The American Film Institute rates the 1959 film "Some Like It Hot" as the funniest movie of all time - it also gets number 14 on its list of 100 greatest movies. So what went right with this black and white farce about two musicians forced to dress up as women to avoid being snuffed out by mobsters? The answer is clearly 'Billy Wilder' all the way - one of the deftest, wittiest and most accomplished directors in history - and his brilliant writing partner Izzy Diamond - but below, in no particular order, I try and break it down into what I believe are 10 crucial elements. This is not a 'how to write the perfect comedy' list - it is pure appreciation, and I sneak in the odd favourite fact and anecdote too.
1. A great story
Cross-dressing has been a staple of comedy down the ages, stretching back into theatre's distant past, but it is a device that is tricky to utilise tastefully. The director Billy Wilder was intrigued by the comic potential in the idea of a pair of male musicians being forced to dress as women in order to get a job - a comic conceit that he knew featured in the 1935 French film Fanfares D'Amour. Unable to get hold of a copy he ordered a screening of the 1951 German remake Fanfaren De Liebe. The film told of two musicians who disguise themselves to get work with various bands - including a Gypsy band, an all-black jazz band and an all-female band. The film was episodic and somewhat laboured in its insistence on showing the men donning their disguises, but Wilder's instincts told him that there was something in the cross dressing sequence that he could build on and he duly bought the rights to the German film. He then set to work with his writing partner I.A.L. (Izzy) Diamond. What they came up with was a tale of joblessness made worse by the fear of death - which drives two musicians (Joe and Jerry) into joining an all female band. Joe falls in love with one of the musicians (Sugar Kane) - and they contrive to stick with the disguises on arrival in sunny Miami. To complicate matters Joe then takes on a second disguise as an impotent millionaire in order to woo Sugar, and Jerry has to bat off advances from a genuine millionaire who is staying in the same hotel. When the death threat catches up with them Joe and Jerry escape with their paramours and reveal their true identities.
2. The perfect setting
Izzy Diamond and Billy Wilder were writing their screenplay in the 1950's, a deeply conservative era in America, and they were concerned that people would find the idea of men dressing as women uncomfortable (in fact the finished film was banned in Kansas and the producers had to cite cross-dressing in Shakespeare to stop it being banned across the country). It was Izzy Diamond who suggested that they set the film in the 1920's - the age of prohibition and wall-to-wall mobsters but, more importantly, a time when, to a contemporary eye, it would appear that everyone was in costume, thus softening the effect of seeing male actors in women's clothing. The choice of the 1920's works perfectly because it was a time of economic depression (making the musician's plight seem natural) but also of frenetic change, budding liberation for women, jazz, great fashion and of course the insanity of prohibition. The ubiquity of gangsters solved a problem that Wilder and Diamond had agonized over: what would make two lusty heterosexual musicians decide to dress as women? Just being hungry and needing a job was not a strong enough motivation for a movie plot. It was Billy Wilder who came up with the idea that Joe and Jerry accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and have to go into hiding to avoid being snuffed out.
3. Dizzying Pace.
From the explosive opening which sees a car chase gun battle between cops and mobsters Some Like it Hot has a frenetic pace which never lets up. The Chicago scenes are driven by the insane cat and mouse chase of bootleggers and cops and the desperate plight of our two heroes, a saxophonist and double bass player, who are so hard up they are soon hocking their overcoats to put money down on a 'sure thing' at the race track. This leaves them coatless and at the mercy of Chicago's pitiless winter wind which whips them back into the offices of the musical agents where they beg for work. Once we get to the scenes on the train the frenetic insanely brilliant comic sequence in which 'Daphne' throws a cocktail party in her bunk seems to take its pace from the metronome of the steam engine's relentless chug chug, which eventually segues directly into the jazz-age soundtrack. Not a microsecond is wasted in this film which successfully delivers a perfect movie example of that most difficult of genres - farce - where the pace has to speed up continually. As Wilder commented when he started work with his actors "Its going to be like juggling eleven meringue pies at once."
3. Billy Wilder had the perfect vehicle to explore his favourite theme
Billy Wilder was on a winning streak when he made Some Like It Hot. Films like Five Graves to Cairo, The Lost Weekend and the masterful Sunset Boulevard exuded class, scooped awards and made money for the studios he worked for. Quite simply Wilder had impeccable taste and instincts.
Like a lot of geniuses he was endlessly circling around one theme. In his case it was the idea of people forced to compromise their principals or self respect in order to survive or thrive - or to be less polite - the theme of prostitution. It is most visible in his much loved 1960's film The Apartment in which Shirley Maclean's character sleeps with the boss in the insurance company while the poor sap played by Jack Lemmon whores out his Manhattan pad for seedy asssignations. But it is also there in Sunset Boulevard where William Holden, his career as a screenwriter in Hollywood having come to nothing, starts sleeping with a faded movie star and working on her hopeless film project to bring in the greenbacks, thus prostituting himself both literally and metaphorically.
In Some Like It Hot the theme is there again. Joe and Jerry, two horny heterosexual males, throw their dignity out the window and don female clobber in order to survive - and Daphne (Jerry's female alter ego played by Jack Lemmon) actually goes on dates with a man and (in the famous last moment of the film) finds that he has no choice but to marry him. Meanwhile Sugar Kane, played by Marylin Monroe, has given up on feckless saxophonists and has decided to go down to Florida and offer herself up as marriage material to old millionaires. But whereas the theme could lead to an air of caustic cynicism in some of Wilder's films - most n0tably in Ace in the Hole where Kirk Douglas's hungry newspaper man sells his soul for a story, in Some Like It Hot there is an incorrigible air of joie de vivre.
Interestingly the accusation that Billy Wilder had himself once worked as a gigolo dogged him throughout his career. This was because he had worked as a tea dancer in the Hotel Eden in Berlin - a dancer for money - and a journalist had once interpreted this to mean that he had actually slept with some of the women.
4.Wilder had found his ideal writing partner in I.A.L.Diamond
Some Like It Hot was only the second feature that Billy Wilder wrote with Izzy Diamond. The first had been Love in the Afternoon starring Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn of which Wilder later commented "The day I hired Gary Cooper he got too old for the part". Prior to this Wilder had endured a long writing partnership with Charles Brackett. It was a stormy working relationship and they were not friends outside of the office (Billy Wilder was a self-made Polish-born Jewish immigrant , Brackett urbane old-money American). But it had been remarkably fruitful, culminating in Sunset Boulevard. After this Wilder dropped Brackett - stating later that "The match no longer struck sparks on the matchpaper".
Wilder discovered Diamond when he saw a comic skit he had written performed at a Writers Guild dinner and hired him for Love in the Afternoon. Thus began a happy and long-lasting partnership that would produce the much-loved The Apartment immediately after Some Like It Hot. I would posit that some of the atmosphere of bravura joy that suffuses Some Like it Hot emanates not only from Diamond's skill as a writer but also from the unleashing of energy associated with a new writing partnership finding its feet and Wilder's delight at having a workmate whose company he enjoyed.
The script is peppered with witty quick-fire dialogue and replete with the comedy of absurd repetition, of which the blood 'type O' nonsense is the most obvious example. The brevity of the script is legendary with the bold decision not to show Joe and Jerry getting into their women's clobber often cited as an example of how audiences don't need to be spoon fed. The decision to then introduce them at the train station by showing their feet only from behind was probably Wilder's - but you have to give a lot of credit to Izzy Diamond for the greatest comedy screenplay of all time.
