This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #60 (June 1994).
I do. Two little words, so rarely heard when it comes to the British film industry, have been bandied about in one film's direction of late. First the financiers said them, then the director said them, then some big stars said them and now, all over the world, cinemagoers are answering in the affirmative to Four Weddings & A Funeral, the most successful British comedy since A Fish Called Wanda. Phillipa Bloom reports...
A gorgeously garbed Andie MacDowell slips noiselessly into a pew and turns abruptly to the hapless extra sitting to her left. "I'm going to say something to you," she improvises animatedly into his earnestly bended ear. "I'm going to say something to you." An organ wheezes into Wagner's world-famous Bridal Chorus, the contented babble of the stylishly besuited and titfered congregation subsides, and a happy couple - bathed in the pink glow from a strategically placed reflector - move slowly up the aisle.
Suddenly, from behind a garlanded Norman pillar, a Basil Fawlty-esque figure emerges, a look of determination writ large on every feature. Director Mike Newell, head down, hands thrust behind his back, strides up to MacDowell. The scene has again come to a halt.
"I must do this, I must do this, I have to do this," he burbles, wheeling the startled actress out of ear-shot. It's well past lunch time, cast and crew alike have been up since five in the morning, and everyone is just a little too weary for such a delay. Arms windmilling wildly, Newell hurriedly whispers his latest directions and stomps back up the nave.
Her brief look of mild irritation melting into a beatific smile, MacDowell adjusts her outrageously wide-brimmed headgear, and retreats - ready to make an entrance for the cameras one more time.
The congregated extras resume their chatter. MacDowell retraces her steps, slips in next to the extra and whispers in his ear. This time it's perfect - head tilted up just a fraction, gentle smile more curvaceous, perfect aquiline features clearly visible from under the hat. The bride and groom glide down the aisle and silence descends. Rumbling-stomached extras cross their fingers.
"Dear friends," gushes the vicar, taking his cue at last. "What a joy it is to welcome you to our... oh shit."
Oh shit indeed. It's back to square one...
Race against time time: Hugh Grant with Charlotte Coleman.
The location is St. Michael's Church, Betchworth, Surrey. The date is June 8, 1993. And the scene is, as is often the case with this film, based around a wedding (this time, Wedding Number One). The filmmaking hiccup just witnessed, though unscripted, is gratifyingly in keeping with proceedings here on location with Mike Newell's latest, Four Weddings & A Funeral, in which Hugh Grant's Sloane-some Londoner - the perennial best man who falls for the sultry MacDowell - is as likely to be heard mouthing expletives ("Fuck," he goes, "Fuckity- fuck!") as making speeches. The all-British production - a big-hearted comedy written by Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Comic Relief) and featuring a marquee-ful of British luvvies from Corin Redgrave to Simon Callow - has already become the first British film to top the US box office charts since 1988's A Fish Called Wanda, and its Oxford-educated star Hugh Grant is surrounded by Next Big Thing murmurings.
"Weddings are one of the most universal themes of life," asserts award-winning producer Duncan Kenworthy, who took time off as Jim Henson Productions' senior vice-president of production to produce Four Weddings in 1992. "So we knew that it would translate broadly, but this has potential way beyond anything Richard (Curtis) has ever written before." Sadly, not everyone agreed, and funding on the picture suddenly fell through. Kenworthy, however, simply stayed put ("I couldn't give it up"), eventually pulling together a "lowish budget" from Channel Four Films, media giant Polygram Filmed Entertainment and its production arm Working Title - the company behind Curtis' first feature, The Tall Guy and, latterly, The Young Americans, Romeo Is Bleeding and the Coen Brothers' upcoming The Hudsucker Proxy.
With production rescheduled to summer 1993, Curtis had the almost unheard-of luxury (in UK terms) of being able to develop his script over 12 months rather than the more usual three or four.
"It was my revenge on all those wasted Saturdays," laughs Curtis. "I checked through my diaries and discovered I'd been to 65 weddings in 11 years."
"Mike and I have always shared the view that it's a serious film whose technique, whose medium, is comedy," reveals Kenworthy, who also spent "day upon day" rewriting scenes with Newell to achieve the finished script. "I think Richard thinks of it as a filthy film with one or two serious moments. What I hope we've now got is something with the quality of a Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy film, but updated for the 90s..."
