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Richard E. Grant said “Wah!?”

by Marc Kandel

Richard E. Grant is no stranger to many of our readers, admirers of his performances in cult hits like Withnail and I, mainstream goodies like Dracula and Age of Innocence, not one, not two, but three, count em’ three films by Robert Altman (Gosford Park, Prêt-à-Porter, The Player), sporting a resume easily as long as your arm overflowing with many and varied characters; I myself being the unrepentant yet handsome geek that I am will admit my enjoyment of some of the more underrated jaunts such as Warlock and Hudson Hawk where the man all but walked away with the films through some mighty colorful thespic skills- yeah, I just made up the word thespic- step up to get beat down.

But catching up with Richard at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, I was there to interview a director showcasing his first feature project behind the camera, Wah Wah, a semi-autobiographical account of his youth in Swaziland in the late 60’s during the transitional days ending Britain’s colonial dominance in the region. You can check out the review here for some reference to the interview:

Wah Wah
was the first of my screenings at the TFF, and I very much enjoyed it, finding it a devastating, intimate look at a family broken into pieces, rebuilt, and struggling to keep itself together amid changing times, boasting some incredible performances by Nicholas Hoult, Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, and Miranda Richardson to name but a few. Good thing I liked it too, because man, would it have been awkward to meet this guy after sending a review over telling him he had a stinker on his hands; Quite the opposite. Though my synopsis above might seem like it's a ponderous drama burdened by overwhelming pathos, there’s more than a jot of humor, joy, and fun to be found. Its not easy watching at times, vividly capturing Richard’s father’s horrifying alcoholism, and I don’t know if it will make its way to my DVD shelf, but that’s certainly not the mark of a poor film, just a journey one does not undertake lightly.

So without further ado, on with the interview, built on questions both scribbled up by yours truly, and from a sampling of folks on this site. This is straight transcript from a taped interview, and if you have not seen the film, it does contain detailed plot elements that you might consider to be ***spoilers***, so forewarned is forearmed:

MK: Would you mind if I set this (recorder) up to tape the interview? I figured this will allow me to get everything down accurately without having to decipher my own hieroglyphics later.

REG: Are you close enough (with the recorder)?

MK: Actually it’s pretty sensitive (again, the recorder- get your goddam minds out of that there gutter). Anyway, basically just wanted to ask you a couple of questions: What directors influenced your personal style… as a director who has worked with such a prolific bunch?

REG: Two people in particular, obviously I’ve learned from all of them, but um, Bruce Robinson, an English writer/director who I did my first two films with, How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Withnail and I twenty years ago.

MK: Yes (eloquent, snappy patter from me, right?).

REG: His scrupulous attention to the script and not deviating from it…was very useful, and Robert Altman, who, at the other extreme, uses the script as a kind of blueprint, and is cavalier with it, encouraging actors’ ideas and suggestions and improvisiation. Steering a middle course between the two was very helpful and obviously Jane Campion’s real trust and attention to detail of what the actors are doing is something that was inspiring, and equally, Francis Ford Coppola, would play music to get people into the mood of the scene which I found very useful and took from that.

MK: What did ah… Did he play a piece for you for ah… Seward (Dr. Jack Seward in Dracula) ?

REG: He played music that would influence or create a mood for what he thought that the scene should be, and I certainly found that in the… the recreation in my film of my father’s funeral, by playing music, the whole crew goes…you don’t have to have an assistant director walking around saying “silence, shut up, keep the noise down”, people respond to music because its so emotional and strong and equally, if there is a very joyful scene, playing upbeat music also gets people cleverly in the right mood, so I’ve found music has been very, very influential and helpful in that way…um…Martin Scorsese…

MK: What sorts of music?

REG: Oh, oh all sorts. Martin Scorsese’s ah, knowledge of film history and his… attention to how everything is specifically… framed, um, I was so taken with how much he did there… so, you know I’ve been unofficially at film school for the last twenty years, so hopefully I’ve learned bits from everybody, as much as what to do as what not to do as well.

