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Then She Found Me - Colin Firth interview

Then She Found Me

Interview by Rob Carnevale

COLIN Firth talks about appearing in Helen Hunt’s directorial debut Then She Found Me and why he doesn’t feel particularly typecast as an actor despite perpetuating certain myths about English gentlemen!

He also talks about working with female directors, why he thinks the film industry is still sexist at times, taking risks with movies and working with Michael Winterbottom for his next project.

Q. What appealed to you about Then She Found Me? I imagine the writing?
Colin Firth: It was mainly to do with Helen Hunt, to be honest. That’s what drew my attention to it. I was interested in the fact that she was going to be directing. I’d never met her but she projects a degree of intelligence and it was convincing t me that she’d be able to handle this sort of material very well. I was flattered to be asked, because I’m a big admirer of her as an actress. And then I looked at the rest of the cast, so I just saw it as interesting. I didn’t know what to make of the character because he wasn’t quite as defined at that point. We didn’t have that much time, actually… I was about to do And When Did You Last See Your Father?, which was looming in about three or four weeks time, so the answer initially was: “No, I’m not free.” But the producers sort of knew each other and worked it out. The next thing I knew I was doing it.

Q. This character is slightly different from the characters you’ve played before in that he’s a bit more nervy and neurotic…
Colin Firth: I find that at almost every press junket I get that comment, “this character’s different from what you generally play…” [Laughs] And that’s OK! But I think “generally play” stems back to Mr Darcy. I’m fine with it but I tend to find that if it’s a departure, which in other people’s words it always is, it’s always a departure from that. Certainly, from where I stand, I’m not a specialist in wildly different walks and voices. But I find as much variation and nuance as what satisfies me in what I do. So, I don’t find this particularly different. He has his own peculiarities. You’re probably talking about a cluster of Englishmen in suits but I’ve done quite a big cluster of guys not in suits as well, which I’ve occupied myself with. So, I don’t find that this is the one that stands out.

Q. I suppose I was getting at the fact your character is less in control of their emotions than usual…
Colin Firth: I’ve done a few of those as well. I did a film called Trauma where I was killing people with tarantulas and things… he wasn’t particularly in control of his emotions. Or Where The Truth Lies, where I beat the crap out of the heckler in the crowd. So, again, that didn’t stand out for me particularly. Frank [his character in Then She Found Me] has a certain way of dealing with emotions that’s very eccentric and that appealed to me. It was on the page, this idea that he has a hysterical side, which he tries to keep under control with that rather ludicrous walk. That came about from Helen [Hunt] and myself working together in the couple of days we had to prepare. I thought the walk was funnier if he was more hysterical. In fact, I don’t think any man really talks like that… this was very clearly written by a woman. The original Frank said things like: “I feel angry and I feel afraid and when I feel like this I go for walks.” I certainly wouldn’t say that. So, I thought it was just funnier to make him very, very angry and very, very inarticulate with his rage. But that grew out of working on him.

I was also making use of my own English stereotype, if you like, which is that kind of polite containment, which is not very representative of real Englishmen. I think that’s gone with David Niven and Rex Harrison but nevertheless, Greek people still believe it… and I’m probably responsible for perpetuating it [laughs]! So, I thought I could have some fun with that idea, because there’s nothing funnier than a kind of Basil Fawlty rage where you’re trying to be civilised, but you have a very uncivilised emotion going on inside you.

Q. How open was Helen as a director?
Colin Firth: Completely. But most directors are. I think the dictator director is based upon stories from the past. I don’t think anyone would put up with it now. There are a lot of people on a film set with egos. So, to be completely authoritarian, you’d probably have to have a reputation like Kurosowa or somebody to get away with it. She commanded a very quiet respect and I think that’s partly because she’s so experienced. She has a lot of name recognition and people know about her. She’s not a first-time director that’s had to introduce herself to everyone. But it’s not just the fact that she’s known, and people are in awe of that, it’s the fact that her profile speaks of years of experience. I think she started as an actress at the age of 10. So, for someone who’s directing a film for the first time, she certainly doesn’t lack experience of the film set. And I think actors tend to make good films when they direct. I caught myself realising this while I’ve been talking about this film and I find it very, very difficult to think of a film that’s been directed by an actor that hasn’t really worked out well.

