King & Queen: Producer Graham King recounts his 10-year effort to bring Freddie Mercury's story to the screen
He has steered 40 movies and television series to the screen, has won an Oscar and worked with director Martin Scorsese and stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.
His movies have earned some 65 Oscar nominations, but nothing 56-year-old Graham King experienced came close to the difficulties, traumas and setbacks he encountered during the ten long years he spent producing Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of the flamboyant singer Freddie Mercury and the band Queen.
First there was the problem of getting the rights from Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were initially reluctant for the movie to take place. Then Sacha Baron Cohen, who was originally set to play Mercury, feuded with Queen leader Brian May and badmouthed the script.
The script was re-thought and rewritten more times than King can count. And while filming was well underway, the director Bryan Singer was fired.
"Freddie Mercury has been throwing hurdles at me for ten years and continues to do so," says King ruefully. "Every time we thought we were on the right track, something else would go wrong."
The British-born producer, whose movies include The Aviator, Argo, The Rum Diaries, Hugo and The Departed, for which he won an Oscar, is talking in a Beverly Hills screening room after unveiling a 25-minute clip of Bohemian Rhapsody, which stars Rami Malek, from the TV series “Mr. Robot,” as Freddie Mercury.
King is relieved and delighted that his vision has finally made it to the screen and is ready for release. But he is also wracked with nervous anxiety as he anticipates audience reaction to the project.
"We've made a film that's got to please a lot of audience members and millions of Queen fans," he says. "We don't hide from Freddie Mercury having HIV and getting AIDS. We don't hide his sexuality, but every time we put a piece of footage out there, somebody says, 'You're not showing Freddie Mercury doing this or that.'
"I think Rock Hudson and Freddie were the first two major stars to pass away from AIDS. We were never going to hide from that, but the question was how we were going to put it into the film without it becoming Philadelphia or without it becoming a movie about AIDS or about sexuality. He was one of the greatest performers of our time and with one of the greatest voices. So that's what we've struggled with for so long—putting all these ingredients into a 120-page script. And even up until the last second we were changing dialogue and changing scenes.
"For me, it was about getting the script right and it was the development that took so many years. When you're developing someone's life story into a two-hour film, you've got to pick the moments. And with Freddie’s life it took so much work, and so many writers came in to help to build this story and hopefully tell the right story. We all know you get one shot in a film at telling the story and it was never quite right for a long time. I would keep going off to do another movie, then coming back to the drawing board and figuring out how we can get this done.”
Growing up in London, King remembers seeing Queen on the “Top of the Pops” television show and marveling at the flamboyance of Freddie Mercury. "I was just mesmerized watching him because of his looks and voice and the chemistry he had with an audience," he recalls. "I always said that if he was a politician he could go in front of 400,000 people and just command respect and show them and teach them where to go. No one cared if he was straight or gay, which you couldn't say about many entertainers. So, for me, it was all about telling the life story of someone that people don't know a lot about."
After much negotiating and difficulty, King managed to obtain the movie rights from Brian May, Roger Taylor and Queen's longtime manager, Jim Beach. "But they were very opinionated in the early days about the movie they wanted," King recalls. "I told May, 'We're making a film, not a documentary, and if you don't stick to every minute of history and every song it's okay, you can get away with it.'"
He finally won over May and Taylor, but then, he says, "the whole Sacha Baron Cohen thing happened."
He was shooting Hugo at the time, which co-starred Baron Cohen. "Sacha clearly had a passion to play Freddie Mercury, but there was no script and there was nothing done at the time," King says. "As a producer, until I have a screenplay and until I have a director, I'm not going to ever hire a cast member. Sacha wanted me to sign his deal and I didn't, and he got mad and it all kind of kicked off from there.
"There was a lot of talk from him about how in the script Freddie dies halfway through and then the movie is about the band. Well, that's never, ever been the case. The movie is bookended with the Live Aid concert and starts and ends with Live Aid.
