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Inside ‘A Small Light’: Modern Twists on a Period Drama

Matthew Belloni with actresses Bel Powley, Billie Boullet, Ashley Brooke, composer Ariel Marx, and costume designer Matthew Simonell. Photo: Scott Kirkland/PictureGroup for National Geographic
The Editors
June 14, 2023

Earlier this week, after a special screening in Los Angeles, Matt Belloni engaged in a sprawling, live conversation with the cast and crew behind National Geographic’s new limited series, A Small Light. The eight-episode show chronicles the true story of Miep Gies, who bravely hid the Frank family from the Nazis during their occupation of Amsterdam.

Of course, Anne Frank’s story is familiar narrative terrain—but A Small Light imbues the tale with surprising suspense, levity, and modern flair. To discuss how the show came together, Matt was joined by actresses Bel Powley (Miep Gies), Billie Boullet (Anne Frank), and Ashley Brooke (Margot Frank), as well as composer Ariel Marx and costume designer Matthew Simonelli. Their conversation, which was part of a partnership between Puck and National Geographic, has been transcribed and lightly edited. 

Matthew Belloni: This is such a powerful show, and it’s filled with a lot of emotion, especially in those final two episodes. But I want to go back to the beginning for you, Bel. What initially drew you to this project?

Bel Powley: So many things. To start, I wanted to work with Susanna [Fogel] for a very long time. I met her a few years before this, and we’d stayed in touch and kind of became friends, so when she offered me the role I knew I really wanted to take it. Also, I’m Jewish, so I feel connected to this part of history. 

But I think that the biggest thing that drew me to this project is that I’ve typically shied away from period pieces, because I often feel very disconnected from them. I don’t know if it’s the corsets or the formal language, but I find it hard to get in there. But within the first 10 pages of the pilot, I was like, Whoa, I feel like I’m there. The script humanized these characters and a story that we know so well. And I liked that Tony [Phelan] and Joan [Rater], our creators, were going for a more modern tone, which is something I hadn’t seen before with a period piece—especially something about this subject.

Matt: There’s an urgency to it!

Bel: It’s told through a day-to-day, human lens…

Matt: That’s what struck me. I’ve been to the Anne Frank House and have seen the annex, but to see it brought to life like that was crazy. Have you ever been?

Bel: No, I actually hadn’t!

Matt: You still haven’t? 

Bel: Oh, I’ve been now. [Laughter.] I read Anne’s diary in school, and I knew about it as pop history. But I hadn’t been to the Anne Frank House, so when I was offered the job, the first thing I did was travel to Amsterdam. I think it’s such an iconic city that operates in a very specific way; it’s built on waterways, and everyone cycles everywhere. Amsterdam is like a character in the show. I wanted to just immerse myself in that place, because we shot in Prague. So I went and visited, and the Anne Frank Foundation was incredibly generous to us. They gave us amazing private tours and loads of the material. It was great.

Photo by Scott Kirkland/PictureGroup for National Geographic

Matthew Belloni, Bel Powley and Billie Boullet.

Matt: How much did you consult with family members and with the foundation? What was that process like?

Billie Boullet: I was quite overwhelmed when I first got the role. I was like, Oh, I’m going to be playing Anne Frank…

Matt: What was that like?

Billie: Stressful! I decided early on that I wouldn’t read Miep’s autobiography, and I also wouldn’t look at any other portrayal of Anne Frank, because I didn’t want to be swayed by anybody else’s perspectives. I didn’t want to be in a scene and think, Oh, this is how this actor would do this, therefore I should do that. I wanted it to be, Anne does this because she’s Anne. So I read the diary as much as I could—I listened to it on audiobook, and even got my mum to read it to me. So I had many different ways of processing it. 

Matt: How about you, Ashley?

Ashley Brooke: For me, it was a completely different process. Anne has her diary, and Miep has her account, but for Margot, what I kept reminding myself is that she had her own diary, but it was never found. So I read all the different perspectives and gathered as much information as I could. 

Also, I was really lucky when I got this project, because I’m the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor and was able to watch her testimonies through the USC Shoah Foundation. Basically, Steven Spielberg produced a bunch of Holocaust testimonies—and when I got this role, my family reminded me that there’s this testimony. I just remember watching it, and her story was so harrowing, and she described all the fear that was going on. But I kept going back to the fact that she kept describing the people that allowed her to survive—and that was what Miep was to the Frank family. 

