The meeting of mischievous minds knows no generational boundaries. Consider the vast space that separates the droll English sensibilities of Evelyn Waugh, who would have hit 100 last Oct. 28, and Stephen Fry, who will be 47 on Aug. 24. That half-century-plus has not stopped the latter from turning the former's Vile Bodies into the new ThinkFilm release, Bright Young Things.
In fact, it's easy to understand what a bright and brittle wit like Fry saw in the elegant satire practiced by Waugh and why that simpatico connection would abet the tricky transition to film.
The new title roughly corresponds to the "boldfaced names" of today. The Bright Young Things of Fry's first feature directing effort are the "bright young people" of Waugh's second novel, written in 1930 at age 27—a caf society spinning dizzily out of control, hedonistic gadflies flitting in their flappers on the brink of disaster between World Wars. Think Cabaret in London, with lots of glitz and gossamer.
Fry has been an almost evangelical fan of the book since he first read it as a teenager. "I misread it, I think," he amends. "I remember thinking the characters were role models."
His fondness for the work came to the attention of producer Miranda Davis, who had acquired the film rights, and she approached him to do the screenplay. "Our meeting was in February," he recalls. "I'd already set aside June and July as a time to be in my Norfolk home and maybe do some writing. I hadn't decided what, so I thought I'd make it that."
So con amore was his feeling for the material that he literally wrote himself into the director's chair. "When I was asked if I'd consider directing it as well, I hadn't considered it at all, so I re-read the script with a director's eye—and immediately hated myself as a writer. I saw little tricks I'd used to cover up structural flaws. When you got down to it, words and phrases from the book weren't going to be enough, so I did another draft—with the idea of directing it. I'm not sure I'd have dared direct this if I hadn't written it first."
The nine-week shoot was no month in the country estate—especially for a first-time director—but Fry says his most arduous work preceded the whirl of the cameras, as adapter, compressing Waugh's unwieldy work into a watchable film that smoothly approximates the same turf. He adopted the butterfly technique. His P.O.V. character—a wannabe novelist reduced at one point to reporting on the sinful excesses of London's high society in a newspaper gossip column—alights on one bizarre Brit after another, trying to amass enough funds to seem marriageable to his rather materialistic sweetheart.
Essentially, that's as much of a plot as Fry (and Waugh, before him) came up with. Ambiance is everything. The rich-textured, lushly realized background all but swallows up the dear boy, and Fry has cast the assorted eccentrics accordingly, calling in old favors. "We picked a whole series of peaches in the garden of elderly casting" is how he puts it.
Translation: Peter O'Toole pops up for a lovely scene as a potty patriarch, and 94-year-old Sir John Mills amuses mightily in a wordless, wholly invented bit of an ancient aristocrat who finds coke mixed in his snuff box. Jim Broadbent lunges unsteadily through the film as a besotted old major who signs "Charlie Chaplin" on all his checks.
Some of the characters have a basis in fact. Julia McKenzie, in a frizzy orange wig, is the perfect innkeeper for a seedy inn—a role Waugh based on a real person, Rosa Lewis, who once ran the old Cavendish Hotel and was the subject of the 1970s BBC-TV series, "Duchess of Duke Street." You can also read more than telltale signs of Canadian print czar Lord Beaverbrook and American bible-thumper Aimee Semple McPherson into Dan Aykroyd's gruff publishing mogul and Stockard Channing's shady-lady evangelist.
Brand names old (Margaret Tyzack, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter) and new (Richard E. Grant, Michael Sheen, Simon McBurney)—are sprinkled like confetti.
Given the classy accessories, Fry could—and did—go soft on the centerpieces. In fact, "the thing that thrills me most are the unknowns we present for the first time on film." Case in point: Stephen Campbell Moore, gamely cast as our hard-pressed hero, who moves among the Jazz Age's rich and infamous not unlike the quiet center of a hurricane.
"I saw Stephen as Octavius Caesar in a production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Company two years ago and thought he would be good, so I went to the casting director and suggested him. I saw him, we chatted, and he did some tests on tape.
"Then, the money people wanted to see him do a scene with Emily Mortiner, whom we'd cast as his Nina. Together they seemed great—and the producers said okay. I was really pleased because it is a risk in a sense to have an unknown in the lead. On the other hand, it makes the film intriguing when it's a cast you've not seen before. You don't know what is the actor's mannerism and what is his character's. You just buy the character more.
"Stephen is really a charming fellow and easy to get on with. He took it seriously and worked very hard and wasn't overwrought. He wasn't someone [who needed me] to squat down on my haunches and whisper in his ear because he was suddenly terrified he had to act with Peter O'Toole. He was confident enough in his own ability to be brave and adventurous. I have to say it was a very happy shoot, and that to me is terribly important."
The British stage also served up the film's best surprise—Fenella Woolgar, who plays the zany who stayed too long at the party, Agatha Runcible. When she's not redefining daft, she's poignantly paying the price for mindless frivolity, turning on a dime from madcap to mad. It's a haunting, hilarious, scene-stealing role, and Woolgar goes to town on it.
"Agatha is that way in the book as well," says Fry, "entrancing, frustrating, incredibly funny and, somehow, deeply sad. I thought if I was lucky I'd get an actress who could approach the qualities that character had in the book, but I never dared dream that someone like Fenella Woolgar had been put on this earth. She is so bright and authentic. She had every single quality the character should have—plus! The sight of her on a sickbed—smiling aimlessly and still thinking she's somehow at a party—is a marvelous symbol of the whole film, of the almost absurdist pointlessness of their existence."
Woolgar is a thin, gangly kind of actress who, in her comic mode, would pair nicely with Fry in his comic mode—a notion that delights Fry. "A Thin Man for the new generation?"
In Bright Young Things, alas, Fry holds his acting to a chauffeur cameo. But his often-distinguished past as an actor definitely determined his directorial attack—a team-effort tactic that was doubtlessly prompted by the fact that his best screen work (after Oscar Wilde) has been ensemble affairs—1992's Peter's Friends and 2001's Gosford Park.
"Oddly enough," he notes, "both of those films were filmed in the same house. And so, too, were some of the television adaptations of 'Jeeves,' so I have very fond memories of that place. It's in Hertfordshire, just north of London, a stone's throw away. It's a popular film site because producers don't have to pay the cast and crews' overnight hotel bills."
As a screenwriter—ironically, in light of where he has wound up—Fry began with Gossip. "Don Boyd, who produced John Schlesinger's most disastrous film, Honky Tonk Freeway, hired me right out of university to do a rewrite of a script written by two Americans—the Tolkin brothers, one of whom went on to write The Player, Robert Altman's film. It was about a gossip columnist in New York, and Boyd wanted it changed to London, so I did that for him. It was cast with Anthony Higgins and Simon Callow and various other figures, and shooting started. Then, suddenly, it turned out Don Boyd had absolutely no money at all, and the entire film collapsed. No one had gotten paid but me."
The same financial short-circuiting scuttled the script he was writing for Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall. Ignoring both warning signs—Waugh and gossip—Fry crossed his fingers, forged ahead with Bright Young Things and came up with a suddenly topical film.
"I think between the writing of Gossip and the writing of Bright Young Things," he declares, "the whole fame thing and the public's fascination with it have increased enormously. We now live in what people have dubbed in a very ugly way 'celebrocity.' Fame is worshipped for its own sake, and then we beat ourselves up for the shallowness of all that. I mean, are we really obsessed with the granddaughters of Conrad Hilton?"