MK: Did you find yourself either wanting to or actually reaching out to any of the… any of the folks you’ve worked with or there, did you pretty much just go with what you’ve picked up along the way from them when you directed Wah Wah, did you reach out to anyone just to…

REG: For help doing it?

MK: You know, a casual call just to … you know, “What would you..” You know just a… “I’m… I’m hitting a rough spot” you know, “Do you have any ideas…” heh, y-you know…heh. (lord, its like a bad answering machine message or something, I’m such an asshole- my voice even went up into some high pitch)

REG: No… Robert Altman helped me get in touch with Malcolm McDowell to get his permission to use…

MK: Clockwork?

REG: The Clockwork Orange clip. Obviously we got permission from the.. Stanley Kubrick’s widow and Warner Brothers, who run the estate…um, I wanted… Malcolm McDowell, to get his permission as well, so, Rob Altman really helped put me in touch with Malcolm and sort of laid the ground for that, but… um… Otherwise, no, you know, I’ve just been keeping notes for so long… lists of people I’ve longed to work with as crew members, so there was no director that I actually called during... during the making of the movie, to say… you know… “What do I do now?” (Grins) You know, maybe I should have…

We laugh, me a bit too loudly

MK: (laughing) Well, no… (still laughing) No I don’t think so…Um, being that it’s such a personal story for you…

REG: Yah?

MK: Was there anything in the film that you were particularly upset that you had to excise for running time, or… because it just didn’t fit in with the framework…

REG: Well its interesting that you asked that (Thank God) because, the… my father’s actual funeral, the evangelical priest that had just come back from a course in the US, jumped into the grave, undid the lid of the coffin and tried to raise my father from the dead, which caused the whole thing to go into this Monty Python-like insanity. (at this point, my face is caught between a horrified, wide-eyed look of incredulity and a crazy grin as I’m just not sure how to react to this very personal story, which Richard picks up on without my saying a word).

REG: Exactly. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

MK: Right (Damn right)

REG: And when we showed it to preview audiences before the film had been lopped off in the edit, um… they…to a man and woman, said “Please make it a conventional funeral”, so I actually cut the funeral scene in half, immediately, and took it out, because… so it will be in the DVD extras (ok, that might have made this a buy for me), because the reality was too much for them to take within the context of this movie, and they said “Are we supposed to laugh, are we supposed to cry? “Its too bizarre,” they said, ”even though it happened in real life. It’s too weird.”

MK: The film’s… the film’s got humor and tragedy interspersed so closely with it…

REG: Uh-huh…

MK: You, did you take it… I mean, did you fight for it, did you take exception or did you just kind of say, “well, ok, I guess that’s that.”

REG: No, I… well, I knew by that point, and understandably, that once the main character who is Gabriel Byrne playing my father, once he’s diagnosed with cancer you know that he’s going to die, um, you want that resolution, you don’t want, as an audience, any interruption into that, you don’t want to be thrown left of field by some madman trying to raise him from the dead. Um… so I agreed with it wholeheartedly. Yeah.

MK: Thank you. I appreciate that answer. Ah, now based on your acting experience, as a director, did you find yourself hands on, half off, hands off all ‘round? (seriously, I listened to this like five times on the recorder and this is evidently what I said. What the fuck was I talking about? And instead of striking me he answered- how ‘bout that?)

REG: Well, what I realized is that, um, every actor works… you would think there would be a sort of common ground on how to work, but obviously you know, the format of rehearsals, that each actor requires a different approach really, so some like to talk a lot and rationalize and discuss every single aspect of it, others like to be left alone and then talked to after a take, so it is entirely individual, and there was no person that I could approach in the same way. So, that, that was interesting, you know, because, as an actor I’m so used to being in the tunnel vision nature of being an actor where you have to concentrate on the part that you are playing and what that character should or shouldn’t know, so when you’re as the puppet master if you like, um… it requires you to…to be a different host to each person’s needs.

MK: Excellent. Now…(unintelligible)…let me just make sure we’ll still getting everything…(checking recorder) Yes.

