Live and Let Diet
By Alan Morrison - Total Film
The English girl is an American, the two-timing bastard is that nice boy from Notting Hill and the director is the author's best friend. The makers of Bridget Jones's Diary aren't playing by the rules as they take the hit novel from page to screen...
SHE'S THE BY-WORD FOR THE CHAIN-SMOKING
CHARDONNAY-GUZZLING, CALORIE COUNTING,
THIRTY SOMETHING MODERN WOMAN.
COMPARED TO HER, ALLY MCBEAL HAS EVERYTHING SUSSED.
It has been five years since Bridget Jones's Diary has stormed book stores and made women feel better about their own social disasters. Now, fag in hand, the nation's favorite singleton has cinema in her sights.
In a year that's packed with big screen adaptations of best-selling books - Hannibal, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, The Lord of the Rings - Bridget Jones's Diary would appear to have the rom-com market sown up. It is based on Helen Fielding's word-of-mouth hit novel; it's got the Four Weddings/Notting Hill mark stamped upon it courtesy of screenwriter Richard Curtis and actor Hugh Grant; and the buzz from early test screenings is excellent.
But the film-makers didn't make it easy for themselves. Even though the basic story is simple enough - unmarried woman swithers between Mr Right (who seems to be Mr Wrong) and Mr Wrong (who seems to be Mr Right) - the fact that it's all recounted in a diary format gave them a few headaches. And when they snubbed any number of British starlets in favour of American actress Renée Zellweger, they set themselves up as targets for the usual UK middle-market tabloid brouhaha.
Zellweger, however, proved to be made of sturdy stuff. Passing herself off as one "Bridget Cavendish", she put her English Literature degree to good use and worked incognito for several weeks as a publicity assistant for a London publisher. Meanwhile she chowed down on the pizzas and downed the pints in order to match her character's position on the bathroom scales. Not your typical Hollywood behaviour. But, then again, it's a long way from the juice bars of Beverly Hills to the wine bars Sloane Square...
BIRTH OF BRIDGET
Helen Fielding: I started writing Bridget Jones in February 1995, it was a column in The Independent which I wrote anonymously and assumed would be stopped after six weeks for being too silly. The other journalists were writing about New Labour and Bosnia as I wrote about why it takes three hours between waking up in the morning and leaving the house.
Sharon Maguire: Helen didn't tell me, even though I'm a friend of hers, that she was writing it because she was quite nervous. The first time I got to hear about it was when it appeared in the newspaper. We were both at a party that night and - it sounds quite wanky and name-dropping - Nick Hornby asked her: "Did you see that thing in the paper today, Bridget Jones's Diary? I thought it was rather good." Helen, blushed bright red and admitted it was her. Then it became her regular column piece, so all of our lives were cannibalised and written down.
Helen Fielding: Everyone involved was surprised by Bridget's success, I was actually doing the column to finance the writing of my second novel, which was an earnest tract about cultural divides in the Caribbean. About nine months after I started it, I was having dinner with my book editor at Picador, moaning about how boring the Caribbean novel was. She said: "Why don't you do Bridget instead?" I said: "Okay" and that was it. When the diary came out in hardback it sold quite well but didn't get on the bestseller lists. It was only when the paperback came out that it went to No 1 and stayed there, unaccountably, for six months.
Colin Firth: While the Bridget Jones thing was running in The Independent, someone pointed it out to me and said: "Did you realise you're beginning to be mentioned regularly in that column?" So by the time it was a book, I was well aware that the whole Darcy thing was part of it. It's very unusual for most people to find themselves referred to in a work of fiction. I found it very odd, but definitely appealing and flattering. In fact, the interview that takes place in the book's sequel is something that I participated in. We did it as a kind of performance.
Renee Zellweger: I'd seen a New York Times book review saying that it was phenomenal, so I went down to the book store, read it, shared it with some friends and laughed about it. Bridget's experiences as a young woman are so universal. Then I read somewhere ages ago that they were going to make a film from the book. It was just a piece of information that came in and went right back out again. It never occurred to me that I would be considered for it. I assumed it would be a British film made in Britain with British people. And that would be that.
Fielding: You have to let a film be its own thing - quite separate from the book - which is partly why I stood back when the film got into production. Film-making is a completely different job from novel writing, and I'm not a film-malker. With a novel you can create a lot of irony, detail, complication and depth of character just with a lot of words aren't necessary to the plot. In a screenplay every line has to work incredibly hard. You only have 90 minutes or so to engage the audience with the story, so you can't muck about too much.
Maguire: They must have seen every director in London and America by the time I came on board, and some fantastic names were being bandied around. At the time, I'd just stopped making documentaries and was doing commercials, so I didn't figure it would ever fall to me. Helen kept saying: "You should do this because you understand it," and I was saying: "Yeah, yeah, it's out of my league." But they did see me three times for it and finally, when the film's producers, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner at Working Title, decided they wanted it to be a small, guerrilla, independent-type project, they thought they'd be safe enough with me. They were taking a risk, but my passion for it won out in the end. I suppose I understood it because I had been a part of it, being one of Helen's friends. And I realise now that I needed all that passion because, three years later, I'm still working on it most days of the week.
