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MOVIES | 'MONKEY' BUSINESS | FILM CLIPS

For This Director, Hollywood Can Wait

December 15, 1996|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in England, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

LONDON — As director of the phenomenal "The Postman (Il Postino)," which became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American history, it's logical that Englishman Michael Radford would be hotly pursued by several major Hollywood studios, all beckoning him to direct expensive, prestigious projects.

So it's surprising to find him in a Chelsea back street directing "B. Monkey," an English film with a low budget, no big stars and a checkered development history. Convey this surprise to Radford, and he seems bemused too. "It does seem a little odd, doesn't it?" he said. "And this was even a picture another director had walked out on."

As if to compound the apparently eccentric nature of Radford's choice for a follow-up film, he committed to "B. Monkey" after he had been nominated for an Oscar for directing "Il Postino"--and was thus as hot a property as a director could be.

Still, he had reasons. The $8-million "B. Monkey" was a green-lighted project, and Radford wanted to embark on another film as swiftly as possible. He also wished to return to England (where his 5-year-old son lives with his ex-wife) and make a film in English. He had a deal with Miramax, of which "B. Monkey," due out in the spring, could fulfill a part. "Finally," he said, "I liked the subject matter. I was keen to make a contemporary story and felt there was real passion in this one."

"B. Monkey" was originally a novel by Andrew Davies, best known here for adapting classic works such as "Pride and Prejudice" and "Middlemarch" for British television. It is about a mismatched relationship between an outrageous young woman and a strait-laced man somewhat out of his depth. (Think "Betty Blue" or "Something Wild.") The film, billed as "a dark, dangerous love story," concerns a young woman, Beatrice, nicknamed "B. Monkey" because of a large monkey tattoo she wears on one shoulder. Beatrice, played by 21-year-old Italian actress Asia Argento, has been a wild child in her past, with criminal connections.

She seeks to escape her shadowy history through a romance with Alan (Jared Harris, fresh from his critical success in "I Shot Andy Warhol")--an idealistic, passionate young teacher. But two figures from her former life return to haunt her: Paul (Rupert Everett), an older, decadent man who deals drugs, and young, violent Bruno (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the boy assassin in the last reel of "Michael Collins").

On this particular day, Radford, a quiet-spoken man with close-cropped hair and an intense manner, had only two of his leading actors on set. In the salon of a Gothic Victorian house, Everett, as the decadent Paul, expertly played a snatch of Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me" on a grand piano.

In a related scene, Everett held Argento in a close embrace, dancing slowly and singing, almost whispering, the song's lyrics. She wore a floor-length velvet dress with bare shoulders, which exposed her distinctive monkey tattoo. Radford, who talks in a cultured English accent, gently coaxed different line readings from them.

"What excites me about the story is that it's passionate, glamorous and erotic," he noted after cast and crew broke for lunch. "Basically it's about four people who love each other to death."

By the time Radford attached himself to "B. Monkey," it had been in development for four years and was looking decidedly shaky. Director Michael Caton-Jones ("Rob Roy") left the film at the start of this year, citing creative differences with its financiers, Miramax. Casting was an issue that apparently divided the parties.

As Radford tells it, the working script for "B. Monkey" was "fine, but a bit glib, a bit of a romp. I think it's a story which is both funny and melancholic. It's surreal, and the film will look surreal."

He extensively rewrote the script, along with Los Angeles-based writer Chloe King. "We changed it radically, and I think in some ways we went back to the first impetus of [Davies'] story. Now I feel I've grown to make it my own."

Though Radford, 50, is nominally British, he was actually born in India to an English father and an Austrian mother. He enjoys a cosmopolitan existence and in recent years has lived in Los Angeles, Paris and Italy.

"I'm a European more than an Englishman," he said. "I tend to work with mood, atmosphere, with the subtext more than the text. What makes European films interesting is a sense you can hold on to paradox, ambiguity and mystery, and not be frightened by it but let it enrich and deepen a story. That's what I try to do.

"Americans like things to be explained. America is a society of discovery, and discovery is about destroying mystery and the unknown."

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