REG: I would like one of these. Amazing instrument. (still the recorder you dirty minded twits- though he’s not wrong)

MK: Forty dollars! (no comment, and no I wasn’t trying to sell the recorder to him- I was just as surprised myself at how cheap a good quality digital recorder can be)

REG: Wow, yeah.

MK: I just grabbed it for this, because this was my first interview so I didn’t want to sit here and scribble and ask you to repeat yourself…

REG: Forty dollars, Sony, I’m gonna get one.

MK: It’s actually, quite... quite nice. (again with the recorder and I’m beginning to realize accurate transcripts can become awkward things
). You’ve shared extremely intimate pieces of your life…

REG: Right.

MHK: Which, you know, of course, you are going to have to leave speculation on what’s been embellished and what’s not.

REG: Right.

MHK: People who know you, who were possibly with you during this time… What’s…is there an element of, I guess, embarrassment? What’s the feedback been from people who were with you during this time or who have seen the film and have knowledge, intimate knowledge of this time?

REG: Right, everybody, everything that is in the movie happened. It’s just, it's a (concentration) of ten years of events down into a three year time scale for the movie, otherwise you’d be there for like, longer than “Gone With the Wind”.

When it was shown at a charity screening in Swaziland in December last year, there was unequivocal approbation and they gave a standing ovation and they completely supported it. My father is obviously dead, my stepmother, the Ruby character (Emily Watson) wholly endorsed it, and my mother, who the Lauren character is based on who Miranda Richardson plays, um, she read the script and said “its wonderfully written, and I give you my approbation about making the film.” So I did ask her because I thought, its so intimate and so detailed about my family and the breakup of my parents’ marriage that, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing it if she had said “this is inaccurate” or “I’ve been misrepresented.” So, the fact that she said that, yeah, it was amazing. Having said which, she still hasn’t seen the movie. She hasn’t seen, you know, three-dimensional, somebody on a fifty foot screen in the front seat of a car giving it some (in the opening scene of the film, the mother has sex in front of the son with his father’s best friend), thinking the boy is asleep), played by Miranda Richardson, but you know, she knows about it.

MK: Maybe a private screening.

REG: (Laughing) Yah.

(We laugh)

REG: (Laughs) So no, its been good.

MK: Excellent. Now, a couple more generalized, I guess putting your… putting your actor’s hat back on…

REG: Yeah?

MK: What role, either from you enjoying the character, or you having a great time doing the film, and you know what, including, even as your first time, your first project here as the director, what role do you sometimes find yourself kind of saying the lines from or stepping back in the shoes, is there any, you know…

REG: You know, I don’t know that that’s ever happened to (me),

MK: You don’t?

REG: No, because I think forwardly, I never look back, and I never watch anything that I’m in, so um… their is a cult following in England of the first film I made 20 years ago.

MK: Withnail.

REG: Yeah, where people will come up to me in the street or write to me, or email me and stuff and say, you know, this line, and I am reminded of them because they are now so familiar to people there but um… the…the sort of creative, whatchacallit… fulfillment of writing and directing a film, has outstripped any… experience that I’ve had as an actor. So, that is the thing and it, because it is so current in my head as well, but um… that has blasted everything else out of the water for me.

MK: Okay, well then… if you were.. your next project, whatever that might be, as a director, behind the camera…

REG: Yah.

MK: If you were to do an adaptation of a story…

REG: Yah.

MK: Or, you know… do you have more of your life to tell, do you… not a sequel per se, but perhaps something in a different vein…?

REG: What I am interested in writing a story about, the making of a disaster movie, if I can get the money at some point, called Zeitgeist, which is basically the Poseidon Adventure in outer space, but its about what goes on in the making of a movie, and what actor’s lives are really like in my experience as opposed to the PR version. So um… that’s, that’s what I’m interested in doing, again, like “Wah Wah”, the public show and private face of what, how people are, is what interests me.

