LONDON — Colin Welland’s cry of “The British are coming!” at the 1982 Academy Awards has never seemed more prophetic, even if he spoke a quarter of a century too soon.
Half a dozen helmers from Blighty have realistic claims for consideration in this year’s race for the director Oscar — Stephen Frears for “The Queen,” Richard Eyre for “Notes on a Scandal,” Roger Michell for “Venus,” Paul Greengrass for “United 93,” Anthony Minghella for “Breaking and Entering” and Kevin Macdonald for “The Last King of Scotland.”
What’s notable is that these low-budget films (none cost more than $15 million) are not decorous heritage fare or frothy fantasies pandering to a tourist’s view of Britain, but contemporary dramas responding with a sense of urgency to social and political realities.
With their roots in theater, TV drama and documentaries, these directors are stretching the boundaries of British cinema, working with savvy American partners to make specific stories intended for the widest possible audience.
“It’s been a particularly rich and varied year for British cinema, but nobody seems to know quite why,” remarks Macdonald. “They are a very cosmopolitan bunch of films. A lot are set here in Britain, but done in a variety of styles. They don’t feel like standard British movies.”
“You might say it is because, as the Chinese say, we live in interesting times,” Minghella says.
Macdonald’s brother Andrew, who runs DNA Films, which has a deal with Fox Searchlight, co-produced “Last King” and co-financed “Notes,” offers his own explanation for this creative upsurge: “It’s subsidy, isn’t it? All those directors are coming from subsidized theater and public TV, which is prepared to back people in a way that isn’t just about the bottom line. Subsidy money gets these people going, then the studios have relationships that can cherry pick that talent.”
“We don’t have a confident or continuing film industry here, so nearly all of us come out of other areas,” Michell explains. “None of us are born filmmakers. We don’t expect to have much help in making our films. Because we make them on such a low budget, we don’t expect to be told who to cast, what direction to take the script, how to cut them. You make them for your own pleasure. You don’t enter into that mad American world of homogenizing and pasteurizing the work, so you keep that vivid response.”
At worst this leads to self-indulgence, but at best it produces work of breathtaking daring and freshness.What Michell calls the “not-for-profit” sector also breeds an imaginative approach to working on the cheap.
“We’re the children of the Welfare State,” Frears comments. “I love that there’s this group of films by people coming from a different place, going back to places like the Royal Court Theater and the BBC in the 1970s, with a clear sense of decent values that we learned under the Welfare State, with the great importance attached to writers and material.”
Cross-fertilization is an ongoing process in Blighty. “Last King of Scotland,” “United 93” and “The Queen” are heavily influenced by the Brit docu tradition. Michell and Eyre continue to be active in the theater. Frears regularly dips back into TV, and indeed “The Queen” started as a TV project. Macdonald is currently shooting another doc. Minghella has just directed an opera, written a dance piece and a BBC radio play. Greengrass, who came from TV journalism, shuttles between docudrama and studio blockbusters.
DNA, jointly funded by lottery coin and Fox Searchlight, epitomizes the marriage between Brit subsidy and studio distribution to back directors who can combine the risk-taking originality of Blighty’s public-service tradition with a savvy American eye for the marketplace.
Working Title (“United 93”), Scott Rudin (“Notes on a Scandal” and “The Queen”) and Harvey Weinstein (“Breaking and Entering”) have made an artform of straddling that divide, while Daniel Battsek, the Brit who moved to New York last year to take over at Miramax, is an emerging player in that fertile cross-cultural game, backing both “Venus” and “The Queen.”
All these films shot in Blighty, apart from “Last King of Scotland.” “Breaking and Entering,” “Notes on a Scandal” and “Venus” represent a psycho-dramatic map of contemporary North London, unspooling in seedy/trendy Kings Cross, liberal/bourgeois Highgate and intermediate Kentish Town, respectively. Even “Last King” deals with the uncomfortable legacy of the British Empire in the monstrous shape of Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, viewed through the eyes of a callow (and fictional) young Scottish doctor.
For all its American subject matter, Greengrass proudly describes “United 93” as “a very British film,” straight out of the local tradition of investigative docudrama, where he learned his craft. He lauds the freedom he was given by Universal and Working Title. “All they ever said was, ‘Make the movie you want to make,’ ” he recalls.
Frears didn’t compromise on the British essence of his story — that of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and her prime minister, Tony Blair, in the week after the death of Princess Diana. It’s full of subtly expressive social detail only a Brit, and a reasonably informed one at that, would appreciate — such as the Newcastle United soccer shirt Blair wears around the house or the slight strangling of the Queen’s cut-glass accent when she goes live on TV.
But he credits Rudin and Miramax with helping him strike the right balance between the local and the universal. “I had a bit of useful advice from the Americans. Of course you’re serving two masters. You’re being faithful to the facts, but you’re also conscious that you’re inventing a drama, and there are things the Americans know about that which are quite useful.”
Rudin’s input to “Notes on a Scandal” also gets praise from Eyre. “Scott’s mantra was, ‘I don’t want this to be a small British movie.’ The detail, the authenticity, the truth is absolutely preserved, but it’s more in the editing and the score that its game is upped. It’s never discursive, it has an energy that never flags, there’s a stringency that you don’t find in British films.”
BRIT HELMER OSCAR TRIVIA
- Eight U.K.-born helmers have won the director Oscar, with almost half the wins occurring in the 1960s. Two-time winner David Lean is the Brit with the most directing nominations — seven, stretching from 1946’s “Brief Encounter” to 1984’s “A Passage to India.”
- Alfred Hitchcock, who received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1967, racked up five unsuccessful nominations, ranging from 1940’s picture winner “Rebecca” to 1960’s “Psycho.”
- Since 1957 (when for the first time a pair of British pics — Michael Anderson’s “Around the World in 80 Days” and David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” — won consecutive best pic Oscars), there have been 45 director noms for U.K. helmers (out of a total 250 bids during that span).
- No more than two British helmers have received director nominations in a single year — most recently in 2000, when Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) and Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”) were nommed.
- From 1995 to 2002, at least one U.K. filmmaker earned a director nomination each year, with two — Anthony Minghella and Sam Mendes — taking home the laurel.
- Michael Radford is the only filmmaker from a primarily English-speaking nation to have earned a director nom for a foreign-language film (1995’s Italian-language “Il Postino”).
- Charles Chaplin, who was awarded honorary Oscars at the 1927-28 and 1971 ceremonies, was passed over for a director nom for 1940’s “The Great Dictator,” despite earning picture, actor and writing nominations.
- Frank Lloyd, the sole Scotsman among the winning helmers, is one of two filmmakers in Oscar history to have earned a directing trophy for a feature (1928’s “The Divine Lady”) that wasn’t a picture nominee. The other was Lewis Milestone, an emigre from Russia, who won for direction (comedy) with 1927’s “Two Arabian Knights.”
- Lloyd was the only U.K.-born director nominee in the 1920s and ’30s; aside from his two wins, he received a nom for picture winner “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935).
- Laurence Olivier directed the first non-Hollywood film to win picture (1948’s “Hamlet,” which also earned the acclaimed thesp the actor trophy), but lost in the director category to “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” helmer John Huston.
- U.K. filmmakers directed a third of the 21 picture winners that failed to earn a corresponding directing Oscar. Among them: “Gladiator” helmer Ridley Scott, “Chariots of Fire’s” Hugh Hudson and “Shakespeare in Love’s”John Madden.
— Keith Collins