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."
Until now, Radford has had few chances to apply his sensibility to feature films. "B. Monkey" is only his fifth in 13 years. His debut, "Another Time, Another Place," was widely acclaimed on the international festival circuit when released in 1983. The following year, he directed the film adaptation of George Orwell's futuristic classic novel "1984," starring Richard Burton in his final role. In 1987, Radford made "White Mischief" for Columbia--an account of murder and decadence in colonial-era Kenya starring Greta Scacchi. And "White Mischief" plunged Radford into a lean period from which it took seven years to emerge.
"It made no money at the box office, there was a change of regime at the studio, and I was perceived to have lost Columbia money," he said. "I couldn't get a film off the ground. I thought I'd never make another one. I never believed I'd lost my ability, but it was hard. Time rolled on. It was depressing."
Finally, success came to Radford via an indirect route. He made "Il Postino" in Italy and expected it to be a successful foreign-language film--that is to say, a moderate success. But Miramax went to extraordinary lengths to promote the film in America, and it received multiple Oscar nominations and the highest-ever gross for a foreign-language movie--about $22 million. (It already holds the international record gross for a non-English-language film--in the region of $80 million.)
"In Hollywood, I went from the Z-list to the A-list at one jump," Radford said dryly. "It's a great feeling. Things which once took a great deal of time suddenly take less time. People whose eyes used to glaze over when you went to pitch them suddenly invite you in. They pitch to you. And it's your eyes that are glazing over."
In recent months he has discussed directing "Anna Karenina" with Fox, and has his name attached to a number of major projects. Among them: a film about the life of revolutionary Che Guevara, starring Antonio Banderas, for Warners; a story about a CIA operative who sold arms to Libya, "Safe Conduct," for Columbia; and a screenplay about Lewis and Clark, "Hard West," for producer Mimi Polk.
When Radford received his Oscar nomination, none of these projects was immediately ready to start pre-production. "And the things that were offered to me were not appropriate for me. So the opportunity to come back to Britain and make a film here, which I hadn't done in eight years, was hard to resist."
Understandably, the English producers of "B. Monkey," Steve Woolley ("Michael Collins," "Interview With the Vampire") and Colin Vaines, feel they pulled off a coup in signing up Radford.
"I was really happy," Vaines said. "Michael was one of the hottest directors in the industry at the time and was passionate about the project. What could be better?
"When he rewrote the script, he enriched the character relationships to make them work in a more dense way. Now the film is more decadent and European. This is material that could be just modish, yet Michael's choosing to shoot it a classical way.
"He's a fantastic director in terms of getting performances from people. In this cast, there's Asia Argento, who's an Italian actress in her first English-language film, Rupert the classical British actor, and Jared who comes out of independent American movies. Yet Michael blends these styles and makes the film look seamless."
Radford first suggested Argento for the key role of Beatrice. He knew her from living in Italy, where she is a major star, with 20 feature films to her credit. She is also known as the daughter of the stylish Italian horror film director Dario Argento. Radford, who knows Italy intimately and speaks the language fluently, was uniquely well placed to adapt Beatrice's character and give her a stronger Italian background to accommodate his lead actress.
"It's nice to know I can make films," he said, preparing to return to the "B. Monkey" set. "Before 'Il Postino,' I didn't know if I'd ever be able to make another one. I know now I'll be making pictures--and it's a great feeling."