5. Tony Curtis was ready to show the world what he could do as an actor
Tony Curtis was already a star by the time Billy Wilder offered him the part of Joe in Some Like it Hot but he regarded Wilder as being in a league above even himself, a director of such shimmering quality that he could only dream of being cast in one of his movies. Wilder offered him the part of Jerry the goofball double-bass player, at a party given by producer Harold Mirisch. Curtis nearly wept with joy and agreed on the spot. At that point Wilder was seriously considering giving Frank Sinatra the part of Joe, the sax player (the part Curtis would eventually play). In fact Wilder decided that Sinatra would have been too difficult to work with but he nearly had to cast him. He had arranged a lunch to discuss the part but Sinatra failed to appear. Both Bob Hope and Danny Kaye had also been in the running but Wilder wisely recognized that the sight of these older men in drag would have been too grotesque. He regarded Curtis as the best looking boy in town - and they shared Austro-Hungarian Empire origins.
For Curtis this was a breakthrough role, a chance to show that he was versatile and he played it with immense gusto and relish. He in effect plays three parts in the film - Joe, Josephine (Joe's female alter-ego) and the bogus millionaire with whom Sugar Kane falls in love. Curtis made the decision to do a Cary Grant impersonation for the millionaire which works a treat (Billy Wilder was delighted with the impersonation and commented that he had never managed to get Cary Grant into one of his films so would have to be content with Curtis' impersonation). However his voice work for Josephine proved too deep and had to be largely dubbed by an actor called Paul Frees. But Curtis' characterisation as Josephine is brilliant - there is a sense that Joe is suddenly conscious of what life must be like for a woman with guys like him around - and he plays her demure and wary of men. There is even a sort of Joe-in-miniature to harass him; a priapic little bell-boy in the Miami Hotel, a little devil sent to punish him for all the times he has hit on women in a similar way.
Initially Curtis was told that Sugar Kane would be played by Mitzi Gaynor (known for South Pacific) and Elizabeth Taylor was also in consideration. When Curtis heard that Marylin Monroe had bagged the part he had mixed feelings. He had an affair with Marylin when she was an unknown in Hollywood and he wasn't sure how she would react to working with him. When they met again her first words to him were "Have you still got it Tony?" She was referring to the green Buick convertible they used to make out in.
6. Jack Lemmon got to act his socks off
Tony Curtis recalled the first day that he and Jack Lemmon got into their female costumes for Some Like it Hot: "I didn't want to come out first. I wanted him out first, to see what Jack would be like...then I see Jack come dancing out of his dressing room, and he looked like a three-dollar trollop. You know, skipping along, talking in a high voice. I said 'Oh shit, I can't do that'."
Like Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon was delighted to be cast in a Billy Wilder film. Wilder had encountered him in a Beverly Boulevard eatery called Dominick's and pitched him the story. Lemmon later said he would not have considered the project if it had not been Billy Wilder directing - he knew that Wilder's approach to the material would be tasteful. In fact both he and Curtis had to go on a steep learning curve for the movie. Wilder hired a female impersonator called Barbette to teach them how to move and speak like women. Curtis enjoyed the sessions more than Lemmon who rebelled - saying that his character needed to be seen to be uncomfortable and struggling with the unfamiliar shoes and clothes - something he does indeed convey brilliantly. There was more trouble when the two actors were shown their wardrobe - a rack of off-the-peg costume rentals. They went to Billy Wilder and insisted that their dresses should be designed by Orry-Kelly (who would scoop the Oscar for his work on the film - the only Oscar the film garnered despite a string of nominations). Wilder agreed but when the new dresses arrived Marylin Monroe immediately inspected them and stole a black dress that had been designed for Lemmon - much to his annoyance.
Lemmon's performance is more broadly comic than Curtis's and it was he who was nominated for the Oscar and scooped the BAFTA and the Golden Globe. Lemmon, it has often been commented, could be a touch hammy as an actor but this was the perfect part for him - he gets to chew up the scenery without ever appearing to be over acting for a moment. I can still remember the first time I saw the film and it was definitely Lemmon who got the big laughs from me - and still does now. In fact Wilder described the scene where Lemmon, as Jerry pretending to be Daphne, appears to have forgotten that he is a man and talks ecstatically of marrying his love-struck zillionaire Osgood, as getting 'the longest sustained laugh of all my movies'.
7. Marilyn Monroe is Marilyn Monroe..
Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond admitted that the part of Sugar Kane was the weakest in terms of the writing - which meant it needed someone remarkable to play it. Wilder's view of Marilyn Monroe was that she was nearly impossible to work with but that she possessed near-magical qualities; "She looked on screen as if you could reach out and touch her" he said. In the story Joe and Jerry initially disguise themselves as women merely to escape from Chicago. But on the train Joe falls in love with Sugar and persuades Jerry that they need to maintain the disguise so he can spend time with her. Sugar Cane needed to be supernaturally attractive if the audience were to believe that the two men would continue the subterfuge. In fact Marilyn shows herself to be more than just a sexpot in the film - she is also a very accomplished comedian. As Curtis put it "her timing was excellent - but not her timekeeping".
Billy Wilder had worked with Marilyn on The Seven Year Itch and had sworn not to work with her again due to the endless delays and difficulties. Their relationship had been so fractious that he was astonished when he received a letter from her asking to be in Some Like it Hot. Wilder knew what he was letting himself in for, but calculated that she was worth the trouble. In fact her behaviour was so erratic and unpredictable that Wilder suffered serious back and stomach troubles due to the stress - to the point where (according to his wife Audrey) they had to hire a psychologist to persuade him to get out of bed in the morning. He even started walking with a cane - but what he saw on screen always justified the hell he was going through.
Hours were lost as cast and crew waited for Marilyn to come on set and Wilder later joked "I didn't waste those hours, I read War and Peace Les Miserables and Hawaii". Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon were told by Wilder that they had to be perfect in every take when they were acting with Marilyn - because whatever take she delivered in would be the one that was used in the film. Famously it took 80 takes to get a shot of her saying 4 words "Where is the Bourbon?" in a scene shot in Josephine and Daphne's hotel room. But Marilyn understood her role in the film absolutely and when she made her first appearance at the train station (in fact the first day's filming on the picture) she pointed out that it wasn't enough for her to just stride along the platform - she needed a piece of business to pep up her impact. They came up with the idea of the train blasting a bit of steam just behind her rear end - as if the train itself was reacting to her.
On Marilyn's contribution perhaps Billy Wilder should have the last word: "Some Like it Hot will be a picture of mine people will see for as long as prints last, not because of me, but because of Miss Monroe."
8. The film is a love letter to American music of the jazz age
Some Like It Hot is a story about musicians and it is infused with the delirious music of the Jazz Age.
Billy Wilder's love affair with America - and more specifically American music, began when he saw American troops enter Vienna in 1918. The city was starving and with the troops came food - and the sound of American dance bands. He particularly loved Paul Whiteman's band and he learned to sing the lyrics of some of their songs before he even understood the words. In May of 1926 Wilder, then a journalist, got to interview Whiteman when he was on a European tour and it was a key moment in the director's life story. Whiteman was impressed by Wilder's knowledge of his music and Wilder introduced him to a song which Whiteman re-recorded (and had a massive hit with under the title "When Day is Done"). When Whiteman moved on to Berlin he invited Wilder to join him and act as a sort of guide. Wilder never went back to Vienna and this was the beginning of Wilder's escape from the approaching maelstrom of the Second World War. In Whiteman's band at that time was a brilliant Jazz violinist, Matty Malneck, who would later move to Hollywood and provide music for several of Wilder's films - including Some Like it Hot . Wilder lost his mother and other family members in Auschwitz - but he made it to America. The film is a sophisticated comedy full of caustic wit and lively cynicism - but the music is a celebration of the great American art - Jazz - and I also detect an exhilarating woop of joy by European émigré artists who escaped the Holocaust and found a home in the land of the free.