Hugh Grant in Four Weddings And A Funeral: "God-given character actor."
Hugh Grant - or "Lordling Hugh" as Mike Newell is wont to call his delightfully plum-voiced star - is slumped in most un-Tracy-like fashion in one of the several director's chairs littering St. Michael's otherwise picturesque graveyard. His tie is askew and the carnation is visibly wilting in his buttonhole. It is 80 in the shade, Grant is suffering from a particularly vicious attack of hay fever and to make matters worse, his attempts to appear realistically breathless for the next scene (now unavoidably postponed by our vicar's ungodly outburst) by dashing crazily round the churchyard in full coat-tails have come to nought.
"It's making me very bad-tempered," snuffles the red-nosed Grant, flicking sweat from his glowing brow. "Every time I get breathless somebody says, 'Hang on, we've just got to move this light,' and I have to run round again. Now I'm absolutely scarlet."
It must be said that on today's evidence, Hugh Grant does not quite add up to the rosy picture drawn by his director. The phrases "all the hallmarks of a star" or even "God-given character actor" hardly seem an apt appraisal of the crumpled, defeated figure now sitting in Moss Bros.' finest before your Empire scribe. Both producer and director fall over themselves to claim that Grant - on a roll after coming to wider public attention in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon - was the first, if not the only, choice for the role of Charles, a character supposedly so close to Grant's own that co-star Kristin Scott Thomas (who plays single girl Fiona), with whom he also worked on Bitter Moon, believed it had been written for him.
"I suppose in an ideal world I try to avoid doing too many upper-class young men because I have done about five billion," concedes the 33-year-old veteran of such socially elevated fare as Maurice, Impromptu and The Remains Of The Day. "But it was a very good part for someone like me. I'm always drawn to the quality of writing and a good director the same as anyone else, and this was a fantastic combination of both, but it was also such an ideal choice that I leapt at it - though I'm probably cocking it up. I'm always such a pessimist about these things. I tend to get miserable when I'm acting. I'm not very confident and have to be cheered up a lot. Kristin keeps saying, 'Oh for Christ's sake, Hugh, it's you - just be you.'"
"I'm always drawn to the quality of writing and a good director the same as anyone else, and this was a fantastic combination of both, but it was also such an ideal choice that I leapt at it - though I'm probably cocking it up."
"Have you spoken to Hugh yet?" gushes Andie MacDowell when we meet later in the shoot. Now dressed in an unglamorously baggy brown dress and even baggier cardie, she looks scarcely more like a Hepburn than Grant did a Tracy. "I wanted to play a trick on him 'cause yesterday he told a reporter that before every take I stretched my neck like a giraffe. I wanted to give you something really silly about him, like (explosion of girlie giggles), 'Before every take Hugh barks like a dawg.'"
(Clearly in more serious mood, Grant admits to poring endlessly over his script for motivation in preparation for a role - "Though there are times when I've dared to wing it and been better for it" - and will let on only that his American co-star appears just a little more, er, "laid-back" about the whole matter. "Which is perfectly legitimate," he adds swiftly. "I know John Malkovich is the same - he sort of goes to sleep by the camera and says, 'Wake me when I'm on' and Andie's kind of like that.")
MacDowell is pottering about her caravan parked on location in London's Smithfield market for Wedding Number Four and making cups of herbal tea (she pronounces it, as our American cousins are wont to do, 'erbal). She absently tugs threads from her woolly and - "Wanna see my new babies?" - pulls out snaps of her horses on the ranch back home in Montana. It's hard to imagine this almost mumsy, albeit staggeringly beautiful, Southern Belle taking on the role of Grant's seductress Carrie. Yet it was the potential for her to express an as-yet untapped smouldering something which drew the filmmakers to MacDowell and in turn drew her, hot off Groundhog Day and Short Cuts, to the role.
"There was a tremendous amount of excitement about the film in America," says Kenworthy who, casting for the role of Carrie with Mike Newell in the US last year, had to fight off the attentions of major agencies, from one coast to the other, desperate to get their clients on board. "We eventually saw 26 top young Hollywood actresses. Andie just seemed to be perfect. Quite apart from her drop-dead beauty, she has a sort of open, easy intimacy that helps Carrie's character. And she's very sexy in a way that hasn't really come across in her films, and that Mike felt he could capture."
