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Just A Bloke

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Understand two things about Guy Ritchie: He hates being bored, and he loves being tough. Or at least he loves tough characters. On the first count, Ritchie briskly points out, “I haven’t been bored in several years now.” Not since he made “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” which led to wedding Madonna, directing Brad Pitt in the gangster comedy “Snatch” and, on a foggy afternoon earlier this month, to a Beverly Hills hotel best described by one of Ritchie’s most despised adjectives--"posh.”

The 32-year-old writer-director is also funny, charming, brash, bright, a right geezer, a mate, a bloke, one of the lads, or whatever it is Brits would call a “regular guy.” He arrives at the Four Seasons Hotel in a simple white shirt and black coat, sans entourage, face framed by a Caesar haircut and a crescent-shaped scar on his left cheek.

You quickly learn one thing that Ritchie is not: the tortured-artist type who can’t bear watching his own movies. “I have the ability to see a film as if I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Ritchie says. “It means I can sit there like a stupid monkey and watch the same film 10 times. I don’t know the same jokes are coming up again. I caught ‘Snatch’ the other day in America at a screening and I laughed [deliriously]. I was turning around nudging people, ‘Wasn’t that funny?’ I enjoyed it as a spectator. I remembered what it was being made for then.”

Lest there be any confusion, “Snatch,” which Sony’s Screen Gems opens nationwide today, was made to entertain. Ritchie deftly guides the viewer through London’s underworld in a blood-soaked comedy of errors culminating in a car collision that makes a pileup on the 405 look like a day at the go-cart track. Pitt anchors the action as Mickey, a hard-drinking Irish Gypsy recruited to take a fall in an illegal bare-knuckled boxing match. For the rest of his cast, Ritchie assembled a gallery of rogues from the ranks of professional actors, criminals and ordinary citizens. The sole criterion: authenticity.

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“One of the reasons I got into this genre,” Ritchie says, “was because I found [gangster movies] terribly cast. Why would you want to make someone who’s not tough into someone who’s tough? It’s very hard for people to do it convincingly. I mean it’s easier on the psychological or intellectual level, but on the street level, the, uh, funk level, it’s hard to pull the cashmere over people’s eyes. They know what’s genuine and what’s spurious. So I wanted to cast sort of the real thing as much as I possibly could.”

For example, when a man with no acting experience named Ade showed up on the “Snatch” set for his first day of work as a security guard, Ritchie took one look and cast him as Tyrone, a huge, bumbling crook who has trouble squeezing in and out of compact cars.

In the case of Pitt, authenticity meant having the actor slur his lines in a genuine Irish Gypsy accent that’s nearly impossible to decipher. Matthew Vaughn, Ritchie’s producing partner for the past five years, recounts the initial reaction in Hollywood: “When they saw the dailies . . . you wouldn’t believe the number of phone calls I was getting. ‘We can’t understand a word of what Brad’s saying, what the hell are you guys doing?’ And we were like, ‘We know what we’re doing, don’t worry, it’s gonna work out.’ ”

Steve Tisch, the Hollywood producer who helped finance “Lock, Stock” and co-executive-produced “Snatch,” admits that seeing Pitt spit gibberish in the first batch of rushes was a “shock. It was like jumping into a 40-degree lake in the middle of February.” Tisch, who describes Ritchie as the most confident young director he’s ever worked with, got over his trepidation. “Guy and Brad very cleverly pull it off.”

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Pitt contacted Ritchie after seeing “Lock, Stock” to talk about doing a project together. The challenge for Ritchie: how to fit the handsome actor into a story about grungy lowlifes. Says Ritchie, “Originally [for Mickey] I was going for a burly bad buy who had a big gut and wasn’t a Botticelli, if you like. And then Brad came along. Once we had the accent, it just made sense.”

As Mickey, Pitt displays his torso, plus something moviegoers have rarely seen: a sense of humor. It’s a side of the actor Ritchie believes male moviegoers will find refreshing.

“Brad’s too good-looking to just love him if he’s cool. All the men shift rather uneasily [in their seat] thinking, ‘You [jerk], you’ve got too much.’ But as soon as he’s funny, then you can forgive him: ‘Ah yeah, he’s funny, doesn’t mind pulling his pants down.’ And of course, he doesn’t. Brad’s an extremely funny chap in reality and on screen. Everybody loves Brad in this because he sort of stuck his neck out there. Here was something that didn’t take itself too seriously.”

Decided at 25 to Be a Director

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Ritchie tears into a muffin and doesn’t even wait for the rest of the sentence before he answers the question, “At what point did you . . . " “Twenty-five,” he cuts in. “It all started literally the day I turned 25. I got a job as a runner at a production company and I thought I’d be a director, and that was that.”

At the production outfit, Ritchie quickly graduated to directing cheap but profitable music videos. Using money he’d earned from a commercial, Ritchie bankrolled “A Hard Case,” a short film about a group of blue-collar poker players. During pre-production, Ritchie discovered he had an ear for working-class dialogue and a knack for crafting clever plots.