9. There are actors like George Raft in the supporting cast
Such was Billy Wilder's reputation that he was able to call on almost any actor to play even quite small supporting roles. As the film features Chicago gangsters it was natural that he would want to get some of the stars of the great gangster movies to play mob bosses - people like Edward G Robinson and George Raft. Unfortunately the two men had history - during the making of Manpower, Raft and Robinson had both fallen for their co-star Marlene Dietrich. The rivalry had blown up into an actual fistfight, caught on camera by a stills photographer from Life magazine. Still sore from this they had refused to ever appear in the same picture again. But Raft was keen to work with Wilder. He had turned down a part in Wilder's brilliant Double Indemnity and was not going to miss out on the chance to work on a masterpiece again. Interestingly Edward G Robinson Junior does appear in the film - also as a gangster.
Another terrific 'bit player' is Joe E Brown - who plays Osgood - the millionaire so madly in love with Daphne (Jack Lemmon) that he doesn't even mind that she turns out to be a he. Brown was a once-familiar face from countless film comedies. He had fallen out of favour and was reduced to television work (then regarded as film's very poor relation) when Billy Wilder saw him at a Dodgers game (Brown was a baseball fanatic and part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates). The film briefly resurrected Joe E Brown's career and he appears in the wonderful Its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).
10. A great title and a great last line
Izzy Diamond, the screenwriter, apparently plucked the title Some Like It Hot from the nursery rhythm that goes "Some like it in the pot, nine days old" which ends, ..."some like it hot" - and Billy Wilder was keen on the title from the off - but there was a problem. There was already a 1939 Bob Hope vehicle that used the title - and there was (and still is) an industry rule that prevented people re-using the title of a copyrighted film.
Producer Walter Mirsch discovered that MCA, the mini studio that made Wilder's film, was buying all of Paramount's films made before 1950 - which included the Bob Hope flick. There was an agonising wait for this complicated deal to go through and Wilder very nearly had to settle for his second choice title 'Not Tonight Josephine'. But luck was on his side, the deal went through in time.
The last line of Some Like it Hot is "Well, nobody's perfect" and is delivered by actor Joe E Brown (as gazillionaire Osgood) on being told by what he thought was 'Daphne' - the woman he adores - "I'm a man". "Nobody's Perfect" is not a funny line on its own but is so perfect in its context that it has been voted the best comedy line of all time more than once. I think the joy of it lies in the unexpectedness of it - a good part of the film seems to have been leading up to this moment of revelation and it completely confounds your expectations - pulling the rug from under you. There have also been claims that this moment in movie history presages gay marriage by half a century - it is certainly true that you can smuggle controversial ideas more easily when you loosen audiences up with laughter - but this may be a claim too far for the film.
In fact the little scene between Osgood and Daphne/Jerry wasn't intended to be the last moment in the film (a clinch between Sugar and Joe was envisaged) but Marilyn was not available on the last day's shooting and they had to stick with Osgood and his sex change lover. The line "Well, nobody's perfect" had been written months before - thought up by Izzy Diamond, but neither he nor Wilder were happy with it and regarded it as a temporary line until they could think of something better. Luckily they didn't think of anything.
After a bit of a binge on biographies and autobiographies of the film directors that I admire I thought I'd offer up some thoughts and recommendations.
Top of the league so far, in terms of directors who throw out great advice, is Billy Wilder who luckily was still alive when Charlotte Chandler wrote Nobody's Perfect - Billy Wilder, a Personal Biography. The book tells his life story which she gathered during a series of conversations with the director during which he threw out pearls of wisdom on the craft in which he was surely one of the 20th Century's chief masters. It's one of those books that I started again from the beginning as soon as I finished it.
If you want a blistering good read however I would recommend Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges, which was adapted and edited by his last wife Sandy. what is staggering about Sturges is that his life up until the age of about 22 was so packed with adventure and frenetic activity that this period constitutes the majority of the text. In fact his film making period, when he churned out brilliant movies like Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), is squeezed into the last quarter of the short book.
The reason Sturges early life was so extraordinary was that he had a very Bohemian mother - and she in turn was heavily influenced in her choice of lifestyle by the then world-famous dancer Isadora Duncan, who was her best friend. To give just one example of how insane Preston's life was, at one point, when still a child, his mother had an affair with the notorious satanist Aleister Crowley. Preston witnessed the hideous spectacle of the bonkers Crowley mutilatibg his own arm with a small knife every time his mother used the word "I" which Crowley had banned.
A real discovery for me has been Puffin Asquith by R.J.Minney. Anthony Asquith has fallen utterly out of fashion as a director, but I believe his Importance of Being Earnest (1951) will never be bettered as a film version of Oscar Wilde's best play and I remember being utterly riveted by The Winslow Boy (1948) when it came on TV once when I was about the same age as the eponymous hero. I always knew that Asquith was the son of the Liberal Prime Minister and therefore I had assumed him to be a patrician son of privilege sailing into his chosen profession and rather lording it up. He was indeed the son of dizzying privilege (the family nickname for the King, who used to pop by, was 'Kingy'), but Asquith turns out to have been one of the sweetest and most humble people I have ever read about.
He wore worker's overalls while directing and was often mistaken for a gaffer or spark. When not directing he used to go and help out at a roadside cafe where he would rise at dawn and deliver papers. He was one of those rare people who actually managed to beat alcoholism but like a lot of people of that era he smoked incessantly which almost certainly killed him.
In fact cigarettes cut a swathe through 20th Century film makers - possibly because there is so much waiting around on a film set and having a smoke is a great way to kill time and an aid to thinking. A truly fascinating fact about Asquith is that his father was Home Secretary when Oscar Wilde was effectively hounded to death by the establishment because of his sexuality. Anthony may have been homosexual although the book leaves the question unresolved. He certainly had no sexual relations with women. It is tantalising to think that a man who drove homosexuality underground for half a century may have had a gay son. It is also extraordinary to think that the son produced the perfect film version of Oscars most famous play.
David Lean was also probably killed by tobacco and I suspect we would have had one or two more of his elegant masterpieces left in him had he managed to kick the habit. His life is described in great detail by the film historian Kevin Brownlow in his magisterial biography David Lean. Brownlow was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with the director but his knowledge of British film history serves him well in a book that gives a wonderful portrait of the early years of the industry in England. David Lean comes over as a pure filmmaker with a genius for telling stories with the lense of a camera that clearly derived partly from his years working as Britains foremost film editor. If you ever doubt Lean's genius I recommend going to see Lawrence of Arabia (which Kevin Brownlow was responsible for restoring beautifully) if it ever gets a cinema showing near you. I went when the restoration was brand new and it blew my socks off.
What I did not know about Lean was that he was not a particularly intellectual man and he could show astonishing ignorance about something as fundamental as the nature of gravity. The reason was his interest was entirely driven by his instinct to tell stories. If a story had come up that required him to understand gravity he would probably have mastered it.