MacDowell, idly twiddling with a strand of her newly lopped hair, enthusiastically concurs.
"Critics always pick on me for certain things and it always affects me so I strive to defeat it," she drawls. "Like, for a while, everybody thought I must be very repressed because I did it so well for sex lies and videotape. So it became my obsession to play women who weren't like that. Carrie's interesting and intelligent and strong, but she's also a very modern woman who's experienced a lot of life and likes to a have a good time. I could really relate to that and Mike's been the first director I've worked with - and I've worked with some of the best - who's really understood."
"What I like about it is that the shape is so clear. The structure of it is built into the title - it's got four weddings and a funeral, and that's your lot."
Now perched on a church pew between takes, a beribboned straw wedding hat borrowed to shade his eyes from the sun, Mike Newell cuts a suitably silly figure far from the serious, stiff-backed image conjured up by the likes of Dance With A Stranger, The Good Father and Enchanted April. Only an early TV play, Ready When You Are Mr. McGill - a wickedly well-observed take on a day in the life of a film extra - and Into The West, with its bittersweet antics of Irish tinker kids, give away something of Newell's fondness for the whimsical and amusing. Four Weddings was simply too hard to resist.
"I suppose what I thought when I first read it was, 'This is completely preposterous. However, it is very funny,' and it's honestly nothing more complicated than that. There were three or four places where it made me laugh out loud, and in a couple of those places it still makes me laugh out loud. And then what I like about it is that the shape is so clear. The structure of it is built into the title - it's got four weddings and a funeral, and that's your lot."
As a director, Newell describes himself as "very untidy and scatter-gun and also very obsessive" and - as the incident in the church with Ms. MacDowell illustrates - in the habit of "directing the actors before they've acted anything".
"It's a fault that I've tried to cure for years," sighs the 51-year-old. "It was particularly strong in me when I was younger but now I just try to keep out of their way. What you aim to do is to cast so perfectly that the thing will run itself. Obviously that never happens and you have to work on actors constantly, but I'd always rather see what their instinct is than jump in too soon..."
Obviously. And there were indeed persistent rumours following completion of the film that Hugh Grant was not altogether at home with his director. "He's very demanding," hedges Grant. "I suppose it's a challenge, though at times it's also kind of exasperating." Even the easy-going MacDowell was heard to laughingly tease, "Geez, I thought Altman's way of working was chaotic until I came on Four Weddings & A Funeral."
But producer Duncan Kenworthy is adamant that without Mike Newell, Four Weddings could quite simply not have been made.
"We've got far better actors than we had a right to expect, maybe even than we deserved," he concludes. "Even in the smallest parts we've got some very starry actors who are just doing it because they love the project and wanted to work with Mike. He's a man of great intelligence and experience and, above all, a huge childlike enthusiasm. One of the great pleasures of seeing him with actors is how much he loves the things they do. You can watch him in front of the camera and if something's funny he'll be smothering his own laughter, just this great mass of energy - and the actors love it."
Kenworthy pauses, summing up what is perhaps the one thing the British film industry can learn from the enormous success of Four Weddings & A Funeral.
"It's a great lesson in producing," he muses, "that if you can get a great script, you can attract a great director and then you can attract everyone else..."
Take Me Away From All This... Death
There may be four weddings in Four Weddings but there's a funeral too. And funerals, recalls Tom Hibbert in a sudden rush of blood to the head, are possibly the movie staple...
"I've a great fancy to see my own funeral afore I die," wrote the 18th Century author-poet Maria Edgeworth. I think we all feel the same. It is all very well when we tell our best friends how we want our funerals to be conducted ("All the men have got to dress up like the blokes in Reservoir Dogs and all the girls must look as if they are Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It and everyone has to jump into the grave and go mad like Dennis Hopper in Tracks"), but we know that our in-cups instructions will be ignored. There will be weakly sung hymns. Nobody much will turn up. We are born, we breathe, we eat, we breed (possibly), we die. Then comes the funeral. That is life and death.