Fielding: I wrote a couple of drafts of the screenplay before the production got underway. Since then I've added ideas when they've asked for them, so quite a lot of my lines and jokes are in there, both from the book and various drafts.
Maguire: Helen had done her drafts, and they were really good. But she had a contract to do the second book and so she cut herself off and went to LA to write it. That's when Andrew Davies took up the reins. So I worked with Andrew for a while on the script and then he also had a certain cut-off time; but when he left, it was in better shape. It then went to Richard and he did a comic pass at it, but very much collaborating with Helen.
Richard Curtis: My memory is that the film kept getting better with each draft, but as it did so, it was getting better dramatically rather than necessarily getting funnier. There was a feeling that Helen's first draft had actually been the funniest, so it was my job to reconcile the drama and the comedy.
Maguire: The fun of Bridget Jones is her inner voice and that's what her diary is, the words going on in her head. She's very much a character who has an outward persona, which is that she's a bit of a nitwit who fucks up all the time. But she has an inner irreverence that belies her I outward appearance, so it was absolutely essential to have a voiceover.
Fielding: The strange thing about having a book made into a movie is that the characters exist in my head. I know what they look like and sound like and where they live and what it was like when things happened to them. It's quite disconcerting to see it all made flesh with actual human beings. The only movie star I cast in my head was Mr Darcy - or Colin Firth, as he is often called. When Pride And Prejudice was being screened on the BBC, Bridget had an enormous crush on him, so I created the character of Mark Darcy as a surreal fantasy/reality-blurring romantic figure. I see him as a sort of delicious Colin/Mark/Mr Darcy melange.
Firth: I did briefly wonder if it was a good idea or not. Mr Darcy occupies a miniscule portion of my life as it's something that happened six years ago. In the end my sense of humour encouraged me to do it. I think it's more amusing if it's me and it's more amusing for me as well. But there are all kinds of self-referential layers that you've got to get through in order to find a character that's playable. You can't walk onto the set saying "Right, shall I strike a Mr Darcy pose or shall I try to be Colin Firth?" I don't think anybody can consciously play themselves.
Fielding: I think Colin's very good in the film. In fact I think they're all very good. It's great to see Hugh playing a sexy bastard. And Renée has a gentieness and sweetness of character which is very appealing.
Maguire: But nearly everybody who worked on the film had a different idea of who Bridget is. And nearly everybody who has read the book knows Bridget either it's themselves or it's their friend. So casting her was very scary. I figured that when she walked in tlle room, we'd know. She did walk in the room, and we did know. And we went "Oh fuck, she's a Texan."
Zellweger: Eric Fellner told me a story about one of my agents who had suggested: "What about Renee Zellweger?", and Eric said: "That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard and don't ever come to me with any more cf your stupid ideas." Then apparently we crossed paths at the Golden Globes two years ago and it went from there.
Maguire: We were in the curious position of people saying: "They've gone for some American to make it more marketable." Well, we weren't thinking we'd make loads more money because Renée's not in the Julia Roberts or Mel Gibson stratosphere. But she's got this inner irreverence and she's got this innocence and vulnerable exterior. She also has a very good sense of physical comedy and was so dedicated to getting it right, When I first met her, she said: "If you and I get this wrong, we're so busted."
ON THE JOB
Zellweger: I felt a huge responsibility to Helen Fielding not to blasphemise it on the screen. But how much work would I need to put into a physical transformation? How much time would I need with a dialect coach in order to make that dialect evolve and be interesting and colloquial and legitimate?
Hugh Grant: I'm not a big researcher, although maybe I should be. The way I do characters is to go back in my life to a point where, had I taken a different fork, I could have ended up as them. To end up as Daniel is not entirely inconceivable given my history. If I'd gone from university into publishing, I could have done this. It could be me.
Zellweger: Well, I went to work at Macmillan, the publishing house in London. I spoke to the woman who was head of the publicity department and explained what we were trying to do. And so she became my boss. During the day she would hand me things to file, then I'd make the coffee, clean the kitchen quite a bit, call round the newspapers to find out if they were going to run reviews. I had to go over the press releases and rewrite them. Thank God they didn't lose any clients...
Maguire: We used it as a sort of extended rehearsal period, but it was very unofficial because Renée needed to acclimatise and not feel the pressure of the film upon her. She just needed to be here and try to be an English person.
Zellweger: It was an invaluable experience for so many reasons. To physically sit there and know what her responsibilities were. To carry out the duties of her day so that, when we were on the set, I wouldn't be grabbing some prop that the set designer guessed belonged on her desk. In terms of the accent itself, it was a sink-or-swim experience. I had to be confident in making it come out my mouth and not second guessing everything that I was doing because I had an actual job to do.
