Since his directorial debut with Othello in 1995, Oliver Parker has helmed a wide range of projects ranging from the classical (The Importance of Being Ernest) to the farcical (St. Trinian’s).
Now Parker can add action filmmaker to his palate with the release of Johnny English: Reborn, a stylish spoof of modern espionage movies which features the return of comedy god Rowan Atkinson as bumbling spy Johnny English.
Matt’s Movie Reviews spoke to Oliver Parker about the making of Johnny English: Reborn, spy movies and working with Rowan Atkinson.
Johnny English is a goof on spy characters. Are you a fan of spy movies?
Yeah, I was. I think I got through all of the Bond’s religiously. But also the kind of tougher ones to, like the (John le) Carre movies which were really interesting. In fact while we were making this in England during pre-production, I was sharing the premises with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spywhich they finished making not long ago. So we felt we had the monopoly on spies at the time (laughs).
I kind of wanted Rowan (Atkinson) to be in the back of that film somewhere...maybe we could have nicked Gary Oldman! But I always loved spy films. It’s a great genre to be playing off although we were quite keen in that it wasn’t to pastiche, if you know what I mean.
In a way one of the things that I was trying to do on this film was perhaps create a slightly more authentic world of espionage, so Daniel Craig wouldn’t have looked out of place in it.
I found the strength of the movie is that you play the plot and situation as straight forward as you can. Essentially it's an action thriller, but you've thrown Rowan Atkinson in the mix.
Exactly. In a way you could look at most scenes, like the wheelchair chase scene for example, where the plan was to try and do it like it’s a genuine, traditional car chase, the difference being that it’s Rowan in a wheelchair (laughs). So getting the balance of the comedy and the thrill of it became the real challenge, I think.
This is the first time you've directed an action orientated movie. How did you approach the genre?
Well it was to take it dead straight. To restrain ourselves for going for an obvious joke, unless it was the big joke. Because I think Johnny English is quite a difficult character to sustain as a continual klutz, so what I wanted to do was make a world where he’s not always cocking up and you believed in it, and that the action itself really has a certain stature to it, a kind of scale.
So we treated it pretty damn seriously and had a brilliant crew and a great production designer (Jim Clay), who I don’t think would know a small room. Everything is vast and gives you a great depth. With the action it was using terrific stunt co-ordinators on all of these characters and taking the time to do it, and it was great to have the budget which allows to really do it properly.
My favourite scene of the film was what is essentially making fun of the chase scene in Casino Royale. Was it a case of watching that movie and thinking, "Why don't you just use the elevator?!"
(Laughs) Well, kind of. There are a lot of different references...it’s also got Bourne in that one as well.
In a way it’s about having the rigour and Rowan was particularly clear on that sequence where we had a whole bag of gags as it were, and what he was keen to do was make it really one idea, that he’s taken something from Tibet that he may be old but he does have wisdom. So let’s find another way around this problem, you know? You’re going to climb down the scaffolding, I’ll take the lift. (Laughs)
That was nearly our guiding principal in various sequences...to find what the credible choice would be for the character and to restrain yourself, because we some quite good jokes for example on the rooftop Rowan had a whole sequence where he was tugging on wires to try and stop him, and as he’d pull on one wire a satellite dish would fall down behind him.
But it didn’t fit with the principal of the joke, which was in this case getting it right. This guy may be an amazing free runner and Johnny’s twice his age, but actually Johnny will get him. It’s “Robo-Johnny!” (laughs)
So within every action sequence you are looking for a conceit to glue the whole thing together. It was nearly always about here is a man who really isn’t a fool, but he’s not quite as good as he liked to be. There is that little margin between his intention and his execution, and that’s where you can hopefully find some of the comedy.
"One of the things that I was trying to do on this film was create a slightly more authentic world of espionage, so Daniel Craig wouldn’t have looked out of place in it." - Oliver Parker
Spy movies are just ripe for making fun of. Were there any ideas you had that didn't make it into the movie?
Yeah, there was. For example I don’t know if you saw at the end of the credits sequence, but there is a wonderful scene which is a secret for those who don’t stay...
So you should stay...
...yeah, because there is a secret scene which we shot, and it’s Rowan preparing a meal for Rosamund (Pike) character...it’s a beautiful bit of performance from him, a sweet little scene and it tested quite well.
