Making a film is, mostly, a really rewarding experience but a challenging one for many reasons. It’s not just about the writing of the script, the casting and raising the finance – a huge Catch 22 in itself, you can’t finance without cast, cast don’t want to commit without finance – and the physical making of the film. A huge amount of work goes into getting it ready for release. If you write and direct it can also be an incredibly long process. From pitching the idea to Pippa Cross at Granada Film to its US release took over six years. If you’re like me, during that period you then go through periods of thinking it’s simply the best movie that has ever been made – how could anyone not like it – to thinking it’s absolutely shockingly bad and should never be seen by anyone.
After we had finished post production there was quite a buzz about the film. Four Weddings and a Funeral was released that summer and was a huge hit. This turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for us. We fine cut the movie, scored it with very little money – even manged to persuade Mick Hucknall to let us have the track Stars for this tiny film – and were done. Then we showed it to the American distributors.
I was really excited, I was in Los Angeles in an old time screening room at the bottom of Rodeo Drive, about to show it to Russell Schwartz head of Gramercy Pictures, who released all of Polygram’s pictures in the States. Michael Kuhn the head of Polygram Film was also there and had already given the movie his blessing. There was also a young film director in the room, about to shoot his first feature, who wanted to have a look at Jean-Yves’ lighting. His name was Wes Anderson.
At the end of the screening Schwartz had a face as long as La Cienega Boulevard. “How are we going to market this film? I have no idea how we’re going to do it.” I didn’t know it at the time, but this is the default, first reaction of any distributor. They’re basically getting their excuses in early in case the release doesn’t go well. “We should test it.” Was what he said next. And so a few weeks later I was sitting in a bar opposite a cinema in Santa Monica where a line had formed round the block to see the movie. It was odd. As I scanned the line I was convinced there were a load of people in it that weren’t the right audience for my film. I asked, absurdly, if I could weed the queue out and get rid of some people. The Americans looked at me like I’d lost my mind and then remembered that I was English and so put it down to some sort of national eccentricity and ignored me. The screening went quite well, judging from the response in the cinema and the scores on the cards. There was a focus group afterwards which I found, like most filmmakers, a little difficult and annoying. These guys obviously felt they were amateur film critics and talked about the film as such – character arcs, jeopardy, subtext, amount of screen time given to tertiary characters. I’d thought focus groups were supposed to be just ordinary cinema-goers, but there was definitely something seasoned about this “seen it all before” group. I lost interest when one of them said he’d enjoyed the movie but it hadn’t changed his life. What? This guy obviously had high expectations of movies. Did he really expect to have a life-changing experience every time he went to the cinema? He must’ve been disappointed on a weekly basis.
Test screenings are a strange, but I think valuable, tool. Stanley Kubrick once complained about them, saying “Why should I give a fuck about what a milkman in Indiana thinks about my movie?” to which he was told, “If it was just the one milkman Stanley you might have a point, but the fact that it’s fourteen hundred milkmen in Indiana, all feeling the same thing, might make you want to reconsider.” We scored well but there was a fairly consistent note coming from the cards. The first third of the movie felt a little long and the problem was probably early on. Interesting I thought, but the movie’s finished. It’s neg cut. It’s dubbed. What are we supposed to do? “We need to take some time out of the beginning,” said Schwartz. “But we can’t,” I bleated. “We can,” said Kuhn, “don’t worry about it.” Okay I thought. I could trim a few seconds here and there, maybe take a minute out of the first thirty. “So you need to take four minutes out of the first twelve,” said Schwartz. I laughed. Funny guy. What did he really want me to do? No-one else was laughing.
It seemed huge at one o’clock in the morning in Santa Monica but when I sat down back in Pinewood with Lesley Walker (she was now cutting Mary Reilly) we managed to find it. Did I miss it? Yes, to begin with. Was the movie better for it? Absolutely. So back to LA for another test. This time in Costa Mesa south of Los Angeles. The screening went well. No comments about the beginning being slow. The scores had gone up, we were in the high eighties in the top two boxes which is what the film is judged by. (The top two boxes say something like “Would you definitely recommend this movie to a friend?” and “Would you recommend this movie to a friend?”) So all was good. But outside Schwarz had the La Cienega face again. “We need to re-score the movie.” I couldn’t believe it. I really liked the score and just felt he was being picky now. Kuhn asked me to meet in my hotel, the Sunset Marquis, back in Los Angeles. We sat at two in the morning discussing the movie and he said that as a director, particularly a writer-director, the time had come where I had to listen to others. I felt I’d done this throughout the process to be fair. But his point was that they were just trying to give the film its best chance. There was no axe to grind here.
So we went about trying to find another composer. It was an interesting process. I met some of the best and finest composers in Hollywood. My favourite being Thomas Newman who really liked the film but just couldn’t do it in our time-frame. Another I liked was ridiculously expensive (his fee also included the aviation fuel for his jet) and we ended up rescoring the original score with an American orchestrator working with Simon Boswell, the original composer. The best solution all round I felt.
In terms of releasing the movie, the normal pattern was that America would go first and the UK follow. A small release in the US to build word of mouth and then go wide. The UK would then follow on from, hopefully, the American success. We knew it wouldn’t be a movie for the critics or festivals. It was a feel-good audience movie which traditionally built slowly on word of mouth. We were set for a spring release in the States followed by the UK in the summer or Fall. Then Schwartz started to prevaricate. We were initially going to release on 800 screens, a mistake in my view (too big), but then he changed his mind and put it back from spring to October. In the light of this Polygram UK decided to go in June of that year anyway and not wait for America.
