In 2010, Just after Ralph Fiennes finished making his directorial debut Coriolanus, in which he had also starred, Gabrielle Tana, his producer on that film, approached him with a new directing project.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN was being developed by Stewart Mackinnon of the UK's Headline Pictures, who owned the film rights to Claire Tomalin's acclaimed 1990 biography of the same name. Her book was about the young actress, Ellen Ternan, who had had a long, secret love affair with Charles Dickens and then reinvents herself after his death.

Mackinnon was developing the project with Christine Langan, the head of BBC Films, and the gifted screenwriter Abi Morgan, whose credits include Shame, The Iron Lady, and BBC TV series The Hour. Langan brought on board Tana as lead producer and Fiennes subseque (CONT.)

Langan brought on board Tana as lead producer and Fiennes subsequently joined as director.

"I felt moved by this woman and her secret past," says Fiennes of what made the project compelling to him. "I wanted to make a film about how Ellen Ternan became the mistress of Charles Dickens. I also think the film is about a woman holding a past relationship inside her, which has marked her forever, and of which she is unable to speak."

He immediately began working on the script with Morgan and the project gained momentum "It took about nine months to all come together while we were working on the script, casting, putting together our ideal crew," says Tana, who first worked with Fiennes on Saul Dibb's sumptuous 2008 period drama The Duchess. "I was busy raising the money at the same time."

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a co-production between Headline Pictures and Tana's Magnolia Mae Films, with development and production funding from BBC Films and the BFI Film Fund, as well as private US financing. London-based WestEnd Films co-financed the project and is handling worldwide sales.

Until she met Fiennes, Morgan had been grappling with different versions of the screenplay, including the introduction of several fictitious elements. Fiennes suggested pulling it back to what Tomalin had unearthed in her book.

Although he doesn't write himself, Fiennes brought an interesting extra dimension to the collaboration with Morgan. "It's very exciting when you work with an actor-director because he could literally get up, be very physical and move around the room to illustrate his point," says Morgan. "It's an incredible privilege to work with someone who is not only a great director but one of the country's leading actors and to see his process. That really informed the writing process. Most directors aren't very good at saying the lines. He was very good at visualising and understanding how a scene would play. He would be brilliant at stripping back material as he would know how little an actor actually needs."

Fiennes and Morgan talked often with, and sought advice from, Claire Tomalin. Through her biography it was Tomalin who had been the first person to breathe life into the figure of Ellen "Nelly" Ternan.

"It is an amazing story. It is the story of this young woman who was taken up by Dickens," Tomalin enthuses. "But still more fascinating was my discovery that when Dickens died, she reinvented herself. She turned herself into a lady and she presented herself as 10 years younger. How extraordinary to be able to carry that off. What interested me is that she seemed to represent a whole lot of women in the 19th century who were hidden, who had these hidden lives. And that's why I called it The Invisible Woman. Because Dickens had taught her how to deceive, Nelly rose up and wouldn't accept she was going to be hidden forever, and recreated herself.

Tomalin was hugely supportive of the project but removed herself from the actual screenwriting. "Abi said to me, 'do you want to come and work with me?' and I said, 'No no no, you're the screenwriter, I just wrote the book'," Tomalin explains. "I have made many comments on the script and they have listened to me but I wouldn't dream of trying to impose my ideas or my will."

Morgan decided to structure the screenplay around a series of "small tragedies and moments of catalyst" depicted in Tomalin's book, which, for her, defined the affair. The two most significant were Tomalin's discovery that Dickens and Nelly had conceived a child together and the effect this had on them as a couple, and the derailment of the train in which they were travelling at Staplehurst in Kent in 1865. Nelly was badly hurt and Dickens subsequently went to great lengths to make it seem as if he was travelling alone. The trauma of this was something that Abi would build on.

"It was very important to love the book and adore the book but also to clearly say we are going to tell one story, the arc of their love story," Morgan explains. "And we counterpointed that with a present-day narrative of the moment she reveals her secret."

Last modified 15 December 2013