The oral history of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ from Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth and more
If you were an unmarried woman in 2001 searching for Mr. Right, Bridget Jones was probably your spirit animal. Helen Fielding’s bestselling 1996 novel introduced the world to Bridget, a curvy 32-year-old Brit who documented her days as a “tragic spinster” in her journal. She drank too much, smoked too much and ate too much.
Sure, she was self-pitying, but she wasn’t pathetic. She had a job, supportive friends and her own flat well before she started to fall for both her boss, the caddish Daniel Cleaver, and the more buttoned-up human rights lawyer Mark Darcy. But Jones embraced her flaws, and that endeared her to women worldwide. When “Bridget Jones’s Diary” — starring Renée Zellweger, along with Hugh Grant as Cleaver and Colin Firth as Darcy — debuted in U.S. theaters on April 13, 2001, it became an instant hit, going on to gross $281 million worldwide on a $22-million production budget. It was so successful that it spawned a sequel, 2004’s “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” which was critically panned but nonetheless ended up collecting $262 million worldwide. And this September, more than a decade later, the gang is reuniting for “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” in which, as the title implies, Jones is with child. Problem is, she doesn’t know who the father is — Darcy or a handsome American played by Patrick Dempsey. (Sadly, Grant did not return for the third film, though filmmakers imply he may make a cameo.)
To commemorate the film’s 15th anniversary, we revisited the origins of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” with its main players: Eric Fellner, co-chair of the British production company Working Title Films, which made all three pictures; Sharon Maguire, the director of the first and third “Bridget” movies; Firth; and, of course, Zellweger.
Eric Fellner: Helen Fielding was writing columns for [the British newspaper] the Independent that were funny and very reflective of the period. They were about being a single girl, but they seemed fresh and exciting, almost about an anti-hero. She wasn’t selling the image of who she wanted to be -- she was selling who she was.
Sharon Maguire: Helen was just writing about our lives -- hilariously. The same thing was happening in New York with “Sex and the City” -- thirtysomethings had come out of long relationships in their 20s and realized they hadn’t ended up married or with children. We were in our 30s, behaving like we were 17-year-olds and having a great time but still floundering around asking questions about relationships, careers, biological clocks.
Fellner: When we heard the columns were being turned into a book, we moved aggressively to buy the rights. We really, really wanted it. We believed in the character and the story. I don’t think at that point we ever thought about a franchise -- and in those days, 1999 or 2000, the obsession for franchises and branded entertainment wasn’t like it was now. We had a very good relationship with Stacey Snider and Universal at the time, and we had done “Notting Hill,” “Billy Elliott” ... with them. They liked the fact that we made small English films. And “Bridget” was sort of seen as a high-end, British art-y movie.
Maguire: I’d been at the BBC for years making documentaries, then left and was making commercials with the idea of moving into directing drama. During the development stage, there were a couple of other directors attached. But by the time [Richard Curtis’] script came in, they were off shooting other movies. Helen is a friend of mine, and I’m allegedly a character in the book. I’m supposed to be Shazzer. So she told Working Title about me, and I sold Eric a whole thing about how because I was a character in the book, I knew how to do this.
Fellner: Casting was quite a fraught process. The press -- as only the U.K. press can do -- were all over how we were going to make the movie. We had one or two leading contenders, and then Renée’s agent called from CAA and said, “There’s this girl who was in ‘Jerry Maguire.’ ” And I said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. She’s from Texas or somewhere in America. Why would we do that?” But she insisted and insisted. It was a brilliant piece of agenting. So Renée met with Richard Curtis and Sharon Maguire and unbelievably, she wowed us all. She was just Bridget, with that wonderful vulnerability and comedy.
Maguire: We were all very aware of the risk in a Texan taking on a beloved English character. She probably had quite a few nights of no sleep, along with me.
Fellner: So we cast her, and the furor started. There was an enormous amount of backlash and U.K. actresses who were up in arms. At that point, it became quite scary. Had we done the right thing? We didn’t know. We protected Renée from that. I tried not to let her know.
Renée Zellweger: I didn’t know anything about it. I loved the book, and I knew that it was really popular among my friends, but I guess I don’t really read the things that would talk about that sort of stuff. I’m sure [the filmmakers] were terrified, but they never made me aware of what was hanging in the balance for them.
