‘WITHNAIL AND I’ DIRECTOR : EX-ACTOR FINDS HIS NICHE BEHIND THE CAMERA
In Francois Truffaut’s “Story of Adele H.,” the object of Isabelle Adjani’s obsession was the young British Lt. Pinson, a cool heart-breaker played by Bruce Robinson. The actor disappeared from the screen after this film, but not from the cinema: A decade later, it was the same Bruce Robinson who was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay of “The Killing Fields.”
“Withnail and I” (at the Beverly Center Cineplex and Universal City Cinemas) is his debut as a director, and it has already been hailed by critics across the country. After premiering at “New Directors/New Films” in New York, it was selected as part of the American Film Institute’s European Community Festival, and had its California premiere June 20 under the AFI’s auspices.
“Withnail and I” begins in London as the ‘60s are drawing to a close. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann)--the “I” of the title--are out-of-work, drugged-out, booze-swilling young actors who decide to escape the cold and dirt of their flat by going to the country cottage of Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). It turns out to have no light, heat or water. The inhospitable weather and neighbors they encounter are nothing compared to the unexpected arrival of Monty, who has developed a crush on the unwitting (and unwilling) Marwood.
The pair of actors return to London, where Marwood will finally land a part, leaving the increasingly unhinged Withnail guzzling Monty’s vintage wine.
Robinson attended the AFI’s presentation of “Withnail and I” in Washington earlier this month and, together with his producer Paul Heller, elaborated on the making of this semi-autobiographical comedy, as well as his transition from actor to writer-director.
When asked which of the characters he actually was in the ‘60s, the 42-year-old film maker replied, “I think they’re both very much inventions; they came out of my head. And I find Withnail a particularly reprehensible character. Nevertheless, he’s something that was a part of me in that period. My wife now says, ‘Don’t be Withnailesque’ if I’m ranting about Margaret Thatcher, which I do frequently. The Marwood character is more me, because that was the period of my life when I was trying to be a writer.”
If Marwood goes off to be an actor at the film’s close, Robinson’s performing career was dissatisfying enough that he cut it short following “Adele H.” After his first film role as Malvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he found that “saying other people’s lines was not what I wanted at all--and ultimately very alienating because often I couldn’t stop myself commenting on the script when I went to read for a part: ‘This line doesn’t scan right.’ You can imagine how well that went down.
“Early on in my career, I confused being an actor with being a writer. At the kind of school I went to, there was no way you could say, ‘I want to be a writer.’ So I became an actor and I never enjoyed it. There was a cumulative loathing till 1975, and ‘Adele H.’ was the last straw. Truffaut was, among other things, the great gent on the set and if you couldn’t enjoy being an actor with someone like Truffaut, you couldn’t enjoy being an actor with anyone. I loathed acting.”
Screenwriting turned out to be a more satisfying experience for Robinson, who wrote four scripts for producer David Puttnam before “The Killing Fields” clicked.
“I learned a very good lesson from David early on,” he said between puffs of a cigarette. “He gave me the first 200 to write a 13-part TV series: I got sort of 8.50 a shot for it. The first script I wrote for him, he opened to Page 42 and said, ‘Is this page worth 45,000, yes or no?’ I didn’t answer the question. It costs tuppence to write the page and 45,000 to shoot it.”
He called Puttnam, who is now head of Columbia Pictures, “a wonderful producer. The great thing about David is that he trusts the people he hires: ‘The Killing Fields’ stars a gynecologist from Cambodia who’s never acted in his life, has a screenwriter who’s never had a film made and a director who never directed a feature . . . .He may even be the greatest film producer alive today, for all I know.”
Having been an actor himself, Robinson writes and directs from a solid basis in how the dialogue sounds : “I act every line out loud--a million times--until the rhythm of the line seems right to me. And when it’s right, I write it down,” he explained. Asked whether he therefore rehearses a lot with actors, repeating the lines for them or allows them to find their own way, he acknowledged, “No, I become Hitler. I’m very autocratic about the way the lines are said.”
After Robinson revealed that, upon finding himself behind the camera for the first time, he was “levitating with fear,” producer Paul Heller interjected, “I’ve done 20 some-odd films including ‘David and Lisa’ and ‘First Monday in October’ and I’ve never worked with a director who was as sure of himself as Bruce.”
Preserving the rhythm of dialogue is part of Robinson’s commitment to the integrity of the screenplay--which he sees as a vulnerable commodity.
“Screenwriters, even major ones like William Goldman or Sterling Silliphant--for whom I have a lot of admiration--are treated by directors like dirt,” he declared.
“It occurred to me about a year ago that writers came into cinema very late; the actors and directors started off and writers were brought in to write maybe one card,” Robinson added. “Therefore, when the talkies started, it was, ‘Oh, we need bloody writers: All right, give them a credit between the boom operator and the makeup man.’ Slowly, over the last 50 years, writers have moved up into the third credit. They should be the first or second, because a lot of directors mess up a lot of films.”
He holds his actors in high esteem, however, and noted that actor Richard E. Grant “is able to suggest a kind of wasted glamour, and is a wonderfully original actor.” He hopes to star Grant in the next film he directs. “In a way, it’s an extension of ‘Withnail and I,’ ” he said, “but not a sequel: It’s a different character but very verbose and erudite.”
The film is tentatively entitled “How to Get Ahead in Advertising,” and Robinson described it as “a very political film about how I see the country I live in--England--set in modern times. It’s about a man who grows a boil on his neck--with eyes and a mouth--and the boil talks. It gets huge and takes over his life. Everybody else sees it as regular carbuncle, but he sees it as a talking head. The boil will be out of control and look like Richard Grant, if he plays the part.
“It’s about decay,” he continued, “and what I see in the country where I live. When I’ve exorcised that from my soul, I’ll go back to something more simple.”
Far from simple, however, are his two scripts for Warner Bros., “both very political, big and expensive to make,” in his words. “One is based on Emile Zola’s novel ‘Germinal,’ which is about the beginning of trade unionism in the coal mines--something very dear to me. The other is about the atomic bomb, to be directed by Roland Joffe.”