Finally I have recently started reading Carol Read, A Biography, by Nicholas Wapshott. Reed easily earns his place as one of the immortals of the cinema on the strength of The Third Man (1949) alone (I urge you to catch the new print) but I am also a huge fan of his musical Oliver! (1968) which, with each passing year, is looking increasingly like a beautiful capturing of a certain spirit of old London - exemplified by the glorious 'Who Will Buy" sequence. I performed in this as a milkmaid as a prep-school boy in the 1970's - an experience that has never quite left me!
I had no idea that Reed was the illegitimate son of the Victorian actor/manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a now obscure figure who once bestrode London's theatre land like a colossus. Wapshott usefully provides a 'biography within a biography' of Beerbohm Tree, supplying a fascinating glimpse into a lost world. To give an idea of how successful Beerbohm Tree was he was able to build Her Majesty's theatre in the Haymarket in Central London and created a private apartment for himself inside the dome at the top. A compulsive philanderer he ran two family homes, one his wife's and one his mistess's. Carol Reed was the son of his mistress and was inordinately proud of his father's renown until his mother was called down to King's School Canterbury to order his son not to talk about his father because of the shame of illegitimacy in Edwardian England. The impact of this conversation changed him forever.
My short film The Last Post has been accepted for three film festivals so far. They are The Madrid Internatiobal Film Festival where it has been nominated for Best Short Film 2015, Best Producer, and the Jury Award, The Austin Comedy Short Film Festival in Texas where it has been nominated for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) and Best Ensemble Cast, and the Loch Ness Film Festival in (you guessed it) Scotland which is a non-competitive festival.
The Last Post is finished!
In his wonderful book 'Making Movies' Sydney Lumet talk about the sound mix as being 'where you pay for all the fun you had making the film'. It is a time of endlessly seeing and hearing small segments of the film (which you are already fed up with!) repeated hundreds of time as you smooth out imbalances and agonise over whether the tiny sound of a tea spoon tinkling in a cup is ruining the film. But as soon as I met Andy I knew that it was actually going to be quite a pleasant 2 days. He had the manner of someone who knew what he was doing, enjoyed his work, and was easy going. What is more he was genuinely enthusiastic about the film - it was clearly a little project that he was relishing being involved in. What is actually rather wonderful about the mix is that it is another chance to raise the quality of the project and there are a myriad of ways in which sound can be used creatively to enhance the ideas you are trying to get across - and in a comedy to get more laughs.
My composer Martin Thornton has been working feverishly away on the music for the film and like so many others he has risen magnificently to the challenge. He applied for the post through Shootingpeople.com (as did a very large number of other composers) and the sample he sent was the only one that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck - so it was a fairly easy decision. As well as being a good composer Martin is also a very talented musician and arranger, works as assistant to a busy composer of music for TV dramas (such as Ripper Street), is a consummate professional, passionate about making music for movies and knows many musicians that he can call upon at short notice. Consequently he was able to get a cornet player to record his wonderful pastiche of The Last Post tune that is heard every remembrance Sunday. Martin has created several original pieces of music for The Last Post and has come up with some startling and imaginative ways to heighten the intensity of certain key moments, convey the personality of the characters and to draw together the different elements of the film into a coherent smoothly unfolding whole.
One pleasant task that had to be undertaken during the mix was to get the actor Mark Heap to re-record a single line of dialogue . Mark was fresh from his holiday in the Lake District and was such a joy to have in the sound booth that we got him to do a few more little things as well - all of which we were able to use. I have been so lucky to have this wonderful actor in my film.
With the film now completed the task is now to manage the release. Samantha Waite, the producer, had great success with her last film - which went all the way to the Oscars - so I will be largely guided by her advice. If you are wondering if the film is any good I am too close to tell you but I can say this: I am very excited about showing this film to an audience and there is a bit of a buzz about it.. I think the film is a timely little satire about the effect of social media and the Internet on emotional development and I think we have a real chance of getting in to some of the big festivals. The cast and crew screening is taking place this Saturday at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road but the 80 or so invited guests probably know the project too well for it to be a 'pure' screening (and incidentally it is NOT the premiere - calling it that would ruin our chances of getting in to some big festivals..)
I'm delighted to say that my project 'Facebook Funeral' has achieved full funding but the time for celebrations will be after the film is completed. I am now in pre-pre-production and the aim is to have the film substantially completed by January 2015 in time to submit the film to 2015 film festivals. I have made several short films over the years and some of them have survived and can be viewed elsewhere on this site. What is different about this one is that I am going to be able to collaborate entirely with professionals - and have a shot at making something really special. I believe absolutely that this has the potential to be very funny and to find a very big audience because the subject matter is very timely - the shallowness of social media and its retarding effect on emotional development.
I have already started work on the story boards for the film and have written out instructions for all the heads of department which are designed to help in the recruitment process and as a starting point for discussions once the work begins. Casting has also begun with an approach having been made to a well known male actor by the casting agent Sophie North.
The most important things for me are that the people I work with are passionate about what they do, that they agree with me on the basic themes of the film (so that we are in effect making the same film not struggling to make two different films), that they respond positively to the material and that for them the film is important in terms of their career development - I don't want people for whom this is 'just another job'. I am going to try and make a film, every frame of which looks like a feature film and to achieve that we are going to have to squeeze this budget very hard. That means that I will be asking people to go the extra mile so that we can really knock people's socks off.
Everyone who supported the project will be receiving a more detailed report on progress in the coming days.
With 16 days to go the Facebook Funeral Kickstarter campaign has attracted just under £7000 in pledges. This is some serious cash and I could certainly make the film for that amount of money - but I am determined to produce a cinematic film with very high production values and the best cast and crew that are available. This is because the film is a staging post on the way to my first feature - A Love Like That - and the backers of that feature are only going to be impressed by something that blows people's heads clean off. The good news is that the Kickstarter campaign has attracted some serious interest in the film and I am now talking to two separate financiers, one of whom is interested in putting up half the budget and the other of whom is interested in financing the whole production. In addition the film has got through the first round of a nationwide new talent funding scheme and if the application is successful this would also provide full funding for the film. If I was a gambling man I would be hard pressed to say which of these funding options I would bet on but I can say that the Kickstarter route would be the best - because I could go ahead and make the film without having to compromise my vision in line with outside demands. That is not to say that I will be closed to suggestions and advice - and I very much believe in the philosophy of the director Stephen Daldry who listens to absolutely everybody's suggestions because 'you never know where a good idea might come from'.
Please check out the Facebook Funeral pledge video and other info here - and make a pledge. Unless I achieve the full amount you will not have to pay - but I'll still be eternally grateful!
'Facebook Funeral' is a ten minute short film that I have written and will be directing as a 'calling card' demonstration piece that I believe is going to make the world laugh and lead to me directing my first feature. It is an outrageous little story about a monstrously inappropriate eulogy given at the funeral of a girl who has died in a skydiving accident and the screenplay has already been winning over some serious players in the film industry. For example Samantha Waite, who was production manager on the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire and produced the Oscar nominated short Wish 143 (and is producing three features as I write) has agreed to produce Facebook Funeral and use her considerable contact list to bring in the best possible technicians and performers.
