Fodder for the Tabloids (and Evelyn Waugh) — Fry Takes on Bright, Vile “Young Things”
by Erica Abeel
Stephen Fry is a Renaissance man with a daunting verbal agility like only the Brits make ’em. A comic actor and writer across film, print, stage and television; chat show regular and consecrated wit, Fry struck paydirt in Britain as the butler in “Jeeves and Wooster,” a 1990 TV series based on stories by P.G. Wodehouse. Here’s he’s best known for his expansive and nuanced portrayal of the title character in the 1997 “Wilde.”
Now Fry adds a new string to his bow as director of “Bright Young Things,” which he also adapted from Evelyn Waugh‘s novel “Vile Bodies.” They seem a heaven-made match, Waugh the acid satirist and Fry the fizzy raconteur — you only wonder why they didn’t come together sooner.
Set in 1930’s London between the World Wars, “Bright Young Things” follows a pod of rich, brittle gadabouts, both vilified and ogled by the tabloids, as they party, snort “naughty salt,” and feel terribly bored. The film opens with a red inferno-themed bacchanal behind the opening credits, its whirling camera and nervous cutting mirroring the characters’ hedonism.
Centerstage as participant/observer is the destitute but well-connected Adam Fenwick-Symes (newcomer Stephen Moore Campbell.) Adam returns from France with a manuscript of his novel exposing London’s smart set, only to have it confiscated by a philistine customs inspector. This disaster powers up the film’s main plotline: Adam’s efforts to rustle up enough coin to marry Nina (the superb Emily Mortimer), a flighty, security-minded aristocrat’s daughter.
They’re surrounded by a droll coterie of A-listers, including the queeny Miles Malpractice; and the Hon Agatha Runcible, a one-woman caution against a depleted gene pool, played with perfect vapidity by legit actress Fenella Woolgar. To stroke the money people, perhaps, Fry also studded his supporting cast with name actors: the matchless Jim Broadbent as the Drunken Major; Peter O’Toole in a side-splitting cameo as Nina’s barmy aristo father, liberally writing checks for Adam signed “Charlie Chaplin”; and Dan Ackroyd as a fatuous press baron patterned on Lord Beaverbrook.
Fry is six foot five, plumpish, with a big man’s sexy presence — and he uncannily resembles Oscar Wilde. He hates dead air, and you risk getting swept away in a verbal tsunami. In the plummiest of accents, he looses a torrent of facts, anecdotes, opinions, and one-liners, slowed only by digestive events and the occasional squeak of exasperation at an interviewer’s dimness. This June indieWIRE sat down with him at the Regency Hotel, managing to sneak in a few questions edgewise.
indieWIRE: How is this period film relevant now?
Stephen Fry: If you were to say that you were making a film which is set in a youth culture, and these young people love fast music inspired by American Black street music, and they party till they’re crazy and take coke, and they’re photographed by the newspapers beause it’s a celebrity culture people would assume that you’re writing a film about now.
[Extended riff on the birth of youth culture, transgender style in the 20’s, and male facial hair in Victorian England, when “men looked like a burst horsehair sofa.”]
iW: What’s your affinity for Evelyn Waugh?
Fry: I don’t know that I have an affinity for Waugh. I dislike Waugh’s pessimism, the cruelty and savagery with which fate treats his characters, his lack of a moral judgment. You know that great line in “The Importance of Being Earnest”: “The good ended happily, the bad ended unhappily, that is what fiction means.” Well, we still think that books should deliver some kind of moral equation whereby those who choose good are given marriage and happiness and wealth, and those who act badly are punished.
iW: But –
Fry: But Waugh doen’t do that. That’s why he still seems starkly modern to us, even now. Good people are crapped on and bad people are rewarded with success. I still find it shocking reading the ending of “A Handful of Dust,” when Tony Last goes down the Orinoco and has to read Dickens to that mad missionary forever – It’s not just, it’s not right, it’s not fah. There’s a kind of nihilism, a surrealistic horror to Waugh… [etc. etc.]
iW: But what about his Catholic moralistic streak?
Fry: He’s stern in his judgment, but there’s nothing much Catholic about that. There’s no redemption. [Detailed tutorial on the Waugh oeuvre, furnished on request.]
iW: Yet in your film Lord Balcairn, the gossip columnist, makes a scathing speech indicting his whole corrupt society.
Fry: That’s me, not Waugh. And it’s a banal moral jugment. And not Catholicism. Catholicism is about the individual soul, and that’s quite different.