At this point we were trying to get the final prints ready. The process in those days seems positively prehistoric compared to how it’s done digitally these days. Then it really was hit and miss and we missed a lot prior to release. The first time I noticed this was when I went up to Manchester to show the movie at Jules Burns’ invitation – he was now the managing director of Granada – to all my friends and former colleagues at Granada TVwho had played such an important part in my development. So we screened it in a cinema about ten days before the release. The print was absolutely shocking. I couldn’t believe it. Something had gone terribly wrong. My friends were too polite to say anything. Then when we had the premiere things got even worse. Jean-Yves had shot the movie on Kodak 35mm but the print for the premiere had been made using Agfa stock, presumably because it was cheaper. I had never seem J-Y angry before, but he was that night. A couple of days later we were in Technicolor together, checking the grade and he then insisted on doing the grade for the DVD release as well. He was such a perfectionist and I think he was a little disappointed in me for letting this happen. But there we are. The rest of the prints for the release were done on Kodak.
So the movie opened that summer in the UK and did pretty well. Not a massive release but we were the number one movie in London and the number two in the UK narrowly behind a US movie with had three times as many screens as us. Then we had a heatwave in about our third week of release. This would be great news in the US, as people flock to the cinemas to cool down in the air conditioning. But we do the opposite in the UK. We don’t go to the cinema when it’s hot. In fact we stay away. Only in the rain do we seek the shelter of our local cinema. So that dented our momentum a bit. But I was still pleased. There is nothing quite like the experience of buying a ticket for your own movie at a full West End cinema and sitting there among the audience when they laugh for the first time.
I must say something about reviews though. We had a mixed bunch, as expected, but one thing really annoyed me. We had a really nice review in the Sunday Times which was great. In the ST they then list the movies with a short summary/review by a completely different critic every week. It’s not a shortened version of the good review, it’s a new one. The bloke who did the listing didn’t like the film and had the gall to say that he was amazed at its success at the box office. He then said he thought that the audience must have been confused with Richard E Grant and Hugh Grant who had just got into trouble being arrested with a prostitute in Los Angeles. This critic suggested that the notoriety Hugh had attracted to himself had in turn attracted audiences to go and see our film thinking he was in it. Aside from this being grossly insulting not only to Richard but the UK cinema-going audience, it was patent rubbish. So I wrote a note to this critic saying that I thought a critic of his age and experience should surely know the difference between good word of mouth and a blow job. My agent prevented me from sending it which I regret to this day. The problem was the same newspaper that had given it a good main review then proceeded to print a derogatory listing for ten weeks! It just didn’t seem fair.
So October came and went and the film still hadn’t been released in the US. A decision was then made to release it in the spring of the following year, when all the buzz from the UK release had evaporated. It was also decided that it would only be test released in two small markets on the first weekend but with the advertising a major release would have been given and see how it fared. I thought this was a terrible idea. But I had no say. The day before the release I was sent to Cleveland to open the Cleveland film festival. It wasn’t even going to be released in Cleveland at that time, but I went. It was in a huge shopping mall and demand was such that it was now being shown not in the one cinema but on three screens simultaneously with just under a thousand tickets having been sold. The organisers, and I, it has to be said, were thrilled. I introduced the film in all three screens at staggered times then afterwards there was a huge buffet where I simply didn’t have a chance to eat because everyone wanted to shake my hand and meet the director of the next “number one movie in the US.” It was fantastic.
The next morning I did the local breakfast TV show and then headed for the airport. Russell Schwarz phoned me in the car to congratulate me on the success of the previous night. I flew back to LA and six hours later Russell called me in the car again on the way back to my apartment. The numbers in the two markets hadn’t done as well as they’d expected. But it was only six in the afternoon I protested, things could get better. They won’t he said. Well maybe it’ll have more success in other states. No it won’t he told me. That’s it. We’re done, I’m afraid. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t even twenty four hours after the success of Cleveland and my movie was already dead. The first day wasn’t even over yet. Surely the success of Cleveland counted for something? Apparently not. It was all over. It wouldn’t be released any further. It was brutal. I was shocked and dumbfounded. (A postscript to this is I met Russell a few years later at a meeting in New York where he was now head of distribution for USA Pictures. They wanted to finance a new script of mine called PERSONAL SHOPPING. As I walked into the room he stood up, gave me a big hug and said “What is it with these English Directors? You completely fuck up the release of their first movie and yet they come back for more!” So fair play to him.)
The movie continued to play in LA for a few weeks. Then something happened which still makes me smile. I think it’s a classic summing up of Hollywood and the vagaries of Tinseltown. Rachel, my daughters, and their grandmother flew out to Los Angeles for a couple of weeks. The first night we moved into the actor Anthony Andrews’ house high in the Hollywood Hills, above Sunset Plaza Drive, Rachel decided we needed to go out and buy some food. So we drove to Gelsons. As we drove down Sunset Boulevard in our convertible – of course – Rachel looked up and saw JACK AND SARAH on the marquee of the Laemmle 5 cinema. She smiled, welled up a little and said how proud she was. There it was. My movie up in lights on Sunset Boulevard. How wonderful. Take a good look I joked, it won’t be there for long. We went shopping in Gelsons for about forty five minutes then got back in the car. We pulled up at the lights alongside the Laemmle 5 and Rachel took another look at the cinema billboard and, you’ve guessed it, JACK AND SARAH was gone. It had been removed in the time it took to do a grocery shop. That was a life lesson in the transience of success in Hollywood right there.
But my career was launched in the States, just not in the direction I thought it would go as it transpired. Things were good. My new script had now attracted Mel Gibson as its executive producer. His star was still high at this time as he hadn’t yet disgraced himself. Everything was great. Even despite screwed up release of the movie all was going according to plan. Then I met Judy Davis.