Fellner: Then we got Renée to come to London three months before shooting began to immerse herself in the world of London. You know, going on the Tube, getting a bus, going to local restaurants to develop her accent. She got a job as an intern at a publishing house -- Picador. Nobody really knew who this girl was, so she could travel undercover.
Zellweger: I had to file the press clippings for any of the authors and run little errands and make the coffee. There was a launch party that we had to organize, and a couple readings down at the bookstore.
Maguire: It was going to be an indie movie, really, but when Hugh Grant agreed to play Daniel Cleaver and Colin Firth agreed to play Mr. Darcy, it became a much more commercial prospect. Helen had based the characters in the book on both of them. Colin was on BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and she was obsessed with him, as were most of the females in the nation.
Colin Firth: I was not experienced in the world of romantic comedy before “Bridget Jones.” I was 40 or 41 when I did the first film, and I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever be in a comedy. I’d mostly done more earnest stuff. It seems almost strange to remember now, because I became rather known for [romantic comedies], I suppose. Things like “Love Actually” -- I doubt whether I would have been invited into those had it not been for “Bridget Jones.”
Maguire: I think one of the reasons the movie went on to strike such a chord was not that it was just funny, but it was also wish fulfillment -- that we curvy girls in our 30s could be presented with the likes of not one, but two dashing men. It was about the fear of loneliness. In an age when feminism had handed women so many choices, the fear of being alone was still a valid fear.
Firth: It was very obvious to me that the structure of the story was based on “Pride and Prejudice,” and I do think that’s up there as one of the most romantic stories in the English language. Stories of people who misjudge each other and end up romantically involved -- like “Much Ado About Nothing” -- have a lot of power. Stories where two people spar but have an erotic undercurrent. But I saw it for its comic potential. And it was howlingly funny. I’ve watched it with several people of various generations, and I think the laughs that come from the gut are rooted in stuff that feels real or probably has some painful association. Laughter is fueled by sympathy -- it’s a release, a sense of recognition or a cringe or something.
Zellweger: I loved her humanity and her awkwardness. I love the physical comedy that’s written into the story. She’s quirky, and I wanted everything about her to quietly speak to that. I’d never had a problem with my “warts” in private, but having to play a character who lives her life in a really public way was a transition.
Maguire: Dressing her was really important. A lot of times, her outfits were so bad they were good. And Renée is brilliant at physical comedy, like a latter-day Lucille Ball. Her clothes were supposed to be a little bit too tight for her, and when she walked her thighs would rub together. She has no vanity. I think it’s the other way around. Many times I’d say, “I think maybe we’ve gone a bit too far. Maybe we can get her hair looking a bit nicer.”
I loved her humanity and her awkwardness. I love the physical comedy that’s written into the story. She’s quirky, and I wanted everything about her to quietly speak to that.
— Renée Zellweger on playing Bridget Jones
Zellweger: I was surprised at how many people would ask me about how I’d lost weight after the experience. It’s kind of sad, and it’s not really interesting. It’s just part of the job if you’re going to play a character and do it well. I’m not a person who has a genetic predisposition to being heavy.
Maguire: I was kind of baffled by all the attention her weight gain got. It wasn’t like she did a full Robert De Niro in that boxing movie [“Raging Bull”]. It wasn’t that intense, the amount of weight she put on. But I suppose people are used to seeing very skinny actors in those roles, people who haven’t got any problems at all because they’re all beautiful and thin.
Zellweger: She’s in process, but she’s optimistic. She’s living her life in this way where she’s hilariously self-aware, and I think people relate to that.
Fellner: In post, we were really worried about the film. We weren’t sure that it was working on any level. Often, with comedies, you can’t see the woods through the trees because you’ve been telling the same jokes for so long that they lose their humor. We’d had a screening here in the U.K. that hadn’t gone that well, and it’d been quite tough in the cutting room. Next was this preview in New York, and I was hiding in the back, thinking it was going to be a disaster. But at the end, people were enraptured. It went from being something we were very scared of to a big hit movie.
Maguire: There was so much about “Would you choose Hugh or Colin?” and so much about the big panties. I’ve never answered so many questions about underwear. Women finally admitted to wearing them, and men didn’t know so many women were wearing them, and now their secrets were uncovered. And everyone loved the fight between Hugh and Colin too.
