'History' merits A-plus from award voters

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Hytner's "History": When Hollywood turns stage plays into movies, it typically dumbs them down and casts them up with big stars, but happily that's not the case with "The History Boys."

In fact, the transition from stage hit -- first at London's National Theatre and then on Broadway -- has gone so well that "History," opening Nov. 21 via Fox Searchlight Pictures, merits A-plus grades from awards voters. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, who directed it in London (where he's the National's director) and in New York, and adapted to the screen by Alan Bennett, who wrote the play, "History" stars the same ensemble cast of 12 actors who made it work so well on stage (especially including Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, who won Tony Awards for their performances).

Produced by Kevin Loader, Damian Jones and Hytner, "History" is a Fox Searchlight, DNA Films and BBC Two Films presentation in association with the U.K. Film Council of a National Theatre Production. It was executive produced by Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, David M. Thompson, Charles Moore and Miles Ketley.

Having greatly enjoyed an early look at "History" -- it's really one of the best films I've seen in quite a while and it's going to be on my Top Ten list next month -- and having been very enthusiastic in 1994 about Hytner's drama "The Madness of King George" -- which was nominated for four Oscars (winning for best art decoration-set decoration) and won BAFTA's best British film award -- I was delighted to be able to catch up with Hytner recently to talk about his wonderfully intelligent new film.

Recalling that he'd also directed "Madness" onstage in London at the National Theatre and that Bennett had also written that play and then adapted it to the screen, I observed that this one-two approach was getting to be a habit for him. "You know, I'm so much a theatre guy," he replied. "Film is not my natural medium. I at least feel I have a right (to do a project as a film) if it's something that we've been working on together, Alan and I, from the beginning."

When he works in film does the fact that he's previously invested so much of himself in producing it onstage make it relatively easy now for him to make it as a movie? "I'm not a natural thinker through the camera," Hytner told me. "That's something that I have to work very hard at. What I do feel is that with both 'The History Boys' and 'The Madness of King George' a huge proportion of what I hope I bring to it gets done in the rehearsal room, gets done over the course of the (theatrical) run, gets done with the actors, gets done in conversations with the writer, gets done over the process of forging the material into theatrical shape. There's a downside of that which is that obviously after (doing it onstage) you never get to escape it. But those are the kind of films I enjoy."

Of course, Hytner has directed many plays for the stage in London that he's not turned into films, so he clearly picks and chooses very carefully what to do on the screen. Among the many plays he's directed in London are "Measure for Measure," "The Tempest" and "King Lear" for the Royal Shakespeare Company and "The Wind in the Willows," "The Winter's Tale" and "Carousel" for the National.

"I think not every play feels like it's crying out to be explored by the camera," he explained. "I think even these two (plays) are very, very different. 'Madness of King George' was an intimate story set in a naturally cinematic world -- the world that the King of England occupied in 1788. It's a world that's available in England to be filmed and is an exciting world to bring to life on the screen. This is a very enclosed world and it's entirely character and dialogue driven.

"The purpose of the film (of 'History Boys') was to look closer, to unpeel the play, if you like, to go behind the eyes and to try and participate in a very specific enclosed world that's inhabited by these 12 characters. The purpose was never to open it out or to look very much wider in physical terms than the play looks."

Asked when in the course of doing the play he knew he was going to bring it to the screen, Hytner replied, "We started to feel that we could fairly early on in the life of the play when it emerged that the thing that was really engaging audiences were the 12 characters -- and, indeed, the 12 actors -- that the play's concerned with. It felt that there was a film -- certainly not a spectacular film, but maybe an interesting and intimate film that could be made with those 12 actors. We never wanted to do it (and) we never would have done it without those 12 actors.

"I asked my two fellow producers, Kevin Loader and Damian Jones, to work with us to see how little (money) we could make it for. Because we reckoned that if we could make it very cheaply we would be able to make it with these actors without having to beef the casting up at all and without having to compromise on what it was that we were really taken with in the play. You know, I'm sure there was another film that could have been made of this material. And it might very well have been a better film, but it wasn't the one we wanted to do. And so we made it for 2 million pounds, which meant that we were able to make it exactly the way we wanted to make it."

Some of those 12 actors had never appeared in a movie before so it couldn't have been easy for Hytner to suddenly have them doing their first film. "Well, obviously how you act for the camera and how you act when there's a thousand people in the room is different. I think a lot of them found it a liberation. It is, in my view, probably much harder to act truthfully and intimately and include a thousand people in the conversation than it is to act truthfully and intimately for each other and allow the camera to discover you. It's different. They're different challenges, but I think the challenge that really requires craft and really requires experience and really requires a kind of competent command of what acting is (the theater). The challenge of including a thousand people in (the conversation) is a big one. I think most of them found it exhilarating not to have to include the thousand people."