Waugh himself was a vile man of course. As someone once said to him, ‘It’s quite extraordinary, that with your belief in Catholicism and your apparent devout faith, you could be quite so rude and unpleasant to people’. And he said, ‘Well, imagine how beastly I would be if I weren’t Catholic’. So in that sense —
iW: How did you come to direct this film? Excuse me for interrupting, but the clock’s running…
Fry: A couple of people who had obtained the rights to “Vile Bodies” called me up and said we wonder if you would consider writing an adaptation for a feature film. So I did a draft, and didn’t think much more about it until they called and said, Would you consider directing it? Which hadn’t crossed my mind. So I said, If you think you can find people to put money on it for me as a first-time director…
iW: The challenge, of course, was to retain Waugh’s satire without sacrificing the emotional impact. To avoid “falling between two stools,” as you’ve put it.
Fry: Yes, absolutely, that’s spot on. Because as you know, Waugh gives his characters no depth or dimension. He doesn-t tell you how they’re feeling or how they look. They exist brilliantly in the dialogue — I mean, he’s the greatest writer of dialogue, I think, in the 20th century, but —
iW: There’s no psychology.
Fry: Exactly, Waugh didn’t believe in psychology. He’s a modern stylist in a sense. So there’s no “he says,” and certainly there’s no “he snapped coldly” – no hint as to what the emotions of the characters are underneath their behavior.
Well now, you can’t do that in a film, because the camera’s pointing at a real human being. Unless you’re going to make an arthouse film, in which you ask the characters not to have any psychological truth, which is to say, betray everything you’ve ever learned as an actor — which is a fantastic idea for a short film, perhaps.
But if you over color it and try to give each character depth in a way that interferes with the satire, then you’ve sentimentalized it, which is a criminal thing to do. On the other hand, if you don’t give the characters enough reality, then you’re alienating the audience, which may work as an experiment in a kind of Brechtian way, the “Verfremdungseffekt,” if you like —
iW: Uh, “alienation effect”?
Fry: Exactly, how pretentious of me to have given it in German, I’m sorry.
iW: Do you think you struck the right balance?
Fry: Obviously, I would hope I did. People who’ve seen it have been kind enough to say, I thought at first,; Who are these bloody characters’, I really hated them, but by the end for some reason they’ve become quite loveable.
Most people I spoke to don’t know the book, especially in America. I suspect that if you throw a brick out on Park Avenue the odds of your hitting someone who’s read it are very much stacked against it. Perhaps the odds are better in the Alphabets. That’s fine. I do not make films for Evelyn Waugh readers. Why the hell should I? They’ve got Evelyn Waugh to read.
iW: How did you get the elusive tone you wanted from the actors?
Fry: The analogy I used for the actors was animals. If you watch a nature program about vultures, you root for the vulture. You know, you see the mother laying her eggs… Though these are the ugliest scavenging-est nasties around. The thing about animals is they don’t ask to be liked. They simply spend every hour of every day seven days a week being themselves. A tree frog does not wake up in the morning and think, ‘Oh, I was a bad tree frog. How can I be a better tree frog’… So you end up admiring the characters for their authenticity. They refuse to ask to be liked or admired.
iW: I did root for Adam. He’s endearingly goofy, with his round eyes…
Fry: One reason I was delighted with Stephen Campbell Moore is that he was not the usual bland hero — what I call the David Copperfield syndrome, where the hero is in the middle of a whole group of fantastically eccentric characters, and he’s just a sort of nice chap.
iW: Did you consider a cameo for yourself?
Fry: If you look carefully, I’m the chauffeur taking Adam and Nina to Arundel and I say “Where to Sir?”
iW: Since Waugh did so little “characterization,” you’ve had to create these characters from the ground up.
Fry: Yes, together with the actors, exactly. That’s one more reason to change the title. People get bogged down with this idea that the film is going to be an adaptation of “Vile Bodies.” Well, yeah, it’s the source material and — don’t get me wrong in this; I’m not wishing to state that I am Shakespeare or anything approaching him — yet Shakespeare adapted Plutarch, and all kinds of sources for his plays. He had only two plays from plots of his own. But that’s not the point — never was then and it shouldn’t be now. If I had made up my own story, it would have none of the authenticity of a story written in that time.
The fact is, there will only ever be one “Vile Bodies, and that’s the book by Waugh. And my take on it is called “Bright Young Things.” I wish more adapters would find a different title. Because it’s actually a service to the book. We’re just doing little vamps on it, little riffs on the original.
And of course it’s fantastic on the set, when an actor comes up to you with the paperback and says, “on page 17 Adam says” — and I say, yes, but you’re talking about “Vile Bodies” and we’re making “Bright Young Things.”
iW: It’s been suggested that the happy ending you provided was a nod to the test-screening executives.
Fry: It’s a challenge I would happily throw out to anyone else and see how they might handle it. How would you end a story set in 1933 that closes with an apocalyptic vision?
iW: I find your ending very satisfying.