"Then the whole Sacha-Brian May thing became a war in the press, and for me it was always about Brian May, who anytime could say, 'Let's not bother making this film.' Queen didn't need to make the film. They didn't need money, so the friction between Sacha and Brian May became nerve-wracking to me, because any minute he could have just pulled the plug."
King spent hours and days sitting with the band and asking questions about Freddie and their lives with him. But all the time he was worried that they might change their minds. "Whether I had the rights or not, if they weren't going to support the film and didn't want to get involved, I would never make the film. So that was always the big tension for me. Other than that, I think they've been terrific.
"But there were times where they would be like, 'Are we actually going to make this movie?' And I don't think Brian May ever thought we were going to make the film. And when I said I'd got it green-lit at Fox, I think I called his bluff in a way." He laughs.
"But it was a lot of meetings, a lot of getting together and I realize that their life stories are going to be on 6,000 screens around the world, so I understand how nervous they are."
Ben Whishaw was mentioned as a possible Freddie Mercury, but again, no script was ready. Then, King recalls, "I was in London shooting a film and Denis O’Sullivan, who works with me, called me and said, 'I think I've found our Freddie Mercury. I'd love you to fly back to L.A. to meet this guy Rami Malek and spend some time with him.'
"So I did and I think he was really nervous, but there was a little bit of Freddie in him then and he really wanted this gig. And I think we would have been killed if we had a white Freddie Mercury. Freddie was born in Zanzibar and went to school in Mumbai, while Rami has an Egyptian and Greek background. But it wasn't about the look; I wasn't looking for an impersonator, there was just something about him.
"He put himself on an iPhone, copying one of Freddie’s interviews and he sent that to me. And I was like, 'Oh my God, that's Freddie Mercury.' I knew right then that was it—done, done, done! Sometimes it's a gut feeling and I know it sounds a bit corny, but I knew he was right for the part. I've worked with Daniel Day Lewis and Leo and all these guys and this performance I think is one of the best I've ever seen. It's unbelievable. Unbelievable."
The songs in the movie are performed by Freddie, Rami and a Freddie sound-alike named Marc Martel.
"Rami sings a little bit in the film, there's a lot of Freddie Mercury obviously, and a lot of Marc Martel. He sent a video to Brian May and Roger Taylor and he sounds exactly like Freddie Mercury. We knew that we had someone we could use for parts that maybe Rami couldn't do and obviously Freddie didn't do. So we were in Abbey Road recording studio for maybe two and a half months with Marc and with Rami, recording bits and pieces that we knew we needed. It's hard to find someone who can sing like Freddie Mercury and I'm not sure the movie would have happened if we didn't have Marc."
But with a star, a singer, Queen's cooperation and the script problems solved and shooting well underway, the problems were by no means over.
The famous Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, which bookends the film, was an extremely tough location shoot on a field in the north of England with 4,000 extras. It was, says King, a "heavy load" on the shoulders of Bryan Singer. And then allegations of sexual assault surfaced against him in Los Angeles.
Reports at the time said he was fired from the movie by 20th Century Fox because of the allegations, but Graham King explains it slightly differently. "I like Bryan Singer," he says. "I think he's really, really smart and he did an amazing job on this film. Unfortunately, he's got a lot going on in his world and in his head—a lot of personal issues, family issues and a lot of things. It came to a point where he just wanted to take a break from filming. He came to me in November and wanted a hiatus until after Christmas so he could deal with his problems and come back after the holidays.
"But when you have momentum going on a film, it’s hard to do that and tell the actors to come out of their character and come back later. So obviously I discussed it with the studio and they were pretty adamant not to have a hiatus. And that's kind of when it happened." Dexter Fletcher took over the directorial reins for the last 16 days of filming, but Singer retains sole directing credit.
Graham King currently has 20 projects in development, but it is Bohemian Rhapsody that is consuming his thoughts and giving him restless nights.
"Right now, my fear is making sure that people enjoy the film that I've spent nearly a decade trying to get made," he says. "I was nervous about showing this footage here today, because it's the first time and it's kind of like letting your baby go."