Let it never be said that Richard E. Grant is pandering to viewers with his confusingly named semi-autobiographical writing-directing debut "Wah-Wah."
"I was given so many alternative titles like 'Requiem for Swaziland' or 'Good-Bye Africa' or 'One Brief Shining Moment' or all this stuff and I went, 'I can't f***ing live with that, so I'm gonna stick with movie where nobody knows what the thing sounds like,'" Grant says. "Of course, the distributors pulled their hair and teeth out trying to get me to change that, but the people who've seen the movie, they get it."
Set in Swaziland at the end of British rule, "Wah-Wah" depicts Grant's own experiences growing up in Africa with an alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne) and an emotionally distant mother (Miranda Richardson). The film's title comes from a line of dialogue delivered by Ruby (Emily Watson), an American flight hostess to mock the foppish slang -- toodle-pip, hobbly-jobbly, etc. -- used by the restless transplanted aristocracy. This distanced critique of British colonialism is at the center of Grant's desire to tell his story.
"I had always wanted to write about this experience of growing up in this last gasp of Empire. I'd seen 'White Mischief.' I'd seen 'Out of Africa.' I'd seen 'Cry Freedom,'" he explains. "I'd seen all the things that were either very romantic about Africa or political and there was nothing that I had seen that actually dealt with this sort of last minute panic, if you like, from a personal point of viewer, that didn't have wild animals running around or people in safari suits and all the traditional things you see."
Grant, beloved in England for his lead role in the classic comedy "Withnail & I," is probably most familiar to American audiences for supporting roles in films like "Spice World," "Warlock" and, of course, "Hudson Hawk." He's also made a name for himself lampooning his experiences on some of his less successful films in the memoir "With Nails."
"What really interests me is how -- a bit like falling in love -- when you begin a movie, you begin with the best intentions," he notes. "You don't know that it's going to turn into 'Hudson Hawk: The Disaster.' In the beginning, everybody's very friendly and it seems like you're going to make 'Die Hard 3' and then it just dies hard."
Pretty confident that "Wah-Wah" won't face that kind of ire (though he's planning to publish the diaries from the film), Grant has shown his work to audiences at a variety of film festivals, seeing with relief that even audiences who don't know him from Hugh Grant and who don't know Swaziland from Switzerland, have responded.
"The bottom line is, it's about family and what goes on behind closed doors -- the public show and private face of what goes on -- and that is common to everybody."
"Wah-Wah" opens in limited release on Friday, May 12.