Matt: Right, and the set was an exact replica of the annex. What were the emotions, Bel, like when you stepped onto that set?

Bel: It was unbelievable. Our production designer, Mark Holmes, is a total genius. It was basically a direct replica—maybe like 10 centimeters bigger in some places, but basically the same. 

Filming in the annex for a day with nine actors is claustrophobic. So it really does bring home how difficult it would be to live there for two years and not go out. 

Matt: Amazing. Ariel, what were the particular challenges of composing music for this kind of a piece?

Ariel Marx: I think Tony and Joan were looking for ways to make the series as relatable and contemporary as possible, so the real challenge was marrying aesthetics with the time—trying to not pull you out of the 1930s and ’40s, but also have it not feel like it’s distancing you 80 years ago. It was influenced by the music of the time, like Benny Goodman, swing jazz, and also Django Reinhardt. But then also contemporary influences, like Tom Waits and Andrew Bird

We really tried to keep the ensemble very small and playful and improvisational—and rough around the edges. Because we felt like a larger, more symphonic and perhaps more traditional score would just be another element to take you out of it. 

Matt: Matthew, the costumes are really extraordinary. [Applause.] One thing that struck me was the family in the annex dressed up. They dressed like they were going out and leading their lives. Was that based on your research?

Matthew Simonelli: For them, getting dressed every day was basically like fighting for their lives, you know? You have your dignity, but you’re also getting dressed because you have your kids here, and you’re creating a path to move forward—to create some sort of semblance of a life, some sort of routine, to act as a foundation to keep going. That’s why everybody’s getting dressed. 

In terms of my research people were getting dressed. I mean, there’s some scenes where Mrs. [Auguste] van Pels is wearing a dressing gown, and we were kind of playing a little bit with the drama that’s unfolding within the annex. That was very much intentional.

Matt: It wasn’t in the episode we saw tonight, but there’s an episode with a very lavish party. And we learned that there are Nazis at the party, and I kept thinking, God, these Nazis look very well-dressed. It was like a story told via their costuming…

Matthew: We’re so familiar with the world of Miep and the annex, so that was a complete departure, basically the other side of the lens about how other people are moving within the world while there are restrictions on fabric, food, and everything else. The rules don’t apply here—there’s fur, silks, yards and yards of fabric. We tried to make it as decadent and extreme as possible to really just push the contrast of these two worlds.

Matt: Bel, you mentioned it before, but Miep wrote a memoir. Did you read it? 

Bel: That was my main source of research. It’s called Anne Frank Remembered, I think it was published in the early ’80s. It was later made into a documentary that won an Oscar, actually. I focused on the book, and read it cover to cover a few times.

Photo: Scott Kirkland/PictureGroup for National Geographic

Bel Powley and Billie Boullet.

Matt: What did you take out of it?

Bel: It’s a firsthand account of the events and of her life. She talks about when she was adopted from Vienna when she was nine, and you get a sense of her cheekiness and her vivaciousness. She talks about how she loved fashion, and how she loved copying outfits worn by fancy mannequins at fancy places. She loved dancing, and she talks about how much she fancied her husband. You know you get a sense of her, and not just in the context of the show, which was so important to me. I can relate to feeling directionless at 20, and falling in love for the first time, and navigating a relationship. 

As much as this story is set against this intense and horrible political and historical backdrop, it’s also about marriage and coming of age and parenting. Those are the things that we can all connect to, and hopefully it will make people feel like, Oh, I’m not just watching something about something that happened 80 years ago. There are so many parallels to what’s going on in the world today. 

Matt: After reading the memoir and immersing yourself in the character, what do you believe made Miep so virtuous? 

Bel: I think it had something to do with her background. To have been a starving child at nine years old and then sent to another country, and adopted by another family in a country where you didn’t speak the language, and to experience the selflessness of a biological mother who let you go—and also this family who took you in. I think that selflessness must have just been imbued in her for the rest of her life. 

The title of this show comes from a quote that Miep used to end her talks, where she’d say, “No one should ever think they have to be special in order to help others. Anyone, even an ordinary secretary or housewife, or a teenager, can turn on a small light in a dark room.” What I take from that is that I really think Miep believed that we all have the good inside of us; we all know what the right thing to do is. We’ve got that moral compass, and she was just kind of fearless where she could act on it without hesitation. And I think that’s what we can learn from her. 

