LONDON — Sipping a beer and demolishing a chicken-and-mushroom pie over lunch at his favorite pub, Lewis Gilbert could pass for any ordinary English senior citizen with a lively mind, a good line of conversation and a keen interest in current affairs.
Gilbert, 71, is one of Britain's most highly regarded film directors. The former child actor has been in movies for 66 years, 40 as a director. But his glories are not rooted in the past; he currently enjoys a relationship with Paramount that would be the envy of many a younger, "hotter" director.
In part, this stems from two big--if unlikely--successes he enjoyed in the 1980s: first, "Educating Rita" with Julie Walters and Michael Caine, then 1989's "Shirley Valentine" starring Pauline Collins. Both films were made on a low budget, made handsome profits and gained Oscar nominations for their lead actresses. They also appealed strongly to adult women.
Now Gilbert is aiming for the hat trick with another film aimed squarely at women: "Stepping Out," which Paramount is releasing Friday. Liza Minnelli stars as a tap-dance instructor in Buffalo, N.Y., who helps a class of eight women and a man to escape their daily drudgery. Somewhat in the manner of "A Chorus Line," their individual stories are explored in the movie.
Although Minnelli has had an erratic movie career since her Oscar-winning success in "Cabaret," Gilbert has gone to bat strongly for his lead actress.
"She was really the first and the only person who was considered (for the role)," he says. The film, he says, gives Minnelli "a chance to do what she does best."
"She really hasn't done it for a long time. What was she doing in all those films where any ingenue could have played her parts? In this film, maybe I shouldn't say it, but I think she gives a superb performance. I could not think of anyone else who could have done it."
"Stepping Out," like "Educating Rita" and "Shirley Valentine," is adapted from a stage production; the original work by Richard Harris (no relation to the actor) played more than 1,000 performances in London's West End and in more than a dozen countries. Tommy Tune directed it on Broadway in 1987. In Harris' play, all the characters--including Mavis Turner, Minnelli's dance instructor--were from around London.
"I saw it first in the West End and liked it, but I thought it was a very English show," says Gilbert. "The awful thing was, I knew I could never raise money to make the film in England, and having worked for American companies for 25 years, I was dubious about getting them to do it.
"But then I saw it on stage in Australia, and then again in Paris. And I realized it wasn't specifically an English show, because in Australia, the characters were just Australian, and in Paris they were French.
"It then occurred to me that it could be American. I took some Paramount executives, including (president of production) Gary Lucchesi, to a version of 'Stepping Out' at Pasadena Playhouse. They were quite enamored with the audience's reaction, and because I'd had a good association with them on 'Shirley Valentine,' they agreed to back it."
Gilbert then assembled a cast that included his "Educating Rita" star Julie Walters; Ellen Greene, who starred in "Little Shop of Horrors"; two-time Oscar-winner Shelley Winters; and the critically acclaimed performance artist and actor Bill Irwin ("My Blue Heaven").
"None of these people could dance tap at all--including Liza," Gilbert said. "She's a wonderful dancer, but she had never done much tap. So the aim was to follow the story of these characters, and having them start by dancing badly, then improve, and end up by being terrific."
He enlisted the help of Tony-winning choreographer Danny Daniels to kick his tyro tappers into shape. "He was an incredible disciplinarian," Gilbert said. "For three or four weeks before we started shooting, he had them practicing eight hours a day. And throughout filming, if one particular character's story wasn't being shot, the others had to carry on learning--Saturdays, Sundays and nights included.
"Julie came up to me on the first day and said, 'I know you're going to fire me, because I'm never going to be able to dance these routines.' She was scared because she'd never danced before."
Minnelli for one is thrilled with Gilbert's work. "It was one of the best experiences I ever had," she said, speaking by phone from New York. "And that starts with the director, who dictates everyone else's attitude.
"Lewis knows exactly what's needed. There are no storyboards--it's all in his head. He doesn't do 9,000 takes, and sometimes he's happy with just one.
"There's not a jaded bone in his body. He was a luxury and a joy . . . he makes you feel very well taken care of."
Parts of "Stepping Out" were shot in Buffalo, others in Toronto. "The time's ripe for this kind of film," Gilbert said. "Quite apart from all the misery and war in the world, the era of large-scale gunfights and bloodshed seems to be waning."