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Legendary Hungarian director István Szabó, who won an Oscar in 1982 for Mephisto, has made films in English before. But Being Julia, based on a short novel by Somerset Maugham, is his first comedy. Nick Roddick talks to him about timing, working from someone else’s screenplay - and the difference between a soufflé and a cake.

It’s the summer of 1938, and Chamberlain has just returned from Munich waving his famous piece of paper. Europe is on the brink of catastrophe. But, in the West End of London, it is business as usual, with the beautiful Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) coming to the end of the successful run of yet another hit play.

Clouds of a different kind are gathering for Julia, however. With her 45th birthday fast approaching, Julia realises that leading roles in the kind of elegant drawing-room comedies she has made her own will soon start to dry up. Even her husband, the astute producer Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), will soon have to look round for another leading lady, on the stage if not in life (although theirs has been a marriage in name only for many years now).

Then into Julia’s life comes Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), a maladroit but ambitious young American who professes himself her greatest fan and soon becomes her latest lover. For a while, Julia is transformed: even her performances have a new edge. But then the unthinkable happens - Tom seems to be relegating her to a supporting role.

At first Julia is mortified, shedding real tears for the first time in her adult life. No one believes her, however, since she is renowned for being able to turn on “the waterworks” at will. But then, when Tom asks her to audition a young actress with the wonderfully thirties name of Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch) - whom Julia (rightly) suspects is Tom’s new lover - she sees her chance, and begins plotting an act of revenge to be fought on the place she knows best: the London stage.

Was it producer Robert Lantos who originally brought the project to you?
Yes, he sent me the screenplay. But he didn’t mention that he would like me to direct the film. We did a film before Being Julia called Sunshine and we had a very, very good time together. He supported me and he’s a great producer. He sent it to me and he asked me for my opinion. I told him that it was a great screenplay but the question was, who was going to direct it because it needed lightness, something which could seduce the audience…? Then he said later that he would like to invite me to do it!

What was your reaction?
It surprised me very much, to be honest, because Robert knows my films. But he said that I deserved to do something which is not so heavy a burden to shoulder. The heaviness of history and politics is not there. I asked him to give me some time to think about it, because it’s like the difference between a soufflé and a cake. Until now, I did only cakes, so it’s a very courageous decision to invite me to do a soufflé.

There is an old British stage adage which says something like ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard’. Did you find yourself facing a whole new set of challenges?
Yes, it was a very different challenge, and I kept wanting all the time to push the film into a tiny political dimension - which was not so complicated, because the story takes place in 1938 in London, the year Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler. We thought a lot about it and our decision was that, on your fantastic island separated from Europe, I had the feeling, so long before the Second World War, that England was not really sure that they had anything to do with this ‘Europe’.

Nothing changes there…
Nothing changes! “We are on an island and Europe is far away.” So I thought maybe it’s right that they don’t mention political events in Europe. Of course, at the end of the film just before the final opening night, we have a busker who tries to imitate Chamberlain. It as a tiny, tiny sign.

You could probably have had a great deal more.
I wanted to do a little bit more but now I think it’s enough. Anyway, that is the difference between my previous films and this one: this one hasn’t been pushed down by the weight of politics and history…

Another difference from your previous films is that you didn’t write the screenplay. Was it a different experience, working with a screenplay you hadn’t written?
It was the most beautiful thing, for once in my life, to be a film director whose job is to let actors play, and move the camera and think about light and acting and style of acting and rhythm and not be busy day and night with dialogue! I liked being a film director for the first time in my life!

This is a very, very English project: the rhythms of the dialogue are English, the humour is English - as is the style of stage acting. And yet Annette is from Kansas and you’re from Hungary. Did you ever have difficulty finding the right rhythms?

Annette is a great theatre actress. She started in the theatre and she did fantastic roles from Ibsen to Shakespeare. She is an actress, not just a film star, so working on stage with Annette was not really a problem. My problem was how to find that kind of English style, and there I had one great help: Jeremy Irons who, from the first day until the last, told me if something wasn’t right or if there were mistakes. I’m very grateful to him. But, to be honest, in Annette’s case it wasn’t really important, because she was so prepared and she knew exactly what to do.

