Urban Cinefile
"It made me sick.."  -Sam Neill on his act with the axe in The Piano
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



Making his directing debut with Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry encountered a few “scum lawyers” but even they couldn’t spoil the fantastic fun he had making this film about sex, fame, parties – and love, he tells Andrew L. Urban. 

Stephen Fry is a big, tall chap, so tall he tends to stoop a bit which is highlighted as he paces up and down the hotel room in Sydney re-enacting a scene from the making of his debut feature, Bright Young Things. In fawn linen trousers and matching pocket-adorned jacket, he is striding back and forth, relating how he was so intensely involved with the process he was oblivious to the fact that he had trodden in a plate of Danish pastries, which had stayed stuck to his right shoe.

“I had noticed the crew were sort of smiling,” he recounts with panache, “but it wasn’t until I sat down at the split monitor and looked down at this foot with a plate of pastries stuck to it that I realised I’d been walking about and having intimate conversations with actors or discussing a light with the DoP, with this plate attached.”

The anecdote highlights the difference between actor and director, and the reason why Fry – a celebrated actor whose portrayal of Oscar Wilde (Wilde [1997] dir. Brian Gilbert), for example, earned him a Golden Globe nomination and the Seattle Film Festival’s Gold award - chose not to act in the film himself. “As an actor, you have to be terribly self aware and unavoidably, self centred. You care about your hair, make up, wardrobe and so on, and yourself. It’s all the tools you use. Whereas the director has to care about everybody,” he explains.

It’s a process that has seduced him and he’d do it again “like a shot” even though he admits to having gone through hell to get to heaven, to have enjoyed the ecstasy but not without some agony. 

“I’ve never enjoyed anything quite so much, it was fantastic fun. The thing I understood about filmmaking is how a film set works. But of course if you imagine filmmaking as being the front of this sofa,” he runs a hand along the front of the two-seater, “this part, (cushion 1) is pre-production, that part (cushion 2) is post production and this (the small gap between cushion 1 and 2) is the shoot. It’s the smallest part of the process. And when people ask, did you enjoy film directing, they mean that small part, being on the set talking to actors. But of course what you remember is this bit (cushion 1) and that bit (cushion 2) far more than this bit (small gap).

"fantastically thrilling"

“The incredible fun you have in the cutting room! The joy of discovering things and so on. And this bit (pre-production) which is fantastic . . . casting it, building it. Around the corner is the set being built, and the prop store was there and you have these conferences with prop buyers, who come in with hundreds of cigarette cases and handbags to match them to character ….and then the costume guy. He was doing fittings with the actors at Angels & Bermans and he’d be sending by email photographs of each of the actors in costume and I’d send back comments… then the location manager is coming in with photographs of houses and streets, racecourses, and we’re deciding which ones to look at. Then you drive off with him for a few days…taking a DV camera….I was getting up at four in the morning so I could get two or three hours in before everyone else got there, so I could do things like vaguely cut together shots of a location, say, and then discuss ideas for shots with the cinematographer, who’d take me over to Panavision and show me these great toys …or he’d bring in some DVDs, like Godfather 2, because they were the first ones to use these lenses, and so on….all those conversations are endless and they’re so exciting and as you can tell, I’m still energised by them! It’s all fantastically thrilling.”

Yes, Fry continues with the energy harnessed, “BUT, at the same time, what was happening was that some of the SCUM … lawyers …representing some of the finance companies who were behind some of the money, had failed to sign off the contract as an act of brinkmanship so that they could demand things. Like, ‘he wants an extra card inserted with him as Executive Producer.’ What?! He hasn’t even read the script, he’s just doing a tax deal in Holland! What’re you talking about? Well, he won’t sign off. So you say oh, f*** it, let him have it, I don’t care. Call him the writer, I don’t care… you start getting so angry with these people.

“Another one wasn’t signing off until we agreed that all his lawyer’s fees would be paid out of the production budget, if you can believe that. And that really drives you mad because you want every single penny on the screen.”

Things got so bad, in fact, with the contracts unsigned and no cash flowing through, that Fry had to “write personal cheques for horrifying six figure sums in order to pay the construction crew who hadn’t been paid for three weeks…”

Fry kept a diary, which makes fiery reading, and when excerpts were published in The Sunday Telegraph, “I offended a lot of people” he says with a chuckle that suggests he didn’t care what they did with their offended pride. “I did preface it by saying that all this anger is now over and the film is fine, and no money person in any way interfered with the film artistically – which is one of the miracles of British filmmaking.”

"It’s sex, drugs, and …. the Charlston"

Fry adapted Bright Young Things from the novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, who had written it in 1929, but set it slightly in the future, ending with an imaginary war that devastated Europe. Fry was faced with the problem of telling it from today’s vantage point, when the real 1939-45 war is well known history. He telescoped time, so that the early 30s – when the late20s mood of the setting was still relevant as bright young things partied like there was no tomorrow – melted seamlessly into the late 30s, as the war began. And continued. It’s sex, drugs, and …. the Charlston. Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore), one of the well bred group but completely broke, is hoping to marry Nina (Emily Mortimer). Every time he seems about to find the money to do so, he is thwarted by fate, while his friends are sinking further into the abyss of a whirl of parties and frolics. They shock the older generation with their jazz, their speed and their recklessness. But the bubble finally bursts, with depression and war…..

It was as much the novel’s contemporary relevance as the quality of the writing that attracted Fry. “Much of that era relates to us in this time; it’s very contemporary. Not only how we all recognise the culture of gossip and celebrity, and night clubbing and youth and burning out, but also its handling of coincidence and the malice of time and money.”

In other words, “the evil outcome … the ill wind that is blown by fate and coincidence, which Waugh is a master of, and the desire for money and how it corrupts and depraves – and interferes with the motives of everyone. Like the hero, who is partly blown by this wind and terrible things happen to him that are not completely his fault…utterly bad luck. It starts with the confiscation of his manuscript…and then the money he wins, which becomes a curse, because he has it, then he doesn’t have it, and he wants it … it goes away… and in the end he gives it away. At the most sentimental level, he is left with the one thing that is important, which is love.”

But Fry is quick to rally to love’s defense. “As sentimental as that is, it’s also profoundly true that all of us know – or most of us know and many of us spend a long time denying – that the pleasures of the flesh, of partying and of possession and of riches do not satisfy us. And that the real heartaches and miseries we have in life are over wanting to love – almost more than wanting to be loved. It’s a need all humans have and we often confuse it with the need to be loved…”

"celebrity and fame"

Bright Young Things is about love, but also about other things, including celebrity and fame, of which Fry himself has seen a fair bit. He admits that he did aspire to sheer fame when he was young. Now, having seen the upside and the downside of fame, he says he’s “much more grown up about it.” He rings a special number to book a table at London’s impossibly fame-stacked The Ivy anytime, despite the place being booked out for months to those who aren’t famous – but he knows, too, that as he steps out of the restaurant, the paparazzi will be there waiting. 

“As I said to someone the other day: the great thing about fame is you can get a table at The Ivy anytime you want it. The awful thing about fame is that whenever you leave The Ivy they’ll take your photograph. So deal with it. Expect it – and don’t take a secret lover.”

Published December 26, 2003

Email this article

Stephen Fry


© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020