“I had no interest in writing,” Ritchie recalls. “I only wrote because no one else would employ my directing services. For ‘Hard Case,’ I wrote something up, and my plan was to give it to a writer and say, ‘Now, can you make this into a story?’ ” The writer never showed up. “So, two or three days before shooting,” Ritchie continues, “I decided, well I better brush this up, make that sound a bit better, and before I knew it we shot it. Then I thought, I’ll write another one, give it to a writer, and I’ll direct it, and the same thing happened to that one [“Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels”]. I never did get around to finding a writer.”

Which leads back to Ritchie’s boredom threshold. As if writing and directing weren’t enough, he’d actually prefer literally to do it all.

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“I sort of fancy being a director of photography and [camera] operator, a producer, an actor and a director, just because there’s less things to go wrong and I don’t have to rely on so many people. I also get terribly bored when I’ve got nothing to do, and I’m jealous of the director of photography ‘cause he’s always running around and I’m sort of sitting there going, ‘I suppose I could rehearse . . . emmggh,” Ritchie says, suddenly listless. “If I didn’t love my crew so much, I’d really want to do everybody’s job.”

Vaughn says, “Guy has the lowest attention span known to man. Sometimes I get crazy. He’ll write a scene, we’ll go through it, and it’s perfection. Two days later I come in to storyboard, and he’s rewritten the whole scene. ‘Oh that,’ he’ll say, ‘I got bored with it.’ ”

To keep people on their toes while shooting “Snatch,” Ritchie fined cast and crew for chatting on mobile phones, napping, being unfunny and moaning. “That’s a trick,” says Ritchie, who ponied up penalties himself for showing up late on the set after lengthy transatlantic calls to Madonna.

“You’ve got to distract people and keep ‘em busy. The more gimmicks you’ve got going on, the better the atmosphere’s going to be. If they’re paying fines, it gives them something to talk about. They can join up as a team against me, and that’s what you want, is a team.”

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Dennis Farina, who plays American diamond thief Avi, confirms that Ritchie ran a tight set. “Guy’s not self-indulgent. His personality is, he doesn’t like to sit around and waste much time. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

“He’s got a style that’s hard to pin down. I think one day you’re going to walk into the video store and they’ll have those different departments: “Westerns,” “Dramas,” “Comedies,” “Guy Ritchie.”

In England, Ritchie caught some flak for portraying Cockney characters in “Lock, Stock” and “Snatch.” After all, critics sniped, Ritchie grew up on a 1,500-acre estate in Shropshire, five hours outside London. But Ritchie says the attacks are grounded in England’s “archaic” class system more than anything else. “Because I’ve made two films essentially about working-class people, it gets sort of wound into this ‘Who does he think he is, some chap who’s spent all this time living on this rather large estate in Shropshire, how dare he think he can speak for the working man’ sort of thing.”

Ritchie points out that there’s more to his background. Before his parents split up, he grew up in a middle-class household. And during his self-described “wasted youth,” Ritchie knocked around London tending bar, moving furniture and doing construction work, all the while observing the seedy side of the city.

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Next One Not a Gangster Movie

But if Ritchie has earned the right to make films about England’s criminal class, he’s finished with the topic for now. Says Vaughn, “We’ve pretty much insisted definitely the next one’s not going to be a gangster movie.”

It also won’t likely be a big Hollywood project. After “Lock, Stock” became an indie hit, studios approached Ritchie about directing “Charlie’s Angels” and “Gone in 60 Seconds.” He turned them down. “Had I not made ‘Lock, Stock’ and they’d offered me something fat and juicy, I would have jumped at it,” Ritchie says. “But after ‘Lock, Stock,’ I was somewhat confident that I could make a film that people wanted to see, and that could turn some kind of profit, and that changed the equation somewhat.

“I thought, ‘Well I’m not in any rush, so I might as well, for the moment, continue to make films exactly that I want to make. I don’t have anything particularly against big Hollywood films. There are some good ones and I’m not ‘anti’ any of that. I just thought, it’s good for me in the long run to establish an independent voice, if you like.” Whoops. Ritchie catches himself sounding self-important, so he quickly adds, laughing, “which I’m sure I will contaminate.”

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Twisting a cocktail napkin into a gnarled triangle, Ritchie spars with the inevitable Madonna question: Will he make her next movie? “No doubt we’ll end up working together at some stage,” he says, “but I don’t know when.” What about rumors that he’s already written his wife into his next film? Replies Ritchie, “You might have read that. I never said that.”

Next up for the director is a thriller starring Vinnie Jones--a regular in Ritchie films--and a 17th century action drama. When Ritchie does get around to making movies about women--who’ve been conspicuously lacking in his first two features--it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be tough cookies. Ritchie says, “I want to be able to look back in 10 years’ time and have a body of films, and hopefully half those films will be girl-heavy films, because I love strong birds. Take ‘Crouching Tiger'--it’s magnificent, because really it’s a film about women. Tough women. I’ll get into that at some stage. I shall. I’m just not quite sure when.”


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