MK: And as an actor, what role haven’t you done yet that you would love to see, what adaptation of a favorite book you have, something…what’s your dream that you haven’t yet…

REG: Umm… I would love to have written the adaptation and directed J.M. Kutzier’s film called “Disgrace”, set in modern day South Africa but I hear that its already been, I think its about to be made or may already have been shot. So that was one that I’d love to have… I’d love to’ve… I’d love to have done.

MK: What happens with “Wah Wah” now, with the reception, with the distribution? Will we see like a widespread theatrical release?

REG: It comes out in the states Friday the 12th of May in key cities in America, goes wider towards the end of the month, opens in Australia in June, in England, in Britain in June, France, South Africa in July, Brazil… So its, you know its… On a roll now being released all over the place, and depending on how, how critically well its received, um, I think we’ll (determine) how large the release becomes, and whether people get to see it or not.

MK: Going back to Africa… What did… Did you gain anything new, perspectives, you know, aside from the stuff you left there, the stuff that you are using now, an anecdote, a current…something… What did Africa give you this time going back? Even apart from the film?

REG: Incredible generosity of spirit, from the people in Swaziland, both black and whites, and most specifically the king of Swaziland, King Mswati the Third, who I don’t know how strict the laws are here, but (it) was a co-production between France, England, and South Africa, who were supplying the finance. The French producer neglected to get work permit clearance, police records or medical certificates for 120 people, cast and crew, so three days before we started shooting on the 7th of June 2004, we were told by the government there “You have no legal right to be here. You can’t start shooting in three days time.” And it was only through begging an audience with the King, and his clemency and overruling of that to be processed so that we could start shooting, that the film ever got made. Cuz all the actors were booked on other projects straight afterwards, and I cannot imagine somebody arriving from another country with 120 people, at JFK and saying “oh I’m sorry we are scheduled to start shooting in Greenwich Village in three days time, we don't have work permits, we don’t have any of this,” they would have booted you straight out. In England, the same, and in France. So the fact that Swaziland, as a so-called Third World country, accommodated us, um… is a measure of the spirit of the people out there, so I couldn’t have asked for more than that.

MK: And the finished product, has the king seen it?

REG: Yah, yah, it got a standing ovation and went down, went down great down there. They loved it. First time a movie’s ever been made there.

MK: Well the historical aspects, especially the “changing of the guard” as it were, at the end of the movie…

REG: Yah.

MK: You know, it just, there was a lot of different layers of the… there’s so many different layers in the film, historical intertwined with your personal life…

REG: That’s right.

MK: And, you know, again, the things that you said happened, couldn’t make it into the film, that are very real for you, things that did just blended very well…

REG: Thank you

MK: Strong stuff, strong stuff. Now… You know, I don’t think I have any other questions that uh…from my main list…

REG: (smiling) So you can go and have lunch…

MK: Well yeah, or let you go on to your next thing…I have a couple that uh, I just asked a couple of folks from our site, some other writers to ask, some of these might be a little wackier…

REG: (Smiling) No…

MK: Feel free to just… pass if you don’t want to deal with them, I just want to distance myself so you aren’t offended…

REG: (Smiling) Alright, ok…

MK: Actually its funny you brought up Withnail, a gent, a friend of mine who is actually from over the pond, is specifically asking, and I don’t know if this is “tongue in cheek…”

REG: Yeah?

MK: …if there will ever be a sequel to Withnail?

REG: No, there can’t be because the guy that it’s based on is dead. He died of alcoholic poisoning…

MK: I… I would (laughs) assume so…

REG: …and when he was 47 years old, he never worked as an actor, so unless we go to um… an alcoholic hospice situation and ah, and do that… there’s no story… there’s no more story to tell.

MK: I almost said something (to MP Bartley), I was like… “well, you think he actually survived this?” Y’know? Yeah okay.

REG: Yah.

MK: Doing the film, being a teetotaler, so how did you nail the drunkenness so accurately?

REG: Because, you will know from the “Wah Wah” film, my father was a chronic alcoholic so, I had, I had firsthand character to draw from, if you like…

MK: After seeing the film, I… I almost answered that one for him…

REG: (Smiling) Okay.

