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Film: They all but ate me alive!

Things got pretty hairy behind the scenes of Ravenous. Why ever did nice Antonia Bird get involved?
Perhaps you shouldn't ask an ardent card-carrying socialist to make a film in studios built by Hitler, nor a sensitive vegetarian to make a film about lipsmacking cannibalism. But when Antonia Bird received a panicked phone call from her best buddy, co-conspirator (and finally co-owner of her new production company) Robert Carlyle, begging her to quit her boozy Camden lunch and fly over to Prague immediately to save his new film, she felt she had little choice but to seize the moment. Within 10 days of negotiations with actors and producers she was at work in the grim Barrandov studios in Prague ("horrible, horrible"), directing a gallows-humour tale about an outbreak of cannibalism in an army post high in the Sierra Nevada in the 19th century.

The idea of Antonia Bird (consistently one of the most interesting young British directors) being a troubleshooter for a Hollywood movie is a bizarre one, especially since her last encounter with Hollywood was such a disaster (the oddly unsparky Mad Love with Drew Barrymore and a leaden Chris O'Donnell), edited as it was in a flurry of nervous choppings from scared producers at just the time when her third movie, Priest, was attracting so much flak from the Catholic lobby.

But, as Bird hastens to point out, Ravenous "isn't a movie about cannibalism. It's an allegorical movie about the state of the world we're living in."

In fact, when we meet, in the entirely unlikely surroundings of the Dorchester hotel (doing the Scorsese thing rather than the Ken Loach thing, her two great influences) she's prepared to go further and reveals that it's in fact a film about LA. "LA," she says, fiddling (rather girlishly) with a tortoiseshell hair comb all the while, "is the most cannibalistic society I've ever spent time in."

She's talking from experience, having recently frittered away 18 months exhaustively developing a Richard Gere project. The actor finally passed on it with what she felt was a wave of the hand. Meanwhile her great pet projects about unions and doughty women, often described in interviews yet never made (films such as "Strike" evoke that other great socialist bewitched by Hollywood, Eisenstein) seemed destined for turnaround limbo. "Nobody explained it was just about business," she says, scalded but sanguine.

As she'd be the first to admit, Bird's experiences of the caprices of Hollywood pale in comparison with those of her predecessor, the Indie director Milcho Manchevski, who was kicked off Ravenous after three weeks. At least she has a powerful mega-bucks actor to protect her. I called Manchevski in Macedonia for his version of his infamous sacking. Manchevski, a talented US-Macedonian, whose Before the Rain was nominated for an Oscar and whose Arrested Development video Tennessee is a perennial MTV Top 100 favourite, says he never wants to work for Hollywood again.

"It was all about who's got a bigger dick," he told me angrily. "The Fox2000 executive Laura Ziskin [executive producer, Pretty Woman] was micromanaging everything I did, vetoing technicians, casting even the smallest part. Yet it was me who put together that great cast. Every day I'd get notes on the rushes from her, saying the uniforms were too dirty, or there weren't enough close-ups of David Arquette. Then one day she just got on a plane unannounced and came over with the director of Home Alone III [Raja Gosnell] to replace me - but all the actors went on strike, and Antonia Bird was called in.

"You couldn't make it up; it's beyond satire. I have to say Hollywood is full of the most miserable, unhappy people I have ever met - and I'm from the Balkans!"

Bird, in contrast, has a perfectly amicable relationship with Ziskin. And she lets slip that she thought the schedule for filming was "bonkers" and "manipulative", noting that "it wasn't the director's [Manchevski's] fault. He'd been stitched up big time, in my opinion."

Her sympathy for the unfortunate Manchevski seems sincere. From her very first film, Safe (1993), concerning the plight of homeless kids in her home town of London, to her latest - the excellent, sourish crime caper Face - Bird has consistently honed her themes of isolation, obsession, loneliness and outsiderdom. This perhaps emerges from a difficult childhood; she was raised by an increasingly impoverished and disillusioned father, who had signally failed to make a living as an actor.

In person, Bird has that subtle, quiet ability to notice your wounds - and to make you feel fine about them. This is why actors love her. This is why she was able to soothe a jittery crew of 180 and a neurotic bunch of "bereaved" actors after Manchevski upped and left. "I had to go in there and just be Mum," she laughs.

Ravenous, then, is an anti-Hollywood movie with a humorous edge. Personally I loved it, though I can't seem to find many people who agree with me, and it seemed to baffle the Americans, who hated the film with an unseemly passion (it was released in the US in March). Was it horror or was it humour? they all seemed to moan.

And Bird herself doesn't seem entirely happy with the finished product. Mention post-production, for example, and you discover that this is when she feels she loses control and authority over a movie. Though she doesn't overtly gripe about this, it clearly bothers her. "I've had a whole new thought in the last 24 hours," she explains. "I need a whole new cut for Europe. I'd love to build that into my budget for future films: one edit for the US and one for Europe. I felt that the voiceover on Ravenous was superfluous, as were the quotes at the beginning explaining everything. There's this disease of thinking your audience is stupid - and they're not.

"You can go out to the poorest little town in the Mojave desert and sit in a trailer park talking to people who are smarter and brighter than you are. They happen to be bagging groceries and we're supposed to think that they're stupid. But they're not stupid."

Always for the underdog. Always the socialism worn on the sleeve. Before I leave her at the Dorchester she exhorts me to "have faith" in Tony Blair, and I marvel at her lack of cynicism in what everyone agrees is a corrosively cynical business. "You have to be pragmatic and positive," she says. Then, delivered breezily: "Ken for mayor. Ever the optimist, me."

`Ravenous' is released on 10 Sept