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HANNAH, JOHN : Sliding Doors

Scottish actor John Hannah gained world recognition as the grieving gay lover in the smash hit Four Weddings and a Funeral; now he's sharing the screen with Hollywood's golden girl, Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, which opened this year's Sundance Film Festival, where PAUL FISCHER spoke to him. (And to director Peter Howitt –see at left.)

The bloke sitting opposite in the suede jacket, hanging out for a fag, is one of Scotland's hottest actors: John Hannah. His funeral speech in the mother of smash hits, Four Weddings and a Funeral, brought audiences to tears the world over. In his latest film, Sliding Doors, he recites Monty Python and exchanges passionate embraces with Gwyneth Paltrow.

"A brilliantly accessible film which is still full of observation" on Sliding Doors

It was Hannah, incidentally, who helped get the film made for close friend and actor, Peter Howitt, its writer/director. "I think for a lot of people who would want to be a writer of a film, you would sort of set out and write your Czechoslovakian art-house movie, you know?" he said. "Whatever kind of little insights you thought you had on the world. But what's amazing about Pete is that he's made a brilliantly accessible film which is still full of observation."

Hannah surreptitiously ended up showing the script to veteran Hollywood power broker and producer Sydney Pollack, who fell in love with the script and a project was born. In the film, Hollywood's Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen, a British advertising executive who is sacked. Despondently leaving for home, in a seemingly meaningless but crucial turn of fate, Helen misses her train. But what if she hadn't missed it? Sliding Doors poses that question and explores the possibilities with two different, contiguous storylines: one in which Helen makes her train, and one in which she misses it. From this unique premise develops two romantic comedies. In the first, Helen remains with her philandering boyfriend (John Lynch). In the second, she leaves him to explore the romantic possibilities of a kindly and witty stranger (Hannah), whom she meets on the train.

"She's one of those people that makes you better than you are" on Gwyneth Paltrow

Of course Hannah ended up being thrilled about the chance to work with Paltrow. "I hadn't really been aware of a lot of her work prior to this film, but obviously, Pete told me to be impressed," he said. "And then once I met her and saw her work. She's a phenomenally talented actress, and she's one of those people that makes you better than you are, you know. She's so good. It's like sports, when you're playing with somebody who's pretty good at something, it makes you better as well."

Both Hannah and Howitt were generally impressed with the attitude of Paltrow to the film. "Neither of us saw her as this big American movie star, you know? To both Pete and I she was just Gwyneth; she didn't bring any of that Hollywood baggage with her." They clearly had a mutual respect of each other's working relationship and despite their different backgrounds, Hannah says their approach to the work was strangely similar. "I felt that we worked in a fairly similar way, in as much as to try and have fun and be in the moment, but at the same time, in a way, of not suddenly starting to ACT. I think Gwyneth's level of preparation for the film was much greater than mine from the point of view of where she was in the two stories. I think I had a really, really simple function, in that I had to BE in the moment, and create a moment-to-moment reality, and not project any kind of dishonesty to the audience."

Sliding Doors was Hannah's second opening night at Sundance [he'd been there a few years before with Four Weddings], and he's thrilled at the way such a small, character-driven film such as Sliding Doors had been accepted by the American independent film community. "I think people will have got to a point where they're making different choices and finding they're enjoying it. And with Sundance as an independent platform, (the films) are being perceived as successful. And once something is successful, there is more possibility for raising finance for films, in the way that Four Weddings and a Funeral, which cost $2.7 million, made people a lot of money. So it made the studios aware of the fact that you could get ten little independent films for $10 million."

So don't expect this award-winning actor to crop up in a Hollywood action thriller too soon. "I don't think that's quite me, do you?"

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If you're an out-of-work actor, take a leaf out of Peter Howitt’s book: Write your own script and then direct it. That's what happened with the former co-star of In the Name of the Father. "As an actor, I was damned sick of reading scripts that contained a lot of incomprehensible, often unsayable dialogue. I wanted to change all that and try and write something that was truthful", Howitt explains. The idea for his debut script, Sliding Doors, was somewhat personal, he recalls. "I got the idea for Sliding Doors while rushing to meet a friend. I couldn't decide if I should run for the train or first call my mate at a public phone; I impulsively dashed across the street, and was nearly hit by a car, and that brush with death got me thinking. Something inside my head thought, 'That's interesting. What if he had hit me then?' What are the knock-on effects, the domino effects . . ."

Howitt picked his longtime friend John Hannah to play the man that would turn out to be Helen's [Gwyneth Paltrow] true love. While the film was still struggling to get financing, Hannah promised to lend his time and reputation to the project. That commitment would last for three years.

"At this point, don't forget, we weren't in the realms of Gwyneth Paltrow, Sydney Pollack, or Miramax or Paramount Pictures," he said. "We were just this little piddly British film trying to get made, and I thought, well if I can get John Hannah, at least he's been in a couple of movies. He's better than my mate next door who hasn't been in any," the laconic director says laughingly. It's hard to imagine, that at one point Howitt considered making the film on a shoestring budget, perhaps even to the extreme of The Brothers McMullen, which director Edward Burns made for $24,000, by filming at his parents' house on weekends.

"You have to be prepared to do that," he says. "I didn't think, 'I'm just going to wait for Hollywood to ring up and give me my money.' Well the money came from England ultimately, but you have to be so crazily determined to make your film. Not from an egotistical point of view, but I honestly thought it was a story worth telling."
Paul Fischer


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