – we don't go upstairs and see what the Nazis are doing or see how the family is reacting to it – because it's important that the audience feel a deep sense of being trapped, and not being able to see what's happening.

Just to wrap it all up, then, is there anything in particular that you hope people take from A Small Light, in terms of their experience watching the show? 

JR: Yeah, we want people to watch it. We want people to be engaged by it. We want to honour these people whose story we're telling, and we think by showing their humanity in, in all of its various forms, we're doing that. Ultimately, these were real people, this really happened, and we all feel it's really important to keep talking about them and telling their stories.

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SF: And we hope that people are inspired to participate a little more in the world around them. Increasingly, there's the option of disengaging from that, or just being kind of like in your devices, living your life, with just whatever you choose to let in – just the idea of engaging and doing something instead of not doing something, doing something a little bit more than what you do otherwise, being a little out of your comfort zone, is something that we want to present as aspirational.

A Small Light begins on Disney+ on Monday 1 May, with two new episodes each week thereafter. You can sign up for Disney+ here, and read more of our TV features here.

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