Friends Reunited (2003)
So David [Thewlis] and his girlfriend Anna [Friel] were staying with Trudie [Styler] and Sting [who has no surname] when David decided to show Trudie his movie script. She loved it! Together, and with a little help from Luc [Besson], they decided to get it made.
So… is your film any good, or is it a monstrous vanity project that is going to come hopelessly unstuck? “Don’t ask me,” says David Thewlis, his mouth filled with nasty ravioli from the Shepperton film studios canteen. “I have no idea yet. I’ve been cutting the thing for four weeks and I’ve got no perspective. That’s the reason I hate doing interviews when I’m in the middle of a project. I keep having to do these TV interviews for the film, and you have to be upbeat.”
Thewlis mimics his interview technique: “‘Yeah, this project is really exciting, we’re having a great time. And it’s a brilliant film because of this, this and this.’ And you end up eating your words. It turns out not to be such a brilliant film for whatever reasons, but then they show these interviews when the film’s released, and you’re saying it’s a wonderful film and then they cut back to the studio and the critics say it’s a pile of shit. ‘But I didn’t know! I was in the middle of making the fucking thing!’”
Whether the film in question – which stars Thewlis, as well as being written and directed by him – turns out to be any good will become clear when it finally gets an airing – at Venice, he hopes – later this year. It’s called “Cheeky” and tells the story of toyshop owner Harry Sankey (played by Thewlis) who leads a simple life in the quiet northern town of Gigglethwaite until the sudden death of his wife, Nancy. Her last wish is that he become a contestant on a quiz show called “Cheeky”, hosted by a northern stand-up called Alf Price (played by Johnny Vegas), in which participants win prizes according to the skill with which they insult each other. On the show, he meets a contestant called, coincidentally, Nancy (played by Trudie Styler). She attempts to draw him out of his misery, and in so doing unwittingly helps Harry to rebuild his relationship with his estranged, mother-idolising son, Sam.
How did the idea for the film come about? Are you exploring some sort of Oedipal conflict with your dad in the film’s central father-son relationship? Thewlis nearly gags on his pasta. “I don’t think so. My dad ran a toyshop in Blackpool, but I think that’s about as far as the parallels go.”
The germ of “Cheeky’s” plot apparently came to Thewlis when he was working on a sitcom in Nottingham in the 1980s. “I used to sit next to Leslie Crowther in make-up while he was doing “The Price is Right”. And there was this other quiz show that was being filmed there. One day I saw one of the contestants after he’d won a lot of money, but he was crying. It didn’t look like he was crying for joy, so I wondered why he was. I had this idea that he’d probably just heard that his wife had died, just then after the show. And then that got changed in my head to what if his wife had died a few weeks before – but then, why would he be on the show? And that got mixed up with an idea about a man who was on a quiz show who became famous in his town for a few weeks, but didn’t want to be. That was originally a short film idea.”
Thewlis wrote the bulk of the script in Bratislava in 1996 when he was playing an evil monarch in the fantasy film Dragonheart. He was King Einon, Pete Postlethwaite played Gilbert of Glockenspur and Dennis Quaid was a dragon-slaying knight. “It was so boring and Dragonheart was so unchallenging – there was no research involved or any rehearsal. So I was in my hotel room every night with no English-language TV except ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ at 10 o’clock every night. And I didn’t want to go out because everybody was drinking and I wasn’t drinking much then. So I started work on an idea, and by the end of three months I’d written most of it.”
Were you getting tired of acting? “I was getting tired of being in unchallenging stuff,” says Thewlis. And indeed, after his extraordinary performance as Johnny in Mike Leigh’s 1993 film “Naked”, for which he won best actor at Cannes, many of his roles have demanded little and have been in films that delivered even less. His personal nadir was playing an earthworm in “James and the Giant Peach”, but he has also managed to pick a fair number of turkeys – he played the French poet Paul Verlaine opposite Leonardo DiCaprio’s preposterous Arthur Rimbaud in the dire “Total Eclipse”, and was in such flops as Bertolucci’s “Besieged”, “Seven Years in Tibet”, “The Island of Dr Moreau” and “Restoration”. Perhaps he wanted to try something new. “I was keen to do something other than acting. I’ve always written – I have a novel waiting to be edited – so writing a filmscript seemed a good idea. I’ve already directed a short film.”