PLAYING FOR REAL
Maguire: I was able to introduce Renee to the people who are alleged to be some of the characters. But we did give it to her on a plate. We said: "Okay, work out who's who and work out who's the gay one." We tortured her a bit, but I think rich Americans should be tortured.
Zellweger: I hung out with the prototype Daniel Cleaver, who is still very good friends with all the girls that the characters in the book were moulded after. I'd watch how they communicated and the way they would joke about things.
Sally Phillips: Because Sharon the director was one of the people Sharon the character is based on, I had the model there. Sharon didn't mention the connection, but I'd sometimes go out and we'd have the same hair. We've both got slightly uncontrollable hair.
Maguire: Ah, but it is and it isn't the Sharon character. There are certain things Shazza says which I've said, usually when slipping down a wall at a party. Helen always claims it was me who invented the term "emotional fuckwittage" as a disease that men suffer from. Everyone used to ask: "Who are you going to cast for Shazza?" And I would say: "Oh, it has to be someone really beautiful, Catherine Zeta-Jones or someone like that."
Curtis: Nothing is a completely accurate description of anybody - it's like shuffled cards of people Helen, Sharon and I know. It's a compendium of characteristics that turn into another whole person.
Phillips: I tried to bring out Sharon's vulnerabilities. Together with the Tom and Jude characters, we felt like a chorus. The three of us were a foot shorter than Colin or Hugh, so it felt that they were the grown-up actors and then there were these three tiny friends. We were just referred to as "the friends", "Can we have the friends over here? Send the friends back to the trailer for more food."
Curtis: On Four Weddings, Mike Newell taught me that when you're writing a film, you have to read the script from the point of view of each actor, and you have to make sure that actor has a little story. That's something that I would try to do with every part, at some point take a day or two just to pretend it's the only part in the film.
Grant: You know, it's always made me laugh that people have assumed that I, Hugh, might be like the characters I played in Notting Hill and Four Weddings. That's really Richard Curtis, and I was just aping him in those fIlms. He knew perfectly well that my true character is probably much closer to this guy, so I think it was a catharsis for him to be able to get the real me onto paper. And it's certainly a relief for me to be able to play something nearer my true self.
ON THE SET
Maguire: I knew all the time that Daniel Cleaver was Hugh. But once we cast him, we realised it wasn't going to be cheap any more because he's no longer in the indie-guerrilla range of affordability. We still didn't have huge amounts for making the film though.
Curtis: Hugh has a bit of a tendency to fool around at the end of takes. That fantastic scene about the the granny pants (which is in the trailer), where he says: "I'm wearing something very similar myself" and all that stuff - that's Hugh.
Grant: It's certainly something I've done in virtually every film, but especially with Richard's stuff. We got into that system on Four Weddings and Notting Hill where I'd do four or five takes as per the script and then they'd let me mess around a bit. Very often it's just embarrassing and we all have to walk away with red faces, but sometimes it comes up funny and it's worth using.
Zellweger: That was part of the thrill of that experience of working with him. Hugh's so sharp and quick-witted. You never know where it's going to go and you always appreciate where it ends up.
Grant: Something else that I've always wanted to do is shut the stuntman out of fight sequences. They're great guys if you're doing The Matrix or something, but they always come in and say: "Right Hugh, what you've got to do is to land him a big right hook and then, Colin, you flip your head back." And you want to say: "No, fuck off" because no two guys - particularly professional middle-class Englishmen - would fight like that. It's going to be spazz. And so we called our fight in the film the "spazz wrestling". That's what we did - just crap fighting.
TESTING, TESTING, ONE, TWO
Maguire: The biggest relief I've ever had in my life was when we first put the finished film to a test audience in New York and everyone laughed. Laughter is such a strange, chemical thing, and I have a whole code now for measuring it. I sit there and write "BT" for "Big Titter", "TT" means "Tiny Titter, "BL" means "Belly Laugh", "NL" means "No Laughs" when there should be laughs.
Curtis: I started out doing Rowan Atkinson's revues on stage and then sitcoms in front of a live audience. If an audience doesn't laugh at something, you can take their word for it that it isn't funny. When we recorded a Blackadder episode, it probably came out at 37 minutes and we got it down to 30 with the feedback. So actually listening to an audience's reaction is what I've always done.
Firth: I just hope that, if the critics like it, they'll be honest about that and not feel that they've got to say something to counterbalance the fact that it's popular. Some people don't want to admit they like Four Weddings or Notting Hill or The Full Monty just because everybody else likes those sorts of things.
Maguire: I've been looking at it for so long - we've been on it for two and a half years -that I feel like I know all the jokes and don't laugh at them any more. But that time in America when, within the first few seconds, people started laughing, then we all started laughing. Just when I'd begun to think it was a tragedy...