Matt: Acting out those scenes of the family in the annex, how did you approach the space constraints? How much did that impact the way you played the characters?

Billie: In a way it was quite helpful. They lived in a very tight space, so having that on set, you really get the claustrophobia they felt and possibly the irritation, you know, of being so close with your sister all the time. You would get a piece of the script where it says Margot and Anne are fighting, or they have a little thing going on, or you just think to yourself, Oh, maybe today they’re not getting on so well because Anne was really jealous of Margot with Peter, so maybe she was thinking about that today.

Being on such an incredible set helps you forget that the cameras are there, and also having these great actors around you who are completely immersed in it. The costumes, too, of course, because you put on this costume and there’s so much thought behind it. 

Matt: Ashley, what do you think was going through your character’s mind that day, August 4, when the Nazis find them in the annex?

Ashley: So much. What really stuck with me throughout this whole process was the idea of trying to make sense of a nonsensical world. I mean, Margot was more of a rule follower, and now you’re breaking the law. There are high stakes and a lot of tension. And what was great was that that was all captured in Tony and Joan’s writing. 

Something I loved was that even though they’re going through such scary circumstances, sometimes they’ll say something that’s kind of out of the ordinary, or a little bit out of the blue. When I was auditioning, I remember reading the checkpoint scene in the pilot episode. It really stuck out to me when Miep and Margot are riding past, Margot says all the things that make her different than Anne. She says, Well, Anne has a boyfriend, and I don’t. I could relate to that—maybe a little too much. But I think that relatability factor really helped us step into these people; you’re not playing a character, you’re playing a person, and you want to respect the circumstances in the story.

Matt: Ariel, take us through your process of scoring the August 4 episode. What did you choose to highlight, not highlight, and how did you approach the music there?

Ariel: I had seen a version of that episode where that checkpoint was kind of sparse, and edited into the episode like five or six different times. But by the time I started working on it, it was used as two bookends to the episode. It was great musically, because we could really set the tone and how we were going to be handling tension in the show. The guiding light for the tension is very much to make everything feel as contemporary as possible. You heard it tonight, too—there is this heart-pounding incorporation of electronics and other kinds of more experimental techniques on percussion, and a-tonal scratchy sounds on acoustic instruments. Techniques you wouldn’t necessarily pair with this time period. 

Photo: Scott Kirkland/PictureGroup for National Geographic

Costume Designer Matthew Simonelli, actreses Billie Boullet, Bel Powley, Ashley Brooke, and Composer Ariel Marx.

Matt: Matthew, do you have a favorite piece that you created for this?

Matthew: It’s hard to say if I had a favorite piece. Obviously, we build those amazing party dresses—there’s this one ice-blue, beautiful number. But it’s hard to pick, because I was so engaged in the moment of creating that I think of it all as one piece. It’s hard to start pulling it apart.

Matt: Bel, was there a scene that was particularly difficult for you?

Bel: The most difficult scene for me, actually, was one that you guys have just seen, in episode eight, after they find out that the girls had died at Bergen-Belsen. I think it was probably difficult because it was towards the end of the shoot, and it had kind of been ramping up to that moment. It was such a horrible, deflating feeling. I’d also gotten to know Billie and Ashley so well by that point that it was so easy for me to step into Miep’s shoes. It was really emotional. And obviously, we had all of these extras who’d actually shaved their heads. It just felt very visceral.

But my favorite episode is episode six, which is just before everything goes terribly wrong. Tony and Joan did such an amazing job. Like, we all know how this ends, but they created hope. Even acting in it you kind of thought for a second it wouldn’t end like that. They had to remind us day-to-day, like, don’t pay attention to the end of story, just be in the present and be in the moment. 

Matt: And there is hope, all the way throughout. That’s one of the interesting things.

Bel: They didn’t know how it was going to end, they thought they were going to be okay. They were getting dressed everyday and still doing their schoolwork because they thought they were going to flop right back into school. That’s the only way to survive, and that’s also why we have so many moments of lightness in the show, because I think that’s how human beings deal with darkness. We’ve all experienced Covid, we’ve all been to a funeral where suddenly people start giggling about something, do you know what I mean? I think we naturally, as human beings, find the light in darkness. And that’s what we tried to convey with this series, all the way through to the end.