But in the end we really felt that it wasn’t right for the rhythm of the piece. It felt like a sketch, and it works as a sketch on its own in the credits and it’s funny. So there is going to be quite a few DVD extras, because we shot a few little scenes where in the end we had to sacrifice them for the benefit of the overall piece.
There is another scene where Rowan had chewing gum, where the idea is you chew it and after 10 seconds it blows up, so we had this gag where he puts it on the door that he’s meant to be going through and realises that it’s still on his finger (laughs). He throws it over the edge and thinks he got away with it, then you cut to downstairs and it blows up.
So they are quite protracted gags, but actually in the run of that and the simplicity of the principal I was talking about earlier in terms of him not getting it wrong, you have to say goodbye to some of those.
You were allowed to film in front of Buckingham Palace. Tell me about the logistics of filming a scene in front of such a prestigious place.
It was an extraordinary thing, because when we were preparing for that scene I wasn’t happy with the suggested location we were getting, because it wasn’t iconic enough. So the locations guy said “What is it you really need?”
So I said basically you’ve got to feel it’s on this sort of public stage and also that he gets away so he needs some kind of arch, something like the imperial at the end of Buckingham Palace....so I said to him “Why don’t you just ask the question?” “We’ll never get that” he said. “Just ask. After all, we do have Rowan there”.
So we went to ask and they said they’ll give us a couple of hours, and I said that just might do. But basically Rowan is held in such high esteem that they gave us a whole bloody day! It was a treat, and rumour has it that the Queen was watching from her window.
Rowan Atkinson is considered a comedy god. What was it like working with someone who is considered such?
Well he’s an extremely polite, courteous man. An absolute, quintessential English man. Very, very intelligent and analytical, so all of our discussions and conversations were nearly always very amiable and he’s extremely specific in what he’s trying to get.
When you meet him at first he’s quite...well, you think that we don’t have that many faces like his. It’s almost a Chaplin thing...I’ve been around the world in all of these different locations and I can’t believe how many people know Mr. Bean.
So he just has that extraordinary element of recognition and it takes a moment to get past that, but once you do he is extremely collaborative and in some ways I think he feels...he’s come out of sketches and comedy, but he’s got real gifts as an actor and there’s probably a little bit of insecurity about that because in some ways he’s really been tried and tested.
He played Fagan on stage in Oliver over the last couple of years and he was extremely good. But on the whole he’s meant to do what he’s meant to do, people expect him to do this and actually he can do a lot more. So really it was quite exciting seeing him respond to the production as it was growing, and trying to accumulate a real calibre cast that would put him on his mettle, but also be of great support to him.
"He’s an extremely polite, courteous man. An absolute, quintessential English man. Very, very intelligent and analytical, so all of our discussions and conversations were nearly always very amiable and he’s extremely specific in what he’s trying to get."
- Oliver Parker
You were an actor before directing. What does that experience bring to your approach to directing?
I think it brings quite a lot in terms of understanding what they have to go through. A lot of directing actors is about really allowing them to become comfortable and understanding what they are going through sufficiently, that you can help them get to the place where they can do their work best.
Some actors are so different...some you don’t want to touch at all because they are going into the right direction and you don’t want to disturb them, while other people need discussion and analysis, so it’s great to be able to have done acting so I can talk the language with them and understand their needs.
I did quite a lot of mainly theatre, but when I did film some of it I found quite intimidating, quite difficult, and people expect certain things from you. So to at least have that experience I think does reassure them...there is a kind of empathy.
But at the same time the more I’ve done at late I think I will start treating them like cattle (laughs). No, some actors really like, particularly in action work, basically “Where’s my mark?” “Where is the window I’m jumping out of?” So it’s not always useful, but there are times where I feel for certain actors it does help them.
They say acting on a film set can be tedious between takes. Is there such a thing as a tedious set with Rowan Atkinson around?
No, there isn’t. It’s not about a barrel of laughs, because he’s not frittering his energy around. He’s enormously focused at what he’s trying to do. So it tends to be rather polite and quite thoughtful, and then there will be moments of great hilarity, but few.
So it’s never boring because he’s always working, always trying to push it one bit further looking for something while the rest of us are kind of puzzled and ask “What is he doing now?”
In fact when there were moments they were more with the other cast. For example the chair scene where Rowan s going up and down, at the end of the first take the cast completely erupted into hysterics because they had to play it straight.
Rowan was taken aback because he just wasn’t expecting it. Because he’s taking it with an enormous degree of sincerity and seriousness to actually get that reaction, and was quite a shock.