Samantha has already completed a budget and schedule for the project and I am launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to make the film to the highest possible professional standards. My ambitions for the film are to win festival awards and achieve massive viewing figures on line so that I can put together a persuasive case for directing my first feature A Love Like That. Please support m Kickstarter campaign either with hard cash or by sharing and promoting the campaign - I will be eternally grateful. People support Kickstarter type campaigns for all sorts of reasons - but for me its about not just waiting to see what the entertainment industry offers up next but playing an active role in choosing what projects you want to see come to fruition. You also get real rewards and in the case of Facebook Funeral these include limited edition and original artwork, storyboards, scripts and of course the opportunity to see the film before the rest of the world - at screenings or using a Vimeo code that will be sent to you when the film is completed.
Please go to the Kickstarter page here to see the video about the project and all other information:
My interview with David Hare is on the British Film Institute website here:
Or you can read the unedited version below
Best known for his screen adaptations of The Hours (2002) and The Reader (2008) Sir David Hare is a highly respected playwright who has been named as one of the fifty most influential Britons of the last fifty years by The Sunday Times. He is also a director who made television films in the seventies, three features in the eighties and recently a trilogy of films for the BBC starring Bill Nighy. The three films, which examine the role of the security services and big business in the War on Terror, began with Page 8 (2011) and when I met him recently at his Hampstead writing studio he had just completed post-production on the last two - Turks and Caicos and Salting the Battlefield (both 2014). I started by asking about his early life.
He credits the sheer dullness of his upbringing in Bexhill-on-Sea for inspiring him to write. “I was in a suburb that was incredibly boring so I was thrown back on my imagination” he tells me, while also acknowledging his Scottish mother’s emphasis on education and her drive to give him “a life she did not have”. His father worked on P&O liners and was often absent. Hare describes him as “anti-Semitic and racist - his politics were extreme right wing,” but he rejects the notion that his writing, which is often avowedly political and left leaning, has been a response to his father. He does concede that “there was a lack of love in our family and there was a sense that it was incomplete, and when my father did come home he was totally uninterested in us.” Hare found solace in the cinema, catching every film shown at the Playhouse Cinema in Bexhill, but he was also regularly seeing his mother perform with an amateur dramatics group that boasted a young Julie Christie among its members.
Hare, who was, by his own estimation, “very precocious,” won a scholarship place at Lancing College and he has said in the past that he had to alter his accent to fit in. I try to argue that his exposure to a class-bound institution might have influenced his approach to writing character but the suggestion falls on stony ground. However, when I suggest that nobody writes about a certain kind of English ruthlessness like he does (Ian McKellan’s speech about how to rise through the ranks of the Foreign Office in Plenty (1985) is a good example) he assigns this to his time at the posh private school.
Studying Literature at Cambridge he embraced an art which professors like FR Leavis dismissed as “stupidity”. “In the 60s cinema wasn’t just at the cutting edge of art, it was at the cutting edge of thinking. The people I loved: Louis Malle, (Ingmar) Bergman, (Michelangelo) Antonioni, (Federico) Fellini, (Jean-Luc) Godard - they were the great thinkers in Europe.” Later Hare helped set up the radical Portable Theatre Company, embarking on a career that has led to The Guardian calling him “The finest living British dramatist”. But things might have taken a very different turn. After leaving university, director Tony Richardson offered him a job as fourth assistant director on a forthcoming biopic of Che Guevara – a project that collapsed. “You needed luck,” he concludes, “and I didn’t have any luck.”
It is a surprising admission from someone who might be thought of as primarily a creature of the theatre but it becomes increasingly clear, as we talk, that he adores the cinema, though he is certainly not complacent about the difficulties of directing and is candid about past failures. Regarding his film Strapless (1989), he observed that film directors’ careers are often U shaped, adding that the film represented, for him “The bottom.” “The question will be ‘will you ever climb back up the other side?’ and so I went 20 years without making any films.”
When I asked if he would prefer to be remembered for his films or his plays he laughed heartily. “It’s like saying ‘what do you want to die of?’ – you’re not going to have any choice”. That said there was no doubt in my mind, by the end of our conversation, which of the two arts claimed his heart. At one point he remarked: “If I see a cinema with the name of my film on it, I’m just incredibly excited and I’m still excited at the age of 65 which is ridiculous. I don’t think you ever lose that if you have a deeply provincial childhood.”
Reading your plays and watching your films has been refreshing because your work is not just a distraction, you engage with the times.
The thing that’s important to me is the subject matter. The American actors in Turks and Caicos would say, “In America this script wouldn’t be possible”. I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, I thought American television was meant to be living through a golden period,” and they said, “Yes it’s living through a golden period stylistically but not in terms of content.” So there will be a series about what it’s like to be Vice President but it wont be about what Vice Presidents are actually, in the real world, dealing with and in particular the moral dilemmas that come out of The War on Terror are just a ‘no no’ either in the movies or on television.
You are in the very privileged position of being able to move between film and theatre…
The reason I wrote Page 8 (2011) was that I finally had the courage to spend a year writing something that might or might not be made. If I write a play I know it will go on. As I get older, I get scared that I’m going to waste time on something that doesn’t get made – it’s a complete waste of my time. So I finally said, “I’m going to have one last throw of the dice and I’m going to write an original film”. I hadn’t written an original film since Strapless.
When you sat down to write Page 8 you really didn’t know that it was gong to be made?
I showed it to Christine Langan, who was running BBC Films, and Christine said “You can either now spend two or three years with us, raising the money, and you having to listen to the views of all the partners, or if we do it for television we can be filming in six months time, so I made what I call an actuarial calculation and decided to be filming.
I wanted to ask about how you develop characters. You’ve said in the past that at Lancing College you had to adjust your accent and I had this idea that maybe that gave you an insight into how characters are constructed...
Not really. I think that when I started writing people struggled, actors struggled with the idea that my characters were different people according to who they were with. In other word; I’m a different person when I’m dealing with my mother, I’m another person when I’m dealing with the bank manager, I’m a completely different person when I’m talking to actors. It seems to me clear that we’re all many people.
When you’ve decided on your subject and who your characters are – do you then start blocking out – doing the heavy lifting and creating a story line or do you start writing scenes?
I start writing scenes.
Which is against everything that every book will tell you about how to write a screenplay…
If I’m adapting something then I will work out what the story is and then I will hang the dialogue on at the last minute. But with my own work, I want the freedom to go where the work leads me.
So surely that must lead you into writing a lot of scenes that take you off in the wrong direction.
But for you it’s essential to let the characters live and speak…
I had a brilliant script editor (on Turks and Caicos). I need somebody to talk to. I don’t in the theatre, but in the films I do and you have to be able to argue out where they’re going. Now obviously when I work with Scott Rudin, Scott is the person I do that with because I think he’s the most brilliant developer of a screenplay alive. I don’t think there’s anyone to touch him.
When you are directing your own screenplay do you give yourself more rehearsal time and use it as a writing tool?
In an ideal world the writer should plainly be there at rehearsal because the minute you have a great actor they will show you what you need and what you don’t need and so why would you not go to a Meryl Streep rehearsal? Or a Christopher Walken rehearsal? Because the minute Chris says your words, you know what you need and what you don’t need and he will say to you, “I don’t really need that because I can imply that,” and so the craziness is not to be at the rehearsal. But if you’re only the writer it’s a very tiring way of life because you basically have to go out to bloody Pinewood at eight o’clock in the morning, attend the rehearsal and your day is ruined.
I find the changes that you make on the day the most satisfying part of filmmaking. I love it.
The changes you make on the day when you’re actually shooting?
