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 A Guide To Fast Filmmaking

As a boy I used to watch filmmakers on talk shows speaking of how their project was seven years in the making and I never believed them. How could it possibly take so long to get a film from page to screen? I still don’t believe it even though I’ve been through it myself. Seven years. Ridiculous.

Yet it’s a fact that I was in Los Angeles for the Golden Globes in 1997 carrying with me a copy of my screenplay of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies and it’s a fact too that the finished movie, Bright Young Things will be opening in the U.S. in August of 2004, more than seven years later.

So what happened in between?

I’d very much like to know the answer to that question myself.

I remember tramping the streets of London’s Soho in the company of co-producer Miranda Davis, knocking on the door of anyone who’d ever had anything to do with film financing or film production. I remember an endless stream of lunches and snatched meetings in hotel bars. I remember chains of email and litter-baskets of memos and letters. I remember sweating along the Croisette in Cannes, late for meetings in bars and on boats and beaches.

I remember being initiated into the fantastical rites and dizzying argot of U.K. film finance. Section 48. Sales and lease-back. Section 42. Double-dipping. I remember pondering the oddity of the rogue prepositions “off” and “on.” You never signed a contract. You signed off on a contract.

Although in fact everyone seemed very reluctant to sign off on any contracts at all. Which, I remember, was the problem. Until parties signed off on things there was no cash-flow. No cash-flow, no casting. No casting, no commitment. No commitment, no signing off on, at, by, with or from of anything. No signing off, no picture.

I remember thinking how much easier it is to erect a house of cards starting with only the top layer than it is to get a film made.

I was fortunate however. Being an actor and writer I had things to occupy myself with. I was in Paris doing a few days on Merchant Ivory’s Le Divorce when co-producer Gina Carter called up and told me to be at Cannes again. The company Film Four was going to announce our film. There would be a launch lunch (not on a boat sadly. I have known launch lunches on launches, the thought of which can only please). There would be plenty of hoo-hah, however: bells, whistles, party-squeakers and champagne. We were on.

I took the fabled train bleu from the Gare du Nord to the Riviera, expecting adventuresses in fur and jewels, murdered Dukes and extravagantly moustachioed Belgian detectives. Sadly, the Blue Train is more or less a toilet on wheels. No dining-car. Not even a bar or food stand. Just revolting cabins smelling of that peculiarly vile disinfectant that the French specialize in. But once I arrived in Cannes, the launch lunch was fine.

Only what happened was that two weeks later, on our return to England, Channel Four, the parent company, announced the dissolution of Film Four. It went up in smoke along with its slate of six films, of which mine was one.

This is when you believe all is lost. A project that is publicly on then publicly off can acquire a bad smell, which may be nothing to do with the script and the project per se. It just gets Jonah-ed and everyone steers clear.

But somehow, the reverse happened. A company called the Film Consortium galloped to the rescue on shining white steeds. Another called Visionview followed in short order and within weeks I was sitting in production offices in Pinewood Studios casting and location-scouting and planning and polishing and preparing while in lawyers offices in London, the producers Davis and Carter were signing off on everything that was pushed across the table at them.

The shooting went like shooting does in England. A constant worry over weather and a constant delight in the cast and crew. Well, when you’ve got Peter O’Toole, Jim Broadbent, Stockard Channing, Dan Aykroyd, Sir John Mills, Richard E. Grant and Simon Callow on board, it’s not going to be agony, is it? But even Sir John Mills can’t make the rain stop so there was plenty to keep that ulcer of mine awake.

Then the editing began.

I’m very fortunate in that I have a rabbi in all things cinematic in the shape of the peerless William Goldman, one of the finest screenwriters alive and author of those matchless windows on the film world, Adventures In The Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? I’ve been lucky enough to know Bill for many years and he has put up with my footling questions and insecurities all this while.

“Well,” I emailed him jubilantly as Day One of post-production approached. “The first two thirds of the three parts of film-making, pre-production and shooting are over. Just the last third, post, to come.”

He wrote back, pityingly. “Know this,” he said, “there are only two parts. Film making and film selling. You’re two thirds of the way through the first part only.”

He was right, as he always is; the publicity trail never ends. This very article is part of it. A pleasurable part naturally….

The cutting, dubbing and grading flashed by in four months. I’d never had more fun. We opened in London. We screened at Sundance and the picture offers itself to the American people in August. Seven and a half years after I completed the script.

So what I want to know is: how did it all happen so fast?

 

Actor/writer Stephen Fry (Gosford Park, Wilde) makes his directorial debut with a comic look at wealthy young socialites in 1930s London who embrace every vice in an attempt to be "modern." Leading the cadre is Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore), well-connected but poor, and his beautiful, bored fiancée Nina (Emily Mortimer). As his outlandish money-making schemes falter, the party crowd seems to self-destruct, one by one, endlessly seeking newer and faster sensations until forced to reconsider what they value most. Adapted from Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies. Co-starring David Tennant, Stockard Channing, Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, Simon Callow and Peter O'Toole.