Fry: Oh well, that’s very sweet of you.
iW: And romantic.
Fry: Yes, oh, thank you, I am romantic, and I’m afraid I do have a more benevolent view of humanity than Waugh did.
iW: I was also struck by the chemistry between Adam and Nina — despite the brittle dialogue. Like after they first sleep together —
Fry: Yes, Nina says, “I’d have rather been at the dentist. Still, if it gave you pleasure.” And “Oh, I couldn’t have enjoyed it less, it gave me a pain.” It’s absolutely vicious.
One thing I told the actors: the more you apologize for what you’re saying and who you are, the less sympathetic you will be.
iW: What was that pain she kept talking about?
Fry: That’s right, what was it. It changes: sometimes it’s a typical thing that women always use against men. It’s the woman’s way of having power over a man. Then it becomes love, it’s transformed. Because love is a pain. You know, when you first fall in love and you look at your beloved and you get that great leak of hot lead in your stomach.
iW: How did you capture Waugh’s misanthropic humor — for instance in that first scene when Dan Ackroyd’s Lord Monomark is lording it over Adam?
Fry: I did an unconventional thing with the cutting. The traditional cutting through a scene is, first a wide shot, then a two shot, then closeups. We start with a big closeup and it gets wider and wider, and lots of profiles, slightly soft focus sometimes, on his lips speaking — it’s about disorientation. It’s the point of view of Adam, and his schoolboyish lost nature.
iW: I thought it had to do with Waugh’s brittle style.
Fry: You don’t — [sound of exasperation] — as a director you don’t say, we have to find a cinematic equivalent of a literary style. The shorthand I used for the cinematographer was “the Hudsucker moment” because it’s quite a Coen brothers way of shooting. And I think that’s much more the way you should do films. You talk about film in terms of film, not in terms of books. We’d say, ‘This is our Preston Sturges moment’. ‘This is our Kirk Douglas bit’. It’s not that you copy their style. You think of film in terms of other films.
Though I didn’t mean to dismiss your idea. Because Waugh is a brutal man and this is a brutal scene.
The opening party scene, by the way, doesn’t exist in the book. I wanted this demonic speed. People think English period film, and they think of a lawn, and a big parasol with Anthony Hopkins somewhere, and a teapot —
iW: Merchant Ivory.
Fry: Exactly. I’ve got nothing against Merchant Ivory. I was in “Le Divorce” and I loved it. But this just happens not to be that kind of film. I wanted to show from the get go, as you say in American — great phrase — that this was not a polite world. This was an impolite world, full of camera moves — going Dutch, as we say, sideways moves, and little fast zooms and tracks and hand helds. It’s a frenzied inferno party, everyone’s dressed as the devil, with a bad woman dancing fast and saying, I’ve never been so bored in my life. Just to show it’s not a world of tea parties and vicars.
iW: What made you think you could direct?
Fry: [Laughing] I suppose because I’ve spent twenty years on film sets. So I’ve watched directors, I’ve been directed by directors, and I know that they don’t come from a special gene pool.
iW: What’s the special ability?
Fry: I don’t know any other job that involves so many aspects of human culture and life. It’s about language, mathematics, geometry of the line and the eye and angle of a camera — angle is used more than any other word on a film set, it’s straight from Euclid. Tell me another job that involves costume, design, makeup, movement, color, pictures, esthetics, psychology of human behavior, speech, music, sound, architecture…
iW: Is that daunting?
Fry: It’s fantastically exciting. It’s very daunting when you start. But the beauty of it is there’s an established way of making films. Once the money’s there and you have a pre-production office and it’s just you and a few production people. [You hope] they’re not just going to match your vision — they’re going to exceed it. I told Michael Howell, the production designer, ‘I want these parties to be quite decadent’. And he said, ‘yes, I designed a party once and I had dwarves throwing snowballs in a park’. And I said that’s the kind of thing!
iW: It seems to me you’ve emphasized the gay element in your film.
Fry: I kind of made it more manifest. Waugh named the character Miles Malpractice. How much more could he have spelled it out without being banned? Because these things were not usually written about in 1928. Miles is based on two real historical figures called Brian Howard and Harold Acton from Waugh’s Oxford days.
iW: The Miles in your film, especially after he’s exiled to France, seems awfully like Oscar Wilde.
Fry: Well, it’s Wilde and… six and a half thousand other gay people. It’s what gay people did: the police were after you, you escaped to France.
iW: Would Waugh like this movie?
Fry: I have no way of knowing. I was extremely pleased just for the sake of our publicity that his family adored it and think it’s the best adaptation of Waugh there’s bean. But he was a curmudgeonly old sod and hated anything modern, so I doubt it.