If only we could have funerals like they do in films all that awful life beforehand might have been worth it - if we were able to attend. In Holy Matrimony (1943) Monty Woolley was able to observe his own funeral because it wasn't really him being laid to rest but his deceased valet. And in The Premature Burial (1962) Ray Milland witnessed his own service because, suffering from a morbid fear of being buried alive, he suffered that very fate - and was none too pleased about it. In Don't Look Now (1973) Donald Sutherland sort of notices his own funeral because there's his coffin being whisked along the canals of Venice aboard a motor boat with Julie Christie looking sad in black aboard (but this is only because Donald has gone spookily "psychic", but not psychic enough to realise that the skittling figure in the red coat is not, in fact, his dead daughter but a deranged dwarf who will, eventually, chop him in the neck with a meat cleaver)...
Yes, there are almost as many funerals in the movies as there are car chases and/or helicopters blowing-up. From The Third Man to the Wrong Box, from The Mummy to Sleepless In Seattle, the funeral is a constant theme of the filmmaker's art. Some cinematic funerals even have canine involvement. Look at Greyfriars Bobby (1961) in which a Scottish-styled person is interred and then his somewhat annoying Skye terrier spends the rest of the film howling on his dead master's grave. Or look at The Dam Busters (1954) in which the faithful friend of Wing Commander Guy Gibson (sensitively played by Richard Todd), a black dog sensitively called Nigger, gets run over and so Gibson asks his batman to bury the beast at midnight because "That's when we'll be going into this show" (the "show" being the famous dam-bombing adventure which turns out to be so hugely successful)...
In "real life" you blub at funerals and then go back to the widow's/widower's home to look somber and say how wonderful the dead person was. In films it is different.
The dead person in a coffin in 1983's The Big Chill (played by Kevin Costner, his greatest role to date) is a "cypher". Dead bloke signals that this is truly the end of innocence, or something, so everyone becomes frightfully boring and "thirtysomething".
In Drop Dead Darling (1966) the funeral is a cue for sex. Rosanna Schiaffino is there at the graveside in her gloomy widow tweeds, mourning her husband, and Tony Curtis gives her the wink and you-know-what ensues.
Possibly the most moving funeral sequence in films is that in The Children's Hour (1962). What happens is that Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn have been running a school for posh young modoms but then everything goes horribly wrong when one of their unpleasant girls accuses the school marms of being - how shall one put it? - lesbianically-inclined. So Shirley hangs herself. There is a funeral. After which Audrey, stunning and aloof, walks past the wagging tongues (now begging for forgiveness because it was all a mistake), past her ex-fiancé and out of the cemetery gates bound for who knows where? It's all frightfully sad.
In 1989's Heathers the funeral (of a "Heather" who died after being given an industrial cleaner cocktail by Christian Slater) is used as a sick-joke device. In Vampyr (1932) and Wild Strawberries (1957) and Our Town (1940) funerals are wonky dream-sequence set-pieces. In Death Of A Salesman (1951) the funeral of Willy Loman (played by Frederic March) is supposed to convey a "message" about the emptiness of life, probably. In I Bury The Living (1958), there are lots of Gothic-fashioned funerals, in Star Trek II (1982) there's a sort of funeral (Spock is dead - oh, no he isn't) in outer space, i.e. the final frontier, and in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949) a funeral service is conducted by a vicar (Alec Guinness, with goofy teeth) who's about to have a funeral all of his own. In Last Action Hero (1993) a rooftop funeral serves as a backdrop to Arnold Schwarzenegger's fabled "wit" and beefiness...
Oh yes, where would cinema be without the undertaker, the second oldest profession? (Noteworthy undertakers in films include Tom Courtenay in 1963's Billy Liar and Crispin Glover in this month's What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and thousands of people in creaky old Westerns in Western towns called things like Tombstone where the only professions seem to be bartender, sheriff, floozy, doctor (always an alcoholic) and undertaker - always the most cheerful of the lot because he's ever doing a roaring trade in made-to-measure coffins or "caskets" as they seem to call the final boxes in America...
But if you want a really good send-off in the movies you have to die somewhere in the distant past in an exotic place abroad. Take The Vikings (1958). They knew how to lay on a funeral spread: all burning boats and rape 'n' pillage and lusty boozing for afters. Or take the Egyptians: what better way to meet your maker than inside a pyramid that's been built by billions of slaves (many of whom have died during the erection process) with your wife (freshly killed for the festivities) beside you in the groovy tomb? They don't make funerals like that any more...
This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #60 (June 1994).