Q. Why do you think that is?
Colin Firth: I think it is experience. It sounds like special pleading for my profession but it’s almost a parlour game… think of one. Sean Penn, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford… it’s an incredible strike rate. Something that struck me when I was reading Sydney Pollack’s obituary was that he said he took acting jobs so that he could spy on other directors. Directors don’t get to see other directors at work – they’re the only one on the set. I’ve met directors who’ve asked me what another filmmaker is like. So, there’s probably nobody better placed to make all the comparisons and to pick up stuff than an actor. So, if you haven’t picked up some tips during an apprenticeship like that, you shouldn’t be directing. It doesn’t mean you can do it, but it loads you up with information.

Q. Would you ever think of directing?
Colin Firth: Not for the sake of it. There’s no point in it unless it’s a story that you really want to tell. It’s a nebulous job. Unless you’re doing it well, you’re not doing anything. And there are a few of those. It’s perfectly possible to be a passenger on a film set because if somebody else has written it, you can make nothing of that role and that’s exactly what bad directors do. There’s a para-phrase about Orson Welles saying: “Great films are made by great directors and the rest are made by everyone else.” I’ve been very lucky… before I start insulting the profession of directing, but I think a good director is everything and a bad director really is nothing at all.

Q. What makes a good director then?
Colin Firth: It’s entirely to do with personality, I think. There are good directors who talk a lot, bad directors who talk a lot, and good directors who don’t say much and vice-versa. It just depends on whether people respond to that personality and whether people have a willingness to do something for them. It’s whether they have a vision and whether they’re able to communicate it. The best director is just someone who gets over-excited about doing it – they don’t even have to know much about camera or acting.

Q. Do you think generally that female directors get the recognition they deserve?
Colin Firth: Probably not… I guess the fact there aren’t as many as there are men is probably testament to that. It’s hard to get yourself into a position where someone will trust you to direct a film anyway, whatever sex you are. Certainly in England, the film set is a very male preserve. There’s a lot of very rough looking men pushing equipment around that don’t want the gaffer to be a girl. And I’ve seen that. Some people come up to be directors by coming through the camera department and there’s not a lot of women in the camera department. The ones that are have to kind of prove they’re one of the boys, I think. I don’t want to get into trouble with generalisations but I think it’s a fair observation. Some do make it. Beeban Kidron was a camera operator. And that is a hard route for a woman to come through. There’s still a lot of roles that have to be conformed to. It’s quite an old fashioned environment in a lot of ways.

Q. Is it sexist?
Colin Firth: Sexist. Less racist now but it has been. I don’t think it’s been completely stamped out. There’s a class element to it. And who’s supposed to do what. You’re very unlikely to get a gay grip. I’ve actually heard people protesting furiously about straight male costume people as well [laughs]. It’s not universal and there are examples that break the mould all over the place. In my experience, it’s more prevalent in the UK than in America.

Q. Helen used a predominantly female crew…
Colin Firth: Yeah, this is really a woman’s film.

Q. So how was that for you?
Colin Firth: I’m quite used to it. You should have been on the set of Mamma Mia! Even the men were of questionable masculinity [laughs]. I sometimes wonder if I was written by a woman in real life [laughs]. There’s been quite a list of stuff where the character I play was originated by a woman novelist, or the person who adapted it, or were seen through the eyes of a female protagonist [laughs]. But this is an imaginative, truthful story that happens to be about a woman.