MK: Who was the worst Spice Girl to work with? (you assholes)

REG: Who was the worst to work with? The worst?

MK: Let me again distance myself…

REG: No, no, there was no worst, they were… they were so self-deprecating, and so astonished that they had succeeded globally and were the first to admit they weren’t the greatest singers and dancers on the planet, but just the combination of all of them, you know, just worked so well, so um… they were an absolute blast to work with and I loved working with them, and people who slag them off in the movie, you know, they had no idea what a good time we had doing it.

MK: I- I am not sure how much interest you had in this, this again is from my friend who is very interested in your career with this- what do you think of the new Dr. Who? Were you genuinely in the running to get the part?

REG: No, I wasn’t. The tabloid newspapers in England did a week-by-week poll who they, the readers voted in who they wanted to be Dr. Who, I think I was either top or high up in all of the polls that came out, but the BBC never approached me or offered me the parts, so this was something that happened to me in tabloid newspapers…nothing to do with me at all, you know, they wanted somebody young for God’s sakes, quite rightly. And the two guys that they did were brilliant. Does Dr. Who show here? No?

MK: It shows on the Sci-Fi channel.

REG: Oh, okay.

MK: I-I’ve been running around and doing these films so I haven’t, haven’t seen it yet…

REG: Yah.

MK: But eh, you know, you have a good Tom Bakerish vibe going, I would’ve thrown your hat in for it…

REG: Right.

MK: Yeah, um, OK, you’ve been more than fair…

REG: Thank you. (laughs)

MK: (Laughing) Thank you for being so generous.

REG: Thank you very much.

MK: Congratulations, it really is something, Really, really a fun time, it was my first film I saw at the festival and…

REG: Really? Oh wow…Great, thank you.

MK: really, really just powerful stuff, and very enjoyable…

REG: Thank you. I really appreciate that.

MK: Um, any future ah, efforts, anything in the brew for tackling? I kind of mention in my review, you know, I’d love to see you attack a comedy (directing).

REG: Oh, well you know, I’ve just done a comedy with Catherine O’Hara, um, we play husband and wife in a movie called Penelope that’s… Christina Ricci and Reese Witherspoon are the stars of, and Reese has also produced it and that comes out this Christmas.

MK: And for your directing?

REG: Uh, I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get the next one up and running, but um.. that’s what I’m working on right now.

MK: You’ve got a good… good resume piece as it stands so you know…

REG: (Laughs) Ah yes, thank you, good, Yes good, a good Launchpad.

MK: Best of luck with that, thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

REG: Thanks a lot, this was a pleasure. I’m gonna go buy one of those (the recorder)

MK: Like I said this is my first time using it, I hope I got everything, so I don’t go home and have to pull my hair out if I’ve lost the gold here…


And my lesson? Never stop the recorder until you actually walk away. We talked about the festival in general for a few minutes after, and I asked Richard if he was going to be able to take any other films in, or if he already had to which he replied he had actually only just gotten to NY, and has been busy promoting “Wah Wah”, and asked me what he should see? I recommended “Pittsburgh” and “Close to Home” we talked about them, and he was delighted to hear about both and why they were my picks for what to see (particularly as “Pittsburgh” appealed to his love of the play within the play narrative style). He asked me if I was going to see “Mission Impossible III” and I told him not likely as I’m just kind of apathetic about it though I do like JJ Abrams for “Lost”, we chatted for a few moments more, along with his PR guy, Guido Goetz who had been kind enough to set us up with the interview, which lasted a nice 20 minutes, far longer than the 15 minute window originally given (as well as an email interview with the star of the film, Nicholas Hoult), I asked for permission to not only post the transcript, but possibly air the interview on HBS Radio, to which they were fine with, and then I bid both goodbye and thanks, and went back to work.
So I was pretty pleased with the results here. Hope you like it.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1819
originally posted: 05/09/06 23:40:03
last updated: 05/29/06 20:51:04
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