B R I E F   S Y N O P S I S
Crime novelist Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) languishes in his hospital bed, mapping out a screenplay in his head about a cynical private investigator who doubles as a singer in a dance band. Heavily medicated, the border between reality and fiction blurs in Dark's mind as the P.I. is slowly drawn into a web of intrigue during a murder investigation in 1950s Los Angeles. Robin Wright Penn, Katie Holmes, Jeremy Northam, Adrien Brody and Mel Gibson co-star. Screenplay by Dennis Potter, adapted from his BBC television series. Directed by Keith Gordon (Waking the Dead).
  The Singing Detective

Whenever I'm asked to describe The Singing Detective—the feature I directed from the late Dennis Potter's 1992 screenplay adaptation of his 1980s BBC television series—I smile and say, "It's your basic comedy/drama/surreal lip-synched 1950s rock and roll musical/expressionist, absurd film-noir/naturalistic character study of a man facing a terrible disease in a hospital in the early 1990s."

Of course, that's oversimplifying a bit. Potter was also a social satirist who wanted us to look at how, for better or worse, the pop culture around us forms who we are and how we see the world. He also had a very healthy (and funny) distrust of authority—whether doctors, film executives, literary critics or anyone else who set themselves up as the voice of 'how things should be.' He delighted in crashing different genres and styles into each other to shake his viewers out of their staid notions of how a story should be told. The fact that he did it with a great sense of perverse fun and black humor kept his work from ever feeling too 'good for you.' To me he's the spiritual godfather of writers like Charlie Kaufman.

I fell in love with Potter's film script in 1992, a couple of years before his death. Before reading it I was wary; how could you compress the seven hour original into an under two hour film? But Potter had a clear eyed vision of what he wanted. By moving the film to America, changing the time frame, and refocusing the story he created something altogether new and specific. It wasn't 'better' than the original. It wasn't meant to be in competition. It was its own thing. As the author himself said in his book Potter on Potter, "First of all, it's not in any sense a précis of the original series, and secondly, it is totally rethought."

I chased the piece around for ten years, but I never got very close. It was always tied up at some studio or other, with the plan to make it for sixty million with this A+ list star and that Oscar® winning director. I'd get in the door for the occasional meeting, and quickly be brushed off. Basically, "come back when you've made a film that's grossed a hundred million."

But the film never got made in the mainstream. It was Mel Gibson who realized the way to make this kind of material was as an independent film, on a reasonable budget. So, after chasing the film for ten years, it quite literally fell into my lap at the last possible moment, about twelve weeks before shooting was supposed to start.

I'd never come into a film with that little time, and trying to put a film this complex together that quickly, without money to throw at problems, seemed daunting. I was especially worried about casting, since, beyond Robert Downey Jr.'s central character, it really is an ensemble piece, full of great roles. But without great actors there was no way to achieve the writing's potential.

But I underestimated the power of Potter's words to attract great actors on short notice (and with little cash). So by a few weeks later we had a cast that included Robin Wright Penn, Adrien Brody, Katie Holmes, Jeremy Northam, Alfre Woodard and Mel Gibson himself, throwing himself into a role utterly different than anything anyone has ever seen him do.

Almost immediately upon taking the job, I started being asked by fans of the original (sometimes in angry tones): "Why re-make The Singing Detective?" "Why set it in America?" "Why change the character's name from Philip Marlowe to Dan Dark?" "Why would you want to direct it?" Etc. So, for those who are worried, a few thoughts:

First, this isn't a remake. It's a rethinking in another medium, much like Steven Soderbergh's film Traffic, which also came from a BBC series. And, in this case the rethinking was done by the original creator. Had The Singing Detective been a play, would anyone have the same worry about the author rethinking it for film?

Also, remember that the idea of retelling the story with an 'American accent' was Potter's, and I believe he had specific reasons. The modern detective novel/character/noir film is so rooted in the American psyche, and deals with some of the specific oddness of this culture in the 20th century. Among other things, the American obsession with 'answers' to life's complexities, and our ever growing xenophobia and fear of the 'other.' It's no accident that Potter updated the noir sequences to the fifties, when McCarthyism was in full flower, and that those sequences are now more redolent of Sam Fuller and Mickey Spillane than Philip Marlowe. (That also addresses the question of the character's name change). He was also addressing the American film ideal of the 'man alone against the world'—spurning intimacy and human contact (again—I don't think it's by accident that Potter isolates the character in a private room in the U.S. version). I think he relished the chance to observe and skewer the U.S. mindset the same way he did the English.

Last, keep in mind how few people here ever got to see the original. I think Potter was hoping to speak to a new generation, a new country, and a new audience. I believe that's why Potter's children have their names on the film as co-producers. What any artist wants is to communicate, and hopefully this work will introduce his genius to many who may have never heard of him before. If it inspires some to go and get DVDs of the original, I'd be thrilled.

As to why I would take this on—what director could resist Potter's mad genius? I knew there would be those who would resist the film no matter what we did. But knowing this is what Potter had wanted, to have the chance to work with words and ideas of this rare wit, quality and intelligence, was worth whatever resistance we may encounter.

I hope you like it.


©2004 Landmark Theatres