Firth: There had been an earlier idea to make the fight look sexy. We were going to be buff and our shirts were going to be ripped off. I looked at myself and said, “You’re certainly never going to get that type with me.” Hugh and I were teamed up with a stunt guys who knew exactly how to swing a punch, and I think we both realized that the last time we fought was when we were 10. A playground fight. So we made a decision largely based on logic and common sense to make it more playful. We’re two very ineffectual, frightened, angry yuppies going at each other -- pulling hair and wanting to run away at the same time.
Fellner: We didn’t go to anyone but Hugh or Colin for the second film. We bought the rights to Helen’s second book, and we wanted to continue this story. And it was a shame that the critical reaction was less than we would have hoped for on the second one. I think it was a bit of Tall Poppy Syndrome -- when you’re successful, people like to pull you down. It’s not for me to say whether the film was better or worse, but it was disappointing to not be received in the same way. It’s a story of two halves of the world. In the U.S., the first one worked, and the second one didn’t work. It was never as powerful a brand in the U.S. as it is internationally.
Firth: Obviously, when the idea of a third film came up, there was some trepidation. You’re anxious if you’re following a huge hit and anxious if you’re following one that wasn’t. But for years, I’ve been saying that if there was a third film, it’d be much more interesting to check in with these people later in life, when their priorities have evolved a bit. Now, when Bridget and Mark look at each other from across the room, it’s with a past. Fifteen years are not just a story conceit -- they’ve actually gone by. With Linklater’s film [“Boyhood”], or even the “Toy Story” films -- you can answer the impact of the story by collectively coming back to the characters.
Fellner: There was no material for a third film until Helen wrote a new series of five to six columns for [the British newspaper] the Telegraph. We bought the rights to those about eight or nine years ago. It’s been a very long process with this one. The other two films were much quicker. We bought such a short amount of material this time that we struggled with getting the script right.
Maguire: When the script turned up, it was a bit haunting -- stepping back 15 years. But I realized I’d missed the characters. She’s my generation, so it was kind of interesting to make comparisons about how this woman’s life turned out. She’s sorted lots of things out in her life, but she’s still looking for meaning.
Fellner: Originally, we approached Hugh and he -- for whatever reasons -- he felt that he didn’t want to do another “Bridget.” So we decided to shake it up and create a whole new character. We really admired Patrick Dempsey’s work and loved the idea of having an American. We were toying with maybe having a Frenchman or Italian, but not another Englishman.
Zellweger: For personal reasons, yeah, I do wish Hugh was there, because he’s my pal and I really would have loved to have shared this experience with him. But it didn’t feel like he was absent. He’s such a big part of her history that he informs who she is in this film, in a big way.
Firth: Running up to it, it seemed incredibly important that Hugh would be there. But once we were up and running with the people we were working with, I committed to that, and nothing seemed to be missing.
Zellweger: I hadn’t done a film since 2010, but when this came up, I got really excited. I was just being careful about the things I was doing. But I love this character. It felt familiar and was a reunion with my friends.
Maguire: I’d seen stuff in the press about Renée [getting plastic surgery], and when we met up, I thought, “Well, I don’t know what that was.” She looked great and was in an amazing place, and we sat and drank 20 cups of tea. It wasn’t an issue, as people will see in the movie.
Zellweger: There’s rarely a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t want to talk about “Bridget Jones” when we meet in the street. It’s always interesting, and people are nice. I love her too, so it’s flattering.
There’s rarely a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t want to talk about ‘Bridget Jones’ when we meet in the street. It’s always interesting, and people are nice.
— Renée Zellweger on “Bridget Jones’s Diary”
Firth: The success of the series is testament to the fact that Bridget felt familiar to vast numbers of people. Watching Renée on set for the first time delighted me. It felt very, very alive -- very human. The extent to which she felt three-dimensional and personal and familiar and lovable surprised me. I did not expect to see it feeling so fresh and riveting.
Fellner: I love the idea of making a series with a great actress who portrays the same character generationally and following her in her early 30s, late 30s, early 40s, her 50s. A franchise where no one is pretending to be any age than what they are. To follow a character’s life travails in reality would be kind of gorgeous and original. If this film works, and Helen’s up for it, then maybe we keep going until our audience decides they don’t want to follow Bridget anymore.
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