Yes – or when an actor comes to you and says, “You know I feel I should have something in this scene where I…” you know – and those bits that you write on the spot are deeply satisfying – they’re lovely, you know you sort of go: “I woke up without even knowing I’d have that idea and now its in the can and its perfect because an actor brought it to my attention.”
I thought the acting styles of the British and American actors in Turks and Caicos were meshed together beautifully. I wondered what your attitude to improvisation was.
I suppose I would crudely say what I do stand for - I mean I am very aware that two of the most conspicuous films of this year are The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle and both are plainly improvised by the actors - and when people say the Wolf of Wall Street has the word “fuck” 520 times, I know, from experience, that when you ask actors to improvise they tend to use the word “fuck”, and that’s why it appears 520 times. Clearly that kind of acting is the very opposite of the kind of acting that I admire and so I’m very deliberately not using those kinds of American actors who come to the set and expect to improvise and say something close to the line. I’m insisting that the actors say exactly the line because I want the whole thing to be an ensemble and I want the English to belong with the American. Look, I admire improvisation as a technique. In other words if you spend six months, as Mike Lee does or John Cassavetes did, that will achieve an effect of style that is very very satisfying, but if you throw an actor onto a film set and say, “Can you please just say whatever comes into your head”… you know…I think that kind of belief that if the actor makes the line up on the day it’s going to be more real also leads to a very generalized kind of acting that is not precise and I really, I don’t really know how to say this tactfully so maybe I wont say it tactfully, but I think some of the worst acting I have seen this year is in American Hustle. I think they’re four very bad performances. And I’m absolutely astonished that they’re nominated for Oscars. Because they’re all very good actors who are in my view doing their worst work, by a kind of sloppy generalizing. They’re rotten performances.
You’re collaborations with Stephen Daldry have been particularly fruitful – has Stephen influenced you in the way that you’ve directed?
Oh yeah - I don’t think I’d have gone back to directing… I think that in the eighties, as I sensed that I was getting worse, I became more and more defensive and more and more, “I am the author of this film”. Stephen is the most collegiate director I know - I mean to a fault. In other words I will kind of say to him, “Stephen we don’t have to ask the caterers what they think of the script you know, we do not have to go through the caterers! Because he literally will ask anyone their opinion and he is completely un-defensive, so it’s wonderful for me and I learned that you’re not, as a film director, doing that awful thing called “protecting your vision” - what you’re doing is opening out your vision. It’s having the confidence to listen to everybody and everybody will then contribute creatively.
There’s talk now of cinema breaking into two because the 200 million dollar blockbusters are such big spectacles that when people go to the cinema it’s seen as ridiculous that you pay the same price to go and see that film as you do to see something that cost two or three million - do you see any danger in that?
I just think that the whole...I mean it’s silly to say the game is up but certainly the properly financed serious film is now an endangered form. You know we made The Hours and The Reader - both of them cost 20 – 25 million dollars, both of them did what you dream of, which is you break out – you get out of the art house, although they are art house subjects, and you go into the mainstream and you take over a 100 million dollars. So everyone takes home 50 million dollars, but the studios have now decided that that’s not enough and that they’re only interested in taking home 300 million dollars.
I guess the whole way people view things is changing so fast.
Totally, I mean there was a ridiculous thing in the paper where somebody said - a film writer said, “It’s very hard to understand why David Hare, who can do anything he wants in theatre or film, is wasting his time on television,” and you just go, “This person doesn’t get it, they haven’t noticed that the world has changed over the last 25 years and I think changed for good – I don’t mean for better, I mean for ever.
I read somewhere that you watch a lot of films.
I now keep a diary of my film watching activity and its 250 – 260 films a year. I watch a film most days. My wife and I love to watch a DVD at 6 or 7 in the evening.
I just happen to be married to somebody who loves the cinema as much as I do and so we love watching a film. I still don’t think of it as my profession, whereas going to the theatre is a bit of a torment to me - a duty – and I don’t really enjoy it as much as I enjoy watching the movies.
A real treat yesterday - I was privileged to be invited into Sir David Hare's snug writing studio in Hampstead for a chat about his career and the art of screenwriting for a Sight and Sound article. Hare is best known for writing the screenplays for The Hours and The Reader but he is also a prolific playwright who has achieved the remarkable feat of having three plays running on Broadway simultaneously.
He was charming, loquacious, fascinating and a tiny bit indiscreet - which hopefully will make for a decent piece for the film buff's bible. The studio, which was like the ultimate man cave (for a man who is obsessed with theatre, film and literature) was once the painting studio of the artist Mark Gertler who was played by Rufus Sewell in the 1995 film Carrington, the script for which was written by Hare's old mucker at Lancing College, Christopher Hampton.
The route by which I ended up chewing the fat with this eminent scribe (named by the Sunday Times as one of the 50 most influential Britons of the last 50 years) is somewhat tortuous. Some years ago I sneaked into a series of lectures by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière at the FAMU film school in Prague. The school were so hard up that when they heard I had a car they asked me if I would drive him to the airport. I hastily ran outside to give my beaten up Citroen a bit of a wipe down with some paper towels and a bottle of water (it was covered in cherry blossom). On the drive to the airport Carrière was chatty and told me a thing or two about working with the great Luis Buñuel but when he complained of being too hot there was a bit of an incident. I turned on the car's airconditioning and a thick cloud of cherry blossom fired into Carrière's face. He didn't see the funny (or surreal) side of this but in his defence he was exhausted at the time. However a few months later he was good enough to agree to let me interview him at his home in Paris - and when I told Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound, he commissioned the piece which you can read below. Subsequently I have always grabbed the opportunity to meet screenwriters whom I admire - it's a great chance to learn from them.
Interviewing the screenwriter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Cyrano De Bergerac (1990) and most of Luis Buñuel’s French oeuvre requires me to find a discreet Parisian archway that leads into a charming tree-shaded courtyard. On one side stands a large white house with a spacious front terrace, in the middle of which stands Carrière, the man who describes film as “the first language successfully invented by man”.
In France Jean-Claude Carrière is known as a leading intellectual who happens to have one of the longest and most distinguished lists of screenwriting credits in the world. Mention him to a French person and they are likely to talk about his book Conversations Sur L’invisible, his exploration of the frontiers of science, or his theatrical partnership with Peter Brook. His TV film La Controverse de Valladolid (1992), a 16th Century courtroom drama, is often cited as an example of the occasional excellence of French television. Where another writer might have been typecast for life as a surrealist following “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) Carrière has been mercurial in the extreme, working with directors as diverse as Jesus Franco and Louis Malle. Today he is as much in demand as ever. He has just returned from Spain where Milos Forman is filming his script for ‘Goya’s Ghost’.
Before I have even asked him a question he starts to talk about The Mahabharata. He adapted this ancient Indian epic for a 1985 stage production directed by Peter Brook and it later emerged as a five and a half hour film in 1989. He has recently been asked to take a stage production back to India and the project is clearly important to him. “An Indian friend said to me: ‘once you have entered the Mahabharata you never escape’ – but” he adds, “it’s a pleasure - a delight.”
As Carrière explains the startling parallels between the story and the war in Iraq I notice that the room we are in is furnished with ancient Indian carvings and I begin to wonder if it will be possible to shift the conversation to his early career – particularly events leading up to his meeting Luis Buñuel in 1963. Biographical information about Carrière is surprisingly scarce but when I ask him what made him a writer in the first place he answers willingly.