“Cheeky” was put into development by FilmFour. “But, because I’m a procrastinator, nothing happened. It was only when I was staying at Trudie and Sting’s villa in Italy that the thing got going.” Come again? “Anna [his partner, the actor Anna Friel] and I were invited to stay with Trudie and Sting. Anna had been in ‘Me Without You’ [Sandra Goldbacher's teen-girlfriends film] with Trudie [as Friel's mother] and they became friends. We were asked for a weekend and we ended up staying for four weeks. One day Trudie said she’d love to read my script. I had my computer with me, so I printed it out and she spent the afternoon reading it. And then she came out and said, ‘This is wonderful. I really want to produce it.’ We decided we were going to play the leading roles quite early on.”
Back in London, Styler introduced him to the wonderfully named US actor/producer Travis Swords. “Next thing you know we’re in Cannes meeting Luc Besson and he’s pumping money into the project.” Did the veteran French producer-director give you any creative tips, as well as money? “He did. One day he arrived at Trudie’s place in Wiltshire and went through the script. ‘This you will not film. This is good but it needs to go here, not there.’ He was very helpful. Then he went out on to the lawn and flew off in his helicopter back to Normandy. Like you do.”
Shooting started at Shepperton on October 22 last year. While Thewlis finessed his script, and filled the film with Brit talent (Vegas, Ian Hart, delightful Mike Leigh regular Ruth Sheen), the Oscar-winning designer Lindy Hemming set to work at Shepperton building a game show set surmounted by vast lips. “Lindy had been set designer on “Naked” and with every film Mike made since. She won an Oscar for Topsy-Turvy, so I knew she could give me what I wanted.”
When I visit the set just before Christmas, Thewlis is poised to film the denouement, in which he and Trudie Styler bawl at each other on the set of “Cheeky”. Johnny Vegas is asleep in his trailer when I arrive for our appointment. “Sorry, I just nodded off watching Genghis Khan on telly,” says Vegas. “I was thinking of modelling my interpretation of Alf Price on Yul Brynner’s performance of the great Mongol warrior. But in the end I decided to model him on Jim Davidson instead. I really despise everything Jim Davidson stands for, so it seemed appropriate to play Alf as a kind of northern Jim Davidson.” A few minutes later, Vegas sits on a throne on top of the vaginal set, wearing a frilly shirt. He has the northern aura of a TV host who is no stranger to jars of pickled eggs. At the emotional climax, Thewlis and Styler run down two curving ramps to the front of the shot and shout at each other. Thewlis snarls verbosely like he did in “Naked” all those years ago, someone shouts “Cut!” then he rushes over to the monitor to see what the take looked like.
Two months later, Thewlis is editing the film. What have you learned about film-making? “It’ll make me far more understanding of directors in the future. I now realise the last thing they need is some actor saying, ‘Excuse me. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve been here four hours now. And I’m dead bored in me trailer.’ I always thought I wouldn’t let that happen to any of my actors when I directed the film. I’d always make sure that they would be called in, do their work and go home. But when it came to it, people would come up to me and say, ‘They’ve been waiting here six hours!’ And I’d say, ‘Well fucking keep ‘em here!’ Totally on the other foot.”
Did you seek professional help? “All the time.” I mean from people skilled in making films – after all, you’re only an actor, albeit an award-winning one. “Oh God, yeah. I surrounded myself with people who would stop me making a fool of myself. Or at least I hope that’s what I’ve done. My director of photography was Oliver Stapleton – I’d worked with him before on “Restoration”. I remembered him as a cameraman who did have an input and an opinion on performance. That can be very annoying – my usual tactic when someone gives you notes about your performance on set is to tell them, ‘Mind your own fucking business.’ But with Oliver it was always pertinent, helpful and welcome. If I needed some confidence in my performance, he was the person I’d go to. But I’m not completely naive. I’ve spent the past 10 years working almost exclusively in films, so I know how it works.”
Since filming “Cheeky”, Thewlis, 40, has taken on a new project. “Two weeks ago I was in a pink leotard being smeared with Nivea by three old men.” Just for fun, or did this have anything to do with the film? “I was having a bodycast made. I’m playing Professor Lucas in the next Harry Potter film. It’s a great thing to do after this, because I know it’ll get seen and I’ve got loads of kiddie friends. If you say, ‘You’ll never guess what I’m doing,’ and tell them, they start screaming. And then you tell them, ‘You can come to the set and meet Harry Potter,’ and they get short of breath. It’s worth it just for that.”
After the experience of “Cheeky”, will you direct again? “It really depends on how it’s received. If it comes out to indifference, I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. I don’t think I’d go through the palaver again. I like a good lie-in, and I haven’t been able to have one for six months. And I haven’t seen Anna properly for ages. So if it comes out and people say, ‘It’s all right, a bit slow – it’s nice,’ I won’t bother.”
· Published | 30 May 2003
· Journalist | Stuart Jeffries
· Source | © The Guardian
· Credit | Submitted by Amanda