There is, he observed, "an undeniable edge of theatricality to the film. The dialogue is theatrical dialogue. The dialogue is highly articulate, highly literary and has the kind of stylistic flourish that probably betrays its theatre origins. But, you know, that's the kind of film it is. They used to make a lot of films like that and I love those films. I hope that there's a place for a film like this still now. We live in a visually extraordinarily literate culture, visually adventurous and up for anything. This is not a particularly visually adventurous film. It's almost a throw-back in its theatricality and literacy. There's certainly been an audience for it in England. It's already done very, very well in England, so I hope there's still an audience for it in the rest of the world."

A good example of "History's" literacy and theatricality is an extended scene that the class presents entirely in French and without subtitles. Initially, they're inventing a scene that's meant to be taking place in a brothel, which Griffiths as their jolly professor is fully enjoying. When the Headmaster (played by Clive Merrison) unexpectedly walks into their classroom and insists on knowing know what they're doing, the students suddenly switch gears and re-invent their risque brothel scene so that it's now a very serious one that's meant to be taking place in a hospital. The brothel bed is suddenly a hospital bed! It's wildly funny if your college French is good enough to get you through, at least, the key moments. And those who don't know any French seem to catch on somehow to at least the general spirit of fun that's going on and understand that the kids are putting one over on the Headmaster.

"We kept waiting for someone to say to us, 'Hadn't you better subtitle this scene?' and nobody ever did," Hytner told me. "We wouldn't have done it. I tell you, the scene is skillfully written and we have been able to hone it over all those performances on stage. If you don't know a word of French, it is in fact subtly translated for you in a disguised fashion as it goes along. I know here (in the U.S.) the second language is Spanish, it's not French. But it played in New York consistently. So we have to assume that people get the gist of it."

Working as he does in both the theatre and films, which does he prefer? "It's hardly a matter of which I prefer," he replied. "Where I'm comfortable, where I've gained my experience and served my apprenticeship is in the theatre. I feel very destabilized on a film set and that makes it very exciting. It is wonderful to be able to learn and to explore every time I try. I think of myself as a theatre director who's occasionally given the opportunity to explore more this form, which obviously I've been passionate about ever since I can remember. I've always been absolutely high on the movies, but it's not a craft I feel highly expert in. I run a theatre now so, you know, I can't make (many) films. I kind of have the best job in the English speaking world, in my opinion, and it's a full time job so it's not even a question that I can ask myself at this point in my life -- which I prefer? -- because I run a theatre and I work there full time. I made this movie because the play was produced by the National and the National retained an interest in the film."

Asked how he worked with his actors and whether he rehearsed with them, Hytner noted, "We made the film in six weeks, which we simply couldn't have done if we'd been starting from scratch. I didn't have to (rehearse) this time because they've been playing it for a year. They'd done 200 performances in repertoire by the time we made the film. And even the new material (in the film) -- there is a certain amount of new material -- took very little rehearsal because they were in command of who they were. We'd been working together for a year and we'd obviously done an intensive rehearsal -- six weeks plus previews -- for the play. So that work we had done over a period of time together. I absolutely see why films can be over-rehearsed. A great deal of the work of a theatre rehearsal period is to recapture the spontaneity of the first read-through. That's a lot of what it's about. You can often illuminate material with flashes of brilliance the very first time you put it on its feet. What you're doing when you rehearse a play is to explore every nook and cranny and to make sure you know what all the pitfalls are and where all the mistakes can be so that you don't make them as you perform night after night in the run of the play.

"One way of looking at a theatre rehearsal period is that you're providing a secure and deep foundation to a flash of immediate inspiration and spontaneity that you might get the first time you do it. And obviously when you're making a film from scratch you hope that you can get something approaching genuine spontaneity, real spontaneity, like you get that first time through. What I would like to think has happened with this -- I have no idea whether we succeeded -- is that this company of actors is so in command of who they are, how they relate to each other, why they say what they say and how to say it, that they can put all that work behind them and achieve something like spontaneity with what is very theatrical dialogue. There's no use pretending that this dialogue conforms to current standards of what is utterly real. Standards of reality change all the time. What seems real now will seem unreal in 20 years. But this is dialogue with a real stylistic flourish and their big challenge was to make that sound spontaneous in the different circumstances that obtain on a film set. You know, to make some of that stuff trip off the tongue in a film is quite a big deal. And it's not going to work for everybody. It just isn't."

Of course, having made "History" for only two million pounds, it doesn't have to work for everybody. "Well, we already made it back -- and some," Hytner pointed out. "It's done really well in England so anything it does now is a bonus."

