‘Scriptwriting is ultimately not a satisfying medium. because you‘re just supplying the blueprint for someone else to go off and make a completely different building. I personally can‘t conceive of any screenwriter who isn't going to turn to direction after having his work messed around.‘ So says hotshot young British filmmaker James Dearden, who has himself followed the same welltrodden path. Moving from disputed studio tampering with his much-revised script for Adrian Lyne‘s overblown misogynist epic Fatal Attraction. he has now undertaken duties as both writer and director on a long-cherished film version of Barry Unsworth‘s 1980 Booker-nominated novel Pascali's Island.
Set on the tiny Turkish-controlled Aegean island ofNisi. Ben Kingsley plays Basil Pascali. a mild-mannered spy who is beginning to feel that the reports he has been sending back to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople have not been read by the fading empire‘s over-worked bureaucrats. With the appearance of dashing but mysterious English archaeologist Anthony Bowles (Charles Dance), whose excavations hide a priceless secret. and who finds romance with the sensual artist Lydia Neuman (Helen Mirren) whom Pascali has long worshipped from afar. the frustrations ofhis unrecognised life finally drive him to relinquish the role of passive onlooker and to bring the guiding hand of betrayal to bear on an increasingly tangled set ofevents.
A poised, sophisticated piece of work that elegantly attempts to balance the understated drama of its foreground triangle with an intriguing historical backdrop. Pascali’s Island also offers a rich subtext probing the existential despair of the Kingsley character‘s alienated solitude. Certainly the whole enterprise marks a decided change ofstyle from the firecracker excitements of ‘the AIDS movie’. which has made him such a name to conjure with in current Hollywood circles, and put this son of noted British director Basil Dearden (whose glittering career includes Victim‘s ground-breaking treatment of homosexuality back in 1961) very much on the cinematic map in his own right.
As we meet in the salmon-pink enclave that is the study in his Fulham home. while Michael Douglas and Glenn Close peer down from the framed cover of Time magazine on the wall. the 38-year-old explains that Pascali's Island had not come about directly because of the mega-success of his previous project: ‘We began shooting out in the Aegean the day Fatal Attraction opened. and although we‘d gotten the green light several months before perhaps the good word already out on the streets about Adrian‘s film helped in some small way. What was probably more important was being in Hollywood writing scripts. because that experience taught me a great deal about making a story accessible to an audience. It‘s all too easy to
Fatal Attraction’s British writer James Dearden has turned director to realise his adaptation of the novel Pascali’s Island. He spoke to Trevor Johnston about his interest in the story, his love-hate relationship with Hollywood and his reservations about the treatment given to some of his past work.
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denigrate Hollywood movies as moronic in their values and assumptions, but obviously those studios have turned out some of the greatest movies ever made. You can say what you like , they do know about storytelling and character development.‘
With its carefully evoked period setting and Mr Dance cutting a familiar figure in white ﬂannel, Dearden is wary that Pascali’s Island could be roped in with the current so-called literary cycle of movies like the Merchant-Ivory canon. “There’s been such a sheep-like backlash against literary adaptations of late,‘ he declaims, ‘but these people don‘t seem to understand that film is a synthesis ofthe arts, it‘s literature and painting and music combined, so that for a film to have literary qualities is not necessarily a bad thing. Anyway, our film is not some classic brought to the screen with beautiful costumes and all that, which is after all what people tend to associate with the term literary
Charles Dan and Ben Kingsley In‘Pascall': Island.
adaptation, but a contemporary novel that came out in 1980, and which looks at the situation on a fictional island in 1908 from the standpoint of a very contemporary set of values and characters.‘ Indeed, it was primarily the absorbing character of Basil Pascali that led Dearden virtually on spec to acquire the rights to the novel and write a screenplay. That was over seven years ago when he had only a couple of acclaimed short films to his name, and had not yet reached the breakthrough to feature level that he only achieved until 1985’s The Cold Room, a psychological chiller with George Segal made for American cable channel HBO. Eventually, it was not until 1988 that Dearden was at last able to bring the fallible and very human Turkish observer to celluloid life in the shape of Ben Kingsley. ‘For me, he‘s very easy to identify with. He‘s someone who does have a lot to offer, but whom the world just seems to have passed by. I think we all know Pascalis, or
might even have become like that ourselves. Yet, he‘s not just some pathetic and grubby little spy: he‘s an artist. a man ofgreat sensitivity and perception. I hope that audiences find those different levels fascinating. because I certainly do.‘
Dearden however still remains much less than pleased with the final screen characterisation of one Alex Forrest. the high-powered Manhattan publishing exec played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction , who‘s portrayed as a jealous madwoman pursuing poor little adulterer Michael Douglas to the bitter end, which in this case means threatening the status quo of the all-American nuclear family (not to mention par-boiled bunny wabbit). ‘In the States.‘ he recalls. ‘audiences would be shouting “Kill the fucking bitch!“. which was disturbing because for me she‘s just a person driven over the edge by a pressure job in a pressure city. and by one unsatisfying affair too many. That could happen to anyone. Yet after the studio‘s rewriting process. she became the villainess. And then they added the reshot gung-ho ending that I‘m not happy about. so that the movie taps into a not very latent misogyny in the American public. American audiences seized upon the notion of pushy career women as lonely and psychotic and miserable.‘
With hindsight he‘s pretty much philosophical about the whole affair (‘When you take the decision that you want to work with them. then you have to be prepared to simply accept what happens‘). and while Pascali ‘s Island was made independently on a moderate budget with young British producer Eric Fellner, the experience appears not to have soured his relationship with dear old Tinseltown. Scheduled to begin shooting for this spring is a version of Ira Levin‘s thriller A Kiss Before Dying which he may yet direct from his own screenplay. while Wolfgang Petersen is set to make The Phantom of The Opera from Dearden‘s World War Two revision of the much-filmed Gaston Leroux potboiler. Dearest to his heart though is Ransom, from the novel by Jay Mclnerney: ‘It‘s about an American ex-pat in Japan and his relationship with a Vietnamese girl. The Yakuza get involved too. and so you have a story that becomes increasingly violent and very operatic. It could be ready for next autumn, and I‘ve talked to Mel Gibson about the lead.‘
With all this activity on the horizon, Dearden must be aware that he‘s currently a hot property, but he seems determined just to carry on working and not get too concerned with what the industry says about him. With a wry grin over a hot coffee. he adds: ‘You can have so many hits in a row and then suddenly you‘ve made an absolute bomb. That‘s when you walk down the street and parents start gathering their children into doorways.‘ Pascali '5 Island opens at Glasgow's Cannon, Sauchiehall Street and at the Cameo, Edinburgh on 17 February. See Film section for programme details and aqu review.
10 The List 10 — 23 February