Q. What do you think of the finished film?
Colin Firth: I think it’s very good. We shot it nearly two years ago, so there’s been a lot of time between doing it and seeing it. But all those elements of honesty that we hoped for, I think are there. It’s funnier than I had expected it to be, even though I thought the dialogue was always good. It’s closer to comedy than I had imagined. I don’t think it’s aiming at gags, I think the humour is woven into it. It’s part of how the characters operate and how they deal with disaster because they’re worldly enough to have a bit of irony and wryness about their own circumstances. So, I think the humour comes out of that. I do also think it eludes genre a bit – not in any groundbreaking way but you can’t quite call it a comedy and you can’t quite call it a romantic anything. It’s not quite a drama either really. But it has elements of all those things.

Q. Do you find it hard to read good scripts? And find original ideas?
Colin Firth: I do. I think they’re very thin on the ground. I don’t know if there’s a problem with original ideas… I think a healthy film industry should have a good supply of good, original writing. I do think a good story in a novel is fair game and there’s nothing wrong with adapting that. It sometimes gets a bit facile where they think: “Let’s get the next best-seller and see if we can turn it into a film.” But I don’t think that was the case with this. Helen was captivated by a story 10 years ago and it echoed something of her, I think. This certainly isn’t an attempt to cash in on something, which often doesn’t work. This is just a story that happened to start life as a novel. Saying that, I haven’t read the book. But from what I understand, my character barely exists in the book so I think he’s very largely been created by Helen.

Q. You mentioned this doesn’t stick to any particular genre. Do you think that’s the problem with a lot of films – that they need to stick to a particular genre?
Colin Firth: I think it helps to get a film made because people who put money in are nervous. They like to have something recognisable enough to make them secure that there’s a pattern there – that someone else put their money into something like this and made it back. But this is where you get all the market research and things get in danger of becoming formulaic, and where you depend on brands and getting recognised actors. It’s the thing that precludes risk very often, otherwise everyone would be avant-garde all over the place.

Something like Shakespeare in Love, which became such an established hit that it now seems like a foregone conclusion… but it really wasn’t. The script was around for a very, very long time and had people chickening out all the time. It was kind of like: “What’s this kind of Shakespeare comedy… kind of pantomime for clever-clogs or something? Who’s going to laugh at thigh-slapping, riddle Shakespearean jokes?” So, somebody eventually took a risk and put an awful lot of money into that film and it was a huge hit. But the way the business responds to that isn’t by saying: “Look, risks pay off!”

They say: “Shakespeare pays off!” So, they’re ignoring the rule that made it a hit by going off and saying: “Get a film out about Marlow!” It’s the risk that made it, not the fact that it was Shakespeare. So, I think there’s a danger that good stuff can fall by the wayside if it doesn’t conform to formula. But I think it comes down to money and they just don’t know where it’s going if they haven’t got any precedent. I don’t know where this was going for the 10 years it took to make. I know it was in the hands of a studio at one point, it had a different cast and our production came together very, very quickly and with a small amount of money. They said: “Make it in this amount of time and go for it now…” Which is why I was suddenly ambushed and we all found ourselves doing it. I suspect this wasn’t quite recognisable in its genre to give people the confidence just to throw money at it.

Q. How was working with Michael Winterbottom [on Genova]?
Colin Firth: It couldn’t have been better. The way I’ve described Helen’s sort of rigorous honesty I just think he also has tremendously. It’s very strange… he just has this sort of way of making it happen really. You’re not really aware of being directed, so much as being a part of this thing. You’re very close to… unlike Helen’s film or any other film we were walking around with a little video camera and there were 12 of us altogether. The people in the room were less than that… there were no lights, there was no continuity person, a wardrobe department of one, a make-up department of one, a props and design department of one, and a camera and him.

There was also just four walls and dialogue you could depart from and come back to at will, and a very quiet and non-interfering director. The film, I think, is fantastic and I felt it was this refusal to allow it to slide into anything obvious. It’s never mawkish, it’s never sentimental, it’s never overly dramatic, it’s never tragic… even though it’s pretty weighty stuff. It’s something I’m very proud of.

  1. Very candid comments from Colin. It made this article a pleasure to read.

    Jane    Sep 30    #