Battling the jungles of Borneo to shoot a PBS documentary about orangutans with Julia Roberts seemed like the perfect initiation rite to up-and-coming feature director Nigel Cole.
He took Roberts to visit the apes twice and quickly learned the value of star power. “Even in the middle of Mongolia they knew who she was,” says the Brit helmer. “It’s good to take a movie star with you. It’s the magic pass.”
But it wasn’t all breezy. A male orangutan tried to take Roberts hostage. “It was like King Kong,” says Cole. “I very nearly became famous very quickly as he attempted to take her off into the trees.”
Shooting in situations where the unexpected can happen “teaches you to be flexible, and that’s what comedy is all about,” says Cole, whose first feature will be comedy “Saving Grace,” which preems in the World Cinema section at the Sundance Film Festival. (The film will be repped by William Morris Independents’ Cassian Elwes at the fest.)
The pic stars Brenda Blethyn as a repressed middle-aged woman whose husband dies, leaving her with major debt problems. Her gardener then suggests she grows marijuana for some quick cash.
“It’s a comedy in the British tradition,” says Cole of the rural set piece with an ensemble feel.
Cole started his career shooting commercials in London and then moved on to docs and series television. Aside from his two excursions with Roberts, Cole made two other “Into the Wild” docs with Robin Williams and Richard Dreyfus.
His breakthrough was award-winning Granada series “Cold Feet,” a comedy-drama ensemble piece about dysfunctional group of thirty-something Brits co-starring Helen Baxendale (“Friends”). He directed two episodes and got noticed by “Saving Grace” producer Mark Crowdy.
Things moved swiftly from there on out. “I was hired 18 months ago,” says the helmer. “We worked on the script and then shot it in Cornwall and London from May to June.”
Co-star Craig Ferguson penned the script. “Nigel is a great director in the making,” says Ferguson. “He listens before he makes up his mind, whether its about the script or and actor’s performance or even ordering lunch.”
Cole says he’ll focus on features from now on, but isn’t ruling out a third jungle adventure with Roberts.