Ensemble cast that the film is, Griffiths' performance emerges as something quite special and one that I hope will bring him a much best supporting actor nominations from Oscar and Golden Globe voters. "There is a fantastic delicacy about Richard. You know, he's a big man," Hytner laughed. "But as an actor he is extraordinarily delicate and graceful and there is a wonderful quiet insight he brings into everything he plays. A lot of the time in the movies he's being cast as so many English character actors are as grotesque villains. But when he's doing the kind of stuff that he does in the mainstream of his career, I think his hallmark is this grace he brings and the way he uncovers that terrible gap between what this man (the professor he plays) would like to be and what he knows he is. This kind of chasm of disappointment is so moving and I think that is because he works in great depth with the lightest of touches."

The play has been opened up a bit for the movie, but not very much: "We deliberately decided (not to do that). There was a version of this that could have (had us going) back home with the guys and traveled all around with them and seen more of their home lives and their girlfriends, but we thought, 'Let's not do that.' I kept thinking that there used to be a really proud genre of stage to screen adaptations which didn't expend energy on going outside the closed world of the play. Great films -- which I want to say in big bold capital letters I'm NOT comparing this film to -- like 'Streetcar' and 'Philadelphia Story.' Basically, what you're seeing is the play and, nevertheless, they make great films. Well, something like that is what we were trying to do."

Asked how "History" came to Searchlight, he explained, "My two fellow producers went to Cannes with a budget and a cast and a script and looked around for people who might pay 2 million pounds. The BBC wanted to do most of it. They have a long relationship with Alan Bennett stretching back decades. And, obviously, I was very keen that it should be the BBC because there seemed a very natural partnership between the National Theatre and the BBC. Meanwhile, Peter Rice (Fox Searchlight president) came up with a really good distribution deal that was funnily enough brokered by Tom Rothman (co-chairman with Jim Gianopoulos of 20th Century Fox and previously head of Fox Searchlight), who is kind of my oldest friend here. He and Sam Goldwyn are the two guys I know because Tom was working for Goldwyn when we did 'Madness of King George' and Tom has been my friend ever since. So Tom made a call and said, 'You've got to work with Peter.' And I said, 'That sounds fine by me.' Fox participates through DNA, a London company who they part-finance. It was capitalized by the BBC and DNA and we did the distribution deal with Fox before we made (the film)."

Filmmaker flashbacks: Today's column, if you've been counting, is number 3,001 since it began in The Hollywood Reporter in July 1985. Today's Flashback is from June 23, 1988's column: "Movies involving baseball typically don't score when they come up to bat at the boxoffice, so Orion's current success with 'Bull Durham' is an especially notable surprise.

"'If you recall, I told you several months ago when we first saw this picture that it has a baseball background, but it's a lot more than a baseball motion picture,' Orion Distribution Corp. president Joel H. Resnick told me Tuesday. 'It's a love story, a romantic story. And even with the baseball background, it's a type of baseball the public has not seen before.'

"Clearly, Orion believed strongly in 'Bull,' which was written and directed by Ron Shelton and stars Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. 'For us t have determined to take this picture out in June -- and it's a very, very crowded June this year -- we all had to feel it had the ability to overcome whatever negatives there were about baseball and to stand on its own in the marketplace. Certainly, the opening numbers ($5 million at 1,238 screens) proved that and, I think, we're in for a nice long run.'

"Some insiders were saying privately before 'Bull' opened that it should not have come out in the summer or that it should have been platformed rather than opened wide. 'Some of that, I understand, may have come from some fellow distributors, who maybe just didn't want Orion to have a picture in the marketplace in June. I will not comment on what another distributor should do with his product and I think it's inappropriate at best for another distributor to comment on what Orion should do with its product.'

"'Bull' also drew negative advance comments in tracking studies Orion commissioned regarding the film's prospects. 'The tracking studies said we shouldn't do this, we shouldn't come out (in the summer) and we were going to be swamped by films with well known stars. I think the industry, perhaps, has demonstrated by some of the tracking studies that have been done that it is looking at outdated and outmoded material. Perhaps what was good three years ago may not be the same today. We are looking at a changing business and you have to focus on that change. Not only with us. The other studios are also thinking that way.'"

Update: "Bull Durham" wound up grossing nearly $51 million domestically, making it the 18th biggest picture of 1988. Resnick's comments about the weaknesses of tracking studies at the time are still true today -- most recently in the case of "Borat," whose soft tracking led Fox to pull back on its opening release. "Borat," of course, opened to $26.5 million and expanded with great strength last weekend, taking in over $67 million its first 10 days in release.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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