Well, as everyone keeps saying in the film, she’s acting the whole time, so maybe achieving reality is not what you were after?
You’re absolutely right. Annette Bening is playing Julia Lambert, who is playing Julia Lambert. So - and this is maybe a similarity between previous films of mine and Being Julia - this film is also about masks. People are challenged by society, the class system, by friends and lovers, to play roles. She is acting all day. She has a mask - even several masks. Everybody in the film has some kind of mask, and the whole film is full of mirrors: there are mirrors everywhere, because this profession needs them.

On this question of masks and appearances, you could almost see the film as a kind of anti-Mephisto…
I thank you very much for this expression because, although I didn’t use exactly those words, this is what I told Robert: if you invite me to do this film, then you have to know that this is a kind of Mephisto, only a very intimate, very private, very feminine version…

Let me ask you a slightly strange question: do you actually like Julia Lambert?
I love her. It’s my life to be with actors and actresses and I love them! My favourite thing in life is seeing how actors and actresses draw energy from each other.

But do you think, in terms of the character, that Julia is a sympathetic person? She’s the focus of the film, of course, but what she does to the young actress at the end is extremely cruel…
Oh no, please! She is cruel because she is fighting for her life; fighting to keep herself young; fighting to keep herself talented; fighting to be onstage longer and longer. This is everyone’s fight. I am fighting to do my next film and to keep the quality of the casting, the rhythm and the acting. If you want - please, this not a headline! - but, if you want, Julia Lambert is me. I don’t want to kill any young film-makers but…

…if you had to push a couple out of the way, you would?

Yes! The major question is to fight, to keep ourselves in contention. It’s so easy to be out of it nowadays. The world is so fast: there’s so much new talent, new ideas. This is the greatest fight, not only for an actress like Julia and a film director like me who identifies himself with Julia, but for every doctor, every teacher, every journalist who has to fight to keep himself or herself in contention.

Do you think in retrospect that that was what attracted you to the screenplay in the first place?
First, I enjoyed reading it: it was fast and funny and marvellously built and created, so I loved it. And second, I understood that this was a story about me: about my struggle to stay in contention. This is the real sense of the film.

One of the changes that Ronald Harwood made to the original Somerset Maugham story was to make the character of the young lover American, which almost pushes you into Henry James territory: the idea of two cultures coming into conflict. Is that why he did it, do you think?
Yes. I discussed this problem with Ronald and I think nowadays, thinking about our period, it was a good idea to bring this absolutely different culture into the story. The boy is so different because he’s open - he is fighting very openly. He doesn’t have the class system element in how he speaks and how he behaves - but he would like to learn it, so he’s coming at it from another direction.

He acquires that system very quickly and becomes a terrible snob.
He would like to be an Englishman because even today, I think, so many people have this dream of being an Englishman: it’s fantastic! 

To pick up on something you said earlier about there being mirrors everywhere: did that cause problems with your cinematographer?
Yes, of course. But [Lajos Koltai] is a great cinematographer and if he has a challenge, he’s better! He likes it that way!

Where is the theatre you use in the film? In Budapest?
The theatre is in a little town called Kecskemet, 60 miles south of Budapest, towards Romania.

Were there any scenes that were difficult to do?

Difficult to do? I am sorry, but I don’t remember difficult scenes! I love to work with actors and I love to shoot a film. Every scene is difficult until you are not working on it. Maybe technically, the most difficult scene was the big one at the end, because to have 600 people in a theatre for a week - which is what you need - is impossible. You cannot afford it. So first you have to separate audience and stage, and then you have to separate all the shots where you need the 600 people and then separate all the other shots where you need 300 people and then 100 people... But you have to have shots with actors and audience together. You have to be very precise and prepared and know everything. But it’s a part of our profession and I love doing it. It’s like a battle: you are a general and you have to give very precise orders to your officers!

So, General Szabó, what do you plan as your next campaign?
I don’t know exactly. I have different ideas and even some offers! I am hesitating about doing something for another producer or doing a very, very simple Hungarian film about contemporary problems. I’m really hesitating about which to do first, so I’m giving myself this summer to do nothing but read books and enjoy a little bit of sunshine.

Published March 17, 2005

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On set with Jeremy Irons



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