FILM / The British are coming (home): You're a British director. You're a hit. You're invited to Hollywood. You're stitched up. You're not alone
Friday 26 August 1994
Hollywood has a perverse relationship with British film directors. Hollywood wants the idiosyncratic vision of people like Forsyth, Figgis, Neil Jordan and Stephen Frears; the British directors want Hollywood's money. Hollywood expects the directors to make profitable movies, the directors expect to be allowed to make the films they want.
Disaster usually ensues. Some British directors - Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne, Ridley and Tony Scott (all, intriguingly with backgrounds in advertising) - have prospered in mainstream Hollywood movie-making. Others, like Pat O'Connor (Stars and Bars, The January Man), have withdrawn hurt; or have simply disappeared - whatever happened to Malcolm Mowbray, who decamped to Hollywood after directing Alan Bennett's A Private Function?
The Edinburgh Festival is the only opportunity audiences in the UK have had to see Forsyth's Being Human, starring Robin Williams, on the big screen. Warners, who financed the dollars 20m film, have no immediate plans to release it in this country. In its short run in America it attracted reviews - some good, many bad - but no audiences. The surprising thing about Forsyth, 47 and the director of the quintessentially Scottish films Gregory's Girl and Local Hero, is that he went back to Hollywood for Being Human when he had already come a cropper there in the late Eighties with Breaking In, his amusing film about an ageing safe- cracker. 'I had to fight so often with the backers that in the end what we got was a bastard child that none of us wanted. I wanted it darker, bleaker. They wanted it brighter, more uplifting, cornier. I got the ending I wanted but I lost on virtually every other thing.'
Forsyth conceived Being Human while editing Breaking In. He had a choice between European and American money, but when Robin Williams came on board to play five different people called Hector in five different historical periods, Forsyth plumped for Hollywood and a dollars 20m budget. Filming began in Scotland in 1992 and it became immediately apparent that there was a fundamental difference of opinion about it.
Forsyth recalls: 'For me, this film was about the fact that for individuals nothing changes and nothing ever will, whether you're a caveman or a lawyer. The studio thought experiences do change you and so Hector would get better as he went along.' He sold it to Williams as a mainstream movie. 'It became a running gag. Whenever we had trouble he would say, in a Scottish accent, 'It's OK, it's a mainstream movie'.' Preview audiences didn't agree.
Forsyth is peeved that the fate of the film was decided by these previews, but he should know better. Neil Jordan, snapped up by Hollywood after Mona Lisa, suffered with High Spirits, a cross-cultural farce originally conceived as a sort of Celtic Midsummer Night's Dream. 'The thing got mangled,' he said at the time. 'The previews were used as a pretext to make a different film to the one I'd intended.' Ironically for Jordan, the film was such a success Paramount gave him a bigger budget and total freedom to make We're No Angels with Robert De Niro and Sean Penn. That bombed. (Jordan redeemed himself back in Britain with The Crying Game, and is back in the firing line in the New Year with the big budget Interview With The Vampire.)
Stephen Frears came unstuck in Hollywood with the dollars 55m Accidental Hero, after happy experiences with both Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters; it was the perfectionist antics and script adjustments of Accidental Hero's star, Dustin Hoffman, which caused problems. Frears was hospitalised with a heart complaint, and retreated to Britain to make Roddy Doyle's The Snapper for television.
At least Frears got to retreat: Mike Figgis was 'removed' (his word) from Mister Jones. Figgis, 46, made his striking film debut with Stormy Monday, then went to Paramount for a happy second film, Internal Affairs. It helped revive Richard Gere's career and in return Gere asked Figgis to direct Mister Jones, which he was intending both to produce and star in.
'It was a humiliating experience for me, knowing the ship was sinking and hoping to get into harbour in time,' says Figgis. Conceived as a dark love story between a patient and a doctor in a lunatic asylum, it 'went through three or four reshoots, eight or nine writers, three editors and four composers'.
Figgis was replaced after months of disagreements. 'The studio wanted a smoother love story. Prince of Tides was their benchmark. I was thinking One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Eventually it became about committees - I couldn't talk to individuals and committees would make suggestions which became orders. It's lonely if you're an English director in Hollywood. If things are going great well you're great but if you're fucking up their film . . .' Gere, as producer and star, backed Figgis as best he could. 'Richard fought for the film. But never forget if you live in the Hollywood community and depend on it - which I don't - then the pressures to toe the line are very strong.'
Figgis came back to England to make a contemporary version of Rattigan's The Browning Version, which received its premiere at Edinburgh. His next film is Leaving Las Vegas, starring Nicholas Cage, a low budget independent, shot on 16mm, which starts filming in early September. Some of it will be shot in downtown Los Angeles - 'which is as near to Hollywood as I want to be'.
Meanwhile, despite protestations that he will never make a film again, Forsyth is back in Glasgow planning another collaboration with the producer of Gregory's Girl and its star, John Gordon Sinclair. 'Oh I say that after every film. If the movie had been a blasting success I wouldn't have felt any different. The sap is rising again but only to make my kind of film. I want to film poems. Being Human is a very expensive full- length poem, whereas most Hollywood films are industrial objects and I don't want to make them.'
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