Brits In A Quandary Over Their Films

Three questions trouble British film producers aiming to make films with international B.O. potential: Who should they make films for? What should they make films about? And how can their films be made to work in the marketplace?

Local distribs are celebrating an admissions boom, but U.K. filmmakers were not invited to the party. Nor are British films attracting the sort of advance interest from overseas distributors that they did just a few years back.

Poor U.K. theatrical openings for such recent pics as “The Big Man,” about an unemployed man trying to box his way back to self-esteem; “Paper Mask,” centered on a nurse’s attempt to impersonate a senior doctor; and the arty “Reflecting Skin” have left some producers wondering whether they’re in a no-win situation when they take on Hollywood competition at the local boxoffice.

Past hits don’t teach

British producers have had some hits in recent years, but it’s difficult to draw any lessons from them. After all, what sort of production program could capitalize on the success of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” or Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot,” the story of a paraplegic growing up and falling in love?

Avoidance of present-day realities seems to be the only rule followed by local filmmakers. Apart from “The Big Man,” “Paper Mask” and Ken Loach’s “Hidden Agenda,” which tackles civil rights abuses committed by Britain’s security forces in Northern Ireland, producers shy away from thrillers and dramas set against a modern urban backdrop. “Hidden Agenda” was recently released Stateside via co-financier Hemdale.

There’s a stronger focus on recent history. One British film which did well enough to generate a sequel was “The Krays,” about two notorious gangsters who terrorized London’s East End in the 1960s.

A quasi-sequel currently at the starting blocks is “Let Him Have It.” Just as 1985’s “Dance With A Stranger” centered on the last woman to be executed in England, the current pic tells the true story of a mentally retarded man hanged for a murder which his underage accomplice had committed.

Drawing on a deeper past, but still dealing with the criminal underclass, Working Title produced the mega-flop “Chicago Joe And The Showgirl,” about an English girl and her Yank lover on a crime orgy during World War II.

Only a few years back, filmmakers such as Stephen Frears and Mike Figgis drew the interest of specialist distribs in the U.S. for hard-hitting pics with contempo themes like “Sammy And Rosie Get Laid” and “Stormy Monday.”

Little interest in contempo topics

Cinema-goers didn’t show up in sufficient numbers to justify expectation of a sophisticated core audience for such pics. Interest of local producers in contemporary story lines has consequently diminished.

The result is that local directors with a taste for grittier subjects have crossed the Atlantic. Frears recently turned in “The Grifters” for Martin Scorsese Prods., while Figgis followed up “Internal Affairs” for Paramount with “Liebestraum,” the latter a thriller originally set in northern England.

The producers left behind have been considering whether they should concentrate on securing support from U.S. majors for their pics or tailor their films to European tastes and budgets.

Middle of the road

Adopting a middle course between these two positions, Jeremy Thomas and David Puttnam have drawn on production funds from diverse sources to work with world-class directors on big-budget films. These are pitched at the sort of international market which U.S. companies target when they make a pic like “Henry And June.”

Thomas is following Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky” with an adaptation of “The Naked Lunch,” a William Burroughs novel most consider unfilmable, in collaboration with writer-director David Cronenberg. Puttnam recently put “Meeting Venus” before the cameras with Hungary’s Oscar-winner Istvan Szabo as director.

Eric Fellner got backing from Universal for “A Kiss Before Dying” and got Pathe in on “Liebestraum.” Both are thrillers, helmed British directors (James Dearden and Figgis, respectively) but set in the U.S. Fellner was also responsible for Loach’s “Hidden Agenda.”

Those producers with a taste for softer stories or more complex forms of storytelling have their eyes on the evolution of a European market for their pics.

Can the babble be fused?

Producer Simon Perry, for example, argues that Europe’s babble of cultures and voices can be fused to create a distinctive identity. He’s currently making “The Favour, The Watch And The Very Big Fish” as a European co-production. The story concerns two would-be lovers kept apart by circumstances beyond their control.

Perry’s French co-producer Ariane Films is also in on “Afraid Of The Dark,” the directorial debut of Bertolucci collaborator Mark Peploe. A chiller about a boy who can’t separate his daydreams from reality, it sounds in summary like everybody’s idea of a Continental art movie. (Peploe, it should be recalled, was co-scenarist on Antonioni’s 1975 classic “The Passenger.”)

Peter Greenaway’s distinctive vision has secured a niche market in Europe for such recent pics as “Drowning By Numbers” and “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover.” His latest is “Prospero’s Books.”

With funding coming primarily from tv and state-subsidized British Screen, a lot of what gets made in the U.K. is determined by the personal tastes of these outfits’ execs and individual filmmakers, rather than any reading of signals from the marketplace. And, seemingly, most prefer to focus on a past world where stiff-upper-lip Englishmen used to pour out their emotions in semi-pastoral settings.

Some justification for such pics can be found in the offshore success some years back of producer Ismail Merchant’s “A Room With A View.” Pursuing that line, director Charles Sturridge recently put the finishing touches to “Where Angels Fear To Tread,” taken from another E.M. Forster novel in which upper-middleclass types lose their cool among Italian peasants. And Merchant is joining up again with director James Ivory to make Forster’s “Howard’s End.”

Englishmen lit up by passion are also at the center of “The Children,” in which Ben Kingsley becomes enamored with a teenager while traveling to meet his fiancee; “The Bridge,” which focuses on an English painter who falls m love with a married woman; and “American Friends,” featuring a senior Oxford professor who shocks his colleagues by becoming infatuated with an Irish-American orphan.

Also set among the dreaming spires is a planned feature version of “Shadowlands,” a tv and legit hit about poet/academic C.S. Lewis’ late-blooming love affair.

A shift from callous coldness to Continental-style passion is characteristic of those at the center of these films, and several recent British pics similarly focus on two-faced behavior. These include “The Fool,” from the “Little Dorritt” team of producer Richard Goodwin and director Christine Edzard, about a humble bank clerk of the mid-1850s who leads a second life as a glittering society success; and “Hear My Song,” about an Irish music hall performer forced out of the business in the 1950s by charges of tax evasion, and the man who toured the clubs after adopting his identity.

A blight on Blighty’s pics

The mood of despondency and gloom that so often hangs over films about the romantic incapacity of the average Englishman probably mirrors the pessimism of such films’ producers about their potential in the international marketplace.

It’s just as well, therefore, that comedy remains a British staple. In the case of Mike Leigh, who has followed up art-house hit “High Hopes” with “Life Is Sweet,” the contempo life he puts on the screen is so gloomy that it’s funny. Handmade Films had a hit with “Nuns On The Run,” featuring two gangsters holed up in a London nunnery, with assorted jokes about cross-dressing and religion.

Also working the comic strand are producer Michael White, currently toiling on “Sleeping With Fishes,” and Brian Eastman, producer of “Wilt.” Still to come is John Goldstone’s “Comedy House,” set up last year with backing from 20th Century Fox. In the embryonic stage is “British Comedy Blues,” a proposed joint venture between production company Working Title, the BBC and U.S. distrib Miramax.

With so few British films of any sort registering in the international marketplace, it may be that the question of what the pics are about is less important than how they are told.

The biggest question confronting all of Blighty’s producers is how to remedy its deficiency in the sort of screenwriting talent that could make films of whatever genre appeal to a wide audience. With the problems involved in raising cash everyone’s primary concern at the moment, no one, apparently, has the will to tackle this crucial question.

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