Jerry Weintraub could be talking about a Moody Blues album. ĎDays of Future
Pastí would be the one. The producer of The Avengers is busy conjuring up images of
an age when vinyl and digital co-exist. Heís talking time-slip territory, in which
mini-skirts and Mary Quant meet mobile phones and DKNY.
"Itís a land that has never existed - and never
will exist, except in our minds,"
"Itís 1999 - and itís as if the sixties never went away: itís
Avenger-Land," chuckles Weintraub of the big-screen version of probably the most
distinctive cult TV series of all time. Weintraub produced the film in the British home
counties (of course), where time does indeed often stand still, and where Shepperton
Studios is to be found.
"Itís a land that has never existed - and never will exist, except in our
minds," adds Weintraub, whose movie credits range from Nashville - which pretty much
skewered the seventies - to The Specialist, a Stallone action flick which epitomises the
nineties. "There are no street signs, no ads, itís just a clean London," he
says of the look they have so carefully crafted for The Avengers. "Itís a
Weintraubís description certainly conjures up memories of the surreally empty
settings in which - in a TV series which spanned the sixties (the first episode was
broadcast in Britain in March, 1961; the last episode went out in the US in September,
1969) - the bowler-hatted Jonathan Steed and his svelte lady assistant (there were four of
them) battled the evil representatives of some shadowy international conspiracy, who were
as likely to attack them in a milk-float as in an E-Type Jaguar.
It was an aesthetic largely born out of necessity: the streets were empty because the
producers of The Avengers, generally working on a shoestring, could not afford the extras
to fill them. Likewise, it was cheaper to hire half-a-dozen milk-floats than one E-Type.
"Itís quirky and itís definitely playful and
But Weintraub - who first came across the TV series when he was working in the music
business in the ĎSwinging Londoní of the late sixties - is very definitely not
working on a shoestring for the cinema version. And he is wrong in one key respect: that
world does exist again, courtesy of production designer Stuart Craig, who has won three
Oscars for his work (Gandhi, Dangerous Liaisons and The English Patient), cinematographer
Roger Pratt (Batman, 12 Monkeys, Shadowlands, Mona Lisa) and director Jeremiah Chechik.
Chechik was sent Don MacPhersonís screenplay by Weintraub when he was in his last
day of shooting the remake of Diabolique, starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. The
director was, he says, "completely smitten by the time I got to page 30", but
freely admits that memories of the original series may not be in the forefront of
todayís moviegoersí minds. That, however, is not a problem: the sheer quirkiness
of The Avengers movie is, he reckons, as much in tune with the late nineties as the
original show was with the late sixties.
"I canít hope to pretend to know what every single personís reactions
will be," he says. "But I would anticipate that the movie is completely
entertaining. Itís certainly captivating visually and kind of kooky. It moves along
and you see things that you havenít seen in other movies. Itís quirky and
itís definitely playful and very tongue-in-cheek: it has a sort of smirk to it. It
doesnít fit the usual genre pieces that Hollywood tends to create. Itís very
much like Steed, you know: a little soft-shoe."
Additionally, believes Chechik - who started his professional life as a fashion
photographer and is, with The Avengers, returning to his visual roots more than with any
of his previous films (which include National Lampoonís Christmas Vacation and Benny
and Joon) - the sense of time-slip that Weintraub mentions was as much part of the
original series as it is of the film.
"the feeling of the times,"
"The feeling I have when I look back on the show is the feeling of the
times," he says: "of the Emma Peels of this world, the Carnaby Street people,
rubbing shoulders with the City bankers. It was very much what London was then and what
the whole world was in the process of becoming, which was the non-traditional rubbing up
to the traditional. And here you had these two - Steed and Mrs Peel - who really
represented England in terms of style but were so different, getting along so well and
kind of working off each other."
The TV series paired the urbane Patrick Macnee, who was almost 40 when the series began
and stayed with it throughout, with four different actresses: the husky-voiced Honor
Blackman as Mrs Catherine Gale; the feline Diana Rigg (now a Dame of the British Empire)
as Mrs Emma Peel; Linda Thorson as Tara King; and, in a two-year seventies sequel called
The New Avengers, Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley. But it is with Mrs Peel - who
was in it from 1965-68 - that the series really found its stride.
Neither Macnee nor Rigg were especially well known outside the world of West End
theatre when they took the parts and, as a result, became intricately associated with
them. For the movie, however, Weintraub and Chechik, recognising the need to mark out the
charactersí territory as swiftly as possible for an audience that is unlikely to have
seen more than the occasional re-run of the TV series, have picked two actors who are
already iconic: Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Mrs Peel.
"We talked a lot about Astaire and Cary Grant and that
kind of style,"
"I knew Ralph before we did the movie," says Chechik, "and it seemed to
me not a stretch to use one of your finest actors to bring his sense of grace, style,
precision - all of those things that he can do - to the part. Plus, heís never done
anything like this, so it would be challenging for him."
But what kind of pointers did he give Fiennes to help him understand the character of
Steed who has, in the film, no more back-story than he did in the TV series: he simply
strolls in, impeccably dressed in a way that would make James Bond look - to use a very
sixties term - non-U. He carries with him an air of mystery coupled, paradoxically, with
the certainty that he is Something Big in the Secret Service. Or, as the film discreetly
describes it, ĎThe Ministryí.
"We talked a lot about Astaire and Cary Grant and that kind of style," notes
Chechik, who seems instinctively to have recognised that, the less specific he was, the
better Fiennes would be. "We also talked about a Samuraiís movement. We found
the character a lot through a sense of movement: cool under pressure."
"Steed... you get who he is in about a minute."
Apart from that, the director refuses to be drawn. "I guess I established the
character through a few specific scenes that are better seen than described," he
allows, "but they do create the myth-making aspect of the characters pretty fast. You
get who they are. Steedís introduction, for instance: you get who he is in about a
minute. You really do!"
And Uma Thurman as Mrs Peel? Might audiences find it hard to accept an American actress
in this quintessentially British role?
Chechik bristles, quietly and politely, but bristles nonetheless.
"I donít think it is a problem any more than I think itís a problem for
British actors to play American," he says. "Itís really a question of
getting the accent and just bringing what you can to the character. I donít think
much about it when I see Anthony Hopkins playing an American. I donít think:
ĎHeís British, he has no right to play an Americaní. Itís just what
the character does... or what the personality of the actor does to the personality of the
character. Thatís always refreshing."
With Thurmanís Mrs Peel, he says, the important thing was not "to go too far:
you want to leave a lot to the imagination. And you want to work with the innate
intelligence of your actor - which, in Umaís case, is kind of fun."
"Sean Connery ... has never before played an
out-and-out bad guy."
The most fun Chechik seems to have had, however, was with the villain of the piece, as
played by Sean Connery - an actor who, in a career stretching back 40 years, has never
before played an out-and-out bad guy.
In The Avengers, Connery plays Sir August De Wynter, a devilishly rich recluse who aims
to bring Britain to its knees by interfering with the one thing English people really care
about: the weather. Sir August used to work for the Ministry, so he is not unknown to
Steed. And since (in addition to being a master of jujitsu), Mrs Peel has a doctorate in
meteorological science, Sir Augustís antics fall pretty much in her domain as well.
His particular skill also gives rise to one of the filmís big set-pieces:
Trafalgar Square blanketed in 30 feet of snow, its landmarks frozen as if in some new ice
age. And, in the midst of all this is Steed, battling through the snowdrifts in pursuit of
a hot air balloon. Exactly where the hot air balloon comes in, youíll have to see the
film to find out.