FILM / The view from across the Pond: 'The British are coming,' said Colin Welland a decade ago. And so they went: but not quite the way we'd hoped. Sheila Johnston reports
Friday 09 April 1993
Next week sees Accidental Hero, a Dustin Hoffman vehicle directed by Stephen Frears. Hard on its heels comes Jon Amiel's Sommersby, based on the French film The Return of Martin Guerre. Then in May there is Adrian Lyne's Indecent Proposal, and, further down the pike, Michael (Scandal) Caton-Jones's This Boy's Life, starring Robert De Niro, and Bruce (Withnail and I) Robinson's thriller Jennifer 8.
The reasons for this mass exodus of talent are too obvious - and too depressing - to go into here, although a small bright spot is the fact that a number of the directors are not making LA their permanent home: Frears' BBC-TV film The Snapper was transmitted here last weekend and Kidron is currently in London fine- tuning her latest, British project, an adaptation of Winterson's Great Moments in Aviation. Her comment was fairly typical of the directors I spoke to: 'I hated being away from home. Los Angeles is a company town; everyone you meet is in the film industry. It's quite exciting but finally not very nourishing; you become a walking CV.'
It's difficult to see these Brits in Hollywood as a homogeneous group producing a recognisable 'school' of movies in the same way that, say, European expatriates during the Second World War helped shape the distinctive style of the Forties film noir. But some of their movies, and their experiences, have intriguing features in common. The following dossier was compiled by talking to Jonathan Lynn, Beeban Kidron and Jon Amiel.
'THE DIFFERENCES of scale are obvious,' says Lynn, 'but in Hollywood the budgets seem a little unreal, like Monopoly money. When I was making Nuns on the Run in Britain I knew that if I fell behind schedule there was no way of catching up. What Denis (O'Brien, of the production company, HandMade Pictures) said to me was totally fair; he and George Harrison were putting up the money themselves. And I was very grateful. If you're making a film for a major studio in America nobody wants you to go over budget. But when we were caught in a hurricane on My Cousin Vinny and that day's shooting was a write-off, Fox wasn't thrilled but they said OK . . . '
For Kidron, 'Working for a studio was tough, but standing on the set of Great Moments in Aviation here and knowing I can't afford another half hour of overtime is just as horrendous a compromise. I don't know if it's more masterful to overcome that problem than to overcome having an abundance of wealth.'
Kidron looks to be the most vulnerable of the three to studio pressure: she's the youngest, she's female and, unlike Amiel and Lynn, who have made American films before, a Hollywood debutante. 'I'm sure I get flak for all those things,' she says. 'But I try to march through it. It's like going home late at night - if you walk fast and look as if you know where you're going you're less likely to be attacked.
'When we were discussing the end of my film, I said I'd like to invoke the right of authorship and do it my way. The studio executive looked at me and said 'Do you think you're still in England?' Then he laughed and said something like, 'OK. But you're the first director who came to Hollywood and got final cut before she's out of nappies.' He was surprised, but he gave me what I needed.'
Amiel adds, 'I've been blessedly insulated from most of that moose- poop. Most of the time I was filming on location in Virginia, so it didn't feel like Hollywood; it just felt like another bloody uncomfortable muddy location where the weather was always wrong. That was very familiar. And there's a curious magic circle that happens on a film set - suddenly, wherever you are, it feels exactly the same. All other reality is shut out and the film set dominates.'
OF THE THREE directors, Lynn seemed the likeliest to be facing a rough ride: his star, Eddie Murphy, has a checkered rep for things like racking up huge lunch bills for his people (he has a lot of people) at McDonald's. 'I've read the same stories as you,' says Lynn, who declares himself pleasantly surprised: for all he knows, Murphy may have been giving the studio a hard time behind the scenes, but as far as he was concerned he was a pro on set and even showed up to act, off-camera, opposite the (unimportant) day-players.
Kidron says, 'One of the great benefits of having my cast (Shirley MacLaine, Marcello Mastroianni, Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy) was that I thought no one would be interested in me. It wasn't quite like that - I had to say more about myself than I would choose to. But it is important to support your films visibly - like children, you can't abandon them just because they've left home.'
'AUDIENCE previews are a nightmare,' says Amiel, who confesses to pressure to change Sommersby's rather sombre ending. 'It's like 500 strangers sitting there marking your exam paper. Often it's the stick the studio uses to beat you with: 14 per cent of the audience said they didn't like this scene. If you cut it, 14 per cent of the 'very goods' will be pushed to the 'excellent' rating. This translates into dollars 2 million differential at the box-office. You get blinded with this quasi-science of reviewology. Fortunately the previews became a real support because while the audience was slightly dismayed at the way Sommersby ended, they were very clear that a different ending wouldn't make them feel better.'
IT'S very tempting to see this as the main difference between the directors' English and American work; certainly Lynn, who has thoroughly satirised dirty dealings in high places on both sides of the Atlantic, sees The Distinguished Gentleman as much less cynical than Yes Minister in its view of the political process - Murphy, the outrageous con-artist turned Congressman, does change his spots and come good at the end of the day.
Sommersby is different again: it seems to have a traditional hero, a soldier, played by Richard Gere, who returns from the Civil War and transforms his village by introducing tobacco farming to it. And yet, Jack Sommersby is a highly ambiguous figure; like Dustin Hoffman in Frears' Accidental Hero, he's a hero malgre lui. 'If you think about the difference between European movies and American movies, you find yourself going back to an ancient theological debate, which is the debate between predestination and free will,' Amiel says. 'In many great European movies the end is somehow preordained, whether it's The Passenger or The Conformist or Martin Guerre. All great American literature and, certainly, American movies celebrate free will - the power of individuals to make their own choices and become their own creatures.
'This said, Richard Gere comes into town with one purpose only, which is to rip it off, and cons himself into a position of integrity from which he can't escape. He's subverted by love and by the town which needs him. He's a very off-centre hero, as is Dustin Hoffman in Stephen Frears' movie; they're about the odd and paradoxical nature of heroism, and how people can end up doing heroic things for the most unheroic reasons.
'And maybe the reason Stephen and I both got involved in that kind of story is that there are no real heroes left at the moment - no political heroes, none of the shining figure heads, no great ideologies left intact . . . It's a very, very tough time to be an idealist. Mostly Hollywood manages it at the expense of sense. People say there: why can't we make movies like Capra's and Sturges'? The truth is, they can't do it because the makers don't really believe the way those people did in the inherent goodness of humanity. They may pretend to believe that love conquers all and everything will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But truthfully they don't and most happy endings in Hollywood stink of contrivance and condescension.'
Jonathan Lynn's 'The Distinguished Gentleman' and Beeban Kidron's 'Used People' play around the country. Jon Amiel's 'Sommersby' opens on 23 April
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