“I am a pure product of the system of public education in France”, he begins, adding that he was “born to be a peasant”. His parents could not have afforded to send him to college but at the age of nine and a half he was judged the brightest child in his département and this put him on a path that lead to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure in Saint-Cloud. Here he received the education which, he believes, forms the bedrock of his ability to tell stories well, but he places equal emphasis on the practical skills he aquired. “Some of the teachers really taught me how to work, how, for example to use a library. This saves you a lot of time later. Even now I work much more rapidly than young people”.
To Illustrate he tells me about the research he undertook for the script for Cyrano De Bergerac. Facing the tricky question of how Cyrano escapes each day through the besieging Spanish lines to post his letter to Roxanne, Carrière started looking at agricultural history. He discovered that in the 17th century the wheat was considerably taller than it is today. He contacted France’s Musée d’Histoire Naturelle and it emerged that strains of ancient cereal crops had been preserved. A field was sown in Hungary and several months later - voila! Not only can Cyrano run, unseen, through the towering wheat but also the director, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, had an image for the poster.
After university Carrière, like many Frenchmen of his generation, did his national service in Algeria, the subject of his only autobiographical film - C’était La Guerre (1993). He had, however, already published a novel and two novelizations of Jacques Tati films. Tati had invited writers to submit outlines for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Carrière won the commission by proposing that the story be told from the point-of-view of a minor character in the film. He followed this up with a reverse-adaptation of ‘Mon Oncle”. The novelization may be a debased genre, but it seems an extraordinarily fitting way for a novelist to begin his metamorphosis into screenwriter.
Despite what Carrière describes as Tati’s “paranoia – his persecution mania” they became good friends and Tati instructed his assistant, Pierre Etaix, to let Carrière learn about the film making process. “I was already completely addicted to film. This was the early sixties and everybody wanted to make films, I was a member of the cineclub at university, I didn’t want to do anything else.”
But Carrière’s interest extended beyond mere film fandom and throughout his career he has directed his considerable intellectual powers towards understanding film’s continually evolving grammar. Where other film makers of his generation might have shown a tendency to become nostalgic about the old ways of doing things, Carrière has been far too busy observing the way this new language is constantly shaping and enriching itself. A typical passage in his 1994 book The Secret language of Film analyses the development of the filmed close-up of the human gaze, showing how the actors have been directed to look progressively closer to the camera. Both this analytical approach and his love of sharing his knowledge eventually lead to his directorship of FEMIS, France’s most prestigious film school, and nowadays he gives lectures and screenwriting seminars all over the world.
On his return from Algeria Carrière teamed up with Pierre Etaix and a producer gave them the opportunity to make two short films. The second, “Heureux Anniversaire” (1962), won the Oscar for best short. “When the producer told us we had won the Oscar we asked ‘What is an Oscar’?” A first feature “Le Soupirant” (also dated 1962), followed. It was a remake of a Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) and it won the attention of Luis Buñuel.
“The very first edition of La Révolution Surréaliste had included an article about Buster Keaton and American slapstick – which was very close to the surrealistic state of mind”. Buñuel had also admired a documentary that Carrière had written about the sexual life of animals but when they met in Cannes Carrière was far from being a shoe-in for the job of writing Buñuel’s next feature.“ Buñuel met four or five other writers, but I knew he was looking to adapt ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ so I had already done the preparation and we had a long talk about it. A week later the producer called me and said, ‘you are going to Spain tomorrow’. That was the beginning of my wandering around the world.”
From then on Buñuel employed Carrière to write all his French films in a partnership that lasted 19 years. Their final collaboration, on Buñuel’s book of memoirs (My Last Sigh, 1982), provides a telling anecdote that speaks volumes about Carrière’s quiet determination and adaptability.
“He (Buñuel) couldn’t work any more – he was seventy nine – eighty. I proposed to him that we write a book about him but he said ‘no’. So to convince him I wrote, by myself, one of the chapters as if I was Buñuel. And he read it and he said to me ‘I think I wrote it!’ And I said ‘well in a way you did’ because from talking with him so much I knew his character and his history. So then we sat down and started to work exactly as if it were a script. Working together in the morning, talking - with me alone in the afternoon; writing.”
Carrière is clearly proud of his achievements and he doesn’t clutter up his conversation with false modesty, but in his working life it is perhaps his ability to set aside his own ego and enter the mind-set of a highly idiosyncratic creative personality that has drawn so many of the worlds finest directors to him over the years. When I ask about his lack of professional egoism he describes it as being simply a matter of “personal character” but he admits to learning about the need for a writer to be flexible early on. “I was asked to adapt Robinson Crusoe for television and in one of the very first meetings the producer said to me; ‘don’t you think Crusoe is a little bit too much alone?’ So after that I was ready for anything!” The irony is that his openness has lead not to his being pushed around and forced to work on rubbish – but instead to producing a body of work that is consistently of the highest quality. Glancing through his credits a pattern emerges that cannot but speak in his favour; if a director you have heard of has teamed up with Carrière once – you can be sure he came back for more.
The success of the films themselves obviously plays a significant part in this but clearly the atmosphere of mutual respect and amicability is important. There is a sense also that Carrière enters each new project with the attitude that he is going to learn something and might even be changed by it – rather than with a set of fixed ideas. What is without doubt is that he always brings his remarkably robust imagination. Whether you are telling the story of a woman falling in love with a chimpanzee as in Max Mon Amour (1986), or a bunch of petty criminals on the make in post war France (Le Gang, 1977), Carrière will enter the situation with unbridled enthusiasm. “The imagination is a seamless capacity of the mind”” he says “but it is also a sort of muscle.”
It was Buñuel who introduced to him the idea of giving this muscle a workout. After their days work on a script they would both withdraw to their rooms to create a story. “Then we would meet at the cocktail hour to tell them to each other. After a long day I was often tired and would have preferred to watch TV!” Even now he makes an effort to stretch his imagination, seeking out the “vicious and the criminal” within himself.
Interestingly enough Carrière does not share that great obsession of all screenwriting gurus – story structure. “They are teachers, not writers” he says – then diplomatically adds; “I have lunch with Sid Field (the American screenwriting teacher) whenever he comes to Paris. I have absolutely no disdain for these teachers. I agree with Kant that you must know the laws if you want to break them, but I had a classical education. I learned storytelling from Shakespeare, Racine, Seneca.. also – when you are working with the kind of directors I work with, you know you are not going to respect conventional ways of storytelling”.
At this point in our conversation a beautiful dark-eyed little girl totters into the room and clambers onto Carrière’s lap. This is his two-and-a-half year old daughter, Kiara, by his Iranian-born wife. He has another daughter by a previous marriage and is also a grandfather. Carrière’s deep voice seems to hypnotise Kiara and she quickly falls asleep.
If he has a bugbear it is the unfairness of the American dominance of cinema distribution in Europe – what he calls, “the free fox in the free henhouse”. In his opinion European integration has made the situation worse because American distributors no longer have to deal with countries individually. But today, rather than focus on the adverse effects this has on Europe, he chooses to pity the Americans who, he says, only get to watch American films; “What I call the solitude of American culture”.
Carrière has worked, occasionally, for American studios but when I ask what kind of practical differences he encountered he replies, “Certainly I signed a different kind of contract but the American films I worked for were not really American. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) for instance, takes place in Europe, Phil Kauffman (the director) is a friend of mine.”
Mentioning this film triggers Carrière to talk about a year with which he is perhaps identified more than any other screenwriter. In 1968 he had just finished writing The Milky Way for Buñuel and was working on the script for Taking Off (1971), Milos Forman’s essay on the American hippy movement. They researched the script in New York then proceeded to Paris to do the writing - just as the May riots were coming to the boil. Still regularly meeting Buñuel, Carrière had a unique perspective on events. “Buñuel was coming from Fascist Spain and Milos from Communist Czechoslovakia, and they could not understand, at all, what the students wanted.” But Carrére supported the students and still does; “we gained so much. It was the beginning of women’s liberation, homosexual rights, the ecology movement – everything was being born”. Certainly the events of ’68 are a subject he is qualified to speak on. As well as living through them he has written a diverse trilogy of films specifically set in that year – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Taking Off (1971), and Milou in May (1990), as well as a novel (The Years of Utopia).
Talking to Carrière I am aware that I am in the presence of a man for whom life has been a remarkably stimulating adventure. Driven by a consuming curiosity and a willingness to learn and change, he has become the epitome of the successful European screenwriter. He has been courteous and willing to talk about the past while his enthusiasm for the things he is working on now has proved to be irrepressible. He tells me that he hates to repeat himself and recently turned down an offer to adapt another Indian epic, the Ramayana. Instead he has chosen to enter the world of opera. “I noticed that in opera there are long scenes of dialogue which are not sung. They are always boring and very bad, and badly acted.” He had the idea of writing, instead, a short text that would be read out by a professional actor (Carole Bouquet recently performed this role at Paris’s Théâtre du Chatelet). “Maybe it’s a new form” he says “and that really interests me”.
Kiara is stirring awake and we have started to bite into time set aside for another meeting. It is time to bring the interview to a close. Finally he tells me a charming story with a winning mixture of irony and regret. He has retained what he calls his “native home” in the rural Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, where he likes to keep in touch with his peasant roots. He recently invited over a neighbour of his own age who has never left the region, to show him a dry stone wall Carrière had built with his own hands (a craft he has taken to with characteristic vigour). The neighbour assessed his handiwork and finally announced: “You have not lost everything”. Even this idea – the idea that Jean-Claude Carrière should never have left the family farm – is one that he is open to.
Every year it happens. Some time around mid September I see a too-early Christmas-themed TV advert and my inner Scrooge wakes up and says ‘Humbug’. Then, usually in late December, someone puts on the DVD of Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 film Scrooge (released as A Christmas Carol in the US) and I wake up to what Christmas is all about.
Although there have been many film versions of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, in which he pretty much invents our modern secular approach to Christmas, Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1952 version stands head and shoulders above all the others. Orson Wells once said that it was the fate of all films to become old fashioned and this is certainly true of older film versions, which are now curiosities for hard core film buffs. But, through a strange alchemy, Hurst’s film seems to acquire more power with each passing decade.
This is partly because of the perfect adaptation undertaken by the screenwriter Noel Langley (who also did the adaptation on The Wizard of Oz – although on that film he shared credit with others). Langley successfully boils the story down with such consummate professionalism that one is left feeling that the book has been subsumed and no longer needs to be read. But another reason for the film’s increasing emotional impact with each passing year is that the film was made at a time when all the myriad artistic and technical aspects of film were sufficiently advanced that we don’t feel shut out of the film yet it appears, more and more, to actually emanate from the Dickensian age – it feels like the authentic telling of the tale. And this is perhaps not an entirely far fetched notion - as everybody involved in the film would have known people who lived during Dickens’ time and therefore, however tentatively, they still had one little toe dipped in that age.
What is more some of them had ‘Dickensian’ experiences. The director himself was born in East Belfast in 1895 into a working class family. His mother died in 1899 leaving his father to raise six surviving children. At thirteen he had to leave school to work in a linen factory.
Incidentally Brian Desmond Hurst is one of only five British directors to have blue plaques on their houses (the others are David Lean, John Schlesinger, Alexander Mackenderick and Michael Powell) – and should probably be a household name for Scrooge alone.
Hurst’s Scrooge was a box office hit in 1951 and it must have been a joy indeed to see it fresh in a cinema at the time. Perhaps it’s popularity in Britain partly stemmed from the fact that people had been living under wartime austerity conditions for years (meat and food rationing didn’t end until 1954) – conditions which imposed a sort of Scrooge-like regime on people, and the message that it was time for you to loosen up, let go of all the scrimping and saving and indulge a little must have seemed very appealing.
Alastair Sim’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge is so perfect that Jim Carey had the good taste to steal his characterization and vocal delivery for the 2009 animated version of the same story (sadly Carey’s version is spoiled by excessive sentimentality and pointless CGI spectacle – at one point Scrooge flies to the moon for no reason!) Sim had just been voted Britain’s most popular Film actor when he played Scrooge – a part he was perfect for in every way. Aged fifty-one it took little effort for him to look older and his own personality was not dissimilar to that of Ebenezer after he is transformed by his night of ghoulish encounters. In the film he sings “I don’t know anything, I never did know anything, but now I know that I don’t know – all on a Christmas morning”, a sentiment not far removed from a delightful utterance from the actor himself: “It was revealed to me many years ago with conclusive certainty that I was a fool and that I had always been a fool. Since then I have been as happy as any man has a right to be.”
Another highlight of the film is Mervyn John’s portrayal of Bob Cratchet - one of the most perfectly judged performances in all cinema and one which makes it unbearable to watch more modern versions of the films as they tend to try and milk the emotions, rather than intelligently underplaying them. The scene where Scrooge reveals to Bob Cratchet that he wants to ‘Help raise that family of yours’ makes me weep every time – because Mervyn John’s does not go all cringingly and pathetically grateful – instead he looks frightened – thinking that Scrooge has lost his mind. The poor man has been so ill-treated that madness is the only explanation he can think of for a man suddenly being kind to him. Likewise the scene where he describes how he has found the perfect burial plot for his son Tiny Tim is beautifully judged and brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. Rather than delivering the speech as someone who is deeply sad he instead delivers it as someone who is thrilled to have found the perfect spot to lay his son’s body to rest. Such intelligent playing against the grain almost certainly comes from Dickens’ writing – like any good writer he avoids writing on the nail of the emotion – but staying true to such things takes courage. It is impossible to know if such decisions were made by the actor or the director but it is remarkable how again and again in modern versions they get it wrong. Emotions are drawn out of audiences when you show characters trying bravely to triumph over adversity and master their emotions, not wallowing in adversity and indulging their emotions.
Also brilliant in the film is Kathleen Harrison as Mrs Dilber, a woman who has been brutalized into utter callousness by the mean bloodless world she inhabits. Harrison's performance is utterly impeccable and the part allows for broader comic moments – such as when she runs screaming from the room when Scrooge threatens to do a handstand in his nightshirt - a golden moment in world cinema. What is so incredible is the way our sympathies for this woman are awoken the moment she becomes the recipient of a bit of human warmth and decency. Even though we know she would have sold the very sheets on his bed when he died we realize that Scrooge's awakened humanity is going to allow her to be the person she should be.
I find it very hard to do justice to this film in writing – and perhaps all I really need to do is recommend the film and leave it at that. I do know that absolutely the best Christmas present you could give yourself is to settle into a big old armchair with a cup of tea and some hot buttered crumpets and watch the 1951 Scrooge without smartphone, ipad or laptop to distract you. I promise you will have a merrier Christmas as a result.
To listen to a podcast documentary about Brian Desmond Hurst click here: http://tinyurl.com/3vme8dq